The Anti-Collector

Earlier this year, as England marked Holocaust Memorial Day on Jan. 27, an advertisement appeared on the Labour Party Web site likening Michael Howard, the Jewish leader of the opposition Conservative Party, to Fagin, the iconic stereotype of the miserly, conniving Jew in Charles Dickens’s ”Oliver Twist.”

For the Anglo-Jewish community, it was a familiar coincidence. Two years before, the Jan. 27th issue of The Independent, the left-of-center British newspaper, carried a cartoon of a disrobed Ariel Sharon devouring a blood-soaked Palestinian child under the words: ”What’s wrong . . . you never seen a politician kissing babies before?”

The Howard image provoked criticism and was quickly withdrawn. However, the Independent cartoon, which was accused of evoking the medieval ”blood libel” that Jews extract the blood of Christian children to make Passover matzoh, will appear in an exhibit of anti-Semitic imagery next March. Its organizer, a London physician named Simon Cohen, has single-mindedly gathered nearly 300 items of anti-Semitica, from medieval depictions of Jews murdering Christian children to Nazi propaganda denigrating Jews as subhuman parasites to modern anti-Israel imagery supposedly based on anti-Semitic stereotypes.

Cohen is an Orthodox Jew. (There are two kinds of people who collect anti-Semitica, a collector once declared in the Jewish weekly The Forward: neo-Nazis and Jews.) He says he hopes his show will educate and thereby chasten those who cavalierly invoke anti-Semitic language or iconography. But is exhibiting hate art the way to discourage hate? The Anglo-Jewish community isn’t so sure.

In public, Cohen is bashful about his collecting habit, but at his home in Golders Green, a Jewish neighborhood in North London, he couldn’t restrain his enthusiasm. ”This is brilliant,” he said, pointing to a German image of a portly Jewish tycoon peering lecherously at a young Christian woman. ”This is really disgusting.” An international parade of anti-Semitic materials followed: Dutch, Finnish and Italian posters accusing Jews of warmongering and conspiring to dominate the world; a German image accusing Jews of spreading communism; a Soviet image accusing Jews of spreading capitalism; a Serbian image accusing Jews of spreading communism and capitalism.

“My enthusiasm for these things is inappropriate,” he said sheepishly.

Jewish collectors of anti-Semitica are unlike most serious collectors in that they are repelled by their subject and exactly like them in that they are obsessively acquisitive. Their demand has helped to create a market, even if it’s largely underground. The material is especially abundant in the formerly Nazi-occupied countries of Europe, like France and Poland, where anti-Semitica was produced virtually as a matter of state policy during World War II.

Cohen’s interest in anti-Semitica began after his daughter’s brother-in-law was killed in a suicide bombing in Israel. A dealer had shown Cohen, already a collector of Judaica, an 1889 French electoral poster for ”Ad. Willette, Candidat Antisémite,” which, next to the proclamation ”The Jews are only great because we are on our knees,” featured several Frenchmen expelling a hooknosed, humpbacked Jew.

Cohen, who had been alarmed by the spread of what he regarded as similar images in Middle Eastern and Western European newspapers, had an idea. He would mount a chronological exhibit of anti-Semitica ”to show the relationship between the images.” He hoped the exhibit’s logic would convince those like Dave Brown, the creator of The Independent’s Ariel Sharon cartoon, who, in Cohen’s view, had invoked an anti-Semitic stereotype and then denied the lineage. (Brown made the credible claim that he was channeling Goya’s ”Saturn Devouring One of His Sons” instead.) If Brown’s image looked exactly like those in the Nazi propaganda newspaper Der Sturmer, Cohen’s reasoning went, the unsavory pedigree would be undeniable and would deter others.
“I want to make sure that the images aren’t interpreted as legitimate anti-Israel cartoons,” Cohen said. “People don’t have to agree with the policies of Sharon. But I draw the line if you show him drinking blood.”

Cohen initially hoped to show his collection in the United States, but a tour of several potential venues — the Anti-Defamation League, the Simon Wiesenthal Center, the American Jewish Committee — ended inconclusively. ”We feature anti-Semitica, but within a larger exhibit on the Holocaust,” explained Louis Levine of the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York. ”You don’t want to dignify anti-Semitica by making it the sole subject of an exhibit.”

Cohen found a home for his show before long, though London’s Political Cartoon Gallery was an unlikely choice. In 2003, the Political Cartoon Society, an affiliated organization, voted to give its annual award for the top English political cartoon to the controversial Independent image. Tim Benson, the society’s founder, who is Jewish, received praise from neo-Nazis and was eager to distance himself. Which is how an Orthodox Jewish collector of anti-Semitica arranged to exhibit his collection in a gallery associated with what some regard as the most notorious anti-Semitic image in recent British history.

Historically, European anti-Jewish imagery used Jews to personify Christian stigmas and anxieties. In the Middle Ages, images of Jews hoarding coins helped to warn Christians away from moneylending. In the 13th century, the church ordered that Christ, who was usually kingly and robust, appear more abject — in other words, more recognizable to the ordinary gruffs the church was trying to attract. Jews, in turn, became gluttonous and self-indulgent. As some clerics came to view science as a threat, Jews appeared with scientific instruments. Frequently they wore glasses, to emphasize the blindness and decrepitude of a people of a bygone faith.

While such representations deserve attention from scholars, it’s not clear whether they merit public exhibition. ”You don’t want to overidentify Jews with negative images,” Paul Salmons, the director of Holocaust education at London’s Imperial War Museum, told me. ”It can reinforce the view that they’re only victims. Overuse can shock and horrify, but can horror induce deep learning? Looking at images produced by the Nazis, you’re conditioned by their view.”

Gerald Zaltman, a professor at Harvard Business School, said he was uncertain the exhibit would change minds. He is the inventor of the Zaltman Metaphor Elicitation Technique, which uses imagery gathered by subjects to reveal their subconscious feelings on a given issue, from pantyhose to the Middle East.

”If you need to help people surface what they don’t know they know, visual materials are more effective than traditional materials,” he said. But ”if you present a powerful image, it will elicit an existing frame of reference and confirm existing feelings.” In other words, shocking imagery may force those with buried negative feelings to realize their prejudice, but most likely it won’t persuade them to abandon it.

In the spring of 2001, the Jewish Museum of Florida in Miami Beach mounted ”The Art of Hatred,” an exhibit chronicling anti-Semitic iconography since the Middle Ages. Some of the medieval items were masterworks. ”We spent more time debating the title than the content,” Henry Abramson, the show’s curator, told me. ”How do you get people to appreciate the message without appreciating the image?”

Collecting modern anti-Semitica may be a fringe pastime, but its tropes once turned up frequently in the artistic mainstream. George du Maurier’s Svengali, Anthony Trollope’s financiers, T. S. Eliot’s poetry and Edgar Degas’s ”Portraits at the Bourse,” a masterful painting of a top-hatted Jew whispering conspiratorially into a hook-nosed landsman’s ear, complicate Cohen’s assumptions because their prejudice is indivisible from the originality of the art.

As Tim Benson of the Political Cartoon Society sees it, mockery is a professional obligation for cartoonists. ”When Martin Rowson draws a caricature of Alan Yentob, the creative director of the BBC, who is Jewish, exaggerating the most prominent things about him — his nose and his glasses — is that anti-Semitic?” Benson asked me when I visited him at the gallery, a long, narrow two-story space off the busy shopping arcades on Tottenham Court Road. ”Or what about this drawing of me?” he said, his admittedly sizable nose accentuated in an image by Rowson in honor of the gallery’s second anniversary. ”It’s an unfair art form. Cartoons are hostile in nature.”

Benson, who is a secular left-winger, certainly makes for a curious match with Cohen’s right-leaning orthodoxy, but the greater problem for detractors of Cohen’s venture in the Anglo-Jewish community is the credibility of his venue after it honored the Independent cartoon.

”The Cartoon Gallery is tainted,” Barry Kosmin, of the Institute for Jewish Policy Research in London, said. ”This is all about symbolism.”

Lord Greville Janner, the chairman of the Holocaust Educational Trust, told me: ‘When you have an exhibit of anti-Semitic material, you invite not only those opposed to it, but also those in support. People will see the progression and say to themselves, ‘The Jews have always been like this, and they’re like this now.’ Anti-Semitism is not a product of reason. You can’t fight it with reason.”

Few of the reservations are unfamiliar to Cohen. ”It’s intended to be provocative,” he said. ”I’d like to see these anti-Semitic images that sometimes masquerade as anti-Israel propaganda be ostracized like derogatory cartoons of black people. I don’t want political correctness to accept a degree of anti-Semitism.”

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