Stereotypes of Jews

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Stereotypes of Jews are caricatured and generalized representations of Jews, mostly of a racist nature. The Jewish diaspora in Europe and the Western hemisphere have been stereotyped for over 2,000 years as scapegoats for a multitude of societal problems.[1] Antisemitism continued throughout the centuries and reached a climax in the Third Reich during World War II. Jews are still stereotyped as greedy, nit-picky, stingy misers and are often depicted in caricatures, comics, and propaganda posters counting money or collecting diamonds. Early films such as Cohen's Advertising Scheme (1904, silent) stereotyped Jews as "scheming merchants".[2]

Common objects, phrases and traditions used to emphasize or ridicule Jewishness include bagels,[citation needed] playing violin, klezmer, undergoing circumcision, haggling and uttering phrases like mazal tov, shalom, and oy vey. Other Jewish stereotypes are the rabbi, the complaining and guilt-inflicting Jewish mother, the spoiled and materialistic Jewish-American princess and the often meek and nerdy nice Jewish boy.

Physical features[edit]

An 1873 caricature depicting the stereotypical physical features of a Jewish man

In caricatures and cartoons, Jews are often depicted having dark skin, curly black hair, large hook-noses, thick lips, dark-colored beady eyes[3] and wearing kippahs.

Jews are commonly caricatured as having large noses[4] or hook noses.[5] Jews are also portrayed as swarthy and hirsute. There is a brown, edible woodland fungus, Auricularia cornea, commonly referred to as "Hairy Jew's ear".[6]


A German cartoon of 1851 implies ingrained dishonesty in Jews. Enlarge for caption.

Jews have often been stereotyped as greedy and money-mad. This originates in the Middle Ages, when the Church forbade Christians to lend money while charging interest (a practice called usury, although the word later took on the meaning of charging excessive interest). Jews were legally restricted to occupations as usurers, usually to Christians, and thus many went into money-lending. This led to, through the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, the association of Jews with greedy practices.

Libelous publications like The Protocols of the Elders of Zion and literature such as William Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice and Charles Dickens's Oliver Twist reinforced the stereotype of the crooked Jew. Dickens later expressed regret for his portray of Fagin in the novel, and toned down references to his Judaism. [7] Lesser references in Arabian Nights, The Three Musketeers, and even Hans Brinker are examples of the prevalence of this negative perception.

German caricature from 1929, depicting Jewish greed. Enlarge for caption.

Some, such as Paul Volcker, suggest that the stereotype has decreased in prevalence in the United States. A telephone poll of 1747 American adults conducted by the Anti-Defamation League in 2009 found that 18% believed that "Jews have too much power in the business world", 13% that "Jews are more willing than others to use shady practices to get what they want", and 12% that "Jews are not just as honest as other businesspeople".[citation needed]

Jewish frugality, thriftiness, and greed are among the typical themes in jokes about Jews, even by Jews themselves.[8]


Martin Marger writes "A set of distinct and consistent negative stereotypes, some of which can be traced as far back as the Middle Ages in Europe, has been applied to Jews."[9] Antisemitic canards such as the blood libel appeared in the 12th century and were associated with attacks and massacres against Jews.[10]

Medieval Europe[edit]

The portrayal of Jews as historic enemies of Christianity and Christendom constitutes the most damaging anti- Jewish stereotype reflected in the literature of the late tenth through early twelfth centuries. Jews were often depicted as satanic consorts,[11] or as devils themselves and "incarnation[s] of absolute evil."[12] Physically, Jews were portrayed as menacing, hirsute, with boils, warts and other deformities, and sometimes with horns, cloven hoofs and tails.[13] Such imagery was used centuries later in Nazi propaganda of the 1930s and 1940s.[14] This propaganda leaned on Jewish stereotypes to explain the claim that the Jewish people belong to an "inferior" race.[15] [16]

Although Jews had not been particularly associated with moneylending in antiquity, a stereotype of them acting in this capacity was developed beginning in the 11th century. Jonathan Frankel notes that this stereotype, though obviously an exaggeration, had a solid basis in reality. While not all Jews were moneylenders, the Catholic Church's prohibition of usury meant that Jews were the main representatives of the trade.[17]



Though many stereotypes of Jews are common in Japan, they are often of a positive nature, relating to intelligence or wealth.[citation needed] There have been a number of books written detailing the similarities between Japanese and Jewish cultures. The Jews and the Japanese: Cultural Traits and Common Values The Jews & the Japanese: the successful outsiders

United States[edit]

David Schneder writes "Three large clusters of traits are part of the Jewish stereotype (Wuthnow, 1982). First, Jews are seen as being powerful and manipulative. Second, they are accused of dividing their loyalties between the United States and Israel. A third set of traits concerns Jewish materialistic values, aggressiveness, clannishness."[18]

More recently, benign stereotypes of Jews have been found to be more prevalent than images of an overtly anti-Semitic nature.[19]

Jewish women[edit]

Negative stereotypes of Jewish women are widely known and generally accepted in popular culture.[20] Stereotypes of Jewish mothers and Jewish-American Princesses are well-known and pervasive stereotypes of Jewish women.[21]

Belle juive[edit]

One literary stereotype is that of the "belle Juive", the beautiful Jewess, a figure that is often associated with temptation. One example of this stereotype is the character of Rebecca in Sir Walter Scott's Ivanhoe. Another example is Miriam in Nathaniel Hawthorne's romance The Marble Faun.

Jewish mother[edit]

The stereotype of the Jewish mother or wife is a common stereotype and stock character used by Jewish comedians and authors whenever they discuss actual or fictional situations involving their mothers and other mother-like females in their lives. The stereotype generally involves a nagging, overprotective, manipulative, controlling, smothering, and overbearing mother or wife, one who persists in interfering in her children's lives long after they have become adults.[22] Lisa Aronson Fontes describes the stereotype as one of "endless caretaking and boundless self-sacrifice" by a mother who demonstrates her love by "constant overfeeding and unremitting solicitude about every aspect of her children's and husband's welfare[s]".[23] An example of the Jewish mother stereotype is the character Sylvia Fine from TV series The Nanny.

Jewish-American Princess[edit]

The stereotype of the Jewish-American Princess is a pejorative stereotype of a subtype of Jewish-American female. The term implies materialism and selfishness, attributed to a pampered or wealthy background. This stereotype of American Jewish women has been portrayed frequently in contemporary US media since the mid-20th century. "JAPs" are portrayed as used to privilege, materialistic and neurotic.[4] An example of the humorous use of this stereotype appears in the song "Jewish Princess" on the Frank Zappa album Sheik Yerbouti. Female Jewish comedians such as Sarah Silverman have also satirized the stereotype.

According to Machacek and Wilcox, the stereotype of the Jewish-American Princess did not emerge until after World War II and is "peculiar to the U.S. scene".[24] In 1987, the American Jewish Committee held a conference on "Current Stereotypes of Jewish Women" which argued that such jokes "represent a resurgence of sexist and anti-Semitic invective masking a scrim of misogyny.'"[25]

In literature[edit]

Jewish stereotypes in literature have evolved over the centuries. According to Louis Harap, nearly all European writers prior to the twentieth century projected the Jewish stereotype in their works. Harap cites Gotthold Lessing's Nathan the Wise (1779) as the first time that Jews were portrayed in the arts as "human beings, with human possibilities and characteristics."[26] Harap writes that, the persistence of the Jewish stereotype over the centuries suggests to some that "the treatment of the Jew in literature was completely static and was essentially unaffected by the changes in the Jewish situation in society as that society itself changed." He contrasts the opposing views presented in the two most comprehensive studies of the Jew in English literature, one by Montagu Frank Modder and the other by Edgar Rosenberg. Modder asserts that writers invariably "reflect the attitude of contemporary society in their presentation of the Jewish character, and that the portrayal changes with the economic and social changes of each decade." In opposition to Modder's "historical rationale", Rosenberg warns that such a perspective "is apt to slight the massive durability of a stereotype".[27] Harap suggests that the recurrence of the Jewish stereotype in literature is itself one indicator of the continued presence of anti-Semitism amongst the readers of that literature.[28]

English literature[edit]

A Jew Broker by Thomas Rowlandson, 1789

Although Jews were expelled from England in 1290, stereotypes were so ingrained and so durable that they persisted in English society as evidenced by presentations in English literature, drama, and the visual arts during the almost four-hundred-year period when there were virtually no Jews present in the British Isles. Some of the most famous stereotypes come from English literature; these include characters such as Shylock, Fagin and Svengali. Negative stereotypes of Jews were still employed by prominent twentieth-century non-Jewish writers such as Dorothy Richardson, Virginia Woolf, T.S. Eliot, Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene and James Joyce.[29]

American literature[edit]

Until the 20th century, the characterization of Jews in American literature was largely based upon the stereotypes employed in English literature.[30] Although Jewish stereotypes first appeared in works by non-Jewish writers, after World War II it was often Jewish American writers themselves who evoked such fixed images. The prevalence of anti-Semitic stereotypes in the works of such authors has sometimes been interpreted an expression of self-hatred; however, Jewish American authors have also used these negative stereotypes in order to refute them.[31]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Ostow, Mortimer (1996). Myth and madness: the psychodynamics of antisemitism. Transaction Publishers. p. 61. ISBN 978-1-56000-224-6. 
  2. ^ The Movies, Race, and Ethnicity: Jews
  3. ^ Rowe, Nina (Apr 4, 2011). "The Jew, the Cathedral and the Medieval City". Cambridge University Press. p. 7. Retrieved 2013-05-18. 
  4. ^ a b Yahya R. Kamalipour, Theresa Carilli (1998). "Chapter 8 - Media Stereotypes of Jews". Cultural Diversity and the U.S. Media. pp. 99–110. ISBN 978-0-7914-3929-6 
  5. ^ Westbrook, Hasdai (24 October 2003). "Jews and their noses". Retrieved 8 August 2010. 
  6. ^ Discover Nature. James Cook University
  7. ^ Vallely, Paul. Dickens' greatest villain: The faces of Fagin, 7 October 2005.
  8. ^ Boroson, Warren (24 December 2010). "The money libel: Confronting a dangerous stereotype". Jewish Standard. Retrieved 18 June 2011. 
  9. ^ Marger, Martin N. (2008). Race and Ethnic Relations: American and Global Perspectives. Cengage Learning. p. 324. ISBN 978-0-495-50436-8. "It is the connection of Jews with money, however, that appears to be the sine qua non of anti-Semitism." 
  10. ^ "Marginalization and expulsion". Judaism. Encyclopædia Britannica. p. 37 
  11. ^ Wistrich, Robert S. (1999). Demonizing the Other: Antisemitism, Racism and Xenophobia. Taylor and Francis. p. 54. ISBN 978-90-5702-497-9. 
  12. ^ Gerstenfeld, Manfred. "Anti-Israelism and Anti-Semitism: Common Characteristics and Motifs." Jewish Political Studies Review 19:1-2 (Spring 2007). Institute for Global Jewish Affairs, March 2007. Accessed 01-03-09.
  13. ^ Jensen, Gary F. (2006). The Path of the Devil: Early Modern Witch Hunts. Rowman & Littlefield. p. 156. ISBN 978-0-7425-4697-4. 
  14. ^ poster for 1940 antisemitic propaganda film Jud Süß at the Wayback Machine (archived July 24, 2011)
  15. ^ "Antisemitism". Yad- Vashem. Yad- Vashem. Retrieved 19 November 2013. 
  16. ^ "A page from a children's antisemitic bookelt called "Beware of the fox"". Yad-Vashem. Yad-NVashem. Retrieved 19 November 2013. 
  17. ^ Frankel, Jonathan (1 December 1997). The fate of the European Jews, 1939-1945: continuity or contingency?. Oxford University Press. p. 16. ISBN 978-0-19-511931-2. Retrieved 10 December 2011. 
  18. ^ Schneider, David J. (2004). The psychology of stereotyping. Guilford Press. p. 461. ISBN 978-1-57230-929-6. 
  19. ^ Wilson, Thomas C. (1996). "Compliments will get you nowhere: Benign Stereotypes, Prejudice and Anti-Semitism". Sociological Quarterly 37 (3): 465–479. doi:10.1111/j.1533-8525.1996.tb00749.x 
  20. ^ Polyak, Alina (2009). The Role of Religion - Tradition and Modernity in Contemporary Jewish American Literature. GRIN Verlag. p. 80. ISBN 978-3-640-38433-4. 
  21. ^ Gurock, Jeffrey S. (1998). American Jewish life, 1920-1990. Taylor & Francis. p. 248. ISBN 978-0-415-91925-8. 
  22. ^ Rachel Josefowitz (2000-05-10). Jewish Mothers Tell Their Stories: Acts of Love and Courage. ISBN 0-7890-1099-2. 
  23. ^ Lisa Aronson Fontes (1995). Sexual abuse in nine North American cultures. SAGE. p. 135. ISBN 0-8039-5435-2.  More than one of |isbn13= and |isbn= specified (help)
  24. ^ Machacek, David W.; Wilcox, Melissa M. (2003). Sexuality and the world's religions. ABC-CLIO. p. 199. ISBN 978-1-57607-359-9. 
  25. ^ "Jewish Women Campaign Against 'Princess' Jokes". New York Times. 1987-09-07. 
  26. ^ Harap, Louis (2003). The image of the Jew in American literature: from early republic to mass immigration. Syracuse University Press. p. 6. ISBN 978-0-8156-2991-7. 
  27. ^ Harap, Louis (2003). The image of the Jew in American literature: from early republic to mass immigration. Syracuse University Press. p. 8. ISBN 978-0-8156-2991-7. 
  28. ^ Harap, Louis (2003). The image of the Jew in American literature: from early republic to mass immigration. Syracuse University Press. p. 10. ISBN 978-0-8156-2991-7. 
  29. ^ Rosenshield, Gary (2008). The ridiculous Jew: the exploitation and transformation of a stereotype in Gogol, Turgenev, and Dostoevsky. Stanford University Press. p. 207. ISBN 978-0-8047-5952-6. 
  30. ^ Harap, Louis (2003). The image of the Jew in American literature: from early republic to mass immigration. Syracuse University Press. p. 4. ISBN 978-0-8156-2991-7. 
  31. ^ Nelson, Emmanuel Sampath (2005). The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Multiethnic American Literature: I - M. Greenwood Publishing Company. p. 1175. ISBN 978-0-313-33062-9.