Niall Ferguson Disappoints, on Jews and Money

Last night Yivo Institute on W. 16th Street hosted a talk by the Harvard historian Niall Ferguson on “Jews and Money.” How excited I was to hand over my $15. The center dedicated to the study of Yiddish-speaking Jews was bringing in a heavyweight prof, a biographer of Rothschilds and Warburgs, to anatomize the culture of Jewish success.

What a fizzle. Niall Ferguson was overawed by the SRO New York audience and his Lazard Freres intoducer, an affable machine in a too-long red tie, and did not venture one bold thought on the matter. Most of his talk seemed aimed at gaining the audience’s approval by showing that he regarded the alleged affinity of Jews and money as anti-Semitic stereotype from Europe in the 1800s. Jews were no different from other ethnic minorities: Armenians in Turkey, Parsis in India, even Asians at Harvard today. O.K., but what are the facts? How wealthy are Jews? How much are “Wong and Chang,” as Ferguson blithely caricatured his top students at Harvard, worth? I read the ad: This was not a talk about history or aspiration but money. Ferguson offered zero data, that’s 0 data, on wealth in the U.S. today and confined himself to Germany during Weimar, where he stated Jewish overrepresentation in German elites was on a factor of 33 (to 1, was implicit; his statistics were sadly vague).

The talk took a safe slide at the end into the matter of intermarriage—again, not what Yivo said he was talking about when it asked for my $15, and again in historical terms. Ferguson said that in the 1920s, Hamburg (50 percent) and Berlin (43) had the greatest rates of Jewish intermarriage in Central Europe. Why? Was it the girl wanting to marry in, or the boy marrying out? The novelist/sociologist did not show up for this talk. Though Ferguson said, intriguingly, that high intermarriage rates were a motivator for Nazi ideology, Hitler wanting to purify Aryan blood from “self-assimilators.”

Intermarriage allowed him to conclude on a homiletic note that was calculated to please the (Jewish) crowd: “Jews don’t necessarily gain much from ceasing to be Jews.”

How would you feel if you bought a ticket to a show called “Angelina Jolie Nude” and the guy got out pictures of Angelina as a baby, and naked pictures of her baby? Sore. This is actually a fascinating subject. After all, it was Marty Peretz, the head of Yivo’s board of overseers (who had taken the stage first to charmingly introduce Ferguson and the Lazard machine), who warned in the New Republic, when Larry Summers exited Harvard, that it had lost several $100 million gifts. Who did he mean? Harvard, where Ferguson works, has also been subject to Jewish blackmail over former dean Stephen Walt’s brave statements on the Israel lobby. Can we talk about this? I guess not; not even Yivo is safe.

Niall—Nile? Kneel? Nail?—said that the true affinity is of Jews for knowledge, that once they have money, they move on to scholarship. He had little more to say on this point either. I thought he was biting his tongue. The only time he seemed halfway free in his expressions was when he said that his own brand, the Scots, tend to dominate England’s elites, and had incurred “flickers of resentment” but no expulsionist agendas.

“They know they can’t do without us!” he said, with the one emotion he forked over for my $15: pride.

That’s what I think about the position of Jews in the American power structure: They know they can’t do without us. This is an idea worth considering. I could have stayed home and read a scholar that the hashslinging Ferguson seems not to have read: the great Yuri Slezkine, who has studied the ways that Jews have been/are specially suited to modernity, in contrast to Parsis, Armenians, Scots, Changs and Wongs.

P.S. An interesting idea came up in the Q-and-A. Before he was shouted down, a speechifying questioner said that the ghettos in Eastern Europe and Paris, which were resistant to intermarriage, may have grown out of a desire by Jews themselves to stay apart. There is of course a segregationist element in Jewish organizational life today: the program of Jewish day schools and Jewish camps, aimed at preventing intermarriage. In fact, Peretz might have been endorsing this program in his introductory remarks, when he said (quoting Stephen Greenblatt) that Jews, having done so well at so many aspects of American life, from making money to being doctors and politicians, should do a better job of living as Jews. A pox on intermarriage. What about the poor shiksas?

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