Jews and money and the myths surrounding them

Jews and money and the myths surrounding them

Jews and money for Times of Israel by Jenni Frazer March 19 2019

If ever there were two toxic words to put together, it would be “Jews” and “money”. Yet — joined by a third word, “myth”, the tortured and tangled relationship between the two is examined by London’s Jewish Museum in a fearless exhibition which opened this month.

The timing could not be more appropriate, with the rise of far-right and far-left stereotypes of Jews. Professor David Feldman, director of the Pears Institute for the Study of Antisemitism at London University’s Birkbeck College, which has worked closely with the Jewish Museum to develop the narrative of the exhibition, says the idea was “to examine the deeply entrenched antisemitic stereotypes and myths relating to Jews and money, and the malignity which has affected Jews in that context”.

But as Abigail Morris, the Jewish Museum’s energetic director, explains, “Jews, Money, Myth” was an idea she had more than three years ago, following a cutting-edge exhibition the museum did about blood and its place in both uniting and dividing Jews.

“I think there’s something very exciting for a museum to tackle difficult subjects, but also to take the long view,” Morris says, but “exciting” barely addresses the vicious antisemitic material that is on display in this exhibition, guaranteed both to draw the crowds and shock them. British Jews, in particular, previously used to the casual, easy-going tolerance of British society at large, are likely to be horrified at the entrenched antisemitism of 19th century Great Britain.

Perhaps the most dramatic of the exhibits is “The New and Fashionable Game of the Jew”, a children’s dice game made in London in 1807. It features a stereotypical Jewish banker in the middle of the board, hoarding money. This game is from the Jewish Museum’s own collection, but the composer Steven Sondheim, who owns a copy, says “this is a game which taught kids to be antisemitic.”

The antisemitism on show, however, is — sadly — not confined to history, but is bang up to date. The image which could be said to have triggered the latest round of Corbyn-related uproar is a wall mural in which obviously Jewish bankers sit around a board game, which is balanced on the backs of the oppressed poor. The image, by the American artist Mear One, was entitled Freedom for Humanity, and appeared in east London in 2012. As the exhibition says, “The stereotypically Jewish features of the bankers recycled age-old tropes positioning Jews as exploitative and motivated by greed. The artist denied any antisemitic intent, saying the mural was a critique of ‘class and privilege’”.

But it was the initial response of Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn, who disagreed with the plan of the local council to remove the mural, which led to the most recent upsurge in antisemitic abuse — and eventually led to the decision of Jewish MP Luciana Berger, who raised the issue of the mural with Corbyn, to quit the party in February this year.

The Mear One image, however, is sited in a section of the exhibition devoted to 19th century antisemitism, as the curators and Abigail Morris felt it fitted in better there. And scattered through the gallery are some thought-provoking artworks by the British artist Ryan Gander, including a bronzed wallet and phone which are stuck to a bench, which explore the ties between morals and money.

Without doubt this is the Jewish Museum’s most ambitious show to date and its importance can be judged by the quality of the loans on display. There is a stunning Rembrandt, “Judas Returning the 30 Pieces of Silver”, painted when the artist was just 23. It has been loaned by a private collector and has not been on public show for 40 years. The lender, says Morris, is not Jewish but believed it was important to discuss the subject.

Or there is an extraordinary public exchequer roll dating from 1233, an unprecedented loan from Britain’s National Archives. Morris says: “It’s one of the most iconic images of Christian-Jewish relations of mediaeval times. Someone has effectively doodled onto the roll a drawing of a three-headed demon Jew”. It shows Isaac of Norwich (Isaac fil Jurnet), one of the wealthiest men in England, who appears at the top as a crowned, three-faced antiChrist figure. A devil touches the noses of Isaac’s agent Mosse Mokke (in spiked hat), also known as Moses fil Abraham, and a Jewish woman called Avegaye. A figure on the left may be weighing coins in a pair of scales. Isaac and Mosse Mokke were both accused of charging excessive interest. The writing on the document shows the sums that the Exchequer of the Jews, a tax institution set up by the Crown, received from individual Jews in each county..

Professor David Feldman, the historian who has worked closely with the museum on developing the narrative for the exhibition, says its twin aims were to “confront and debunk — and to explore the real historical relationship between Jews and money, and between wealth and poverty”.

The central over-arching myth, of course, is what has fed into the stereotype of the rich, grasping Jew — from mediaeval times all the way to George Soros, that all Jews have money and control the world. But the truth, as the exhibition shows, is that there were uncountable numbers of Jewish poor, particularly in Britain, and that many made their livings out of selling old clothes and rags, and, oddly, as the main sellers of dried rhubarb. Nobody seems clear as to the reason for the latter.

Dr Dave Rich, head of policy at Britain’s Community Security Trust (CST), who has run scores of education and training seminars about antisemitism, says that he has “definitely realised how little knowledge and recognition of antisemitism there is”.

As the author of “The Left’s Jewish Problem, Jeremy Corbyn, Israel and Antisemitism”, his hope is that the show will highlight the themes and tropes of antisemitism, particularly, he says, “in recognising forms which for Jewish people are quite blatant. I think that the exhibition can only be a good thing in talking about such things, because we need that education. So much of what is going on in the Labour Party at the moment is people using language they don’t understand.”

One of the repeated tropes of current-day antisemitism, says Rich, is the invocation of the Rothschild name as a sort of catch-all to represent the greedy Jew. “I think the Rothschilds are a classic case”, he says. “They have no profile in public life. They are not an important bank, they are not involved in big public works — and yet the name Rothschild resonates over and over again. It is remarkable how the name still has a cultural meaning, completely detached from what the Rothschilds actually are.”

In research released by the CST in January this year, Rich says they found that Google searches for Rothschild were up by 39 per cent in the last three years. “It’s virtually all people looking for conspiracy theories, and negative stereotypes that Jews are both rich and mean, and that they use their money to pull strings”. The constant subtext, says Rich, is that Jews “will use their money for underhand purposes”.

Nowhere is this better illustrated than in some of the depictions of Nathan Mayer Rothschild, the legendary founder of the bank, who made his home in London in the early 19th century. What the Jewish Museum calls “probably the most obscenely antisemitic of all” is a repellent carved figurine dating from Paris in 1833, on loan from the French capital’s Musee Carnavalet. Rothschild is shown as a writhing, demonic figure, teeth bared and grasping at piles of cash.

Intriguingly, Abigail Morris and the show’s curator, Jo Rosenthal, have chosen to highlight what would normally be behind-the-scenes conversations about the design of the show, by putting those conversations on display. So for the Carnavalet Rothschild, there was intense discussion. The exchange is recorded: “[Rosenthal] I’m worried about the ethics of showing this much antisemitic material. The Rothschild sculpture is so gruesome I wonder if we should even show it.

“[Morris] I know what you mean. That sculpture is really upsetting. I wonder if we should find a different way to display it. How about using a mirror in the showcase and displaying the object with its back to us? That way it won’t be clearly on show, people will have to make a particular effort to look at it and will see themselves looking back as they look”.

Not everything in “Jews, Money, Myth” is related to antisemitism. There is fascinating material from the Jewish Museum’s own collection relating to positive aspects of the relationship, from the special coins used at a Pidyon HaBen (redemption of the first-born) ceremony, to a section on the importance of charity in Jewish life.

But again and again the exhibition returns to difficult themes, from Judas to Shylock and Fagin, or to what Professor Feldman calls the “utterly mainstream” conspiracy theories such as “a widespread belief that the Boer War was fought for Jewish financial interests through their alleged control of the press”.

Professor Feldman, who was vice-chair of the 2016 Chakrabarti inquiry into antisemitism in the Labour Party, says he hopes the exhibition has a message for Jews and non-Jews alike. But he acknowledges that there might be a particular message for the leadership of the Labour Party.

“The problem that part of the Labour leadership face is that of recognising what is in front of them, and their expectation of the form that racism takes. For them, racism is about the poor, people of colour and victims of colonialism. It is difficult for them to recognise people coded as white and possibly affluent [as victims of antisemitism]. This exhibition ought to help people understand how to recognise antisemitism”.

It is, agrees Abigail Morris, probably the first time such material has been assembled in one place by Jews, rather than by antisemites. She says a number of people have asked her whether the Jewish Museum should be staging such an exhibition. She sighs: “We have been incredibly careful. But it (antisemitism) is not going away, and I feel it is incredibly important for us to build bridges, and not retreat into our echo-chamber silo”.

Jews, Money, Myth opened at the Jewish Museum in London on March 19 and runs until July 7 2019.

  • 22 March, 2019