“WHAT a Jew says is always false — no true word ever comes out of his mouth.” These are the words that my daughter stumbled across in a book she had purchased on a day out to York.
Shocking? Indeed. No doubt JT readers will be chomping at the bit, fingers itching to get typing their letters of outrage.
Until I reveal that these words were in a story penned by the Brothers Grimm and published (in this edition) in 1947. I can see you all now putting your pens away with relief.
But why is it OK to publish and distribute antisemitic material just because it is old?
The Brothers Grimm were well known for their antisemitic views and wrote three antisemitic stories in their time.
Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, who published their first German tales in 1812, were not the sweet fairytale authors that people might expect — their original stories are darker, some might say “grimmer”, than today’s sanitised versions suggest. And they were laced with antisemitism.
The Jew in the Thorn Bush, for example, features a hero who tortures a Jewish peddler using a magic fiddle, making him dance in brambles. At the end the Jew is hanged.
This story finds its way into many editions that you can find on Amazon (and in bookshops in York). The Brothers Grimm have bedtime stories about Jews who are greedy, dishonest and only want money.
The Girl who was Killed by the Jews is self-explanatory. And The Jews’ Stone is linked to the most horrible antisemitic charge of all time — the blood libel — in which Jewish people are accused of killing children and drinking their blood for Passover.
These are not harmless tales that we have to turn a blind eye to as being “of their time”. Hitler used these stories (some were legends that the Brothers Grimm popularised) as propaganda.
Indeed, The Jew in the Thorn Bush was horribly prescient in terms of how the Jews in Germany were subsequently treated.
Historical antisemitism troubles me simply because we seem to be less troubled by it.
In 2017, historical sexual harassment suddenly became a problem — and quite right, too. Abusers are being rewritten out of history.
Historical racism is recognised as a problem, too, with racist figures being airbrushed from public recognition. So why is historical antisemitism tolerated?
I am reminded of the Gilbert and Sullivan song A Little List from The Mikado. The Victorian opera writers write this charming ditty about all those they would love to put on their “hit list” of people who never would be missed.
All the topical baddies of their time were there, including the “lady novelist” and, shockingly for today’s audiences, the “n***** organist”. Quite rightly, these highly offensive words and their meaning have been obliterated from the original lyrics — more recent recordings make no mention of such racist views.
So why do we allow the age-old antisemitic tropes to go unchallenged, as long as they were penned years ago?
Should publications of the original Brothers Grimm stories continue to include antisemitic tropes, or should they be archived in special collections for scholars of antisemitism, in the same way that Mein Kampf or The Protocols of the Elders of Zion should be.
Amazon does sell Protocols, but with a disclaimer proclaiming: “The Protocols has been a major weapon in the arsenals of antisemites around the world, republished and circulated by individuals, hate groups and governments to convince the gullible as well as the bigoted that Jews have schemed and plotted to take over the world.”
It is classified under “controversial knowledge” in the Amazon store. But the Brothers
Grimm’s originals are sold without any disclaimer about their antisemitic content.
Indeed, perhaps the same disclaimers should be added to any literary works that feature anti-Jewish tropes, such as Canterbury Tales, The Merchant of Venice (Hitler’s favourite Shakespearean play) and Oliver Twist.
In 2008, students of Yesodey Hatorah Senior Girls’ School in East London refused to sit a Shakespeare paper in their GCSE because they believed the Bard was antisemitic. Should we all be joining them in their stand?
Banning and boycotting is probably a step too far for me. Where would it all end if we boycotted any author, poet or historical figure (or indeed musical composer) who ever took a pop at the Jews?
We might not have much left except a rigorous censorship more commonly associated with eastern bloc dictatorships.
But if censorship is not appropriate, open discussion and acknowledgement of offensive content surely is.
Alexander Pope’s views of Jews are widely acknowledged not to have been represented in his antisemitic Canterbury tale, while the views of both Dickens and Shakespeare are hotly debated.
Debate and disagreement (even when it is heated) about literary greats and their views about Jews is OK. Indifference and acceptance is not.
My problem with the Grimm Brothers is that their tropes are still seeping into society without being challenged.
And that makes very grim bedtime reading indeed.