And the Hebrew, sly and craven,
Round of shoulder, nose, and knee,
Slinks to the Exchange, unshaven
And intent on usury
– Wilhelm Busch (1872)
Und der Jud mit krummer Ferse,
Krummer Nas’ und krummer Hos’
Schlängelt sich zur hohen Börse
Tiefverderbt und seelenlos.
The Poet’s Scapegoat
This English translation of a verse in Wilhelm Busch’s “Helen Who Couldn’t Help It” reflects a common trope in German antisemitism: the Geldjude, or the equation of Jews with money and usury, greed and parasitic financial capitalism. In his work Busch puts this opinion in the context of the worldview of a pious uncle who wants to save his niece from the depravity of the big city.
The Jewish people are seen as the cause of undesirable social developments, such as poverty and inequality, and they are scapegoated for negative aspects of capitalism.
Attacks or crimes against Jews could be justified by those who believe this myth. Nazi-Germany expropriated Jewish people and used this narrative as a justification to murder them.
These ideas prevent people from recognizing Jews as members of society, as people with human dignity and equal rights. It prevents people from understanding real economic relations or how the capitalist economy functions as well as its history. It therefore distorts debates in societies about economic policy towards policies against groups identified as enemies of the people.
The widely believed story of Jews as medieval usurers is a myth. There have been plenty non-Jewish moneylenders and bankers, and the Catholic ban on usury was only sanctioned with ecclesiastical penalties and never fully enforced. The prejudice of Jews as especially greedy was however convenient to mobilize against Jewish moneylenders. Where Jews were not excluded from crafts or agriculture they became (and are) active in those professions. The vast number of Jews are not rich.
In order to confront this stereotype, one can discuss it, or use the book as an example. If used in an educational context (or any other “public” context) the poem should be contextualised. It can be helpful to use statistics when possible to show the inaccuracy of this myth.
Busch, Wilhelm, Bildergeschichten, Die Fromme Helene, Erstes Kapitel
(Chapter 1 of “Die fromme Helene” by Wilhelm Busch)
Geldverleiher – Mittelalter 1
(article by Dr. Wolfgang Geiger about the prejudice of the medieval Jewish usurer)