Antisemitism as a Compliment

26 Oct 2009 by CST

This is an interesting article by Ben Cohen. It originally appeared on Z Word Blog and discusses the use of the antisemitic trope that relates Jews with money.  


 On the op-ed page of the South Carolina newspaper The Times and Democrat, two Republican officials are defending Senator Jim DeMint’s opposition to Congressional earmarking - the process whereby politicians can allocate funding to approved projects with very little oversight. Such allocations are famously dismissed by detractors as “pork” because they serve interests that are, most of the time, parochial and rather murky.

Earmarking is a perennial debate in American politics and no less compelling because of that. But is it necessary to invoke classically antisemitic tropes in making the case against the practice? The two defenders of Senator DeMint, Edwin O. Merwin Jr. and James S. Ulmer Jr., appear to believe that it is, writing as follows:

There is a saying that the Jews who are wealthy got that way not by watching dollars, but instead by taking care of the pennies and the dollars taking care of themselves. By not using earmarks to fund projects for South Carolina and instead using actual bills, DeMint is watching our nation’s pennies and trying to preserve our country’s wealth and our economy’s viability to give all an opportunity to succeed.

Now, there are some generous-spirited souls who might be prepared to accept this as a back-handed compliment. The traditional figure of the penny-pinching Jew has become aspirational, a model of fiscal responsibility, rather than an object of derision and distaste. It’s a bit like these figurines, charmingly known as zydki, which they sell in Poland: where once they would have spurred pogroms, now they are regarded - as a Polish government official once told me, with no sense of irony - as lucky charms which just might bring good fortune to your bank account.

zydki polish jewish figurine

I’m not buying it. It’s an insidious, ugly representation of Jews with the potential to do great harm. I call to the witness box one Julius Streicher:

Der Sturmer 1

Senator DeMint has denounced Merwin and Ulmer, as well he should. But what strikes me as more significant is the simple fact that essentialist views of Jews persist, and can crop up in the unlikeliest of places.

Now, if one rejects as bigoted the notion that Jews have an inherent talent for managing money, should we not do the same with the notion - beloved of many non-Jewish commentators, but most especially of Jewish commentators of the “As a…” variety - that Jews, by dint of their historical experience, are only permitted to, as my co-writer Eamonn McDonagh puts it, “have a state and an army if that state and that army comply with standards of behavior far higher than that required of other states?”

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