Not right on the money! New exhibition unravels stereotypes about Jews

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Not right on the money! New exhibition unravels stereotypes about Jews

Jewish Museum London launches Jews, Money, Myths to dispel antisemitic notions all Jews are moneylenders and bankers...or are wealthy

Francine Wolfisz is the Features Editor for Jewish News.

A French antisemitic poster of James de Rothschild features in Jewish Museum's new exhibition, Jews, Money, Myth
A French antisemitic poster of James de Rothschild features in Jewish Museum's new exhibition, Jews, Money, Myth

From the depiction of a devilish Judas Iscariot, who betrayed Jesus for a mere 30 pieces of silver, to cartoons of hook-nosed moneylenders and gluttonous bankers rubbing their hands together in glee, Jews have long been victim to harmful stereotypes about money.

So powerful is this idea, that even today’s Oxford English Dictionary still defines the word “Jew” to mean “a grasping or extorting person (whether Jewish or not), who drives hard bargains”, or as a verb, “to cheat”.

That was just one of the many surprising revelations that feature in Jews, Money, Myth, a new exhibition at the Jewish Museum London, which attempts to unravel fiction from reality.

Starting with the stereotypes, a medieval tax document on loan from the National Archives contains a hand-drawn picture of three of England’s wealthiest Jews in the 13th century, including a man named Moshe, a woman named Avigail and the well-known Isaac of Norwich.

They are surrounded by nefarious-looking individuals with horns, long noses and ferocious teeth, who are balancing scales and most likely committing some unethical act, such as coin-clipping or counterfeiting.

Anthony Bale, professor of medieval studies at Birkbeck, University of London, who worked as an adviser on the exhibition, says: “At the National Archives in Kew, anyone wanting to view this document would have to do so in the same secure room where people look at documents related to terrorism,         pornography or murder, because it is so controversial. It’s quite possibly the earliest anti-Jewish caricature ever recorded.”

A Nazi propaganda book aimed at children

Bale also reveals that while the document insinuates moneylending was a typically “Jewish” profession in the middle ages, the reality was quite different.

“Actually, only a tiny proportion of Jews lent money. It’s a complete myth that it was an exclusively Jewish trade, but one that was very powerful and enduring.”

Those who were not involved in finance struggled to pay taxes to the crown and relied on communal charity, while those who did have money were often forced to hide their wealth, as evidenced by the remains of a hoard of coins found in Colchester that was likely buried by a Jewish owner.

“It shows that even though you could have a lot of money physically, you were not necessarily any more powerful or secure as a Jew in England,” Bale adds.

Medieval antisemitism was in part driven by religion, with the Church leading the attack on Jews for being unethical money-grabbers.

One of the highlights of the exhibition however shows not everyone followed this idea.

A rarely-seen early painting by Rembrandt, dated 1629, depicts the lesser-known Bible story of Judas attempting to return the money he had taken. Distraught and penitent, Judas pleads with the priest for forgiveness.

Yet the image of the greedy, thieving Jew continued to be all-pervasive. Moving through the exhibition to the “bankers and beggars” section, an array of antisemitic material shows how Jews came to be attacked for being both rich and poor.

A particularly grotesque 19th century sculpture by French artist Jean-Pierre Dantan depicts Nathan Rothschild as a hideous beast clutching money, with his bulging eyes and growling face. It’s so offensive that the museum opted to turn the figure around, so as not to immediately startle visitors who come across it.

Rembrandt’s Judas Returning The Thirty Pieces of Silver, 1629

Equally provocative is an 1830 caricature of a Fagin-like figure, with the caption: “11th Commandment: Get all you can, keep what you get, give away nothing”, suggesting that ruthlessness and greed are significant in Jewish teaching.

But it’s not just the moneylenders, merchants and billionaires highlighted by the exhibition. It shows too how in reality many Jews have struggled financially over the centuries and how the concept of tzedaka has huge importance to Jewish life.

“Despite the myths surrounding Jews and money, most Jews throughout history haven’t been rich,” says curator Jo Rosenthal, pointing to a letter written by a blind man appealing to his community for help in 11th century Alexandria. “When we talk about money, Jewish poverty often gets overlooked.”

Moving into contemporary history, the exhibition explores how conspiracy theories began to evolve around the idea of Jews controlling the world for financial gain, starting with The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a fabricated antisemitic text.

Professor David Feldman, director of the Pears Institute for the study of antisemitism, who also helped develop the exhibition, explains: “The protocols are often associated with Nazi Germany, but they were actually published in a British daily newspaper, The Morning Post, in 1920.  Their circulation rose considerably during the time when they were published.

“Even those who didn’t believe this, still came out with other Jewish conspiracy theories, including that Jews were behind the French and Russian revolutions. Winston Churchill wrote an article shortly afterwards saying just that, while the Dean of Westminster dismissed the protocols, but said Jewish money was in league with German money during the First World War in an effort to take over Russian industry.”

An English caricature about the Jewish 11th Commandment on greed

Jewish conspiracy theories continue today. One section lays out in detail how American multi-billionaire George Soros has become a victim of multiple false accusations, from orchestrating financial crashes and political coups to being a Nazi collaborator.

Like other exhibits, the section on Soros makes for uncomfortable but necessary viewing, according to Dr Marc Volovici, research fellow at the Pears Institute for the study of antisemitism.

“Talking about stereotypes is in a way allowing them more presence, but at the same time it’s hard not to address them without first understanding them.”

Jews, Money, Myth runs at Jewish Museum London until 7 July. Details:

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