Not funny. Why we must challenge ‘casual anti-Semitism’

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A friend of mine went on a date recently where she was asked, out of apparent curiosity, where Jews typically live in London. In listing areas she mentioned Golders Green. She was met with the comment:

‘Oh that’s why it is called Golder’s Green’

When the date was pushed on what he meant by this he replied:

‘Well you know Jews and all their money’

Appalled and shocked my friend changed the topic of conversation.

Over the next few days she decided to ask friends what they thought of this comment. I happened to be one of these friends, as we stood over the world’s largest stone scarab in the ancient Egypt exhibition of the British Museum, we came to a deeply troubling conclusion.

It is a fact that Jews constitute 100 of the 400 richest Americans, which is strikingly high when you consider Jews only make up 2% of the world population.[1] However this absolutely does not suggest an ‘evil’ and a conspiratorial level of control. In fact Tzedakah, the giving of charity, is a hard wired Jewish value and in this vein there are more charitable organisations per Jew than almost any other group.[2] Also it is of course not a blanket rule that Jews are wealthy, there are many Jews in poverty: in New York 30% of people living in Jewish households are poor or near poor[3] and the Jewish Chronicle recently dedicated a whole article to the question of shame around being poor and Jewish.[4]  But more to the point, a good attitude towards work and knowledge of business is no negative, it is the jealousy of the relative success of the Jewish people and emphasis put on it by society that has created a negative stereotype leading to the greatest horrors of history. There are other communities that put similar weight on education, take the Chinese as an example, identified as disproportionately ‘high flyers’ in the UK,[5] however their relative success has not had them labelled as evil manipulators controlling the world.

Since Roman times, Jewish people have frequently been depicted as wealthy, menacing and controlling. In these respects, Jews have been associated with Mammon, the deity associated with money, and Moloch, the Ammonite god associated with human sacrifice.[6] It was this deeply held conspiratorial belief that lead to Jews being the scapegoat of Germany’s economic catastrophe pre WWII. It was this belief that then had them depicted as evil, selfish wealth grabbers that had their properties and businesses snatched on the night of krystalnacht where over 91 Jews were killed and over 7,000 Jewish businesses destroyed or damaged. Finally it was this belief that saw between 5 and 6 million Jews killed in the Holocaust.

With this in mind you would think no young person would enter into banter connected to the same attitude that fuelled the largest orchestrated killing of a people in known history. It begs the questions what do young people know about the Holocaust and how deeply held are these anti-Semitic attitudes?

Let us first give the young man the benefit of the doubt. He did attend a top ten university and may have been trying to impress his Jewish date with his quick wit. Let us assume that he is aware of the Holocaust and the anti-Semitism that drove it. You may think this is an obvious assumption to make but it really isn’t. As a recent survey has shown one third of Europeans ‘know little or nothing about the Holocaust.’[7] Moving into the pre-history exhibition we decided it was likely that he isn’t within the one third that knows little to nothing of the Holocaust, however he maybe one of the quarter that believes Jews to have too much influence in business and finance,[8] thus a part of and adding to a new wave of anti-Semitism that is striking a deep fear into our Jewish communities. In fact this new rise in anti-Semitism has caused such fear that one third of Jews are considering leaving Europe.[9]

We then tried to further extend our empathy to this young man. Was it not just a joke? And when does a joke become a problem? We quickly concluded, as we moved past a recreation of a pre-historic Levantine burial site, that jokes naturally rely on stereotyping and that jokes often are dangerous and controversial in nature. However a joke that relies on the stereotyping of an at-risk minority, that has faced genocide as a result of said stereotyping and when said stereotyping strikes such fear into our Jewish community then it is no longer funny.

We concluded that there are some jokes that base themselves in such painful parts of human history, which use stereotypes that still pose a threat to the target of the joke, that they become dangerous. As a society we need to pay careful heed to the roots of stereotypes, the history of their effect and the current risk they pose. If a minority is still at risk and you are entering into what you consider to be ‘harmless banter’ then you are a part of the problem.

As we head towards Holocaust Memorial Day where we reflect on the evil that can result from engaging in prejudice we should reflect on how we can day to day better protect humanity from future atrocity. Understanding the roots of stereotypes and the risk they can pose to a people is a start. Identifying and challenging is the next step:

‘First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a socialist.

Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a trade unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me’[10]


[1] https://www.jweekly.com/2013/04/12/jews-and-money-the-stereotype-the-history-the-reality-jccsf-series-explores/

[2] https://www.jewishcharityguide.co.uk/alphabetical-charity-list/

[3] https://www.haaretz.com/jewish/.premium-in-n-y-jewish-poverty-doubles-in-20-years-1.5275240

[4] https://www.thejc.com/lifestyle/family/i-m-poor-and-jewish-should-i-feel-ashamed-1.478383

[5] https://www.theguardian.com/education/2011/feb/07/chinese-children-school-do-well

[6] https://www.ohchr.org/Documents/AboutUs/CivilSociety/ReportHC/75_The%20Louis%20D.%20Brandeis%20Center%20_Fact%20Sheet%20Anti-Semitism.pdf

[7] https://www.ohchr.org/Documents/AboutUs/CivilSociety/ReportHC/75_The%20Louis%20D.%20Brandeis%20Center%20_Fact%20Sheet%20Anti-Semitism.pdf

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Martin Neimoller, First They Came…

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