Isaac and Antichrist Then and Now

by Sara Lipton

My recent article, “Isaac and Antichrist in the Archives,” offers a new reading of an image widely regarded as the earliest known anti-Jewish caricature. This image, a sketch or doodle atop an English tax receipt roll from 1233, has almost exclusively been discussed as a chapter in Jewish history, a vivid instantiation of the intensifying anti-Semitism of later medieval Europe.

“Issac and Anti-Christ”, Upper margin of the Exchequer Receipt Roll, Hilary and Easter Terms, 1233 (held in the The National Archives [UK])

Focusing, instead, on its origins in the Bureau of the Exchequer, I argue that the sketch is, in essence, political satire. Though the three Jews caricatured in the center of the image are undoubtedly depicted in a negative light, they serve primarily to convey a (masked) indictment of a powerful court faction. In order to safely lampoon that faction, which had recently taken over the Exchequer and implemented unpopular policies, the cartoonist – most likely an Exchequer clerk — gave concrete visual form to abstract anti-Jewish tropes, tied these signs to specific individual Jews, and then linked these Jews to the royal court. My goals for the piece were three-fold:

1) to illuminate the original meaning and function of the image;

2) to consider how and why anti-Jewish caricature developed in this particular time and place;

3) to reflect upon why the image has been read even by very fine historians in an essentially a-historical fashion.

My primary interests, that is, were historical and historiographical. But the forms devised by the doodler to signify Jewishness, and the uses to which he put them, have powerful contemporary echoes. I touched upon this point only very obliquely in the final sentence of the article; and welcome the opportunity to expand upon it here.

The deployment of anti-Jewish themes and symbols to stigmatise non-Jewish individuals and their ideas and actions has a long history.1 But it has seen a striking resurgence in recent years, perhaps most notably in the debate surrounding Britain’s exit from the European Union and in the current U.S. presidential election.2 Both of these episodes have been characterized by virulent anti-immigrant rhetoric — against Eastern European (especially Polish) and Muslim immigrants in the U.K., and against Mexican and Muslim immigrants in the U.S. In both cases, anti-Jewish imagery and discourse, both overt and subtle, have played prominent roles, even though in neither case are Jews direct or explicit objects of partisan ire, much less central to the issues under discussion.

The Exchequer sketch helps explain why. The doodler endowed the Jews in the sketch with large, bent noses, three-faced monstrousness, and diabolical fellowship, even as he dressed them in fashionable attire, as a means of visually expressing the centuries-old Christian discourse of Jewish materialism, enmity, hypocrisy, and disguise. By situating these caricatured figures within Westminster Palace, endowing one with a crown, and portraying the demons as court jesters, he linked the Jews to Christian elites. The point was to hint at a conspiracy between the courtiers and the Jews, and to tar the courtiers with the negative attributes of ‘Jewishness,” thereby mobilising the full weight of pre-existing anti-Jewish prejudice against a new target.

This is precisely the pattern evident in recent political imagery. In cartoons published in mainstream news outlets, and in memes posted in alt-right or fringe publications and websites, anti-Jewish imagery is adopted for political ends. Let me briefly discuss two instructive examples.

On November 16, 2015 The Daily Mail published a cartoon entitled “MAC ON… Europe’s open borders.”3 It depicts a crowd of people carrying suitcases, a bedroll, and in one case a gun, accompanied by scurrying rats, as they walk past a sign inscribed, “Welcome to Europe.” A column in The Guardian called this a “deeply incendiary” image,” pointing out that Nazi propaganda regularly portrayed Jews as rats.4 But the article stopped short of labeling the cartoon overtly anti-Semitic or racist, and quoted two experts who read the image differently. They presume that the rats represent terrorists hiding among refugees, and consider the vilification of terrorists to be legitimate (though one hastens to note that she does not endorse the message of the cartoon). It is certainly true that rats can symbolise a range of concepts, some having nothing to do with Jews. Other aspects of the cartoon, however, are less ambiguous. Two of the men are depicted with large, bulbous, downward curving noses eerily reminiscent of the Exchequer cartoon. To anyone with even a passing knowledge of graphic history, these profiles cannot fail to recall anti-Semitic caricature. Their headgear reinforces the association. One of these men wears a turban, presumably to mark him as Muslim. But Jews were frequently shown in western art wearing turbans as well, partly because Jewish (as well as Christian) residents of Muslim lands often adopted the local headgear, and partly because the “Orientalisation” of Jews became another form of stigmatisation in anti-Jewish imagery. This man’s “Jewishness” is further suggested by the glasses perched on his nose. Spectacles have been used since the fifteenth century to symbolise Jews’ spiritual “blindness” and physical degeneracy; they are, moreover, not traditional elements of anti-Muslim imagery.5 The second big-nosed man wears a military-looking cap and carries a gun. This, too, can be seen as referring to current conditions and actors in the Middle East. But, again, it also echoes anti-Jewish caricature, this time of Jews as Soviets or communists.6 Most troubling, however, is the man on the far right of the cartoon. He wears an old-fashioned checked coat and matching breeches and has a large, protruding belly. These are not the clothing and physique typically assigned by cartoonists to Syrian refugees or Polish or Romanian immigrants. They are, however, the attributes par excellence of the “capitalist Jew” in Nazi imagery.7

The Mac cartoon, then, undoubtedly echoes anti-Jewish iconography. It does not do so in order to allege that Jews are overrunning the borders the Europe. Rather, Jews appear here for the same reasons that they appear in the Exchequer sketch. First, for the qualities they are alleged to embody. The anti-immigrant movement has criticised proponents of Europe and open borders as elitist, capitalist, urban, and cosmopolitan – all labels traditionally assigned to Jews. Second, for the gaps they can help paper over, and the connections they can help forge. Opponents of immigration target two very disparate groups: global capital, which is held to exercise undue control over the national economy and to ignore or exploit native workers; and eastern/foreign parasitic newcomers, who are said to displace or harm native workers. These two groups might seem to have little in common. But since Jews have been cast in both roles at various points in history, they can provide a kind of conceptual link. Third, for the emotions they can arouse. In the absence of any readily familiar verbal or visual rhetoric of Syrian or Polish or Romanian perfidy or danger, anti-Jewish imagery furnishes a viscerally powerful arsenal from which anti-immigration activists can draw.

Similar processes are apparent in imagery accompanying the U.S. election <ahref=””>A picture re-tweeted by Donald Trump on July 2, 2016, which originally appeared on an alt-right website, superimposes Hillary Clinton’s face against a background of hundred dollar bills. Directly next to, indeed slightly intruding upon, Clinton’s face is a red, six-pointed star inscribed with the words “Most Corrupt Candidate Ever!” Trump’s tweeted commentary on the image declared: “Crooked Hillary — Makes History!” As with the Mac cartoon, the anti-Semitism of this image has been a matter of debate.8 Trump himself vigorously denied any anti-Semitic connotation, tweeting two days later: “Dishonest media is trying their absolute best to depict a star in a tweet as the Star of David rather than a Sheriff’s Star, or plain star!”9 Neutral observers, too, have questioned the anti-Semitism of the tweet, noting that Trump’s daughter is married to an observant Jew, and that the candidate has not explicitly embraced anti-Semitism or promoted any anti-Jewish policies. This image, however, follows the same pattern and employs the same logic as the Exchequer sketch and the Mac cartoon. Six-pointed stars, like rats, may indeed have various meanings. But the iconography of this image points to one particular meaning. To situate a six-pointed star against the background of money, alongside allegations of corruption and crookedness, is to echo centuries’ worth of imagery painting Jews as corrupt, greedy, and deceitful — exactly the qualities being imputed to Clinton.10 In this image, then, the star hints at a both a likeness and an association, even conspiracy, between Clinton and Jews. This hint, only implicit in the tweeted image and probably only ‘audible’ to those listening for it, has since been articulated more explicitly: as many commentators have pointed out, Trump’s recent claim that “Hillary Clinton meets in secret with international banks to plan the destruction of global sovereignty in order to enrich these global interest powers….” almost exactly replicates the wording of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion.11

Like the Exchequer sketch, then, both the Mac cartoon and the re-tweeted image use anti-Jewish iconography to indict non-Jewish targets by means of “guilt-through-similarity” and “guilt-by-association.” In highlighting these visual and conceptual parallels I do not mean to accuse the cartoonist or the candidate of intentional anti-Semitism – as a historian I claim no insight into individual psychology or motivation. But I do seek to identify historical patterns and effects, and the example of the Exchequer cartoon is sobering. I closed “Isaac and Antichrist” by noting that the sketch demonstrates “the power and hazard of even the apparently trivial image.” The contemporary political images I discuss here vividly confirm that power, as well as its longevity; I very much hope that informed analysis, open discussion, and thoughtful critique can help reduce the hazard.

Sara Lipton is a Professor at Stony Brook University (NYU)


1Indeed, it has been argued that it came to define western political discourse: David Nirenberg, Anti-Judaism: The Western Tradition (New York, 2014).

2The Anti-Defamation has counted 2.6 million anti-Semitic tweets from August 2015 through 2016:



5Eyeglasses form the pivotal plot device in the 1945 Arthur Miller novel Focus (made into a 2001 film starring William H. Macy), in which a passive Gentile man living in Brooklyn during World War II is mistaken for a Jew and subject to harassment and discrimination when a new pair of glasses makes him “look Jewish.”


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