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A new exhibition explores the ideas and stereotypes that link Jews and money
Nutcracker in shape of Fagin Birmingham, 20th century © Jewish Museum London.

LONDON.- Jews, Money, Myth, a major new exhibition at Jewish Museum London, explores the role of money in Jewish life and its often vexed place in relations between Jews and non-Jews, from the time of Jesus to the 21st century. It examines the origins of some of the longest running and deeply entrenched antisemitic stereotypes: the theological roots of the association of Jews with money; the myths and reality of the medieval Jewish moneylender; and the place of Jews – real and imagined – in commerce, capitalism and finance up to the present day.

This cutting-edge exhibition reflects on over 2,000 years of history, drawing together manuscripts, prints, Jewish ritual and ceremonial objects, art, film, literature and cultural ephemera, from board games and cartoons to costumes and figurines. Exhibits from the museum’s collection are complemented by loans from Europe, North America and Israel. A highlight of the exhibition is Rembrandt van Rijn’s painting, Judas Returning the Thirty Pieces of Silver, 1629, an early yet artistically mature work from a private collection that is rarely seen in the UK. Contemporary and newly commissioned artworks by Jeremy Deller and Doug Fishbone, reflect on the exhibition themes.

The story of Judas Iscariot, betraying Jesus for 30 pieces of silver, widely embraced in Christian iconography as a symbol of self-seeking greed, and which has propelled antiJewish stereotypes to this day, forms an important feature of the exhibition. Rare and early artworks spanning almost 500 years reveal the changing representations of this story and shed light on relations between Christians and Jews.

Throughout history there have been both rich and poor Jews. The exhibition shows how Jewish wealth and poverty have been created by circumstances as well as by the activity and acumen of Jews themselves – rather than ‘Jewishness’ itself. Pushed into unpopular economic roles such as usury, some Jews lent money for interest in the Medieval period; Jewish merchants and bankers were drawn to London in the mid-late Seventeenth Century; and tens of thousands came as poor economic migrants in the Eighteenth Century. They improvised a livelihood, begging and peddling cheap goods in town and country. These contrasting roles gave rise to stereotypes that took hold of the public imagination and have shown remarkable longevity: two are easily recognisable in well-known literary characters such as Shakespeare’s money lender Shylock, and Dickens’ Fagin who traded in stolen goods.

Jews, Money, Myth explores how stereotypes linking Jews with money and power evolved in different political contexts and have been exploited for different ends. Nazi propaganda took these old myths to portray Jews as a threat to the world and as ‘the enemy within’ that sought to destroy Germany. The caricature of the powerful, rich Jew continues to inform conspiracy theories and to recur in political propaganda, cartoons, artworks and on social media.

The exhibition explores the social significance and symbolism of money in Jewish life. Ancient Judean coins from the first century BCE highlight their use as an expression of Jewish identity in resisting Roman rule. Ceremonial objects highlight the importance attached to charitable giving. ‘Tzedakah’, the word commonly used for charity, literally means ‘righteousness’: it conveys a commitment to giving which is embedded in numerous Jewish rituals and religious practices.

Abigail Morris, Director of the Jewish Museum, said: “Myths and stereotypes have origins, and this exhibition draws on objects from over 2000 years to go to the roots of Jewish practices around money. At the same time, it shows how certain dangerous, even deadly, interpretations emerged and still proliferate around the world. As a museum dedicated to the history and culture of Jews in Britain, we are more aware than ever of the importance of providing a safe space to consider and challenge such stereotypes, if we are to combat hatred and challenge ignorance.”

The exhibition has been developed by the Jewish Museum in collaboration with the Pears Institute for the study of Antisemitism at Birkbeck, University of London.

Professor David Feldman, Director of the Pears Institute for the study of Antisemitism said: “Jews, Money, Myth explores the significance and role of money in the secular and religious life of Jews from the Biblical era to the present day. In doing so it confronts and debunks the stereotypes of Jews’ connections with money and power that give rise to some of the most deeply rooted antisemitic images in circulation. Visitors to this bold exhibition will be at once informed and challenged.”

An illustrated book accompanies the exhibition, with contributions from international scholars and artists exploring some of its key themes, including the literary historian and author, Stephen Greenblatt and artist, Roee Rosen.

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