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The usury suspects

A challenging exhibition at the Jewish Museum examines the depiction of Jewish stereotypes

21 March, 2019 — By Jane Clinton

Rembrandt’s Judas Returning the Thirty Pieces of Silver, 1629. Rembrandt produced this remarkable painting when he was just 23. Image: private collection, photo courtesy of The National Gallery

OPEN an Oxford English Dictionary from 1930 on the word “Jew” and a short definition reads “to cheat or overreach”.

This dictionary is what greets you at the beginning of the Jewish Museum’s ground-breaking and challenging new exhibition, Jews, Money, Myth.

While the 1930 dictionary definition may seem shocking today, stereotypes regarding Jews and money stubbornly persist.

For example, included in the exhibition is an image of the notorious anti-semitic mural that appeared on an east London wall in 2012. It showed Jewish business­men playing Monopoly using the backs of hunched people to support their table.

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn became embroiled in a row after initially endorsing the mural. He later said he had not looked at it properly, and apologised, calling it “deeply disturbing and anti-semitic”.

The mural was removed by the council.

But Abigail Morris, director of the Jewish Museum, stresses the exhibition has been more than four years in the planning and is not a direct response to the anti-semitism row gripping the Labour Party.

“People have asked about Corbyn and the Labour Party,” she says. “This isn’t a response. Obviously it is relevant. We can present things and invite people to ask questions. One of the ways we do this is to juxtapose some modern imagery with something old.”

They have done that with the mural, placing it alongside an 1840s depiction of a Rothschild in the image The General Pump. Standing in a sack of money, money pours from him to various world leaders while civilians and soldiers suffer.

The exhibition (a collaboration between the Jewish Museum and the Pears Institute for the study of Antisemitism at Birkbeck at the University of London) looks at subjects including Judas, money in Jewish life, the Jewish money lender; medieval commerce and modern stereotypes.

Throughout history Judas has been used to propagate anti-Jewish sentiment and embed the notion of the self-serving, money-obsessed Jew. He is often depicted as a traitor, captured in the act of betrayal accepting the 30 pieces of silver.

While this depiction is included, a highlight of the exhibition is Rembrandt’s Judas Returning the Thirty Pieces of Silver.

We see, not the moment of betrayal or the caricatured villain, instead Rembrandt shows Judas repenting his behaviour.

The exhibition, curated by Joanne Rosenthal, includes manuscripts, prints, Jewish ritual and ceremonial objects, film (there is a specially commissioned piece by Jeremy Deller), literature and cultural ephemera.

One striking exhibit is a children’s dice game of 1807. Based on a medieval gambling game, a Jewish banker is depicted at the centre of the game hoarding money. The composer Stephen Sondheim, who owns a copy, said it “taught kids to be anti-semitic”.

Jewish banking families such as the Rothschilds were often very offensively depicted. One grotesque 1900 image of James de Rothschild shows him beast-like, hoarding sacks of money.

The exhibition is, however, at pains to show that many Jews were poor. Few respectable occupations were open to them and they would often end up in usury or peddling wares.

There are caricatures of Jewish pedlars or Dickens’ Jewish pickpocket Fagin from Oliver Twist. There is also a gown worn by an actor who played Shylock – Shakespeare’s infamous moneylender in The Merchant of Venice.

But even the rich Jew’s wealth was often illusory and did not mean power. In medieval England Jews’ property was owned by the Crown and subject to its whims. Jews could be expelled and debts to them wiped, as in 1290 when they were expelled from England.

Although the museum has not invited leaders of the main political parties to the exhibition, it says it welcomes “anyone who is interested in exploring this complex history”.

Abigail Morris adds: “If you are going to tackle ignorance and stereotypes then we have to bring them out in the open.

“Hopefully the exhibition will challenge some anti-semitic tropes by putting things in historical context and seeing where those myths come from.”

Jews, Money, Myth is at the Jewish Museum, Raymond Burton House, 129-131 Albert Street, NW1 7NB until July 7. See jewishmuseum.org.uk

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