Do bonuses fuel antisemitism?

Let me be clear from the start. The bankers who have been, and will continue to dominate news bulletins; Stephen Hester, chief executive of Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS) and Bob Diamond, chief executive of Barclays, are not Jewish. Nor is former-RBS boss Fred Goodwin, who was this week stripped of his knighthood.

It may be worth noting however that the chairman of Barclays, Marcus Agius, the person responsible for approving Diamond's remuneration package, is married to a Jewess - the former Kate de Rothschild.

No doubt someone somewhere will see a conspiracy in that. For as long as money-lending, usury and banking have existed, they have provided low-hanging fruit for antisemites.

The dynasty that has felt the sharp end of this most are the inventors of modern merchant banking, the Rothschilds. In The World's Banker: A History of the House of Rothschild, the historian Niall Ferguson devotes a full chapter to what he describes as "Jewish Questions." He recalls William H Harvey's 1894 Coin's Financial School, replete with black and white illustration, which depicts the world in the clutches of a mammoth, evil-looking "English Octopus" named Devilfish above which is printed the word "Rothschilds."

The same author went on to write A Tale of Two Nations in which a fictitious and barely-disguised banker, Baron Rothe, sets out to destroy the US.

People who have closely followed the 2007-09 financial crisis will immediately recognise the octopus image. In April 2010 it was adopted by American writer Matt Taibbi in an infamous article in New York's Rolling Stone magazine to denigrate Goldman Sachs - the most identifiably Jewish of the current generation of investment banks - as a giant, vampire squid sucking the blood out of the financial system. Taibbi's article, with its allegations of wrong doing in the financial crisis, was widely followed up in the mainstream media. Despite the ghastly history of the imagery, deeply embedded in antisemitism, it was largely regarded as harmless.

Hatred of the bankers and how they have impoverished wider society has become so deep that obvious prejudice is barely recognised.

Vilification of the bankers is part of the current zeitgeist. The bankers rather than the politicians, policymakers and the regulators are blamed at every turn. The arts world has been quick to jump on this bandwagon with Hollywood movies like Wall Street 2, Too Big to Fail and Margin Call.

A professional look at the credit crunch, financial crisis and subsequent sovereign-debt crisis shows that blame must be spread far and wide. I genuinely believe that if the denigration of bankers, the City and Wall Street is creating a backlash against the Jewish community it is not intentional but based on historical bigotry. After all, the big protestant banks such as RBS, Lloyds-HBOS, Bank of America and JP Morgan Chase have been as responsible, if not more so, for the catastrophe and bonus culture.

Sure the bonuses have flowed at Goldman Sachs but it has not been alone, and other "Jewish" banks like NM Rothschild have been far-removed from the crisis. At the depth of the 2009 recession it was to Rothschild that many companies looked for advice.

The Occupy Wall Street demonstrators have been pictured as heroes standing up for ordinary people. But workers in Lower Manhattan, having to run the gauntlet of the protesters to get to their offices, have encountered both antisemitic rhetoric and material.

A 2009 survey for the Boston Review found that 25 per cent of non-Jewish Americans blamed Jews for the crisis.

The bankers, of course, deserve to be criticised. They have created a micro-climate in which incomes and values are divorced from the cares and needs of the wider population.

But the popular abuse of their activities, reinforced by Hollywood and culture, can go too far and unleash some nasty, ancient prejudices.

Alex Brummer is City Editor of the Daily Mail

    Last updated: 11:59am, February 2 2012