Jews, Money, Myth at the Jewish Museum explores the role of money in Jewish life and the centuries-old racist tropes that have arisen from this relationship. It is a sensitive and brilliantly executed display that demonstrates the importance of historical context and the role this plays in antisemitic ideas.
It can help us to grapple with the rise of antisemitism without getting caught up in the current political climate and smears made against Jeremy Corbyn and the left. The exhibition very clearly gives a broad and detailed timeline of antisemitism and shows how it always has been, and still is, very much a product of the toxic right. However, the endemic repetition of these tropes throughout history has resulted in a level of normalisation.
The first exhibit is Ancient Judean coins from the first century BCE. The coins were used as an expression of Jewish identity in resisting Roman rule. This section also addresses the importance of charity in Judaism, making the point that the antisemitic stereotype that Jews are not generous is based on myths created to divide us.
The biblical story of Judas betraying Jesus for 30 pieces of silver features heavily in the exhibition, as it is one of the myths that has been integral in propelling anti-Jewish stereotypes to this day. Although all 12 of Jesus’s disciples were Jewish, the widely embraced Christian iconography of Judas’s yellow cloak and red hair have come to personify an archetypal Jew — now a symbol of self-seeking greed.
One of the highlights of the exhibition is Rembrandt’s Judas Returning the Thirty Pieces of Silver (1629), which is rarely seen in the UK and depicts Judas grappling between his betrayal and the silver he is about to depart with. The exhibition links this portrayal of Judas to characters in fiction such as Shakespeare’s money-lender Shylock and Dickens’ pickpocket Fagin.
The exhibition notes the ban on usury for Catholics in Medieval times, an act that pushed Jews into this precarious form of work and which was also undeniably a material condition from which racist stereotypes about the relationship between Jews and money arose.
The main section of the exhibition addresses the contradictory dualism of antisemitic stereotypes — that Jews are both the bankers and the beggars simultaneously. Throughout history there have been both rich and poor Jews. Jewish merchants and bankers were drawn to London in the 17th century; tens of thousands came as poor economic migrants in the 18th century.
From racist board games to political cartoons, these contrasting roles gave rise to stereotypes that have displayed shocking longevity. The culmination of these racist ideas comes in Nazi propaganda where Jews were not only associated with financial power and commerce but also with Bolshevism and working class activism.
The exhibition finishes with a commentary on the contemporary prevalence of antisemitic ideas. It maturely addresses the recent racist attacks on George Soros, a Hungarian Jew, and clearly highlights the role the rise of the far right has had to play in this. It explains how figures such as Donald Trump and Viktor Orban have painted Soros as the “new Rothschild” — a figure who is featured throughout the exhibition- propelling the racist trope of Jews getting rich at other people’s expense.
Lastly we come to an artwork by the political artist Jeremy Deller. Deller has produced a 17 minute video with clips from a number of different sources from popular culture, all reiterating the same racist ideas. From Fox news to Family Guy, the piece shows the normalisation of racist language and ideas in our society today. It provokes a feeling of utter disgust and anger in anyone who considers themselves an anti-racist.
Inadvertently, the exhibition highlights the importance of Marx’s historical materialist approach. Racist ideas do not exist in the abstract; there is always a material basis — built on political and economic circumstances- from which our views are born.
Racism is on the rise yet again. Not only do we see the continued use of antisemitic tropes, but new scapegoats arise in the form of Muslims and refugees. The exhibition sends a clear message that all racist stereotypes are based on myth and there are specific material circumstances in which they arise — times of austerity, catastrophe (climate or otherwise) and polarisation.
The exhibition addresses a topic which most museums would find uncomfortable. It is a much-needed commentary on the historical context and political system that has paved the way for racist ideas today.