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On John Maynard Keynes’ 130th Birthday

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

Batya Ungar-Sargon
June 05, 2013

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.

Batya Ungar-Sargon is a freelance writer who lives in New York. Her Twitter feed is @bungarsargon.