Understanding the Antisemitic History of the “Hooked Nose” Stereotype

Even when it is a harmless drawing, the "hooked nose" is a harmful stereotype.

By Jeremy Ullmann

Many people still believe that a large, hooked nose is just a physical feature of Jewish people. It is an image so deeply imbedded in modern culture, that most do not acknowledge that it is actually a deeply antisemitic stereotype.

It hasn’t always been this way. Before the 12th century, there is no evidence of Jews being depicted with large noses.  A 1911 study of 4,000 Jewish noses found no significant difference between the size and shape of Jewish noses as compared to those of the general population.

So, why is it that a large, hooked nose has become synonymous with Jewish people? It goes back to antisemitic and Nazi propaganda from the 1930s and since then has gone on to become a common trope—and, whether intentionally or not—pushes antisemitic stereotypes to this day.

“The hook nose stereotype is very much still alive, it might be old, but it’s far from being irrelevant”, a spokesperson for Amadeu Antonio Stiftung, an organisation which campaigns against far-right-wing parties, racism and anti-Semitism in German society, told Media Diversity Institute.

The clearest example of the stereotype winding its way across social media platforms on people’s personal feeds is through memes, and in particular, ‘The Happy Merchant’:

The Happy Merchant meme is one of the most widely spread far-right and antisemitic memes that you see online,” the spokesperson continued, explaining that it was first seen in far-right fringe spaces online. In one iteration it caricatured feminist activist Anita Sarkeesian after she spoke out about sexist tropes in video games during #GamerGate. In another, following mainstream media sites using an image of presidential candidate Bernie Sanders rubbing his hands together, a Sanders Happy Merchant caricature made its rounds on social media, connecting the real life photograph to the antisemitic stereotype.

“Even during Corona it popped up, where the happy merchant’s head was replaced with a virus,” the Amadeu Antonio Stiftung spokesperson continued, pointing towards some of the ways that antisemitic propaganda has blamed Jews for the spread of the novel Coronavirus.

However, while the “Happy Merchant” meme has responded to current popular culture figures and news stories, it is rooted in traditional Nazi propaganda from the 1930s which used images of Jews with hooked noses and other undesirable characteristics to stir hatred and distrust of Jewish communities.

“Caricatures of Jews with grotesque features, and specifically with large noses, was ubiquitous in antisemitic propaganda deployed by Nazi Germany, but can also be found in the outpourings of a wide range of antisemitic regimes, organisations and ideologies,” said Community Security Trust Director of Policy Dr. Dave Rich, speaking to the way that these caricatures have worked as a propaganda tool over time.  

“It is a technique used to stir up a sense of disgust and repulsion towards Jews, either collectively or individually, and is often found alongside other antisemitic motifs involving money, power, conspiracy and blood.”

It is virtually impossible to find a single piece of propaganda from the time that does not feature an exaggeratedly large, grotesque, hooked nose when depicting Jews. As a viewer, it is easy to see how these strikingly evil and sub-human looking images stayed with those who saw them—subtly entrenching the association between Jews and large noses, using this “defining characteristic” to encourage people to identify, and discriminate against Jews.

As Nazi propagandist Julius Streicher wrote in the children’s book Der Giftpilz, which translates to The Poisonous Mushroom.

“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.’ Many Gentiles also have bent noses. But their noses bend upwards, not downwards. Such a nose is a hook nose or an eagle nose. It is not at all like a Jewish nose.”

Though the Nazis did not create the myth of the Jewish nose (the antisemitic connection goes back as far as the 13th Century), they played a vital role in making it mainstream. Not even three years after the end of World War II, a Hollywood adaption of Charles Dicken’s Oliver Twist had actor Alec Guinness wearing heavy make-up including a large prosthetic nose to portray Fagin, the leader of a London-based pickpocket group. The film caused much controversy, with many people complaining that Guinness’ portrayal perpetuated the same antisemitic Jewish stereotypes pushed by the Nazis.

Despite this criticism, the “Jewish nose” stereotype persisted—becoming an image that was both seen as distinctly Jewish, and distinctly negative, particularly in entertainment circles. Many Jewish actresses throughout the 1900s opted to surgically alter their nose, a process some surgeons suggested was to ‘promote patient well-being’, normally as a means to ‘advance in social and business circles’, or simply, to be considered attractive enough to land a television role.

The legendary singer and actress Barbara Streisand became one of the highest profiled Jewish celebrities to refuse a nose-job, even after severe media pressure to do so. She told Playboy Magazine in 1977:

“When I was young, everyone would say, “You gonna have your nose done?” It was like a fad, all the Jewish girls having their noses done every week, […] taking perfectly good noses and whittling them down to nothing. The first thing someone would have done would be to cut my bump off. But I love my bump, I wouldn’t cut my bump off.”

But even when the negative association of the Jewish faded from the limelight, it managed to still show up in popular culture. Rachel Green from Friends is Jewish, and one of the long-running gags of the show is how she was less attractive before she had a nose job.

Much less subtly, is the depiction of Goblins in the Harry Potter novels and movie adaptions—something that many advocates see as portraying them as hook-nosed, greedy bankers that can’t be trusted.

“I think it’s actually a good example of how these things don’t have to be conscious for them to be reproduced by people,” the Amadeus Antonio Stiftung spokesperson continues, acknowledging that it is unclear whether or not J.K. Rowling was aware of this connotation.

However, many Jews with large noses are now embracing them–reclaiming the feature used to caricature them to embrace their Jewish identity. Paul Solomons, cartoonist for the British paper Jewish News even defended his cartoons which featured Jews with large noses because he saw it as accurate feature: “Many Jews have big noses.  There, I said it.  And why shouldn’t I? I have a big nose. Many of my friends and family have big noses.  Big noses run in my family.”

Still, negative stereotypes persist—particularly online, where antisemitism has flourished over the past year. And while the hooked nose is but one antisemitic caricature of many, it is particularly pernicious in that it is assumed to be true—largely because its antisemitic history is not discussed nearly enough. So, as media companies remove shows from streaming sites that are seen as racially insensitive, will there be a reckoning when it comes to antisemitism as well? Without an understanding of its history, the hooked nose continues to spread negative stereotypes, and does little to combat discrimination. It is time for the media to start acknowledging this history and stop perpetuating the myth.