In this interview with Neal Stephenson, talking about the historical basis for his Baroque Cycle series of novels, he makes the remark that

... persecuted religious minorities, if they’re not persecuted out of existence, often manage to achieve disproportionate wealth. It happened with Jews, Armenians, Huguenots. Earlier in this project, I could have rattled off five more

Is there any evidence for this statement? What are other historical examples of persecuted religious minorities who have become financially successful as a result of their persecution?

If there is evidence that the statement is true, then what are the proposed explanations?

  • 1
    Yes, I think there is lot's of historic evidence (e.g. also from Chinese history), but being persecuted alone certainly does not determine/cause financial success. You e.g. "need" oppressors that drive/allow a minority into professions that oppressors (at the time) despise or neglect yet that can (with skill, hard work, luck, etc.) be turned into financial success over time. IMHO some (even many) persecuted minorities have tended to be financially successful, but to say that all "tended to" is much too strong/general a statement.
    – Drux
    Apr 8, 2013 at 8:52
  • 3
    Define economic success for a minority, and apply this to actual data on social conditions. For example, the large majority of Jews in Poland prior to WWII lived very precarious lives, while at the same time beeing thought of as financially succesful. I think Graeber in "Debt: the first 5000 years" makea similiar argument about the Jews in medivial England.
    – mart
    Apr 8, 2013 at 11:03
  • Christian Church (took them a couple of centuries though).
    – DVK
    Apr 8, 2013 at 16:16
  • 1
    I agree with @mart. You need to be able to clearly show a difference between "most successful members of a minority community are financially successful" as opposed to "entire community is financially successful" (e.g look at a mode; or a mean+standard deviation; as opposed to just mean), for any of those examples to be true.
    – DVK
    Apr 8, 2013 at 16:21
  • Drux has it backwards, it is often the financially successful minorities who end up persecuted, their religion (or whatever else sets them apart) being used as an excuse.
    – jwenting
    Apr 9, 2013 at 5:49

6 Answers 6


Is there any evidence for this statement?

No. It is clearly falsifiable and falsified—see the experience of indigenous people in settler societies. (Think Canada, US, Australia, New Zealand, Argentina, Chile).

  • 2
    And we can mention the gipsy population in eastern europe, they live generally in the lowest living standards in Romania, Hungary, Serbia. Apr 8, 2013 at 9:34
  • 4
    Counterexamples are insufficient to prove/disprove a tendency. OP asked for further examples and for evidence/explanation.
    – MCW
    Apr 8, 2013 at 10:42
  • -1 - none of those are persecuted religious minorities which is what Stephenson was talking about. Neither are Gypsies.
    – DVK
    Apr 8, 2013 at 16:17
  • @MarkC.Wallace A five society counter example overcomes a claim of "often", see NeilStephenson, "if they’re not persecuted out of existence, often" Apr 8, 2013 at 21:26
  • 2
    @SamuelRussell - ah. I didn't realize that the title omitted the word "religious" - I was just reading the body.
    – DVK
    Apr 9, 2013 at 1:14

Here is a relevant example concerning the Jewish minority in late 19th-century Vienna, as recorded by Peter Gay in Freud: A Life for Our Time:

Many of the immigrants from the miserable villages to the east dressed and spoke and gestured in ways alien and disagreeable to the Viennese; they were too exotic to be familiar and not exotic enough to be charming. They came as peddlers and small shopkeepers, but many of their sons entered callings vulnerable to bigoted criticism and easy slander: banking, or wholesale trading, or journalism. By the 1880s, at lead half of Viennese journalists, physicians, and lawyers where Jews. [Sigmund] Freud at Gymnasium contemplating either a legal or a medical career was being perfectly conventional. That is what many young Jews in Vienna did. Demonstrating their proverbial appetite for learning, they poured into Vienna's educational institutions and, concentrated as they were in a few districts, clustered in a few schools until their classes resembled extended family clans. During the eight years that Freud attended his Gymnasium, between 1865 and 1873, the number of Jewis students there increased from 68 to 300, rising from 44 to 73 percent of the tool school population.

IMO the phenomenon is clearly not restricted to Jews and to followers of the Abrahamic religions alone (as suggested in another answer): To some extent it e.g. also applies to Chinese minorities in countries such as Indonesia (as I know from a friend's family history), to Indians in Africa (V.S. Naipaul's novel A Bend in the River conveys a bit of that), and to Asian-American students excelling in top graduate schools today (let's not forget that their forefathers once were also confined to "persecuted minorities").


The Chinese minority in Indonesia is the first supporting example that comes to mind. However worldwide it is far more common for oppressed ethnic minorities to be relatively poor due to the legal and social barriers they have to deal with.

I love Neal Stevenson's work (particularly the Baroque Cycle), but like many authors he's got his annoying quirks. In this case he's made the classic error of believing the plural of anecdote is "data".

  • 1
    Most ethnic minorities are NOT oppressed over religion.
    – DVK
    Apr 8, 2013 at 16:18
  • though religion may be used as a spark or excuse for persecution, something that sets those groups apart, makes them "weird", "heretics", etc.
    – jwenting
    Apr 9, 2013 at 13:41
  • @DVK - I'm really confused now. Where did I mention religon in this?
    – T.E.D.
    Apr 9, 2013 at 13:55
  • @T.E.D. - the OP asked about minorities persecuted for their religion, not persecuted in general (e.g. for ethnic reasons)
    – DVK
    Apr 9, 2013 at 15:47
  • @DVK - Ah. Well, I guess I'm agreeing with you then. However, it is quite common for ethnic minorities to pick up a miniority religon too in order to help keep their cultural identity separate (eg: Christianity in non-Indonesian East Timor), so the waters can get really muddy there.
    – T.E.D.
    Apr 9, 2013 at 16:17

Yale Professor Amy Chua makes this case for Russian Jews, Yugoslav Croats, Chinese in Southeast Asia and others, in this book http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/World_on_Fire

Note, however, that she is also the author of "Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother."

  • 1
    I think the claim regarding Croatians is as dubious as the claim regarding Western European Jews. Both populations had internal stratification. The Court Jew was emblematic of the misery of the mass of late feudal and early modern Jews in Germany. The mass of Croatians were involved in agricultural Feudalism under which ever house controlled the region. Apr 8, 2013 at 21:33

Generally I would say "no". The exception of course being the Abrahamic religions Judaism, Christianity and Islam, which prohibits taking advantage of "brothers" (those with the same faith) by charging interest - this obvious opened up a nisce for minorities of other faiths.

But it's not as clear cut, as - to take Europe - Jews didn't only lend money to Christians, there were also Christians who let money to Jews... the important thing, was not to lend to people of your own faith. Of course since there were fewer Jews in Europe than Christians, the wealth from this where most obviously accumulated among the relatively few Jews.

Minorities were often heavily taxed - both Jews in Christian Europe and non-muslims under Islam. Further more, minorities risked having their whole fortune sieced, being arrested or expelled.

If you look at other minorities - especially non-religious or at least not Jews or Christians - they have not fared well at all.


I think Stephenson has the cart leading the horse here.

Take the Jews of Western Europe (Jews in Eastern Europe were emphatically not well off). The Jews did not became wealthy because they were persecuted. To a large extent, they became wealthy because they could be bankers (and could loan money, even if not formally bankers) at a time when Christians were forbidden to be, because of the Church's attitude was that usury was sinful. Their subsequent wealth led to further discrimination.

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