Last Wednesday night I was treated to a duo of interesting lectures about how Jews have been depicted in illustrations, to a packed audience, at Central Synagogue. It was part of Spiro Ark’s lecture series. The first lecture was a review of Anton Felton’s book ‘Jews, Horns and the Devil’, written by Felton but given by Dr Brian Kaplan, the author’s son-in-law, about how Jews have been illustrated with horns since the Middle Ages. The second, by David Hirsch, a senior lecturer in sociology at the University of London, looked at how images about antisemitism, Israel and more generally Jews have been depicted in illustrations in contemporary UK.
Dr Brian Kaplan was clearly proud of his father-in-law for writing the book and read the lecture that his father wrote for the occasion with much vigour (Felton had meant to come to the lecture but was unavoidably detained in Israel, where he lives).
I learnt a great deal about the history of antisemitism that I wasn’t aware of. Firstly, I learnt the idea of the devil in Christianity began in the fifth century but it was not until the 11th century, when the clergy tried to get a stranglehold on their congregants’ thoughts, that Jews were depicted with horns. It was also interesting to learn that Christians used biblical translation to verify their belief that Jews were the devil. In Exodus 34 Moses descended Mount Sinai with the tablets of stone and the word describing his face as ‘keren’. However, I learnt in the lecture that keren has two meanings – the traditional translation, being ‘beaming’ and the other meaning is literal – animal horns. And so, the Christian hierarchy at the time argued, that if Moses had horns, all Jews could have horns. During the presentation we were shown many different pictures of artworks of Jews with horns including the famous statue by Michelangelo which is displayed inside St. Peter in Chains Basilica in Rome. The talk concluded with Felton’s thesis that Christians used the trope of Jews with horns to argue that Jews should convert otherwise they would become demons from hell.
David Hirsh’s talk was a more general overview of current images of antisemitism and he gave the audience plenty of examples to look at. Hirsch is most famous for coining the phrase the ‘Livingstone Formulation’, which is used to describe an individual, who when faced with allegations of anti-semitism, immediately reverses the charge, accusing his accuser of “playing the anti- semitic card” to stifle debate (this is, of course, named after the ex-Labour -member and Mayor of London Ken Livingstone). As I was well aware -political correctness means that in contemporary society antisemitism cannot be portrayed with the trope of Jewish people with horns and therefore this attitude is displayed by people in another way. There were some images that he displayed that were obviously anti-semitic such as the poster about transferring Israel to the 51st state of America as well as the now famous ‘Freedom from Humanity’ mural as seen by Jeremy Corbyn. But some were not so obvious such as images of George Soros pulling the puppet strings of the Pope. There is an argument that this plays in to the trope that Jews somehow control the world but I personally was not convinced by Hirsch’s argument that this was anti-semitic because it should be taken in context with the article in which it appeared. It is also the case that not all readers would know that Soros was Jewish. The cartoons of the antisemitism crisis were interesting because as with any news story, it was clear that the illustrator took one side of the argument, or the other (ie antisemitism was happening or anti-semitism had been exaggerated), and one could see how these powerful images could have a profound impact on its readers.
The two lectures nicely contrasted with each other to illustrate how the topic of antisemitism is a much more nuanced topic with considerable room for debate in contemporary society than the more obvious antisemitism that existed in previous times.