Sunday, June 23, 2019

Jews, Money, Myth

“A Terribly Durable Myth” is the title of an article by Sara Linton in The New York Review of Books that was emailed to me by a friend.  It deals with the exhibition, “Jews, Money, Myth” at the Jewish Museum in London.  I was intrigued but then I paused, my father had a problem with Jewish Museums, saying there is no such thing as Jewish art unless you are speaking of ceremonial objects.  He felt, as I do that art is art or not!  On the other hand, Jewish History is, obviously, extremely important.  As I tell people, I am not a religious Jew, but I feel very strongly that I am an ethnic Jew.  After all that is how I was brought up to be both proud of my Jewish heritage and aware that anti-Semitism exists.

As I read the article, I saw that Jews and money is one of the straws that Ant-Semites latch onto.  Ms. Linton mentions that the first object in the show is the “Oxford English Dictionary” of 1933 and its definition for “Jew, as a name of opprobrium spec. applied to a grasping or extortionate person” and that is in the Anglo-Saxon world.  Is it that far a stretch to Nazi Germany and Hitler using the Jews as a scape goat for the national economic disaster of the 1930’s, pointing to “the enemy within.”

Since everything has to start somewhere, Judas is credited with that “honor.”  The Bible says that Judas Iscariot betrayed Jesus to the Jewish chief priests in exchange for 30 pieces of silver. By the 12h century he had become the personification of all Jews.  This is where the association of Jews with money begins.  Also, Jesus threw the money lenders out of the Temple.  Remember, there were no Christians yet!  Around 1200, the Catholic church prohibited Christians charging interest on loans, leaving the function of money lending to the Jews who were often accused of usury.

What I particularly like about this exhibition is that aside from manuscripts it uses works of art to illustrate its story.  We all love stained glass windows whether we grew up going to church or not.  Sometimes we forget, however, that they were often made to tell a story.  In this case this 16th century German window shows “Christ Cleansing the Temple” lent by the Victoria & Albert Museum.

In order to illustrate the fact that after Jesus was arrested Judas returned the 30 pieces of silver to the priests, the show’s curator, Joanne Rosenthal, borrowed a Rembrandt “Judas Returning the Thirty Pieces of Silver” 1629, from the National Gallery in London.  This sympathetic depiction of Judas’ remorse is referred to as Rembrandt’s first masterpiece. painted when the artist was just 23 years old. 

Antisemitic propaganda targeted the international banking family of the Rothschilds. Their story starts with Amschel Rothschild (1744–1812) from Frankfurt who had five sons whom he sent to London, Paris, Vienna, Naples and one stayed in Frankfurt.   In several cases they even funded wars and became, in the 19th century, the world’s wealthiest family.  Here is a poster, lent by the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, demonizing Baron James, founder of the French branch of the family.  It was produced in France around 1900 for the Musée des Horreurs, a series of caricatures inspired by the Dreyfus Affair. (

Today many members of the Rothschild family have remained in the international banking world.  My family, also from Frankfurt, were art dealers to several of the Rothschilds in the same way that Amschel was a factor to the noble Hesse-Kassel family.  In England some brand names proudly announce in their advertising and on their products that they are “Purveyors to the Queen”.   

One of the most poignant images in the exhibition is a war poster, titled, “The Way of the Red Sea is a Way of Blood” from Italy in 1944.  In a parody of Moses parting the Red Sea so the Jews could flee Egypt, you have Jewish bankers carrying money bags through the Red Sea with a tank on one side and the dead on the other.  Again, the implication that the Jews start and then profit from wars.

In these sadly divided times, I believe it is a good moment to show how long some prejudices have lasted and where they come from.  This is not only true for Jews but for the Muslims, Black people, Asians, Hispanics and even Native Americans.  I think Bob Haozous, a Native American artist, summed it up best.  “There were no Indians before Columbus!”

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