Anti-Semitic Stereotypes of the Jewish Body

Folk beliefs about horns and big noses have served to demonize Jews--and even Jews themselves have not been exempt from distorted images of their bodies.

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A widespread medieval negative image of the Jew was based upon a misinterpretation of the Hebrew Bible. Moses was often depicted with two horns on his head as a result of the Latin mis-rendering of the verb "sent forth beams" (karan) in Exodus 34:35 as "grew horns." (A horn is a keren.) This image, which was widely portrayed in art of the Middle Ages by artists including Michelangelo and Donatello in Italy, led to the widespread notion that all Jews had devilish horns.

The Nazis seized upon the negative Jewish body image and used caricatures and other forms of propaganda to present the Jews as sub-human or as disfigured humans.  The Nazi weekly Der Sturmer was famous for disseminating these images.

In an ironic way, the Zionist movement came to see the Jews' bodies as inadequate as well. The emaciated, pale, and weak yeshiva bokhur (Talmud student) came to be seen as the antithesis of the strong sun-bronzed self-reliant image of the "new Jew" who was engaged in the physical rebuilding of the Land of Israel and the Jewish people.

Despite the counter-image of the tsabar ("Sabra"), or native born Israeli, negative images of Jews continue to be common.  Even in the 21st century there are places where ignorant people remain under the impression that Jews have horns and countries in which criticism of the practice of circumcision seems to be motivated by underlying anti-Semitic attitudes.

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Ophir Yarden is a Jerusalem-based specialist in informal Jewish education and Director of Educational Initiatives for the Interreligious Coordinating Council in Israel. He is active is Israeli-Palestinian dialogue.