The persistence of a myth

by
26 April 2019

Rob Thompson explores the history behind anti-Semitic tropes, through a new exhibition

JEWISH MUSEUM LONDON

Judas Returning the Thirty Pieces of Silver (1629), Rembrandt

Judas Returning the Thirty Pieces of Silver (1629), Rembrandt

OVER the Easter season, Christians around the world will have heard these words from St John’s Gospel: “The doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews.”

Without a proper understanding of the context in which the Gospel accounts were written — a time of fierce competition between rival Jewish groups in the uncertain period after the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple — these words are often misunderstood.

Against a backdrop of rising anti-Semitism — the Community Security Trust, which monitors its presence in the UK, recorded its third annual increase last year — the words of the Gospels can make particularly uncomfortable hearing.

The latest exhibition at the Jewish Museum in London, “Jews, Money, Myth”, is a timely and important contribution to efforts to help us to understand how the myths that characterise anti-Semitism have developed over 2000 years.

 

JEWISH MUSEUM LONDON11th Commandment: Get all you can, keep what you get, give away nothing England, 1830VISITORS to the exhibition are welcomed by a disturbing film: a montage of clips from politicians, news outlets, and popular TV shows that perpetuate ideas that associate money with Judaism and Jews. Old anti-Semitic tropes about bankers and the Rothschild family are a common theme.

But it is also clear how these tropes have mutated into a new context: Nigel Farage discusses the so-called “Israel lobby” and “Jewish lobby” influencing American politics. It is not the figure of Rothschild which appears on a pro-Brexit rally sign outside Parliament, but George Soros, branded “the immortal traitor” for apparent collusion with the European Union.

“Jews, Money, Myth” helps the visitor to explore where these myths have come from, tracing what seem to be the three interconnected themes — money, power, and threat — with which Jews have been consistently associated.

As a visitor, and as a Christian, running through all of this I felt the unmistakable presence of the Church.


Money

A man is hunched over, his finger extended in line with his hooked nose and protruding chin. He is dressed in a ragged coat, and appears to be blind: he is wearing dark glasses and carries a walking stick. Yet his polished shoes have golden buckles, and a thick wad of papers appears out of his pocket, displaying the word “Bond”.

It is an unmistakeable caricature of a Jew, familiar to many of us because it is so akin to the caricatures of Fagin in Dickens’s Oliver Twist.

For the Christian viewer, it is the caption that is most uncomfortable. It reads “11th Commandment: Get all you can, keep what you get, give away nothing.”

As a Methodist, I could not help but see this as an anti-Semitic inversion of that famous line attributed to John Wesley: “Earn all you can, save all you can, give all you can.”

Jews can be rich, they can be poor, or they can be somewhere in between — like anyone. The exhibition quotes Deuteronomy 15.11 (“Open your hand to your poor and needy neighbour in your land”), which has inspired in Judaism a mitzvah — or commandment — of giving and good deeds.

But, throughout history, prejudicial laws, literary culture, and, as is clear in this caricature, religious antagonism have combined to associate Jews with a particularly greedy and selfish attitude towards money — so much so that, according to the stereotype, it is through money that Jews have exercised power over others.


Power

The centrepiece of the exhibition is undoubtedly Rembrandt’s extraordinary painting Judas Returning the Thirty Pieces of Silver. Scarcely exhibited in the UK, it is an arresting depiction of what has become a recognisable scene in Christian culture: the priests, the supposed traitor disciple, and, of course, the money.

Here, I wondered whether the museum had offered a too-charitable description of the painting: it noted its “ambiguity” and its “sympathetic” portrayal of Judas. True, in comparison to some grotesquely anti-Semitic depictions of Judas near by, the painting does seem a much gentler portrayal of a man who is tormented by indecision. It is not clear whether Judas is accepting or rejecting the payment of silver.

But my gaze was drawn away from Judas to the priests. They loom above him, larger than life. They stand in the darkened shadows, barely made out. They are bejewelled and hunched over, some with hands outstretched towards Judas — or, perhaps, the money? The only straight-backed priest among them is painted with frightening, red, bloodshot eyes. The Hebrew letters in the scribe’s documents are there, just in case anyone needed further emphasis that these are Jews.

It seemed to me that Rembrandt’s depiction of Judas in thrall to the priests enforces anti-Semitic stereotypes. It reminds us, first, that myths about Jews often find their root in Christian interpretation of scripture. Second, it suggests that tropes about money are bound up with what it is supposed to buy: proximity to power.

With money and power, Jews have been accused of being able to hold a position of control in society, dividing it for the rest of “us”; so the myth continues. As a consequence, Jews have been portrayed as not belonging, loyal only to themselves, and posing a particular threat to the non-Jewish majority of society.

 

Threat

UNITED STATES HOLOCAUST MEMORIAL MUSEUMLa Via Del Mar Rosso Un Mare Rosso Di Sangue (“The Way of the Red Sea is a Way of Blood”), Italy, 1944For many of us, anti-Semitism is most clearly associated with the Nazis: with railway tracks, gas chambers, and Auschwitz. Anti-Semitism was an essential part of Nazi ideology, and the Holocaust — the murder of six million Jews by the Nazis and their conspirators — was the consequence.

But there is little mention of Hitler or the Nazis in this exhibition. As important as it is to study the Holocaust, it is also true that we must understand the roots of anti-Semitism in society, and not just its destructive consequences in the Holocaust. The anti-Semitism of the Nazis did not begin with the Final Solution. If we know where anti-Semitism comes from, we are equipped to challenge it when it first appears, and not when it is too late.

This approach is most striking in one corner of the exhibition, which displays wartime posters not from Nazi Germany, but from countries occupied by the Nazis during the Second World War: Serbia, Czechoslovakia, and France.

In all of these posters, it is the Jews who are blamed. An Italian example depicts Jewish bankers carrying bags of money, dressed in their finery, walking under British and American flags through the bloodied corpses of Allied troops.

The language of religion is never far away. The Italian reads: “The God of Israel will lead us once again, keeping our feet dry, as in the Red Sea.” It is a horrible inversion of the Exodus story, the implication being that Jews, in their love of power and money, will partition the world into two waves of dead bodies. Money, power, threat, and the ongoing undercurrent of religious prejudice divide Jews and non-Jews into “them” and “us”.

 

VISITING the exhibition is a disturbing experience, and posters such as this one linger long in the mind. The film shown at the beginning can be heard all around the exhibition. As I am confronted with more and more evidence of the history of anti-Semitism, its hate-filled words become ever more sinister and claustrophobic.

But the continued audibility of the video is a reminder that, once one really starts to know the history and to be on the lookout for its signs, anti-Semitism can be found where we least expect it: not just in the slogans of neo-Nazis, but in our shared culture.

The exhibition curator is right, I think, not to get too caught up in contemporary debate.

The mural that once adorned a wall in Tower Hamlets, showing a group of men with supposedly stereotypical Jewish features counting their money around a Monopoly board, which is held up on the backs of what look like slaves, appears more than once. But the leading politician whose support on social media for the mural’s artist sparked a crisis over anti-Semitism in his party (Comment, 27 April 2018) is not referred to by name.

“Jews, Money, Myth” helpfully provides the wide historical lens. The visitor is left to make up his or her own mind about where the myths of anti-Semitism can still be discerned to this day in public debate, online, and perhaps sometimes in our churches.

“Locked for fear of the Jews”, declared the writer of St John’s Gospel. For too long, Christians have — often unknowingly — absorbed the tropes that associate Jews with money, power, and threat.

By opening those unlocked doors, engaging with complex history, and getting to grips with contemporary reality, we will see that these are myths, and far from the truth. In doing so, Christians might finally dispel 2000 years of hatred through a genuine relationship with Jews — one founded on friendship, not fear.

As anti-Semitic incidents in the UK continue to rise, the Jewish Museum’s exhibition will be a necessary starting-point for many on this urgent journey.

 

Rob Thompson is senior programme manager at the Council of Christians and Jews. “Jews, Money, Myth”, runs at the Jewish Museum, Raymond Burton House, 129-131 Albert Street, London NW1, until 7 July. Phone 020 7284 7384. jewishmuseum.org.uk.

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