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Professor Karp at Binghamton University

Shylock stereotype prompts closer look

Jonathan Karp, associate professor of history and chair of Judaic Studies, has tackled a seldom-touched subject – a stereotype of Jewish culture – tracing the role of Jews in the economy from the mid-17th to mid-19th century.

One of the most enduring stereotypes of Jewish culture is that of the shylock, the thrifty money lender more concerned about profit than social welfare. And even though the stereotype has been widely condemned, Binghamton University’s Jonathan Karp says it still gets in the way of serious research.

“Jews had been tolerated under Christian rule precisely because they filled certain economic functions, because they were, in a sense, economically useful,” says Karp. Yet, because of the stereotype, there is surprisingly little academic research on Jewish economic life, especially by Jews.

 “There’s a perceived need to walk gingerly, to be careful because it’s an explosive subject,” Karp says. “It’s a subject that anti-Semitic writers have tried to make a lot of, and I guess the unconscious strategy of Jewish historians and scholars is to deprive anti-Semites of ammunition by avoiding the topic themselves, but I think that’s a mistake. That strategy simply leaves the field open to those who are hostile and sort of relinquishes the opportunity to take control of it yourself.”

 When Karp realized how under-studied the subject was, he began to take back control, examining writings on politics and economics published from the mid-17th to the mid-19th century. His research resulted in a book — The Politics of Jewish Commerce; Economic Thought and Emancipation in Europe, 1638-1848 — an attempt to understand Jewish economic life and the history of anti-Semitism by tracing evolving ideas on the role of Jews in the economy.

 Karp, who came to Binghamton in 2001, has now started work on a new book that combines his love of the Jewish culture with his love for American music, especially jazz and blues. Tentatively titled The Rise and Demise of the Black-Jewish Alliance: A Class-Cultural Analysis, the book will take a close look at the role of Jews as entrepreneurs of black music.

 “There is recognition that Jews have played a very prominent and important role in the promotion of black culture in America,” Karp says. “For instance, Jews have been involved in the Civil Rights movement in a very noticeable way. I want to understand the reasons for this and see if looking at the economic issues would give us some insight into it. That’s one area that hasn’t been looked at.”

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Last Updated: 11/3/09