The Oldest Known Anti-Semitic Caricature May Not Be Anti-Semitic at All

Atop a 13th-century English tax record lies a bizarre sketch of three grotesque-looking Jews in a castle being attacked by a gang of demons; this amateurish artwork has long been thought the oldest known instance of anti-Semitic caricature, most likely lampooning contemporary Jews’ practice of usury. We know the figures are Jews because they are clearly labeled with Jewish names;, two of which belong to historical Jews in 13th-century Norwich. However, argues Sara Lipton, several pieces of evidence suggest a different interpretation:

[T]he caricature appears not in a religious polemic or theological treatise, but at the top of a royal tax roll. This is not where one would expect to find an anti-usury diatribe. Although Christian moralists did indeed fulminate against the lending of money at interest, it seems unlikely that a clerk in the Exchequer of the Jews—the only person in a position to have made this little sketch—would share their outrage. His bureau, whose function was to keep track of the substantial royal revenue generated by taxing Jews, existed solely because of Jewish moneylending. . . .

The sketch was most likely made in late spring or summer in the year 1233. These were tumultuous months at the Exchequer. Throughout the 1230s England experienced conflict between, on the one hand, the unpopular King Henry III and his hated so-called “alien” (French) favorite, Peter des Roches, and, on the other hand, a group of resentful noblemen. The Exchequer was a primary battleground in this struggle. . . . Although Jews were, in fact, the main victims of des Roches’s rapacity, his involvement in their financial activities did not endear them or him—or his royal patron—to other Englishmen. . . .

It is this highly charged situation . . . that motivated the deliberately masked satirical indictment of deceit, disguise, and double-dealing in the cartoon. Our clerk, a relatively low-level royal functionary, was not condemning Jewish usury out of moral outrage or religious bigotry. Rather, he was protesting the fact that his bureau had been handed over to “outsiders” and brought into disrepute by an unscrupulous favorite prosecuting unpopular policies. . .

In the end, of course, it does not matter if the clerk’s true ire was directed against powerful [Gentile] courtiers rather than Jewish moneylenders. Although more medieval Christians profited from moneylending than Jews ever did, and although more Christians than Jews died in the violence that broke out within weeks of the sketching of this cartoon, it was Jews, not Christians, who were stereotyped as greedy, bestial, demonic, blood-sucking usurers. In the decades that followed, English Jews were taxed more and more heavily, their goods were confiscated, they were arrested and held for ransom, they were executed on both real and trumped-up charges, and finally, in 1290, they were expelled from the realm, not to be allowed back on English soil for almost 400 years.

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Read more at New York Review of Books

More about: Anti-Semitism, British Jewry, England, History & Ideas, Moneylending

Don’t Let Iran Go Nuclear

Sept. 29 2022

In an interview on Sunday, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan stated that the Biden administration remains committed to nuclear negotiations with the Islamic Republic, even as it pursues its brutal crackdown on the protests that have swept the country. Robert Satloff argues not only that it is foolish to pursue the renewal of the 2015 nuclear deal, but also that the White House’s current approach is failing on its own terms:

[The] nuclear threat is much worse today than it was when President Biden took office. Oddly, Washington hasn’t really done much about it. On the diplomatic front, the administration has sweetened its offer to entice Iran into a new nuclear deal. While it quite rightly held firm on Iran’s demand to remove the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps from an official list of “foreign terrorist organizations,” Washington has given ground on many other items.

On the nuclear side of the agreement, the United States has purportedly agreed to allow Iran to keep, in storage, thousands of advanced centrifuges it has made contrary to the terms of the original deal. . . . And on economic matters, the new deal purportedly gives Iran immediate access to a certain amount of blocked assets, before it even exports most of its massive stockpile of enriched uranium for safekeeping in a third country. . . . Even with these added incentives, Iran is still holding out on an agreement. Indeed, according to the most recent reports, Tehran has actually hardened its position.

Regardless of the exact reason why, the menacing reality is that Iran’s nuclear program is galloping ahead—and the United States is doing very little about it. . . . The result has been a stunning passivity in U.S. policy toward the Iran nuclear issue.

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Read more at Washington Institute for Near East Policy

More about: Iran nuclear deal, Joseph Biden, U.S. Foreign policy