The 'Jewish nose' myth is alive and well - in the US Holocaust Museum

It began in the 12th century and was a favorite of the Nazis, but a Holocaust Museum historian ascribing a hooked nose to Jews?

Moshe Phillips

OpEds A model gestures a hooked nose depicting "Jew"
A model gestures a hooked nose depicting "Jew"
INN:MP

It’s bad enough that an annual Belgian carnival float mocks Jews by depicting them with huge “Jewish noses.” But now a prominent historian at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum is also perpetuating the myth that there is such a thing as a “Jewish nose.”

In a tweet on December 17, 2019, Dr. Rebecca Erbelding, a staff historian at the museum who frequently represents it at events around the country, wrote: “At a talk today, asked about my personal background. I confessed that I’m not Jewish, but with a Hebrew first name, German last name, and my nose and hair, I ‘pass’.”

Historian Sharonna Pearl wrote an essay in Tablet last year titled “The Myth of the Jewish Nose: It’s Not Really a Thing.” Pearl was just stating the obvious. Yet here we have a staff historian at the Holocaust Museum—of all places—who thinks that it IS a thing.

The idea that there is a distinctive “Jewish nose” dates back to the 12th century CE, when medieval anti-Semites introduced it as a way of singling out Jews for contempt. 

"The nose became “a physical symbol of otherness for Jews,” as Prof. Roy Goldblatt has put it.

Nazi Germany’s propaganda machine made ample use of the “Jewish nose” stereotype. A notorious Nazi film produced in 1940, called “The Eternal Jew,” purporting to expose the “real” Jew, focused on “Jewish faces,” zooming in on Jews’ noses to make them seem repulsive. 

Similar images appeared throughout the Nazis’ news media, cultural publications, and children’s books. You would think that a historian at the Holocaust Museum would be informed and sensitive about the danger of echoing such stereotypes.

In recent years, the “Jewish nose” lie has been heard from various other quarters. In 1999, for example, Arizona state legislator Barbara Blewster told a colleague, “You can’t be Jewish. You don’t have a big hooked nose.” Blewster was compelled to publicly apologize, but she continued to insist, “I have no prejudice at all. I admire the Jews.” Sure she does.

  • The recently resigned prime minister of Malaysia, Mahathir Mohamed, has repeatedly referred to “hook-nosed Jews.”
  • The website of Belgium’s Ghent University until recently included a sign-language video showing a hooked nose as the translation for the word “Jewish.”
  • And a Jewish woman in Sweden recently reported that when she went to a Stockholm police station to have her photo taken for an ID card, an antisemitic officer digitally altered her image to drastically enlarge her nose.

Women in particular have suffered from the “Jewish nose” stereotype that Erbelding is perpetuating. Rachel Jacoby Rosenfield and Maital Friedman of the Shalom Hartman Institute have written about how the “Jewish nose” and related stereotypes have been used to intimidate Jewish women into altering their appearances. “These negative stereotypes have impacted our Jewish psyche and spawned a self-consciousness and communal shame about ‘Jewish looks’,” they point out.   

Some see a direction connection between the Jewish nose stereotype and violence against Jews. In a recent essay, Jonathan Kaplan, of the University of Technology-Sydney, noted that Pittsburgh synagogue gunman Robert Bowers invoked classic anti-Jewish stereotypes in his online ravings. “How we speak about and depict others in the media and social discourse perpetuates long-held stereotypes and ultimately emboldens hate-filled individuals,” Kaplan warned.

Sadly, Rebecca Erbelding’s remark about “Jewish noses” is just the latest in a series of extremist statements that she has made in recent years, forcing the U.S. Holocaust Museum to publicly apologize or distance itself from her words.

One such episode occurred when Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez compared U.S. border detention facilities to Nazi-era “concentration camps.” Erbelding sent out tweets and re-tweets sympathizing with Cortez’s position. She even gave “a Geppetto checkmark” to Cortez’s defense of her declaration. (That’s shorthand for saying that a statement is “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.”) The Holocaust Museum then issued a statement saying that Erbelding’s position “does not reflect the position of the Museum.”

Erbelding has publicly condemned the United States for destroying Syria’s chemical weapons factories. She has promoted donations to the American Friends Service Committee despite that group’s comparisons of Israel to Nazi Germany.

She has even claimed it would have been wrong for the U.S. to bomb Auschwitz, because it “would have killed a lot of people.” That last one is so bizarre, it might sound as if she couldn’t have been serious—but she was.

Rebecca Erbelding needs to apologize for perpetuating the deeply offensive stereotype about “Jewish noses.” But beyond that, one might ask: how many more times will the U.S. Holocaust Museum find itself embarrassed by Erbelding’s extremism? 

America’s taxpayers pay Erbelding’s salary and finance the Holocaust Museum. They have a right to expect that federal government institutions will not have a hand in the irresponsible parroting of anti-Jewish stereotypes.

Moshe Phillips is national director of Herut North America’s U.S. division; Herut is an international movement for Zionist pride and education and is dedicated to the ideals of pre-World War Two Zionist leader Ze'ev Jabotinsky. Herut's website is www.herutna.org       




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