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Jews, Money, Myth: Birkbeck academics contribute to major new exhibition

The Pears Institute for the study of Antisemitism at Birkbeck has collaborated with the Jewish Museum on a major new exhibition exploring the stereotypes that link Jews and money - how they have evolved in different political contexts and how they have been exploited for different ends.

Detail from 'The New and Fashionable Game of the Jew,' a children's board game from 1807
Detail from 'The New and Fashionable Game of the Jew," a children's board game from 1807. It shows a stereotypical Jewish banker hoarding money, an example of how widespread associations of Jews and money had become in polite society. © Jewish Museum

Jews, Money, Myth, a major new exhibition developed by the Jewish Museum in collaboration with the Pears Institute for the study of Antisemitism at Birkbeck, explores the role of money in Jewish life and its vexed place in relations between Jews and non-Jews, from the time of Jesus to the twenty-first 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.

Anthony Bale, Professor of Medieval Studies at Birkbeck, David Feldman, Professor of History and Director of the Pears Institute and Dr Marc Volovici, Pears Institute Early Career Fellow, have acted as academic advisors for the exhibition.

Professor David Feldman 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.”

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.

This cutting-edge exhibition reflects on over 2000 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, that is rarely seen in the UK. Contemporary and newly commissioned artworks, including an archive-based video piece by Jeremy Deller, reflect on the exhibition themes.

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.”

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.

Jews, Money, Myth will run from 19 March-7 July 2019.

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