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…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account. You may also need to link your website account to your subscription, which you can do here.