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You’ve probably heard the old saying “Rich as a Rothschild”—but do you know where it comes from?
Here’s a little history: the Rothschild banking dynasty got its start in the 1760s in Frankfurt, Germany. Known as “court Jews”—because religious prohibitions against usury applied to Christians at the time, but not to followers of the Jewish faith—the Rothschild bankers managed the finances for and lent money to European nobility and even to the Catholic Church. Relying on family connections, Jewish bankers like the Rothschilds could not only make loans, but could also provide armaments and food to various kingdoms. Barred from most other occupations, court Jews even gained status as nobles in some cases—and a few managed, through their reputation for honesty, confidentiality and trustworthiness, to amass large fortunes.
Great wealth accrued to the Rothschild family. In fact, by the 19th century, the Rothschilds had built the largest private fortune in the history of the modern world. They did it by going international—establishing an interconnected system of banks in the capitals of several different European countries, where their movable assets were protected from purely local or national wars, disputes and power struggles. In fact, historians say that the Rothschilds formed the first true multinational corporation.
You may have heard some wildly anti-Semitic conspiracy theories about the Rothschilds—they’ve been blamed for everything from world wars to “secret cabals” to financial collapses, and they’ve been accused of “secretly running the entire world.” But one place where they did actually have a truly significant influence was the formation of Israel. Baron Lionel Walter Rothschild, a British nobleman and scion of the Rothschild family, was an active Zionist who lobbied his government to establish a homeland for the Jewish people in Palestine. The Baron, in fact, was the recipient of a famous 1917 letter from the British Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour, now known as The Balfour Declaration, which first declared the British government’s support of “a national home for the Jewish people,” setting the stage for the creation of Israel.
Accordingly, Baron Rothschild traveled to Palestine on several occasions, usually to visit and inspect the Jewish colonies he helped fund and establish there. One of the Baron’s trips to Palestine—where Baha’u’llah had been exiled by the Ottoman Empire, and where the Baha’i World Centre in Haifa now exists—generated this fascinating commentary on the burdens and the responsibility of wealth from Abdu’l-Baha:
Today Baron Rothschild came to Haifa. He is one of the wealthiest men of Europe. He is much interested in the Jewish colonization of Palestine and is devoting much of his time and attention to this problem. Now he has gone to Tiberias. He is busy all the time. He could not stay longer than one hour.
All the people are toiling and labouring to attain to the station of a rich man. Life to many rich men is nothing but a heavy burden. They are “wood carriers”. Instead of a blessing wealth becomes a great calamity to them. The supervision of their colossal fortunes and their proper financial administration becomes the sole object of their lives. Day and night, asleep and awake, they think and work to make their piles larger and that of others smaller till finally they become mere money machines devoid of any other feeling or of higher emotions, wild-eyed, always hungering for more. Greed and selfishness become the dominant influences of their lives. Grab, grab, grab; right and left they grab at everything. In the mad rush and struggle for more lucre, for more worldly goods they walk over the bodies of the toilers and the children. They become the embodiment of heartlessness and cruelty. Pride and haughtiness lord it over them and they become mere tools in the hands of sordid, fiendish passion.
Wealth has a tempting and drawing quality. It bewilders the sight of its charmed victims with showy appearances and draws them on and on to the edge of yawning chasms. It makes a person self-centred, self-occupied, forgetful of God and of holy things. – Abdu’l-Baha, from the Diary of Mirza Ahmad Sohrab, 24 February 1914, Star of the West, Volume 5, pp. 19-20.
Abdu’l-Baha’s commentary wasn’t directed at Baron Rothschild personally—instead, it extended to all of the world’s super-rich and ultra-wealthy. But interestingly, it did not condemn all such wealth:
Wealth becomes the cause of heedlessness to many souls with the exception of those who are believers in God and read the verses of God. For this reason his holiness Christ hath said: “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.” But blessed is the rich man whose wealth and opulence do not prevent him from turning his face toward God and whose heart is not attached to his possessions. Such a rich man is the light of the world…
On the other hand there are souls who are the essence of existence; in their estimation wealth offers no attractions. If the doors of the heavenly blessings are opened before their faces, if they become the possessors of the riches of all the world, if the mountains of the earth turn into diamonds, if the oceans of the globe change into gold … their spiritual independence will undergo no change or alteration, their faith in God will increase, their mindfulness will augment, the heat of the fire of their love for true democracy and the education of mankind will burn away all barriers of ostentation and pride. Their intense passion for God will wax greater day by day. Such rich men are in reality the light-bearing stars of the heaven of mankind, because they have been tried and tested and have come out of the crucible as pure gold … unalloyed and unadulterated. With all the wealth of the world at their feet they are yet mindful of God and humanity, they spend their acquired riches for the dispelling of the darkness of ignorance and employ their treasures for the alleviation of the misery of the children of God. The light of such rich men will never grow dim and the tree of their generosity will grow in size and stature, producing fruits in all seasons. Their every deed will be as an example for succeeding generations. – Ibid.
You can see, from the stark contrast in the way Abdu’l-Baha describes the uses of wealth, that the Baha’i principles have strong points of view on the subject. In the next essay in this series, we’ll look at those points of view and principles, and try to understand the massive responsibility great wealth puts on the human soul.