Sara Lipton teaches medieval history at the State University of Stony Brook, and has been a Fellow at the New York Public Library’s Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, and Oxford University. Her most recent book is Dark Mirror: The Medieval Origins of Anti-Jewish Iconography, published by Henry Holt/Metropolitan Books.
The earliest known anti-Jewish caricature is a sketch—actually, an elaborate doodle—in the upper margin of an English royal tax record from 1233. It shows three bizarre-looking Jews standing inside a schematic castle, which is being attacked by a host of cartoonish horned, beak-nosed demons. But there is reason to reconsider the traditional reading of the cartoon, which has been overly influenced by the long afterlife of the anti-Jewish imagery pioneered here.
Since the late eighteenth century, Jews have often been viewed as contributing little to the visual arts. The idea began with Enlightenment thinkers, such as Kant, whose disdain for sensory experience led him to praise what he considered to be the admirably abstract, image-less, and therefore philosophical nature of ancient Hebrew religious thought. Since then, Jews’ alleged disregard for aesthetics has been variously attributed to the Second Commandment’s prohibition against graven images, or to a logocentric culture’s lack of interest in the visual realm. A new, gorgeously illustrated volume of Jewish manuscripts challenges all such assumptions.
The “eternal Jew” and “the longest hatred” are equally misleading labels. Neither Jews themselves nor attitudes toward Jews were static or unchanging. Even apparently identical images can bear radically different meanings. But the history of anti-Jewish iconography does reveal one constant in western culture, well-known to Nazi propagandists—the visceral force of the visual image.