JEWISH-AMERICAN HALL OF FAME • JEWISH MUSEUM IN CYBERSPACE
ANTI-SEMITIC BIGOTRY AS CHRONICLED BY HISTORICAL MEDALS


 


WHICH MEDALS ARE OR ARE NOT ANTI-SEMITIC?

The question might fairly be asked as to which medals should be unequivocally categorized as anti-Semitic. There is not universal agreement among the authors who have considered this question; several medals are deemed anti-Semitic by some, but not by all writers. Friedenberg, for example, points out that a number of medals, considered anti-Semitic by some scholars, are ambiguous in their meaning. As evidence, he documents medals which may have a similar iconography to that which has been used in the past on medals that are clearly anti-Semitic in nature but do not explicitly mention Jews in their legends. His point is well taken in that one should not jump to conclusions without considering alternative explanations.

It is the present author’s view, however, that if a symbol or character has been widely used previously to represent Jews, then it is not necessary to explicitly state in writing the meaning of the symbol. To support this contention, one has only to cite symbols that are universally accepted to represent Christianity, for example: the cross, chalice, dove, host, etc. If these symbols are on medals, it is reasonable to assume they refer to that particular religion or to people of that faith. Medals use such iconography widely. Symbols abound representing Prudence, Charity, Justice, Commerce, Liberty, Victory, Science, etc. and virtually every country and many cities. If one sees a symbol used in art forms that is widely accepted as representing a people, it is not necessary to explicitly state in writing to what the symbol refers. Such is the very nature of iconography.

Of course there are marked differences in who creates these symbols and for what purpose. In one case they may be made by artists who wish to present their subjects as positive representations of how the subjects themselves wish to be viewed. In the other case the images are insulting, vicious and defamatory caricatures of a people devised by those who wish to portray them in the most unflattering and inflammatory light. The latter is clearly the intent of anti-Semitic medals.

Another question that may be posed is: What prompted artists to make such defamatory medals? After all, the people who designed and engraved these medals were accomplished artists, who had made many medals totally unrelated to anti-Semitism. In particular, one of the more prolific medalists of the period, Christian Wermuth, held the position of Engraver to the Mint at Gotha and was Court medallist to the Ducal House of Saxony. He later was appointed Court Medallist to King Frederick I of Prussia, issuing over 1300 medals in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, with subjects such as those related to the history of England and portrait medals of popes and Roman emperors. Among the works he made were the infamous satirical medals, which included the anti-Semitic medals discussed here.

According to Forrer, these satirical medals refer to many kinds of subjects, not only Jewish usury and bribery but also to ecclesiastical hypocrisy and corruption of the imperial bureaucracy. The issuance of these medals even caused him problems with the authorities, who had him arrested, sold his possessions and tried to suppress these medals. Nevertheless, there must have been a market for these medals and a motivation for making them, as they were produced in fair numbers and they still exist, although they are now quite rare.

In this regard, it should be pointed out that there is a marked difference between criticizing corruption and other such acts and denigrating an entire group of individuals based purely on their race, ethnicity or religious affiliation. This is what the medals in the current discourse portray, and this is the very essence of bigotry.

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