LONDON — Of all the myths about Jews, perhaps the most persistent involves money. It’s a prejudice that remains almost mainstream. In February, Minnesota Congresswoman Ilhan Omar tweeted that U.S. support for Israel was “all about the Benjamins” (a reference to the $100 bill, adorned by Benjamin Franklin’s face).
A new exhibition at the Jewish Museum London, “Jews, Money, Myth” (running through July 7), explores this theme head-on, taking it to some unpleasant as well as surprising places.
Tucked away in a side street in the North London neighborhood of Camden Town, the museum is scrupulously inclusive of all streams of Judaism, from liberal to Orthodox — and similarly eclectic in its choices of subject. A 2015 exhibition on Jews and blood trod comparably sensitive territory.
“We see this as a chance to use thought-provoking pieces from the collections and from loans to tackle different questions and bring nuance and subtlety into the debate,” the museum’s chief executive, Abigail Morris, tells Haaretz.
Most visitors to the museum aren’t Jewish — “I think of us as a very important place in challenging anti-Semitism through knowledge and information,” she says.
The exhibition was developed with the Pears Institute for the Study of Antisemitism at Birkbeck College, whose director David Feldman agrees that “it’s important for Jews to confront rather than avoid this issue.”
“There are two dangers we strove to avoid: Being apologetic, or reducing this to an anti-defamation campaign — although there is a myth-busting element to this,” he says.
So the exhibition explores the Jewish relationship to material wealth and charity as much as it does anti-Semitic prejudice. There’s more than 2,000 years of history here, from ancient Jewish coins and artifacts used for pidyon haben, or the redeeming of the firstborn, to board games depicting Jewish greed and internet memes.
A lot of darkness
It starts with an 11th-century letter from the Cairo Geniza — the famous collection of Jewish manuscript fragments. In that letter, a blind, impoverished Jew appeals to the community to pay for him to be reunited with his wife and children. Medieval documents in Hebrew and English show Jews and Gentiles happily doing business together, too.
An exhibition highlight is a Rembrandt painting “Judas Returning the Thirty Pieces of Silver,” from a private collection. “The lenders, who are not Jewish, thought the idea of the exhibition was very important and inspiring,” Morris says.
The Dutch master’s representation shows a more compassionate side to the disciple reviled for his betrayal and connection to money, which Morris explains was once not an unusual position to take: “Judas is not seen as evil until the Middle Ages, when the church developed this myth around him as a way of stopping Christians lending money.”
There’s a deliberate counterbalance to the anti-Semitic tropes with artifacts such as an intricately carved wooden “charity lottery wheel” from London’s Great Synagogue, and tallies from an East London soup kitchen set up to serve impoverished Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe in the 19th century.
But there’s a lot of darkness here too. A copy of “The Humble Addresses of Menasseh Ben Israel” — the 1655 plea by a Dutch Jew for Oliver Cromwell to allow the Jews to return to England, which emphasizes the economic benefits his community would bring to the Commonwealth – is partnered with a diatribe written a few years later by a German author insisting that the Jews’ real intention in returning was to convert London’s St. Paul’s Cathedral into a synagogue.
One drawing attacks a Rothschild banker simultaneously for being rich and for being a peddler of old clothes, while another poster lambastes Jews for being both communists and capitalists.
Visual and narrative themes of avaricious Jews clutching money bags range from anti-Semitic doodles on medieval court documents to Shylock and Fagin. Regarding Shylock, Israeli artist Roee Rosen contributes a reworked graphic-art version of “The Merchant of Venice.”
“The point is to show how both tropes reproduce in time and mutate to take on new meanings,” Feldman says.
Capitalist and communist
Unsurprisingly, the myth of the money-grabbing Jew makes its way into numerous pieces of propaganda, especially from the Nazi era.
There are fake dollar bills the Germans dropped on France that, when unfolded, reveal a diatribe on the greed of the Jews. There are numerous examples of Jews as simultaneously greedy capitalists and communist monsters: One fascinating poster from Nazi-occupied Serbia depicts a sleepily happy Jew in between a hammer and a sickle and a pile of moneybags.
Morris’ favorite display is one she contributed herself. Bought during a trip to Krakow last December, one display case is filled with “lucky Jews” — little clay figurines of Orthodox Jews clutching a shiny coin, which are popular across Poland.
When Morris pointed out to the vendor that some people might find them offensive, she was told not to worry: “We turn them upside down on the Jewish Sabbath and all the luck and money comes to us!”
The exhibition comes at a febrile time for British Jews, with anti-Semitism scandals continuing to rack the Labour Party. A number of its lawmakers have broken away, citing anti-Semitism to form their own parliamentary group; and the Equalities and Human Rights Commission has launched an inquiry into whether the party discriminated against people because of their “ethnicity and religious beliefs.”
It’s an unspoken leitmotif of this exhibition.
An 1840s print depicting a fat, leering Jewish banker standing in a sack of money and pouring coins into the hands of world leaders is presented, to devastating effect, alongside a notorious mural by the American street artist Mear One: The 2012 painting in east London of hook-nosed, gray-bearded bankers playing a game of Monopoly on the backs on the poor was removed later that year after an outcry over what seemed flagrant anti-Semitism.
“Non-Jews might not quite understand why an image like this is anti-Semitic,” Morris says. By the exhibition presenting it this way, “they can see where the imagery comes from. Most anti-Semitism comes from ignorance rather than hatred — at least, that’s my hope,” she adds.
But the controversy resurfaced last year when a Facebook comment by Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn praised the mural and favorably compared it to the groundbreaking work of Diego Rivera.
Then there’s a handbill advertising a 1962 rally by a British neo-Nazi party featuring a fat Jew beating Labour and Conservative politicians into submission with the tagline “The meeting the Jews want banned.”
Like the Mear One mural, it’s impossible not to be reminded of the current argument edging into mainstream discourse that Jews are trying to shut down political debate. Groups such as Labour Against the Witchhunt and Jewish Voice for Labour have been formed for the sole purpose of defending the party against these supposedly bad faith accusations.
Feldman was also deputy chairman of the 2016 Chakrabarti Inquiry into anti-Semitism in the Labour Party. The subsequent report found the party was not “overrun by anti-Semitism,” but noted an “occasionally toxic atmosphere.” In the three years since, the situation has only gotten worse.
But Feldman emphasizes that “these associations of Jews with money and corruption don’t necessarily have a political home.”
As he puts it, “There is a reservoir of ideas and imagery which lies within the culture, and some people will draw on them consciously and some unconsciously whenever Jews are made the subject of political discourse or controversy. It can happen on the right — at present it’s more visible on the left.”
The exhibition ends with a video installation from British artist Jeremy Deller: A compilation of tropes about Jews and money, from vile internet memes to supposedly benign computer games and clips from “Family Guy.” It also includes Donald Trump grinning as he tells Republican Jews they won’t support him “because I don’t want your money.” Morris has watched the video countless times, but says she still winces when she hears his words.
Many people told Morris they were worried that an exhibition of this kind would be offensive and would risk reinforcing stereotypes. It’s true, she says, that “it’s a difficult subject to talk about. But the anti-Semitic jokes have not gone away.”