Perhaps you have stood in a Polish open-air market and wondered what to make of the booths selling little figurines of traditionally dressed Jews clutching moneybags. Is this classic anti-Semitic trope of the coin-clutching Jew excused by the fact that most of the figurines on sale are cute little Jew dolls? Or by the belief that owning one will bring money and prosperity into a home?
Jews, Money, Myth, an exhibit at the Jewish Museum London that is on view through July 7, does not so much answer such questions as focus on them with an intensity whose stated aim, in the words of the show’s curator Joanne Rosenthal, is to “debunk a lot of the myths [about money and Jews] that still circulate today.” Those myths, Rosenthal elaborates, include fixed notions of “Jews exerting a kind of sinister influence on world events, Jews financing disastrous wars around the world for profit, Jews being naturally drawn to money-making,” and the like—in short, the toxic mix encapsulated for all time in the notorious turn-of-the-20th-century forgery Protocols of the Elders of Zion.
The museum’s purpose is to leave no doubt that these ancient canards are dangerous; that, though they may have been somewhat repressed for a time after World War II and the Holocaust, they never entirely went away; and that they seem alarmingly to be coming back into vogue today. In order to dramatize the need for frankness on this score, it leads visitors on a historical tour of some of the canards’ most egregious manifestations in art.
Does the experiment succeed? We can return to that question after taking the tour.
The exhibit starts with Judas, the apostle who betrayed Jesus for 30 pieces of silver. We meet him in ancient illuminated manuscripts and on cathedral walls. The earliest images show him as a redhead—a visual marker of Jewishness—clutching a bag of coins.
That image would become a staple of medieval iconography and prove of enduring popularity. Its roots (as the show’s catalog explains) go back to the doctrinal Christian suspicion of mammon—in Hebrew, a value-neutral term for wealth or possessions—as intrinsically evil: “filthy lucre,” in a Gospel term.
It was in that context, indeed, that the Judas story acquired its particular valence. In Christian exegesis, the figure of Jacob’s favorite son Joseph, in the book of Genesis, is a “type,” or prefiguration, of Jesus. As Joseph was sold by his brothers for money, so Jesus was sold by Judas for money. As Joseph was sorely tried, arrested, and imprisoned, but rose to become a great ruler of all Egypt, so Jesus was tormented and crucified but rose to sit at the right hand of God.
Noteworthy in this connection is that the Church father Jerome (347-420 CE), in his authoritative Latin translation of the Bible, doctored the passage in Genesis concerning the brothers’ sale of Joseph so as to bring it into conformity with its New Testament parallel. In the Latin version, the price paid is not 20 pieces of silver, as in the original Hebrew text, but 30—proof that Jews so loved filthy lucre that they sold the child favored by God not once, but twice.
In England, the idea that Jews were by nature money-grubbing was common even before 1070, the year William “the Conqueror” invited Jews to settle in his new, backward country. William, who had dealt with Jewish bankers in his native Normandy, needed subjects with commercial experience to jump-start the economy. By 1233, an Exchequer roll was picturing the financier Isaac of Norwich as a hook-nosed Antichrist with an exaggeratedly pointed beard. By 1290, with Christian merchants finally up to speed, Edward I would expel all of the Jews and confiscate their wealth.
On the continent, all bankers and moneylenders were, at first, Christians. The Church inveighed specifically against the usurers among them, depicting them as vile, greedy, devil-like. Soon the same artistic conventions were transferred to Jews—all Jews, even though not all Jews were moneylenders and only in rare times and places did Jews actually predominate in the moneylending trade. The universal stereotype of the Jew as an ugly, hook-nosed, pointy-bearded man clutching a moneybag came to full flower during the commercial and financial revolution of the 12th and 13th centuries.
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This same stereotype confronts the visitor throughout the exhibit: in medieval stained-glass windows, in illuminated manuscripts—and in modern cartoons. Given its prominence and ubiquity, one is relieved to come upon a few images in the exhibit of non-demonized Jews. One, lent by a private collector, is Rembrandt’s painting of “Judas Returning the Thirty Pieces of Silver”: his Judas is no stereotype but a deeply human figure torn by guilt, regret, and doubt.
More positively, a wall in one room is filled with printed portraits celebrating the public achievements of a number of phenomenally wealthy English Jews of the late-18th and 19th centuries. They include such heroic builders of the British Empire as Sir Albert Abdullah David Sassoon (1818-1896), the Indian-British businessman, financier, and philanthropist, and the banker Abraham Goldsmid (ca. 1756-1810), who in one hand holds a list of his charitable contributions and in the other a document related to his financing of the British military in the Napoleonic Wars.
Then there is Nathan Mayer Rothschild (1777-1836), who, as every English schoolboy once knew, managed to transfer crucial gold bullion to pay the Duke of Wellington’s troops fighting Napoleon on the Iberian peninsula. (In another, decidedly less favorable story, Rothschild was said to have manipulated the British bond market by spreading the rumor that he had received advance word of a British defeat at Waterloo; supposedly, he then dumped his own huge holdings in British bonds, only to buy them back at a vastly reduced price just before confirmation of Wellington’s victory made its way to London. This story has been convincingly disproved.)
These portraits of dignified and admirable Jews were commissioned and printed by publishers because there was a market for them. But directly adjacent to the room in which they hang is a room of anti-Semitic caricatures from the Georgian and Victorian periods. In addition to the plethora of vicious cartoons, the room features a children’s board game—the goal is to accumulate the most tokens—with, at its center, a greedy, hook-nosed Jew, and there is a mass-produced plaster cast of a hideously ugly Nathan Mayer Rothschild created by the popular Parisian sculptor Jean-Pierre Dantan.
One of the cartoons shows Jewish rag-and-bone men. It was possible at that time to scrape together a living, if only barely, by scavenging rags to be turned into paper and bones to be boiled and their grease extracted for soap-makers. The original caption reads: “Wherever the carcass is of profit, there they [the Jews] are to be found gathered together; and like certain animals, they pick up a living where others would perish.” The message: in contrast to Christians, who would sooner die than demean themselves by scavenging trash, Jews, “like certain animals,” are at home in filth and ordure.
In another cartoon, Rothschild is derided for his philanthropy. The caption: “Charity covers a multitude of sins” (New Testament, 1Peter 4:8). For the cartoonist, when the Jew Rothschild gives alms, it ceases to be a godly act of caring and becomes a vile, off-hand, token expenditure to deodorize numberless sins.
And then there are the ceramic figurines, small statuettes that decorated many a Victorian parlor. Some of the Jewish street peddlers on display look almost sweet, in the way that those Polish figurines I mentioned at the start look cute, or in the way that some Aunt Jemima figurines to be seen at Michigan’s Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia might seem cheerful to a viewer ignorant of the context. Others are ugly mockeries of these impoverished immigrants: grotesquely distorted faces of little Jews, sold as crude humor.
Only once in a while do the lines blur: a pair of beautifully dressed, 1760 Royal Crown Derby Jewish street peddlers, one male and one female, are lovely in the way that the era’s exquisitely dressed, idealized Dresden shepherdesses are lovely though in reality they were as poor as any street peddler.
At this same point in the exhibit’s chronology we are introduced to the advent of Marxism, one of the ideologies that in modernity would replace Christianity even while borrowing and internalizing some of its enduring anti-Semitic tropes. Karl Marx grew up in a secular Jewish family that had converted and been baptized. Educated in German schools imbued with Christianity’s twin mistrust of money and of Jews, he turned on the latter with a vengeance, charging that money was nothing less than the Jews’ true god: “What is the object of the Jew’s worship in this world? Usury. What is his worldly god? Money, . . . the one zealous god of Israel, beside which no other god may stand.”
In time, thanks to anti-Semitism’s uncanny, protean talent for shape-shifting, the Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler would denounce Marxism as itself a Jewish plot to destroy the German people and economy, while the Communist dictator Josef Stalin, for his part, would accuse Jewish capitalists of plotting to destroy the Soviet Union. In the exhibit, greedy Jews, complete with hooked noses and moneybags, appear in images that could have stepped out of medieval cathedral windows but are in fact taken from Third Reich and Soviet propaganda.
As repellent as are the exhibit’s Victorian cartoons and examples of fascist and Communist propaganda, it is only in the final rooms, which bring us up to date, that this history of hatred of Jews becomes gripping drama. In the 21st century, ancient canards about the unnaturally vile relationship between Jews and money, and about rich Jews manipulating the world in nefarious ways, are not only still with us but flourishing with renewed vigor.
An example is the fixation by elements of the contemporary American right on the financier George Soros, a major funder of left-wing causes and of the Democratic party. In the exhibit, a video produced by the New York Times and titled “How Vilification of George Soros Moved From the Fringes to the Mainstream” presents a rapid-succession mashup of far-right and/or Republican vilifiers of Soros, interspersed with anti-Semitic images of the financier as an octopus, a puppeteer, a grotesque ogre sitting atop a mountain of gold coins or holding the Pope in the palm of his hand as he manipulates the world’s financial and political systems.
Largely missing from the exhibit, however, are examples of contemporary American left-wing anti-Semitism. One visual instance of the breed might have been a December 2017 cartoon by Ward Sutton in the Boston Globe. It shows the Republican-party funder Sheldon Adelson with a medieval hooked nose. He and his wife are seated on the “Tax-Cut Express,” celebrating a Trump-administration tax cut for the very rich as a waiter brings them a moneybag labeled “$14.6 billion.” The train’s conductor, Donald Trump, looks impatient; its two engineers, Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan, though sweating, are smiling and pleasant-looking. Only Adelson’s face is distorted to grotesque ugliness.
That a respected paper like the Globe published this cartoon shows that the medieval canard of the sinful, greedy Jew is so deeply embedded in the Western imagination as to flow naturally from the pen of a cartoonist and right past the gatekeeping eye of an editor. Something similar might be said of the New York Times’s recent publication of a cartoon showing Donald Trump, seemingly blind and wearing a yarmulke, yanked along by a leash attached to an oversized and elongated dachshund with the face of Benjamin Netanyahu.
Evidently, neither the Globe nor the Times “saw” the anti-Jewish bigotry they were promulgating. The exhibit, for its part, does examine a similar 2012 incident in which the British Labor-party leader Jeremy Corbyn was unable to “see” the anti-Semitism in a mural featuring stereotyped images of greedy, hook-nosed bankers seated atop the bent backs of wage-slaves, until loud denunciations made him hear it.
Overall, however, Jews, Money, and Myth, puts anti-Semitism in the past tense. Perhaps the prospect that Corbyn could become prime minister in the event of a Labor victory in the next general election make delving into contemporary British anti-Semitism too sensitive for a London museum to tackle. Or perhaps the narrow theme and the focus on the past are precisely what enabled the curators to mount an exhibit that, by scarcely touching on the anti-Semitism of British-style anti-Zionism, would be acceptable to the British public.
In partial compensation, in the very last room of the exhibit, the museum has compiled an endless loop of clips of contemporary expressions of anti-Semitism emanating from various points on the political and religious spectrum across Europe and the United States. Some are as recent as this year’s pre-Holy Month parade in Aalst, Belgium where giant, hook-nosed Jewish bankers, dressed as Ḥasidim, stood atop piles of coins, their grasping hands held out for more. In another clip, a British talk-show host takes a phone call from an anti-Semitic conspiracy theorist and agrees that yes, the Jewish plot about which his caller is spouting is certainly a problem. An American television preacher says that Jews don’t tinker with their cars on Sundays and don’t mow their lawns; stay tuned, and learn the Jewish secrets of wealth. A British anti-Semite holds forth about the nefarious doings of “fat cats in Golders Green,” a London neighborhood where many Jews live. (Fact check: the “fat cats” live in posher districts.)
And so it goes—which brings us back to my initial questions. For a normal museum-goer, does the cumulative effect of this exhibit, with its sheer massive display of conniving, money-grubbing, manipulating Jews, the whole brought to an overwhelming pitch in its final rooms, conduce to a powerful debunking of a “myth,” as the exhibit’s organizers insist? Or might it instead plant in some visiting minds a suspicion, however faint and unarticulated, that there just might be something to this stubbornly perennial image after all?
The question lingers unanswered in the air as the voices of Louis Farrakhan and other contemporary demagogues drift over the exhibit’s rooms like snippets of a recurring nightmare, following you down the stairs and out into the safe loveliness of a quiet London street.