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Explaining vicious anti-Semitism. Visit the Jewish Museum, London

Jews, Money, Myth is a major exhibition exploring the role of money in Jewish life, finance and capitalism over the last 2000 years. At the Jewish Museum London, the show displays include objects that belonged to British Jews — buried medieval coins, tally sticks used as proof of loans, soup-kitchen tokens and representations of Jews in painting, literature and in fascist propaganda. The exhibition draws together art, film, literature and cultural ephemera from board games and cart­oons.. to costumes and figurines.

A lot of the myths that still circulate today imply that Jews ex­erting sinister influences on world events eg Jews financing dis­astrous wars around the world for profit or Jews being naturally drawn to money making. These old tropes and stereotypes still cir­c­ulate on social media and beyond, so the exhibition invites visit­ors to look in a level headed way at the historical realities.

The Jews, Money, Myth Exhibition was the brainchild of the Jewish Museum’s chief executive, Abigail Morris. In 2015, she staged a show on the subject of blood in the Jewish religion and culture, a sensitive theme. But for many, the issue of Jews and money has proved far more unsettling. 

The exhibition recounted the arrival of the first Jews to Eng­land, soon after the Norman Conquest in 1066. Some worked in money lend­ing and finance. One of the displays had a claim to being the world’s earliest anti-Jewish caricature: a doodle atop the 1233 record for taxes paid by Norwich Jews. It depicted the wealthy money lender Isaac of Norwich as a three-headed Antichrist figure.

Judas Returning the Thirty Pieces of Silver, 1629 
79 x 102 cm, by Rembrandt, a private collection
Photo Credit: National Gallery London

The link between Jews and money was traced back to the biblical Judas figure, the man who betrayed Christ in exchange for silver coins. In the show’s star object, Rembrandt’s painting Judas Returning the 30 Pieces of Silver, Judas was pictured on his knees, begging a group of priests for forgiveness.

By the C19th, Jews were regularly portrayed as poor ped­lars. Most British Jews at that time WERE economic migrants with limited financial means who were forced to scrape together a min­im­um living. At the same time, Jews were also portrayed as greedy bankers. One of the financiers who came in for much negative rep­resentation was Nathan Mayer Roth­schild, who opened his namesake bank and went on to finance British military campaigns. The exhib­it­ion included an 1829 car­ic­ature depicting him as an overweight figure with a sack of money slung over his shoulder, titled The Man Wot Knows How to Drive a Bargain.

Everyone loved board games. Wrapped in a turban and a mink-lined robe, an old man sat in his opulent home, smiling wryly. The pouch in his hand was full and gold coins were scattered across his desk. The elderly figure was called the New and Fashionable Game of the Jew, popular in early C19th Britain, and based on a medieval gamb­ling pastime. See the 1807 original where the winner was the one who rolled the highest numbers and collected the most tokens.

New and Fashionable Game of the Jew, 1807
The Directions for Playing specified when the loser forfeited his money tokens to the Jew
Credit Jewish Museum London 

C20th See a nasty poster produced in 1900 for the Musée des Horreurs in France depicting James de Rothschild. James founded the French branch of the family bank and was a prominent figure in French society at the time. 

The exhibition draws primarily on the museum’s own collection of historical objects from Britain, though there are also many from elsewhere in Europe. It opens with an entry from the 1933 Oxford English Dictionary that lists one of the definitions of the word “jew” as a verb meaning “to cheat.” And the text from a Nazi propa­ganda book for children from c1938 began: “Money is the god of the Jew. He commits the greatest crimes to earn money. He won’t rest until he can sit on a great sack of money.”

James de Rothschild, 1900 
Musée des Horreurs in France poster
Credit USA Holocaust Memorial Museum. 

C21st The show discussed signs of a resurgence of anti-Semitism in Europe. In a 12-country survey of Jewish respondents last year by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights, 89% said anti-Semitism was on the rise. France reported a 74% surge in anti-Semitic acts last year, and was at a post-war peak.

In Britain, there were 1,652 anti-Semitic incidents in 2018, up 16% from 2017, according to the Community Security Trust, an organisation that monitors British anti-Semitism. The oppos­ition Labour Party in Britain expelled a dozen members as it in­vest­igated 673 complaints of anti-Semitism since 2015. Others were suspended for making anti-Semitic remarks on social media, or for joining hate groups.

As well as historical items, Jews, Money, Myth features two works of contemporary art specially commissioned for the exhibition. Turner Prize winner Jeremy Deller con­trib­uted a film: a compilation of excerpts from homemade propaganda videos from the USA and Europe, cartoons, televangelist programs, presidential speeches and political campaign ads, all of which make oblique or overt refer­en­ces to Jews and money. One video showed campaigners in favour of Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union who were recently filmed outside the Houses of Parliament in London. Prot­est­ers held a placard that equated the Jewish financier George Sor­os and the Rothschilds with the European Union, saying they ran Britain’s Fake News tv channels

A nasty figurine from Poland was made in 2018, one of many such pieces made in Poland in recent decades. Apparently ugly old Jewish men with huge noses are called Lucky Jew Statues; sometimes they are holding a single coin, and sometimes a whole sack of money. Their role is to protect lucky Catholic Polish homes that had been purified of Jews.

The exhibition closing date has now been extended to 17th October 2019, due to popular demand.

Lucky Jew Figurines, Poland, 2018

Published at the same time as the London event, Deborah Lipstadt's new book Anti-Semitism: Here and Now noted that anti-Semitism was difficult to define. It was impossible to explain something that was essentially irrational and absurd. At its heart anti-Semitism was a conspiracy theory, manifested in the belief that Jews were responsible for the evil in the world. Persisting through millennia, in different cultures and regions, the belief that “Jews were not an enemy but the ultimate enemy” was what made anti-Semitism different from other prejudices.


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