Jews, Money, Myth

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.

Godines, Benjamin Senior; Triptych

Scenes from the life of Isaac – Benjamin Senior Godines, late 17th century.

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.”

nazi-propaganda-jevrejin

Antisemitic propaganda

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.

4zydki

Żydki, “Little Jews”

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.

The Art of Money

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As of 13th September 2016, the Bank of England issued its first ever polymer note. The £5 note is the first to be printed on this thin, flexible material, and, although smaller in size, is considerably more durable than its paper predecessor. They are also a lot harder to counterfeit.

Until the new note was released, I had not thought about the actual appearance of our money. Apart from displaying the Queen’s head and being different colours depending on quantity, the rest of the design felt insignificant. However, there is a lot of thought put into the composition of our banknotes.

The Bank of England Museum in London currently exhibits a Banknote Gallery, containing all the note styles and designs from 1694, when paper money came into existence, right up until the latest polymer version. Following the timeline of notes throughout history reveals the development of the visual appearance and the increasing intricacy of their design.

The museum provides information about the new fiver, how it was made, and explains the reasons for the choice of design. Including the current £10, £20 and the £50 note in their display, they also interpret the varying features many people may not have noticed. Our money is a lot more interesting to look at than we think.

The New £5

As most people in the UK will know, the paper £5 note featured the portrait of Queen Elizabeth II on one side, and Elizabeth Fry, an English pioneering Quaker from the Victorian-era, on the reverse. Although the Queen’s image remains the same, the historical character has been changed. The polymer note presents the face of one of the most famous Prime Ministers of the past; Winston Churchill.

Incorporating the 1941 photograph of Sir Winston Churchill taken by Yousuf Karsh, the bank has decided to celebrate the life of the British statesman who had a significant role in the UK’s modern history. Churchill was Prime Minister during two significantly life-altering events. The first occasion (1940-1945), were also the years of the Second World War, meaning Churchill had a lot of important decisions to make, and a country relying on him to protect them from the hostile Nazis. His second term ran from 1951 until 1955 and contained a much happier event – the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II.

Knowing the historical significance of Sir Winston Churchill makes the rest of the design more meaningful. Below Churchill’s portrait is a phrase that he is famous for saying during his first term as Prime Minister: “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat.” This came from his first speech in the House of Commons after taking up his new position. Of his three famous speeches, this line is one that is remembered most.

To Churchill’s right-hand side on the polymer note, is an illustration of the Houses of Parliament. The relevance is obvious since, due to his role, Churchill spent a lot of time here. But behind the building is a symbol that some may not recognise. As well as a statesman, Churchill was an artist and writer as well, and in 1953 he won the prestigious Nobel Prize for Literature. This mysterious symbol on the back of the £5 note is, in fact, a sketch of the Nobel medal.

The final design connection to Churchill, and displayed on a circular, green foil patch – another method of limiting fake copies – is the word “BLENHEIM”. Blenheim Palace in Oxfordshire was the family home and place of birth of Winston Churchill. The name today is still largely associated with the former Prime Minister.

On the other side, the side considered the front of the note, is the same portrait of the Queen that featured on the paper version. But what really differentiates the new from the old, other than the material, is the see-through window on the left-hand side of the note. This hallmark will make it a lot harder to counterfeit, especially as the window contains a finely detailed metallic image of the Elizabeth Tower. When viewed from the front, the tower appears to be gold, however, on the reverse, it shines silver.

£10, £20, and £50

The Bank of England proposes to reproduce the £10 and £20 note in the same polymer material but has yet to decide whether to manufacture the more recent £50 in this manner. This summer (2017) is the intended season to begin issuing the polymer £10, however, the polymer £20 will not come into circulation until 2020.

These new notes give the nation the opportunity to honour other historical figures. Jane Austen is set to appear on the £10 note and J.M.W. Turner will take pride of place on the £20. In the meantime, Charles Darwin and Adam Smith continue to star on the British paper notes.

Since the design change of the £5 has brought attention to the relevance of the background illustrations, it has increased the awareness of detail on the notes that have been in circulation for years. Looking closely at the £20 note, the design begins to make sense. Adam Smith’s portrait stares forward at an illustration of a pin factory. This is something Smith used to describe the benefits of the division of labour in his book An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. The £10 note, on the other hand, contains a combination of images. Since Charles Darwin was a naturalist, flora, fauna and a nautilus shell are used to represent the species he discovered whilst travelling the world aboard the ship HMS Beagle (also features in the illustration). Other elements are made up of a compass and magnifying glass.

Matthew Boulton, the face of the £50 note, was a manufacturer and business partner of James Watt, a famous Scottish engineer. They were both involved with the Industrial Revolution, which had a serious impact on Britain, thus making them significant people to remember. To illustrate Boulton’s role, images of a factory, cogs and wheels, and the Whitbread Steam Engine, adorn the background of the note.

5-pound-note-white-fiver

However, the inclusion of portraits on British money is only a recent idea. When the first Bank of England notes were issued, they were handwritten, denoting the amount they were worth. This is presumably where the idea of cheques developed from. Eventually, the notes were printed by machine, but it was not until the 20th century that colour and calligraphic design began to appear.

The only monarch to feature on British paper money is the current queen, Queen Elizabeth II. Her portrait was first used in 1960, seven years after her coronation. Notes have since been gradually updated throughout the Queen’s life in order to keep the portrait up-to-date.

For a decade, Queen Elizabeth II was the only person – discounting Britannia who has been on every note from the very start – to feature on British notes. The 1970s brought about the commencement of historical character designs, beginning with William Shakespeare on the £20.

Since then, numerous famous people have been displayed on notes of all values. The £5 note has been home to the portraits of the Duke of Wellington (1971), George Stephenson (1990) and Elizabeth Fry (2002). The £10 note featured Florence Nightingale (1975), Charles Dickens (1991) and Charles Darwin (2000). The £20: Shakespeare (1970), Michael Faraday (1991), Sir Edward Elgar (1999), and, as already mentioned, Adam Smith (2007). Other people to have been used are Sir Isaac Newton (£1, 1975), Sir Christopher Wren (£50, 1981), and Sir John Houblon (£50, 1994).

The notes all have security features to determine whether they are real, for instance, the watermark of the Queen that only appears when held up to a light. What many people do not realise, the way of being sure whether the money is real or fake, is a hidden number that cannot be seen by the naked eye. To see these numbers, an ultra-violet light is needed to reveal the red and green fluorescent ink on the front (Queen side) of the note.

The Bank of England Museum has an ultra-violet light for visitors to test their own money with. The special dye has been used on all notes produced by the bank, so if no hidden number lights up, you are in trouble!

To see the changes in note design from the 1700s until the present day, the Bank of England Museum has a timeline of the changes on display for everyone to see. It is interesting to discover how different the old money looks, yet also how similar the design is too. Coins are also exhibited, which go back further than the present Queen, to feature the heads of previous monarchs.

As well as bank notes, the museum also focuses on the history of the Bank of England, for example, the early years, 1694-1800; the Rotunda, 1800-1946; and the modern economy, 1946 until the present day. There are many hands-on activities for children (and adults) to play with, from jigsaw puzzles to interactive screens. And, most importantly, do not forget to (attempt) to pick up the genuine gold bar!

The Bank of England Museum is located on Bartholomew Lane, London, EC2R 8AH, and is free entry to all visitors.