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A Terribly Durable Myth

Jews, Money, Myth

an exhibition at the Jewish Museum, London, March 19–July 7, 2019
Exchequer receipt roll showing the oldest known anti-Jewish caricature, 1233
National Archives, London
Detail of an Exchequer receipt roll showing the oldest known anti-Jewish caricature, 1233

In 2006 much of French society was divided over a strange and painful question: Is it anti-Semitic to assume that a Jew is rich? The debate was sparked by the kidnapping, torture, and murder of a twenty-three-year-old Jewish cell phone salesman from Paris named Ilan Halimi. The details of the torture, which extended over a three-week period as the kidnappers made various demands for ransom, were horrific enough. But when their ringleader, who was quickly apprehended, publicly stated that they had targeted Halimi, who was of modest background and means, because Jews were “loaded with dough,” a brutal crime morphed into a political crisis.

Prosecutors wavered over whether to invoke France’s hate crime statute. Defense lawyers claimed that money, not anti-Semitism, was the suspects’ motive, and the police and much of the public seemed to agree. The Halimi family, however, insisted that Ilan would not have died if he had not been Jewish, and tens of thousands of protesters took to the streets to support them. Politicians, historians, and philosophers offered dueling definitions of anti-Semitism; an eminent sociologist suggested that one must distinguish between beliefs about Jewish wealth, even if based on discredited stereotypes, and “Jew-hatred.”1

The exhibition “Jews, Money, Myth” at the Jewish Museum in London makes such a distinction hard to maintain. It examines its theme through a wide range of documents, artworks, portraits, posters, and souvenirs. The very first item on view is a copy of The Oxford English Dictionary from 1933, whose entry for “Jew” includes the definition: “1. Jew: trans. and offensive. As a name of opprobrium: spec. applied to a grasping or extortionate person.” Object after object testifies to the persistence and the toxicity of the association of Jews and money, from a 1790s print entitled “I’ve got de Monish,” which mocks the pretensions, profile, and accent of a gentleman Jewish banker, to the Mafia II video game, whose characters are harassed by a Jewish loan shark. By the end of this short but shattering survey, it becomes painfully clear that economic assumptions and personal and societal animosity are inextricably intertwined.2

“Jews, Money, Myth” seeks both to document and to refute the stereotype of the moneyed Jew. The subject is distressingly timely. Propelled by rising nationalism on the right and antiglobalism on the left, in the past two years anti-Semitism has come back into the headlines. Politicians and activists on all sides now implicitly endorse or even repeat accusations of Jewish greed and financial power. The Labour Party in the United Kingdom has instituted a complaints procedure to deal with allegations of anti-Semitism in its leadership and ranks, which has resulted in the expulsion of a dozen members. In 2017, hate crimes against Jews in the US rose by 37 percent from the previous year (accounting for almost two thirds of all religious-based hate crimes), and across Europe in 2018 almost one in three Jewish people experienced anti-Semitic harassment.

Although these developments are presumably the impetus for mounting this exhibition, the first substantial section in “Jews, Money, Myth” takes a positive tone. The Oxford English Dictionary is immediately followed by a wall panel emphasizing the centrality of economic ethics in Judaism and a selection of objects illustrating Jews’ commitment to tzedakah, or assistance to the poor (literally “righteousness”). A letter written in Hebrew on papyrus in eleventh-century Egypt on behalf of a poor blind man asks his congregation for financial aid to help his family journey from Alexandria to join him in Fustat (Cairo); a seventeenth-century Dutch painting commissioned by a wealthy Jewish merchant exalts anonymous giving by depicting a disembodied hand offering a coin to another outstretched hand (see illustration on below).

The misconceptions concerning Jewish rapaciousness are perhaps widespread enough to justify opening with this theme. But a pitfall of doing so is that it echoes the anti-Semitic suggestion that Jews have a particular preoccupation with money, albeit one driven by philanthropy rather than avarice.

The show then takes a second approach to refuting the myth of the moneyed Jew: it examines Jews’ economic status in various periods, primarily in British history. A panel introducing a section on Jews in seventeenth-, eighteenth-, and nineteenth-century Britain notes that far more Jews were poor peddlers and beggars than affluent, influential bankers. An early-twentieth-century soup kitchen tally board vividly conjures the struggles of destitute Eastern European immigrants in London’s East End.

The focus on Jews in Britain, though, somewhat undermines the force of the argument, since British Jewish communities, unlike those in many other places, were in fact almost exclusively urban, and were fairly narrowly occupied in finance, shopkeeping, and trade. This was for specific historical reasons: Jews arrived in England only after the Norman Conquest, when merchants and minters were invited from the Continent by the new rulers and settled in royal towns in order to promote commerce and provide economic expertise.3 Though these medieval communities were expelled from the kingdom in 1290, the basic pattern was repeated after Jews were readmitted to Britain in the seventeenth century. Elsewhere in Europe and the Mediterranean, medieval, early modern, and modern Jews lived more varied economic lives, engaging in agriculture, manual labor, and a wide range of crafts.

The power of the exhibition lies not in such well-intentioned correctives but in its relentless documentation of the reach and virulence of the stereotype of the money-grubbing Jew. Sections on stock characters of anti-Jewish propaganda and political satire from across the centuries, such as Judas and the figure of the Jewish moneylender, expose the malignity and menace of the myth. In the thirteenth century, Christian artists modified existing symbols of sin to develop a visual convention for embodying Jews’ supposed bestial and devilish greed that far outlived its original inspiration.4 The same hooked nose, thick lips, and dark scowl appear in a doodle of a Jewish businessman on an English court document from 1277, in an 1825 English print suggesting that Jews caused and profited from a financial crash, on a 1944 Italian poster that blames the bloodshed of World War II on Jewish bankers, and on a 2012 mural painted on the wall of a London building criticizing “class and privilege.” (This mural, which has since been painted over, became a cause célèbre in 2018 when it was found that the leader of the Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, had posted his sympathy for the artist on Facebook after protests demanding its removal; Corbyn subsequently apologized for failing to notice its anti-Semitic tenor.)

As the curators’ selection of objects makes clear, the fleshy features in nineteenth-century English caricatures and the intimations of moral turpitude they convey were not reserved for the wealthy. They are shared by a destitute Jewish beggar in an 1824 cartoon lampooning the charitable activities of Nathan Meyer Rothschild and by a shabbily dressed dealer in secondhand clothes mocked on the cover of The London Saturday Journal in 1841. Contradiction was inherent in the stereotype: Jews were despised for being both rich and poor, capitalist and communist, and they have been portrayed as gross-featured and blatantly different, yet distrusted for supposedly being adept at assimilation and disguise.

What “Jews, Money, Myth” does not, perhaps cannot, do (given the limitations of a small museum exhibition) is explain the origins of the stereotype of the money-grubbing Jew or the intensity of the hatred it has inspired. A display headed “Medieval Commerce,” which includes medieval Jewish loan and lease documents, and another called “The Figure of the Jewish Moneylender,” which explores negative representations of Shylock, suggest that Jewish financial activities are at the root of anti-Jewish hostility. Because “the Catholic Church regarded [usury] as sinful,” we are told in a wall panel, Jews were pushed into occupations forbidden to Christians, such as moneylending, and then excoriated for it.

It is true that economic resentments did often provoke and exacerbate Jew-hatred, but the stereotype considerably predates the development of such resentments. Jews were labeled materialistic and corrupt centuries before the Catholic Church began to worry about usury, or even about the sin of avarice. Moreover, throughout the Middle Ages many more Christians than Jews engaged in lending at interest—a fact that was well known and openly acknowledged by Church authorities, who in the decades around 1200 outlawed moneylending for Christians, and thereafter regularly castigated Christians’ attempts to disguise now-illicit financial transactions.

The figure of the Jewish moneylender is the product, not the source, of the myth of the worldly, greedy Jew. The seeds of that myth were planted in the earliest surviving Christian texts, the letters of Saint Paul. Paul of Tarsus was a Hellenized Jew from Asia Minor who, in the decades following Jesus’s death, appointed himself “apostle to the gentiles.” Paul believed that anyone who insisted on continuing to observe the “letter” of Judaic law, or who refused to recognize Christ’s true, salvific nature, was mired in the flesh and the material world. A series of oppositions emerges in Paul’s attempts to reconcile ancient Hebrew scripture with the new faith: literal versus allegorical, material versus spiritual. Jews (meaning not necessarily people born Jewish but anyone, gentiles included, who obeyed Jewish law) were aligned with the former, Christians with the latter. But Paul’s polemic against “Jewish” materialism was therefore about biblical interpretation and religious practice and had nothing to do with Jewish wealth or economic activities.

A second source for the myth of the materialistic Jew is the Gospels themselves, written slightly later than the letters of Paul. The central episode occurs when Jesus, recently arrived in Jerusalem for the Passover festival, drives merchants and moneychangers from the Temple forecourt, saying, according to Matthew, “It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer; but you are making it a den of robbers.’”

Painting by Benjamin Senior Godines depicting an act of ­anonymous giving, 1679–1681
Jewish Museum, London
Detail of a painting by Benjamin Senior Godines, commissioned by a Jewish ­merchant, that depicts an act of ­anonymous giving, 1679–1681

This scene is frequently cited as a source of anti-Jewish economic animus, and medieval and early modern illustrations of the episode often employ anti-Jewish motifs, as in a sixteenth- century stained glass panel from Germany in “Jews, Money, Myth” that shows a righteously angry Jesus threatening two men with a cudgel—one a merchant selling a lamb for sacrifice, the other a bearded, frowning moneychanger balancing a treasure chest on his head as he flees. But the dispute was, in fact, a religious rather than economic one—Jesus was not objecting to business per se or articulating any kind of commercial morality. He was, rather, incensed by the presence of commerce near the sanctuary. It is for this reason that in the Gospel of Mark, Jesus’s actions are opposed by “the chief priests and the scribes,” guardians of ritual, not financial authorities—the currency exchange and selling of animals allowed pilgrims to offer Temple sacrifices.

Neither the letters of Paul nor the Gospels were intentionally anti-Semitic. Jesus, Matthew, and Paul were all Jews, addressing audiences who were either Jewish themselves or sympathetic to Judaism. But texts outlive the people who write them, memory of their initial purpose fades, and words take on new meaning and power. Paul’s division of humankind into “spiritual” believers and “carnal”—that is, Jewish—unbelievers and Jesus’s tarring of trade around the Temple proved to be immensely influential. When Saint Jerome wanted to contrast Christian faith with Jewish error, he repeated Paul’s condemnation of Jewish materialism and insisted that the idols in Isaiah 2:8 signified Jewish (though also Roman) avarice. When Augustine of Hippo wanted to attack Jews’ rejection of the New Testament, he wrote, “Jews do not grasp [its] meaning and as a result they prove themselves indisputably carnal.”

Although Jews were firmly established in Christian polemic as avaricious and carnal unbelievers, anti-Jewish polemics had little to say about the Jews’ economic activities until around the eleventh century. A commercial and urban revolution was then altering the landscape of Christendom, and the traditional tripartite division of society into nobles, clerics, and peasants was supplemented by a nascent fourth estate: a prosperous urban bourgeoisie. Church authorities finally felt the need to articulate a Christian economic morality. They naturally turned to Scripture. There they found not just Old Testament injunctions against lending at interest—though church leaders did not at first adopt them, preferring instead to regulate interest rates—but also Paul’s denigration of “Jewish” materialism and Jesus’s (apparent) condemnation of commerce.

A conflation of these various Jewish trespasses (overly literal biblical interpretation, unspiritual ritualism, and crass mercantilism) infuses the most celebrated artwork in the exhibition: Rembrandt’s Judas Returning the Thirty Pieces of Silver (1629), which has rarely been displayed in public. Though the curators rightly note the hint of sympathy in the portrayal of a repentant Judas, Rembrandt betrays no equivalent understanding of the Jewish priests, shown as fat-bellied, hard-hearted servants of their massive book of the Law, arrogantly adorned in gold turban, silver crown, and fur cloak.

In order to shame churchmen and laypeople alike into being less focused on wealth and luxury, moralists mobilized all the rhetorical weapons at their disposal. The great Cistercian abbot Bernard of Clairvaux applied the old word “judaizer”—used by Paul for followers who practiced circumcision, and by John Chrysostom for congregants who celebrated the Sabbath on Saturday instead of Sunday—to Christians who lent money at interest. The twelfth-century abbot of the great monastery of Cluny, drawing on Chrysostom’s fiery oratory, called pawnshops “Synagogues of Satan.” Through such new applications of the age-old linkage of Jews to “filthy lucre,” a perception began to form that commerce and the money trade were characteristically Jewish endeavors. This wasn’t because Jews monopolized the money trade, but precisely because they did not. Although many Jews did indeed participate in the new economy, Jewish and Christian financial activities were not distinct, a fact of which Christian moralists were all too aware and that they were determined to change. And so the stereotype of the Jewish usurer first appears.

Preachers began to tell anecdotes about deceitful Jewish misers who consorted with the devil; artists began to visualize such tales in grotesque and frightening detail, endowing their Jewish villains with distinctively fleshy and bestial features. The aim was to intensify the negative connotations of “Jew” and thereby create a more negative attitude toward usury, so that it would be shunned by Christians, or so that Christians who practiced usury would be shunned by others. They achieved neither goal, but they did impel moneylending Christians to cloak their loans with various subterfuges, thereby reinforcing the stereotype by leaving Jews as among the only people openly charging interest.

Because “Jews, Money, Myth” focuses on Jews, it does not discuss Christian biblical interpretation or, for that matter, Christian economic activities. Yet this is the essential background for understanding the images and objects in the exhibition. The oldest Jewish caricature in the show appears on an English tax receipt roll dating to 1233 (see illustration above). The label correctly identifies the three Jews who are mocked in a kind of doodle drawn in ink at the top, and rightly notes its anti-Jewish import. But as I have argued elsewhere, Jewish usurers were probably not the sole, or even primary, targets of this cartoon.5 They appear as proxies for the main object of the scribe’s bile: his new boss, a much-despised and famously rapacious royal favorite who used his control over Jewish moneylenders to fleece Jews and their Christian clients alike. Indeed, the favorite’s behavior generated such anger that the king ultimately dismissed him and deflected further criticism by turning viciously on the Jews.

Acknowledging the political message underlying the caricature does not lessen its anti-Judaism. Rather, it underscores the dangers inherent in anti-Semitic scapegoating. Royal courtiers, medieval Christian merchants, and nineteenth-century British bankers were all guilty of the vices imputed to Jews. To defend Jews from such slanders was to risk being lumped together with them. It was easier to scapegoat, expel, and continue to lend money.

The effects of the anti-Jewish rhetoric and imagery devised in the Middle Ages are all too vividly still with us. “Jews, Money, Myth” closes with a film by the artist Jeremy Deller in which he has spliced together recent cartoons, memes, speeches, interviews, and advertisements that spew hatreds and flaunt falsities that many people hoped were deeply buried, if not long dead. Some are the work of deranged conspiracy theorists, but others appear on successful media outlets (the Trinity Broadcasting Network) or feature respected pastors (Pat Robertson) and leading politicians (Donald Trump, Nigel Farage). Just as rage and anxiety about royal policy and economic change were deflected onto Jews in the Middle Ages, so now Jews are identified with the ill effects of globalization, inequality, and immigration. Just two months ago, a tree planted in Paris in memory of Ilan Halimi was hacked down by anonymous vandals.

  1. 1

    See “Inside France’s ‘Barbarians’ Trial,” BBC News, July 10, 2009: “But Michel Wieviorka, the author of a book on anti-Semitism in France, says the motive for the murder was money first. “Anti-Semitism added to what happened,” he told journalists at the start of the trial. “Initially it wasn’t about expressing hatred of Jews…. The target was a Jewish man because Jews are supposed to have money and are believed to look after their own, so they’ll pay up.” 

  2. 2

    There is also a companion volume, Jews, Money, Myth, edited by Joanne Rosenthal and Marc Volovici (Jewish Museum/Pears Institute/Birkbeck University, 2019), to which I contributed a short essay. 

  3. 3

    William probably encouraged Jews from his duchy of Normandy to settle in England because Jews, who had no separate power base, were more dependent on the king or duke for privileges and protections than most Christians. He therefore could tax Jews readily, whereas kings and dukes had difficulty taxing Christians.  

  4. 4

    I discuss these developments in my essay “Jewish Money and the Jewish Body in Medieval Iconography” in Jews, Money, Myth. See also my “The Invention of the Jewish Nose,” NYR Daily, November 14, 2014. 

  5. 5

    See my “The First Anti-Jewish Caricature?,” NYR Daily, June 6, 2016.