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On John Maynard Keynes’ 130th Birthday

A look at the economist’s troubling relationship with the Jews

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Today would have been John Maynard Keynes’ 130th birthday. Arguably one of the most important figures of the 20th century, Keynes, who died in 1946, was a British economist whose ideas influenced economic policy from the 1930s until the 1970s. Though out of fashion for 30 years, his ideas experienced a revival when they were explicitly invoked by economists pushing for a bailout in 2008.

Keynes is also the author of some unfortunate sentiments about Jews. The most oft-quoted was penned at 16, and we will dispense with fully quoting that one. Later in life, Keynes expressed an even deeper, more philosophical objection to Jews. “Keynes had this idea that Jews had brought the idea of longing for immortality to Pagan Europe,” NPR Planet Money founder Adam Davidson put it. “He saw that longing as positive but felt that many Jews distorted it into a longing for money. He thought that the Jews influenced the rest of Europe to love money too much and that had ruined much of European civilization.”

His comments upon meeting Einstein are particularly telling:

He is a naughty Jew boy covered with ink–that kind of Jew–the kind which has its head above water, the sweet, tender imps who have not sublimated immortality into compound interest. He was the nicest, and the only talented person I saw in all Berlin. … Yet if I lived there, I felt I might turn anti-Semite. For the poor Prussian is too slow and heavy on his legs for the other kind of Jews, the ones who are not imps but serving devils, with small horns, pitch forks, and oily tails. It is not agreeable to see civilization so under the ugly thumbs of its impure Jews who have all the money and the power and brains.

Like many anti-Semites (and many Jews), Keynes saw no contradiction between having close friends who were Jewish and hating the effect he believed Jews had had on Europe. He was a member of the famous and vaguely anti-Semitic Bloomsbury set, a group of British intellectuals that included Virginia Woolf and her Jewish husband Leonard Woolf. Keynes’ close friend (and according to some historians, possible lover) Carl Melchior was a Jew. Keynes’ writings about Melchior led Nina Paulovicova to conclude that the fact that “the Jewish agency of Melchior is marginal in Keynes’ anti-Semitism was a matter of contemporary fancy in stereotyping rather than a sign of political anti-Semitism or xenophobia.”

Indeed, unlike other anti-Semites, Keynes was a big supporter of the Zionist movement in its early stages, a fact much less well-documented than his anti-Semitic remarks. “Keynes was the only non-Jewish member of a high-powered advisory committee responsible for preparing a report on Zionist efforts to establish a national home in Palestine,” Paulovicova notes. Furthermore, he virulently opposed the German treatment of Jews in the 1930s. “Keynes even suggested making an offer to Germany to make organized arrangements for all German and Austrian Jews who wished to emigrate and be naturalized elsewhere,” writes Paulovicova. “When we put Keynes’ derogatory remarks in a dialogue with his political acts concerning the targeted individuals, a stark contrast between them emerges,” she concludes.

A number of critics have speculated on Keynes’ dislike of Jews. In his article “The Anti-Semitism of Some Eminent Economists,” Melvin Reder argues that anti-Semitism is “a class-oriented attitude toward personal relationships in general.” In “Was Keynes Anti-Semitic?” Anand Chandavarkar posits that Keynes’ anti-Semitism was “a peripheral fringe of an inherently compassionate personality.” In a response to Chandavarkar’s article, Isaiah Berlin called Keynes’ anti-Semitism, “a kind of club anti-Semitism, but it is not a deep, acute hostility to Jews—as in the case of, say Hilaire Belloc or Chesterton or, some would say, though I have no evidence of it myself, Kipling or Henry James … which went beyond social disdain or looking down on Jews as somewhat inferior people, vulgar, obsequious, aggressive, etc, which has been said against them, quite apart from greed, dishonesty, and so on.”

Whichever way you choose to read Keynes’ anti-Semitism, the Jews had their revenge on Keynes. In the late 1970s, due to a market crash and a national turn to conservatism and later, the rise of Reaganism and Thatcherism, Milton Friedman came to overshadow Keynes. The 5’2″ son of Jewish immigrant merchants, Friedman started the Chicago School of Economics and served on Reagen’s Economic Policy Advisory Board.

However, the revenge was short-lived: Since the 2008 recession, the fight over government intervention in the economy has once again begun to be waged, with Keynes’ ideas once again front and center.

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Cool_Romeo says:

After Michael Richards accosted some black audience members with repeated use of the n-word, someone asked Chris Rock if Richards was a racist. Rock responded incredulously “Of course! What else do you have to do to be a racist? Kill Medgar Evers?”

That’s what I was thinking when looking at the repeated discussion and high-level inquiry above regarding whether Keynes was anti-semitic. The man referred to Jews as money-hungry devils who were contaminating the purity of Europeans. It’s a pretty open and shut case. (Especially funny that he thought he would only turn into an anti-semite if he lived in Germany. Goes to show you can’t trust anyone’s protestations that they’re not an anti-semite.)

Royq says:

He lifted some of his seminal ideas from a Jewish economist, whose name escapes me, but that is reason enough to motivate the antipathy: the anxiety of the plagiarist.

For real? It would be nice to hear more.

My sense on reading Keynes’ nasty remarks was that he has been looking into the mirror an awful lot and projecting all his own sense of self on others. Keynes was, I believe, an extremely astute investor on his own account and made a lot of money.

Royq says:

Richard Kahn, as it turns out a former student of Keynes, whose theory of the multiplier is an essential structural support of Keynesian theory. Keynes, if I recall, was a bit of the blood and soil type of nationalist when younger, and that was a widespread staple of political thinking in his youth.

julis123 says:

Where’s the question? If it looks like a duck, quacks like a duck and walks like a duck it’s a duck. The man was a miserable anti-semite. Who cares why he was.

Sev S. Fluss says:

It should be mentioned that one of the closest “disciples” of Keynes in Cambridge was Jewish, namely Richard Kahn (later Lord Kahn). Like Keynes, Lord Kahn was a Fellow of King’s College.

PhillipNagle says:

The fact that he was an anti-Semite never seemed to bother his supporters on the left. It was the failure of his ideas that brought his reputation down.

RoxanneRoxanadana says:

Do remember to put people in the context of their time. Everyone was a bit of a Jew hater back then. It is true that the comments are, today, quite unsavory, but so were those of Abraham Lincoln concerning Black persons. None can escape their time & society. The White Rose group in Germany included many who made anti-Jewish statements decades earlier.

I personally don’t see Keynes’ support of (political) Zionism all that comforting. Lord Arthur Balfour, for instance, famously drafted the declaration that Jews be given a stake in the British Mandate of Palestine little over a decade after lobbying for the Alien Acts which would have barred Jews from immigrating to the UK. I don’t see anyone’s support for Zionism (especially political Zionism) to be cause to look suspiciously upon claims of their antisemitism; rather it is more tempting, historically speaking, to see claims of someone’s antisemitism to be a cause to look suspiciously on their claim of support for Zionism.

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On John Maynard Keynes’ 130th Birthday

A look at the economist’s troubling relationship with the Jews

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