Sara Lipton teaches medieval history at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, and is currently a Visiting Fellow at Oxford. Her most recent book is Dark Mirror: The Medieval Origins of Anti-Jewish Iconography. (June 2019)
an exhibition at the Jewish Museum, London, March 19–July 7, 2019
The exhibition “Jews, Money, Myth” at the Jewish Museum in London 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.
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.