The History of Jews in the Liquor Trade

August 12, 2020 | Joel Haber
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In North America, the Middle East, and Central and Eastern Europe, Jews played an outsized role in the production and sale of alcohol in the 17th through 19th centuries. Joel Haber writes:

While many [Polish] Jews turned to trading and peddling, the lords saw a different opportunity. Jews were considered good with business . . . and would be unlikely to drink up the product. So, under a leasing system known in Polish as propinacja, [individual] Jews were granted exclusive rights to run the alcohol industries [on individual estates]. By the middle of the 19th century, approximately 85 percent of all Polish taverns had Jewish management. Jews similarly dominated the industry in the [Russian] Pale of Settlement, . . . though on a slightly lesser scale. Jewish participation in the alcohol business was so prevalent that . . . between 30 and 40 percent of Poland’s Jews (including women and children) worked in the industry.

Simultaneously, back in Ottoman Palestine, wine production was returning for the first time in hundreds of years. Though ancient Israel was well-known as a wine-producing region, hundreds of years of rule by Muslims (for whom alcohol is forbidden) turned the industry into little more than a memory. But when more Jews began immigrating and joining the small community that was already living there, viticulture gradually returned.

Jews rapidly left the business toward the [19th] century’s end, thanks to both increased competition and government oppression, leaving this chapter in our history largely forgotten.

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