Just when you thought the “Jewish nose” libel was a thing of the past, it is back in the news. And the Jewish professor who dared to complain about it has been fired, forcing him to file a multimillion-dollar lawsuit.
The latest controversy concerns Daniel Pollack-Pelzner, a tenured professor of English at Linfield University in Oregon. Three years ago, the university named Dr. Miles K. Davis as its new president. The first time Pollack-Pelzner met Davis, he mentioned that he and his students were discussing how Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice evokes various forms of prejudice.
According to Pollack-Pelzner, Davis responded with a strange remark about the comparative sizes of what he called the average “Jewish nose” and the average “Arab nose.”
Pollack-Pelzner was “taken back” but decided to let it slide. Bad move. Ignoring anti-Semitism only ensures that it will resurface, sooner or later.
Sure enough, Davis continued periodically to make anti-Semitic remarks to Pollack-Pelzner. Last March, Pollack-Pelzner finally went public about it. The local Anti-Defamation League and Oregon Board of Rabbis backed him up.
Davis at first denied the allegations of anti-Semitism, but subsequently admitted to The Chronicle of Higher Education “that he had in fact made a comment about the size of Jewish noses.” He “explained” that his comment was based on what he had observed during a trip to the Middle East. A few weeks later, Pollack-Pelzner was fired. Now he has launched a $3.5 million whistleblower retaliation lawsuit against Davis and the university.
The notion that there is a distinctive “Jewish nose” is one of the oldest anti-Jewish myths. Medieval Jew-haters introduced it in the 12th century C.E. as a way of singling out Jews for contempt.
Nazi Germany’s propaganda machine frequently invoked 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 unattractive.
Similar images appeared throughout the Nazis’ news media, cultural publications and children’s books. Der Giftpilz, an anti-Jewish children’s book published by Julius Streicher (publisher of the Nazi newspaper Der Stürmer), included a section called “How to Tell a Jew.” It described a seventh-grade boys’ class in which “Karl Schulz, a small lad in the front row,” steps to the chalkboard and declares: “One can most easily tell a Jew by his nose. The Jewish nose is bent at its point. It looks like the number six. We call it the ‘Jewish six.’ ”
The “Jewish nose” lie has surfaced occasionally in recent years. In 1999, for example, former Arizona state legislator Barbara Blewster told a colleague, “You can’t be Jewish. You don’t have a big hooked nose.” Blewster was forced to publicly apologize but continued to insist, “I have no prejudice at all. I admire the Jews.”
The former prime minister of Malaysia, Mahathir Mohamed, a Holocaust denier and anti-Israel extremist, 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.”
Especially disturbing was when a staff historian at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., stooped to perpetuating this canard. In a tweet on Dec. 17, 2019, Dr. Rebecca Erbelding 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.’ ”
Perhaps Erbelding would say she was trying to be humorous. But wrapping prejudice in a “joke” doesn’t make it any better.
Perpetuating stereotypes is not just offensive, it’s dangerous. Professor Jonathan Kaplan of the University of Technology-Sydney had 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,” wrote Kaplan.
That’s the most important lesson of the Oregon lawsuit. Whether made by a drunken buffoon in a bar, a misguided historian or a supposedly sophisticated college president, the lie of the “Jewish nose” is an outrage, which must be vigorously protested as soon as it is uttered, lest it metastasize into something even more menacing.
Moshe Phillips is national director of Herut North America’s U.S. division. Herut is an international movement for Zionist pride and education and its U.S. website is https://herutna.org/.