Jewish Tradition:

Eric Muller (Is That Legal?) faults former governor and current Republican presidential hopeful Tommy Thompson for saying,

I'm in the private sector and for the first time in my life I'm earning money. You know that's sort of part of the Jewish tradition and I do not find anything wrong with that.

Thompson "later apologized for the comments that had caused a stir in the audience, saying that he had meant it as a compliment, and had only wanted to highlight the 'accomplishments' of the Jewish religion": "'What I was referring to, ladies and gentlemen, is the accomplishments of the Jewish religion. You've been outstanding business people and I compliment you for that.'"

Actually, while earning money in the private sector is part of the tradition of most religions and ethnicities that have survived and thrived, valuing the earning of money in the private sector is, to my knowledge, more an aspect of "Jewish tradition" than of at least some other traditions.

Judaism, for instance, lacks the sense that poverty is virtuous, long ostensibly (and sometimes actually) present in Christianity. Jewish culture has also historically lacked the condemnation of mere commerce -- as opposed to military success, political power, or land ownership -- as dirty and grubby, perhaps partly because Jews were so often excluded from the military, politics, and land ownership. I doubt, for instance, that Jewish culture has historically looked down on people who built their names by moneymaking the way that English upper-class culture (as memorialized in the Austens and Trollopes of the world) looked down on such people. (I should note that few cultures genuinely disapproved of the rich, but many cultures liked their rich to be Rich From Time Immemorial, and the actual making of riches was seen as vulgar.)

Recent Jewish culture has included some other ideological forces that have devalued commercial success, chiefly Socialism, even non-Socialist social-welfarism, and, in some measure, the exaltation of intellectual pursuits over commercial ones. Today in America, it may actually be that Protestants on average endorse commerce as a worthy way of life more than Jews do, largely because of the retreat of virtuous poverty as a value in American Protestant culture, the general demise of the contempt for new money (especially commercial money), and the increase of anti-commercial (or at least anti-commerce-as-a-way-of-life) sentiments among American Jews. Still, a kind commentator who is praising the Jewish commercial tradition might understandably downplay these anti-commerce forces, especially anti-commerce forces they find unworthy (because they're unduly anti-capitalistic).

So it's hard to see Thompson's comments as reflective either of actual anti-Semitism -- which is especially unlikely given that he was wooing a Jewish group -- or of the unreflective acceptance of pejorative or inaccurate anti-Semitic stereotypes. Thompson could have spoken more artfully, and he could have chosen to avoid this controversy by avoiding even accurate and friendly (but likely unnecessary) comments about Jews' respect for commerce. Perhaps he should have avoided the controversy, simply as a matter of sound politics. But I don't think it's sound to fault him for supposed prejudice, insensitivity, or even error in pointing out what many Jews are quite proud of.