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Sunday, August 241, 2005 8:36 AM

The Anti-Collector

By Boris Fishman

Photo: French 19th Century
caricature of a Jewish banker -- Illustration
from "Die Juden in der Karikatur" by Eduard Fuchs (1921)

EARLIER this year, as England marked Holocaust Memorial Day on Jan. 27, an advertisement appeared on the Labour Party Web site likening Michael Howard, the Jewish leader of the opposition Conservative Party, to Fagin, the iconic stereotype of the miserly, conniving Jew in Charles Dickens's "Oliver Twist."

For the Anglo-Jewish community, it was a familiar coincidence. Two years before, the Jan. 27th issue of The Independent, the left-of-center British newspaper, carried a cartoon of a disrobed Ariel Sharon devouring a blood-soaked Palestinian child under the words: "What's wrong . . . you never seen a politician kissing babies before?"

The Howard image provoked criticism and was quickly withdrawn. However, the Independent cartoon, which was accused of evoking the medieval "blood libel" that Jews extract the blood of Christian children to make Passover matzoh, will appear in an exhibit of anti-Semitic imagery next March.

Its organizer, a London physician named Simon Cohen, has single-mindedly gathered nearly 300 items of anti-Semitica, from medieval depictions of Jews murdering Christian children to Nazi propaganda denigrating Jews as subhuman parasites to modern anti-Israel imagery supposedly based on anti-Semitic stereotypes.

Cohen is an Orthodox Jew. (There are two kinds of people who collect anti-Semitica, a collector once declared in the Jewish weekly The Forward: neo-Nazis and Jews.) He says he hopes his show will educate and thereby chasten those who cavalierly invoke anti-Semitic language or iconography. But is exhibiting hate art the way to discourage hate? The Anglo-Jewish community isn't so sure.

In public, Cohen is bashful about his collecting habit, but at his home in Golders Green, a Jewish neighborhood in North London, he couldn't restrain his enthusiasm. "This is brilliant," he said, pointing to a German image of a portly Jewish tycoon peering lecherously at a young Christian woman. "This is really disgusting." An international parade of anti-Semitic materials followed: Dutch, Finnish and Italian posters accusing Jews of warmongering and conspiring to dominate the world; a German image accusing Jews of spreading communism; a Soviet image accusing Jews of spreading capitalism; a Serbian image accusing Jews of spreading communism and capitalism.

"My enthusiasm for these things is inappropriate," he said sheepishly.

Jewish collectors of anti-Semitica are unlike most serious collectors in that they are repelled by their subject and exactly like them in that they are obsessively acquisitive. Their demand has helped to create a market, even if it's largely underground. The material is especially abundant in the formerly Nazi-occupied countries of Europe, like France and Poland, where anti-Semitica was produced virtually as a matter of state policy during World War II.

Cohen's interest in anti-Semitica began after his daughter's brother-in-law was killed in a suicide bombing in Israel. A dealer had shown Cohen, already a collector of Judaica, an 1889 French electoral poster for "Ad. Willette, Candidat Antisémite," which, next to the proclamation "The Jews are only great because we are on our knees," featured several Frenchmen expelling a hooknosed, humpbacked Jew.

Cohen, who had been alarmed by the spread of what he regarded as similar images in Middle Eastern and Western European newspapers, had an idea. He would mount a chronological exhibit of anti-Semitica "to show the relationship between the images." He hoped the exhibit's logic would convince those like Dave Brown, the creator of The Independent's Ariel Sharon cartoon, who, in Cohen's view, had invoked an anti-Semitic stereotype and then denied the lineage. (Brown made the credible claim that he was channeling Goya's "Saturn Devouring One of His Sons" instead.) If Brown's image looked exactly like those in the Nazi propaganda newspaper Der Stürmer, Cohen's reasoning went, the unsavory pedigree would be undeniable and would deter others.

"I want to make sure that the images aren't interpreted as legitimate anti-Israel cartoons," Cohen said. "People don't have to agree with the policies of Sharon. But I draw the line if you show him drinking blood."

Cohen initially hoped to show his collection in the United States, but a tour of several potential venues -- the Anti-Defamation League, the Simon Wiesenthal Center, the American Jewish Committee -- ended inconclusively. "We feature anti-Semitica, but within a larger exhibit on the Holocaust," explained Louis Levine of the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York. "You don't want to dignify anti-Semitica by making it the sole subject of an exhibit."

Boris Fishman writes for The New Yorker, The New Republic and The Nation.


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