Explaining Why They are ‘The Chosen Few’

The Jewish people went from being agrarian and illiterate in 70 CE to literate and money-savy urbanites in 1492. How did they do it? Maristella Botticini & Zvi Eckstein argue in their book The Chosen Few that it was due to educational reform. Read this new essay by the authors on PBS Newshour as they explain further Jewish success.

The Chosen Few: A New Explanation of Jewish Success

Imagine a dinner conversation in a New York or Milan or Tel Aviv restaurant in which three people–an Israeli, an American, and a European — ask to each other: “Why are so many Jews urban dwellers rather than farmers? Why are Jews primarily engaged in trade, commerce, entrepreneurial activities, finance, law, medicine, and scholarship? And why have the Jewish people experienced one of the longest and most scattered diasporas in history, along with a steep demographic decline?”

Most likely, the standard answers they would suggest would be along these lines: “The Jews are not farmers because their ancestors were prohibited from owning land in the Middle Ages.” “They became moneylenders, bankers, and financiers because during the medieval period Christians were banned from lending money at interest, so the Jews filled in that role.” “The Jewish population dispersed worldwide and declined in numbers as a result of endless massacres.”

Imagine now that two economists (us) seated at a nearby table, after listening to this conversation, tell the three people who are having this lively debate: “Are you sure that your explanations are correct? You should read this new book, ours, “The Chosen Few: How Education Shaped Jewish History,” and you would learn that when one looks over the 15 centuries spanning from 70 C.E. to 1492, these oft-given answers that you are suggesting seem at odds with the historical facts. This book provides you with a novel explanation of why the Jews are the people they are today — a comparatively small population of economically successful and intellectually prominent individuals.”

Suppose you are like one of the three people in the story above and you wonder why you should follow the advice of the two economists. There are many books that have studied the history of the Jewish people and have addressed those fascinating questions. What’s really special about this one?

Read the rest of this compelling article at The Newshour website: