Anti-Semitism has existed in this country for centuries. But many people may be oblivious to the ways this hatred has haunted British Jews. Can a new exhibition change that? By Etan Smallman
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If you wanted to find two words you could put next to each other in a sentence to most alarm the UK’s Jewish community, you would struggle to find a pair more incendiary than “Jews” and “money”. So you could be forgiven for asking: what on earth is the Jewish Museum London thinking with its latest exhibition?
Jews, Money, Myth picks at one of British Jewry’s most painful wounds, examining some of the most perennial and pernicious anti-Semitic tropes that have echoed through the ages.
Both donors and lenders to the museum are rattled, admits its director, Abigail Morris. Even focus groups, Jewish and non-Jewish, were spooked, rejecting her favoured title, “Loaded?”, a reference to the delusion that all Jews are filthy rich and to the subject being one of history’s most freighted stereotypes.
The association is stitched into the fabric of our culture. Think of master pickpocket Fagin in Dickens’ Oliver Twist, referred to as “the Jew” more than 250 times in the novel, or Shylock in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, the moneylender who demands a “pound of flesh” in return for an unpaid debt.
As recently as 1995, Michael Jackson’s song “They Don’t Care About Us” featured the lyrics: “Jew me, sue me, everybody do me.”
The first object on show is a page from a 1933 Oxford English Dictionary. It defines the verb “Jew” as “To cheat or overreach”. It could just as well be a page from the latest edition of the OED, which gives the same meaning, though it is now listed with the qualifier “offensive”.
There are benign artefacts – the plate handed around during the festival of Purim to raise money for the poor. But many are distressing to comprehend. “The New and Fashionable Game of the Jew” is the 1807 board game that Broadway composer and collector Stephen Sondheim said “taught kids to be anti-Semitic”.
A rarely-seen Rembrandt may put the much-abused story of Judas Iscariot in its true historical context. And a Yugoslav Nazi poster from 1941 shows a Jew as a malign embodiment of both capitalism and Communism – sacks of money to his left; a hammer and sickle to his right.
It sums up the mass of contradictions that form “the world’s oldest hatred” – which damns Jews for being rich and poor, for being outsiders and trying to inveigle themselves into society.
Deborah Lipstadt, a historian, is clear that anti-Semitism is racism. But she argues that it is different primarily because while other varieties of prejudice are seen to “punch down”, bigotry towards Jews is falsely thought of as “punching up”.
“It sees the Jew as smarter, conniving, craftier,” says the professor of Jewish history at Emory University in America and author of Antisemitism: Here and Now. “The stereotypical elements are money, power and intelligence, but all used in a malicious, nefarious way.”
She says it is also distinct in how often Jews are accused of lying, exaggerating or having ulterior motives when reporting racism against them, in a way rarely seen for other minorities. “It is like a herpes virus,” she adds. “It comes out at times of tension and economic dislocation. You need someone to blame.”
Lipstadt says Britain’s brand of anti-Jewish prejudice has “often been very polite”; she had her own taste of it when she was unsuccessfully sued for libel by the British author David Irving for calling him a Holocaust denier (Lipstadt was played by Rachel Weisz in the 2016 film Denial).
Jew-hatred has not always been so cordial in these lands. One of the worst anti-Semitic massacres of the Middle Ages was in York in 1190, when all of the city’s Jews were trapped inside a burning York Castle by a baying mob outside.
According to many historians, England was the first country to undertake a mass expulsion of its Jews, in 1290 (they were not readmitted until 1656). The Catholic Church did not disavow the false belief that the Jews killed Jesus until 1965.
More recently, Labour has been mired in cases of anti-Semitism, culminating in Luciana Berger resigning from the party last month. Six people, including two from the left, have been convicted of race hate against the Jewish MP for Liverpool Wavertree.
Lipstadt describes the situation as “unprecedented”. “We’ve never seen anything as institutionalised in a Western democracy as we’re now seeing in the Labour Party.”
A party spokesman said it “takes all complaints of anti-Semitism extremely seriously and we are committed to challenging and campaigning against it in all its forms”.
In the vanguard of the online battle against the anti-Semites is the unlikely figure of Countdown’s numbers expert Rachel Riley, who has responded to a wave of abuse by coining the hashtag #BeLouder.
The “dilemma”, however, according to Mark Gardner, of the Community Security Trust, a charity that monitors anti-Semitism, is that increased media coverage results in a spike in reports of hate crimes against Jews.
Lipstadt is resolute that it needs to be condemned wherever it is found, “not just because of Jews”, but because “anti-Semitism is a classic conspiracy theory. If you have increasing numbers who believe, ‘Aha! The Jews are being paid to do this’, ‘The Jews are doing this all because of Israel’, they’re going to believe conspiracies about anything else.”
Since the Middle Ages, Jewish people have widely been assumed to be rich (while Christians were banned from moneylending in much of Europe, it was often one of the few jobs available to Jews).
In this era of identity politics, it is the casting of Jews as white that is proving equally problematic – in some eyes, automatically excluding them from the umbrella of the antiracist movement.
Though, of course, throughout the ages “white privilege” has never been much good at protecting Jews from the horrors of pogroms, expulsion and mass extermination.
Gardner adds that being careful to use the word “Zionist” rather than “Jew” is no defence if you are still indulging in age-old anti-Jewish imagery, nor does being Jewish yourself inoculate you from perpetuating anti-Semitism.
The discussion is so knotty and tortuous that even the word itself is frequently the target of criticism. One of the most easy-to-spot hallmarks of any radio phone-in crank is the assertion that “Jews aren’t the real Semites”. “It’s a stupid word,” says Gardner. “There is no such thing as Semitism that you can be anti. And actually we might do a lot better if we just spoke about Jew hatred.”
Jewish comedian David Baddiel says his problem with the terminology is any implication that anti-Semitism is not plain, full-blooded racism. “It is something people say to me on Twitter – that anti-Semitism isn’t racism because Jews are a religion, not a race,” he tells i. “First, race is meaningless without racism. As long as Nazis would kill me, which they definitely would, despite the fact that I’m a fundamentalist atheist, religion is irrelevant. Any discrimination emanating from an accident of birth is racism.”
Abigail Morris hopes the exhibition will explain why “fear is so close to the surface” for a community that people may dismiss as “settled, integrated, largely educated, well-off”. “There’s people in our families…” she says, trailing off, referring to those who were murdered in living memory, or who only just survived the Holocaust by the skin of their teeth – no matter how wealthy they were.
“I think non-Jews often don’t understand what gets Jews so worried, and I think this exhibition will help explain that. There is some perception that Jews are overreacting. And I hope we can explain why it’s so serious – because we know where this kind of thing can lead.”
‘Jews, Money, Myth’ runs from 19 March to 7 July at the Jewish Museum London, 129-131 Albert Street, NW1 7NB; jewishmuseum.org.uk
FAST FACTS – ANTI-SEMITISM TODAY
- Anti-Semitic incidents in the UK rose to 1,652 in 2018, a 16 per cent increase on the previous year, according to the Community Security Trust.
- Almost one in three British Jews has considered emigrating due to safety concerns, 11 per cent up on 2012, the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights has found.
- Nearly nine in 10 believe that anti-Semitism has increased over the past five years, up from 65 per cent in 2012 – the largest rise in the 12 EU countries surveyed by the agency.
- When asked where anti-Semitism is manifest, 84 per cent – the highest of all countries polled – of British Jews answered “political life”.
- Judas Iscariot, who betrayed Jesus for 30 pieces of silver, is one of the oldest justifications for anti-Semitism. Medieval art portrays him with stereotypically Jewish features, though of course all the disciples – and Jesus himself – were Jewish.
- “Rothschild” was one of the most common racist euphemisms for Jew in the 19th and 20th centuries, embodying the conspiracy theory that the Rothschild banking family secretly controlled the global economy and orchestrated disruptive world events.
- “Soros” is perhaps its 21st century equivalent – blaming the Hungarian-born investor and Holocaust survivor George Soros for flooding Europe and the US with illegal immigrants and trying to rig elections. In 2017, the Hungarian government emblazoned his face on the floors of trams so passengers would have to tread on it.