In 1933, the Oxford English Dictionary listed the definition of “Jew” as “to cheat or overreach”. For centuries, myths and harmful stereotypes have formed that link Jews and money, the majority of which are untrue. In an attempt to disperse these tropes, the Jewish Museum London has staged an exhibition that explores the role of money in Jewish life, which over 2000 years has led to gross misconception. Jews, Money, Myth combines art, literature, culture and politics in a bid to challenge these false impressions and explore how they took shape in the first place.
Today, the OED’s definition of the word “Jew” is “a member of the people and cultural community whose traditional religion is Judaism and who trace their origins through the ancient Hebrew people of Israel to Abraham.” Ultimately, being Jewish is about religious faith and this is where the exhibition starts.
“Charity is equivalent to all the other commandments combined.”
– Talmud Bava Batra 9a
For Jews, charity or Tzedakah is a vital part of their faith. Tzedakah is a Hebrew word that literally translates into English as “justice” or “righteousness” but is more commonly associated with charity. This form of charity, however, is a different concept to the general Western perception of charity, which is typically seen as a spontaneous act of goodwill. In Judaism, Tzedakah is an ethical obligation and can be achieved by giving money to the poor, to health-care institutions, to synagogues and so forth.
“For there will never cease to be poor in the land. Therefore I command you, ‘You shall open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy and to the poor, in your land.'”
– Deuteronomy 15:11
Many of the Jewish commandments involve Tzedakah in some shape or form and, although they are not obliged to give Tzedakah on a daily basis, there are two festivals where giving is customary: Yom Kippur and Purim. The exhibition includes a couple of examples of Purim plates on which Jews can place their donations.
The Jewish celebrate Purim in the early spring, in memory of the survival of the Jews in Persia during the 5th-century BCE. As told in the Book of Esther in the Hebrew Bible, the Jewish queen of the same name saved her people from the king’s advisor, Haman, who intended to kill all the Jews. During the celebration, the Book of Esther is read aloud after which everyone places three coins on the Purim plates for charity. Tradition states that each coin should be the denomination of half the standard currency in that country (e.g. half a shekel, half a dollar, half a pound).
“Every firstborn of man among your sons, you shall redeem.”
– Exodus 13:13
Another Jewish custom involving money is Pidyon haben or redemption of the first-born son. According to the Code of Jewish Law, the firstborn son is destined to become a priest, however, this fate can be “redeemed” for five silver coins.
Ironically, the exhibition moves on to scenes recorded in the New Testament, which is not part of the Jewish Bible. Nonetheless, certain events in the Gospels have played a major role in establishing the negative connection between Jews and money.
“Then one of the Twelve—the one called Judas Iscariot—went to the chief priests and asked, “What are you willing to give me if I deliver him over to you?” So they counted out for him thirty pieces of silver. From then on Judas watched for an opportunity to hand him over.”
– Matthew 26:14-16 (NIV)
Judas Iscariot, the disciple who betrayed Jesus, has become the archetypal traitor and personification of the Jews. The Passion of Christ or the Easter story is well-known by the majority of the Western world regardless of religion. Judas’ involvement in the events leading up to Jesus’ crucifixion is perhaps not as recognised, however, his actions have permanently associated him with treachery and greed – something that managed to cast a shadow over the way Jews are perceived.
In exchange for thirty silver coins, Judas Iscariot agreed to hand Jesus over to the Romans, thus allowing God’s plan to come to fruition. Despite being a small part in a much bigger story, Judas is often the man blamed for Jesus’ death. Depicted in artworks with red hair and wearing yellow, these colours have become icons of evil and deceit.
The fact that the other Disciples were Jewish but had not betrayed Jesus is overshadowed by Judas’ treachery. A snap conclusion has been drawn that because Judas took the money and he was a Jew, then all Jews must be greedy. Whilst that statement can be seen as ridiculous, it managed to create an almost permanent judgment about Jews.
In many artworks, Judas is portrayed with a money bag tied to his belt, suggesting his love of money, however, Rembrandt (1606-69) avoided this stereotypical imagery in his painting Judas Returning Thirty Pieces of Silver (1629).
“Then Judas, which had betrayed him, when he saw that he was condemned, repented himself, and brought again the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and elders”
– Matthew 27:3
Rembrandt’s painting shows the moment Judas attempts to return the money after he realises the extent of his actions. Judas kneels pleadingly on the floor, the thirty coins scattered at the feet of the priests and elders, who refuse to take the money back. Whilst his remorse is stronger than his desire to keep the money, some people point out that Rembrandt has painted Judas with his head turned towards the coins on the ground as though he still craves the money. Nevertheless, Judas, full of guilt and shame, hanged himself.
“For I did dream of money bags tonight.”
– Shylock, The Merchant of Venice
The Jewish stereotype that stemmed from Judas was enhanced by William Shakespeare (1564-1616) in his play The Merchant of Venice. The play’s antagonist Shylock, is a Venetian Jewish moneylender who lends money to his Christian rival Antonio, setting the security at a pound of Antonio’s flesh. When Antonio cannot pay back the loan, Shylock demands his flesh.
Throughout the play, Shylock’s appearance is stereotypical of the perception of Jews during the Elizabethan era. Jews had been expelled from England in 1290 and were not allowed to resettle in the country until Oliver Cromwell’s (1599-1658) rule, however, there were plenty of Jews in other countries, for instance, Venice, where the play is set.
During the 16th and 17th century, Jews were often presented as a hideous caricature, usually with a hooked nose and bright red wig. Completing their costume, of course, was their ever-present money bag. Shylock’s forced conversion to Christianity at the end of the play is supposedly a happy ending, “saving” him from his unbelief and desire to kill Antonio. Overall, the play is typical of the antisemitic trends in Elizabethan England.
To counteract the antisemitic views expressed in The Merchant of Venice, Roee Rosen (b1963), an Israeli multidisciplinary artist, writer and filmmaker, produced a retelling of the story told from Shylock’s point of view. As the title The Blind Merchant suggests, Shylock is blind in this version. The “parasitical” text written by Rosen is interspersed between the original text of Shakespeare’s play, offering alternative ways of interpreting the action. Alongside the text are black and white illustrations, many of which the author/artist produced while blindfolded. Through this book, Rosen proves there is more than one way of viewing a situation, thus emphasising the prejudices in Shakespeare’s version.
The exhibition moves on from the middle ages, introducing visitors to names of notable Jewish businessmen who, due to their wealthy lifestyle, unintentionally created the tropes that “all Jews are rich” and “Jews get rich at the expense of others.” During the Commonwealth, Jews sought permission from Cromwell to return to England. Although nothing official was signed, Cromwell conceded and the Jewish population began to grow once again. Sephardi merchants from Spain presented annual gifts to the Lord Mayor to ensure their protection. Many of these Jews were involved with international trade, for instance, the East India Company, whereas others were seen as pedlars or beggars.
As is the norm, it is the rich Jews whose names are recorded and a handful of these people are responsible for the development of banks and trade during the 18th and 19th century. One famous name is Sir Moses Haim Montefiore, 1st Baronet (1784-1885), a British financier, banker and later Sheriff of London. Coming from an Italian-Jewish background, Montefiore distributed generous amounts of money to help establish industries, businesses, economies, schools and health resources among the Jewish community in the Levant. He also served as President of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, which had been established in 1760 to safeguard the interests of British Jews as a religious community, both in the British Isles and the colonies.
Montefiore’s brother-in-law, however, was just as, if not more, famous, becoming the richest man in the world during his lifetime. Nathan Mayer, Freiherr von Rothschild (1777-1836) was born in Germany to the Jewish banker who founded the Rothschild banking dynasty. The Rothschild brothers, of which there were five, moved to different cities where they established a new branch of the Rothschild bank. Nathan moved to England in 1798 as a textile merchant, however, he eventually set up his banking business in 1811. N. M. Rothschild and Sons was founded at New Court in St Swithin’s Lane in the City of London, where it still operates today.
Rothschild was also involved with supplying funds for the British army during the Peninsular War (1807-14), and founding the Alliance Assurance Company (now Royal & SunAlliance) with his brother-in-law. Furthermore, Nathan Mayer Rothschild played a key role in the abolition of the slave trade, helping to finance the British government’s buyout of the plantation industry’s slaves.
The Rothschild family, in general, was renowned throughout a large part of the world. Lionel Nathan Freiherr de Rothschild (1808-79), Nathan’s son, became the first practising Jew to sit as a Member of Parliament in the United Kingdom. As well as being a politician, he was responsible for raising large sums for the government, which aided the Crimean War (1853-6) in particular. His most famous contribution, however, was financing the government’s purchase of the Suez Canal shares from Egypt for £4 million.
Not all the rich Jews stemmed from the Rothschild family; Sir Albert Abdullah David Sassoon, 1st Baronet (1818 – 96) was a British Indian businessman who was a major benefactor to the city of Bombay. He made many philanthropic donations throughout his life, including 60,000 rupees towards the construction of the David Sassoon Library and Reading Room and made a significant contribution towards the erection of a large equestrian statue of the Prince of Wales, Albert Edward (1841-1910), commemorating his visit to India in 1875.
Unfortunately, the wealthy Jews were not received favourably by everyone and many satirical illustrations began cropping up in publications. The biggest target was Nathan Mayer Rothschild who was accused of numerous allegations. Some saw the Rothschild’s as people obsessed with material possessions, only parting with money if it would benefit themselves. Despite Nathan’s involvement with the abolishment of slavery, the Rothschilds are accused of colonialism and globalisation as a result of their trade with less wealthy countries.
Nathan Mayer Rothschild became the personification of greed. Many caricatures portrayed him as a rotund man sitting on piles of money. Rather than working for that money himself, it was claimed others were doing the hard work for him. One illustration from Die Karikatur der europaischen Volker vom Altertum bis zur Neuzeit by Eduard Fuchs titled Die Generalpumpe (The General Pump) suggests Rothschild was controlling everyone around him. He was also portrayed as a demonic, evil creature, for example, Jean-Pierre Dantan’s (1800-69) grotesque sculpture.
Not all Jews were “filthy rich”, however, with that stereotype firmly in place, the less affluent Jews were not looked upon favourably. When Jews first returned to England, many earned a living by peddling their goods on the streets. An illustration titled “Rhubarb!” shows a turbaned Jew selling the plant from a box around his neck. In one hand is a scale to weigh his money – an icon that became synonymous with Jews.
The Charles Dickens’ character Fagin from his acclaimed novel Oliver Twist, gradually became a visual representation of the less wealthy Jew. Yet, Jews were never considered to be poor; their second-hand clothing businesses and the like were considered to be ways of making money rather than a living. Whilst they may not have appeared wealthy in their pre-owned clothing, the prejudiced believed they had lots of money stashed away, just like Fagin and his ill-gotten gains. In 1830, an illustration of a Fagin-esque character was published in a periodical, alluding to a supposed 11th Commandment that the Jews closely followed: “Get all you can, keep what you get, give nothing away.”
Whilst the Rothschild’s helped to found things, such as the London Underground, their personal lives were under scrutiny. They supposedly married their cousins in order to retain control over their assets, which led people to believe they aimed to control the world. Adolf Hitler (1889-1945) was particularly concerned that the Jews aimed to destroy Germany. He also associated the Jews with communism – another thing he wished to eradicate. We all know the result of Hitler’s incorrect thinking and prejudice, and while thousands of Jews were able to escape his clutches by migrating to England, many more died as a result of the Holocaust.
Throughout the Second World War, antisemitic propaganda was spread throughout Europe claiming that not only were Jews aiming to destroy Germany, but they also sought world domination. One poster from Serbia in 1941 shows a man in traditional Jewish clothing holding a scale. On one side sits a pile of money and on the other, a rather irate Adolf Hitler. The text reads: “Who will be heaviest? [Who will overcome?] No one because the Jew is holding the scale.”
Fortunately, some Jews were able to find safety in England where Poor Jews Temporary Shelters were set up to help them get back on their feet. Gradually the strong prejudices established by the Nazi Party began to disperse and Jews became accepted in society.
Unfortunately, antisemitism has not been completely eradicated from the world and the age-old stereotypes still exist. In Poland, Żydki or “Little Jews” are figurines that are sold in marketplaces as good luck charms. The superstitious believe that having one in the house brings wealth to the family. The figurines come in all sorts of styles, however, they all have the stereotypical features that have existed for centuries. Whilst the Żydki are not deliberately making a mockery of the Jews, some find them derogative and a source of controversy.
A 17-minute film at the end of the exhibition reveals the prejudices that are still in the world today. These clips feature Donald Trump addressing a Jewish society, carnivals where people are dressed similarly to the Żydki sold in Poland, and protests against Jewish billionaires who are supposedly controlling the media. One hand-made banner encouraged people to “Google Jewish Billionaires” – I did, approximately only 8% of the world’s billionaires are Jewish.
Jews, Money, Myth is an educational and eye-opening exhibition. Most people are aware of Jewish stereotypes and nearly everyone has learnt about the Holocaust, however, it is interesting to discover where and how these myths came about. Ultimately, the exhibition is challenging two particular tropes: “All Jews are rich,” and they “get rich at the expense of others.” Both statements are proved wrong and are only based upon a handful of Jews, for instance, the Rothschilds.
Some aspects of the exhibition are shocking and uncomfortable as they drag up old propaganda and illustrations that would never be allowed in print today. Yet, we cannot ignore that these things happened, that people had these opinions and that certain events followed. In order to educate the current generation, the past must not be forgotten but learned from. The Jewish Museum London has done an excellent, if not brave, job putting the exhibition together.
The exhibition Jews, Money, Myth is open until 7th July 2019 and is included in the entry ticket to the museum. Tickets are £8.50 for adults, £6.50 concessions and £4.50 for children under 16. These prices include a £1 voluntary donation. The ticket grants visitors entry to the temporary exhibitions and permanent displays.