Nicknamed “the world’s oldest hatred,” much of our society today was built off of antisemitism. That means that antisemitism is embedded into everything: the languages we speak, the unconscious biases we have, the art we consume, and even the stories that we tell each other.
Fairytales and folktales, in particular, are chock full of antisemitic tropes. The Brothers Grimm, especially, are notorious for their antisemitism.
The following slides will examine antisemitic tropes in 6 popular folktales and literature.
LITTLE RED RIDING HOOD
There is a long precedence of wolves being used as a metaphor for Jewish People and Roma in European folklore.
Though the Brothers Grimm never explicitly depicted the wolf in Little Red Riding Hood as Jewish — unlike in other stories, where the villains were described as Jewish — the original folktale (and the Grimm recollection) has very heavy undertones of antisemitism.
Little Red Riding Hood was used as propaganda fodder in Nazi Germany. According to the Nazis, the wolf represented the Jewish People, while Little Red Riding Hood represented the German people suffering at the hands of the Jews.
HANSEL AND GRETEL
One of the most pervasive antisemitic tropes in history is that of blood libel. Though blood libel has evolved over time (as antisemitism does), it has roots in false accusations that Jews murdered Christian children for ritual purposes (that is, to have as food).
Hansel and Gretel has blood libel written all over it.
Historically, Jewish women in Europe were depicted as witches. The witch in Hansel and Gretel lures in two white, Christian children to turn them into food. Add in the post-Holocaust imagery of the oven (where the witch ends up), and you get a giant antisemitic mess.
THE MERCHANT OF VENICE
William Shakespeare was a huge antisemite, and The Merchant of Venice is perhaps his worst offence.
The Merchant of Venice tells the story of Shylock, a Jewish money-lender who threatens to chop off the lendee’s flesh if he doesn’t pay back the loan. The tropes here are obvious: blood libel, money, and greediness, among others. To add insult to injury, Shylock is depicted as self-victimising, giving credence to the trope that Jews “cry antisemitism.”
Unsurprisingly, The Merchant of Venice was a Nazi favorite. It’s still taught in schools around the world to this day.
Like many other European folk and fairytales, the story of Rapunzel employs the witch archetype, an antisemitic depiction so common that it’s often referred to as Jew-coding.
In Disney’s most recent depiction of the story of Rapunzel, the 2010 film Tangled, Mother Gothel is chock full of antisemitic tropes. From her physical depiction (i.e. stereotypically “Jewish” features) to her hypocritical hold over Rapunzel’s life (i.e. Gothel poses as loving and kind — just as white supremacists believe Jews pose as “white” — while secretly controlling Rapunzel’s life — or, in the language of antisemites, secretly controlling the world), the argument can easily be made that the character perpetuates insidious antisemitic biases.
Whether Walt Disney was particularly antisemitic is somehow still the subject of scholarly debate, but there is no doubt that he used antisemitic stereotype after antisemitic stereotype in his films.
The witch in Snow White is an excellent example of the antisemitic witch archetype and “Jew-coding.” Her physical appearance, beginning with her hooked nose, resembles the antisemitic caricatures of Europe, particularly those that were later used in Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, and the Middle East and North Africa.
Like Little Red Riding Hood, the story of Cinderella was a Nazi favorite. Cinderella is depicted as a beautiful, innocent Aryan child, trapped by her evil, “racially foreign” (or “rassenfremd” in German) stepsisters and stepmother.
In such a depiction, Cinderella utilizes the antisemitic tropes of the wandering Jew (i.e. the Jew is condemned to wander the earth, stateless, as punishment for the murder of Jesus. This trope was used as justification for the ethnic cleansing of Jews from nearly every European country during the Middle Ages), as well as tropes about Jewish dual loyalty.