Originally, as we see from the Hebrew scriptures, a hardy race of shepherds, farmers, and warriors, they were forced into the business of finance by the canonical law which forbade Christians to lend money at interest, and also by the persecution, robbery and risk of banishment to which Christian prejudice made them always liable. For these reasons they had to have their belongings in a form in which they could at any moment be concealed from robbers, or packed up and carried off if their owners suddenly found themselves told to quit their homes. So they were practically compelled to traffic in coins and precious metals and jewellery, and in many places all other trades and professions were expressly forbidden to them. This traffic in coins and metals naturally led to the business of moneylending and finance, and the centuries of practice, imposed on them by Christianity, have given them a skill in this trade, which is now the envy of Christians who have in the meantime found out that there is nothing wicked about moneylending, when it is honestly done. At the same time these centuries of persecution have given the Jews other qualities which we have more reason to envy than their skill in finance, such as their strong family affection and the steadfastness with which they stand by one another in all countries of the world. The fact of their being scattered over the face of the earth has given them added strength since finance became international. The great Jew houses have relations and connections in every business centre, and so their power has been welded, by centuries of racial prejudice, into a weapon the strength of which it is easy for popular imagination to exaggerate. Christendom forced the money power into the hands of this persecuted race, and now feels sorry when it sees that in an ordered and civilized society, in which it is no longer possible to roast an awkward creditor alive, money power is a formidable force. That a large part of this power is in the hands of a family party, scattered over all lands in which finance is possible, is another reason why, as I have already shown, international finance works for peace. The fact of the existence of the present war, however, shows that the limits of its power are soon reached, at times when the nations believe that their honour and safety can only be assured by bloodshed.
A large part of the popular prejudice against financiers may thus be ascribed to anti-Semitic feeling. We are still like the sailor who was found beating a Jew as a protest against the Crucifixion, and, when told that it had happened nearly two thousand years ago, said that he had only heard of it that morning.
But, when we have purged our minds of this stupid prejudice, we are still faced by the fact that international finance is often an unclean business, bad both for the borrower and for the lender and profitable only to a horde of parasites in the borrowing country, and to those who handle the loan in the lending country, and get subscriptions to it from investors who are subsequently sorry that they put their eggs into a basket with no bottom to it. Under ideal conditions our money is lent by us, through a first-rate and honourable finance house, to a country which makes honest use of it in developing its resources and increasing its power to make and grow things. The loan is taken out from England in the shape of goods and services required for the equipment of a young country, and the interest comes in every year in the shape of food and raw material that feeds us and helps our industry. Such, it may be asserted with confidence, is the usual course of events, and must have been so, or England could not have been so greatly enriched by her moneylending operations abroad, and the productive power of the world could not have grown as it has, under the top-dressing that our finance and trade have given it. But though it is thus clear enough that the business must have been on the whole honestly and soundly worked, there have been some ugly stains on its past, and its recent history has not been quite free from unsavoury features.