Isaac of York is a moneylender. He has a fortune of gold, which he keeps tightly locked up. From that horde, he shells out money to people who want to borrow it – Prince John, for one – and then waits to be repaid with a lot of interest. Obviously, this is a perfectly legitimate profession. We have enough credit cards and student loans to understand the value of Isaac's job. But Isaac comes in for a lot of hatred and violence as a result of his work. Why?
There are a couple of reasons why Isaac gets so much hate. First, he has a lot of what people want, which is money. Prince John and Reginald Front-de-Boeuf both threaten to torture him if he doesn't hand over his gold to them – and they have no intention of paying it back. So Isaac attracts a lot of envy and resentment for his wealth.
Really, though, the main reason so many of the characters in Ivanhoe hate Isaac is because he is Jewish. This novel is set in the 1190s, and the Middle Ages was a terrible time to be Jewish in Europe. The power of the Christian church during this era meant that a lot of Jews were horribly persecuted, especially in England. Isaac has learned to expect to be treated badly because of his religion.
Isaac meets every Christian certain that they are going to screw him over somehow. This suspicion makes him less fair as a businessman than he could be, and Isaac's poor business practices only make him even more hated. It's a vicious circle of suspicion and prejudice. Isaac sums up the injustice of his situation to Prior Aymer when they are both being held captive in Sherwood:
I pray of your reverence [Prior Aymer] to remember that I force my monies upon no one. But when churchman and layman, prince and prior, knight and priest, come knocking to Isaac's door, they borrow not his shekels with these uncivil terms. It is then, Friend Isaac, will you pleasure us in this matter, and our day shall be truly kept, so God sa' me? [...] And when the day comes, and I ask my own, then what hear I but Damned Jew! (33.40)
In other words, it's not like Isaac makes people borrow his money. Isaac loans money to everyone equally, no matter who they are. When his clients first approach him to borrow, they are always careful to treat him respectfully. As soon as the day comes to pay the bills, though, his clients call him a cheat and a usurer (someone who loans money at unfairly high interest rates). Isaac's religion gives the prejudiced people of the Middle Ages an excuse to treat him like garbage.
There is a scene in the show Mad Men when Rachel Menken, the Jewish owner of a New York department store, tells advertiser Don Draper, "Look, Jews have lived in exile for a long time. First in Babylon. Then all over the world – Shanghai, Brooklyn – and we've managed to make a go of it. It might have something to do with the fact that we thrive at doing business with people who hate us" (source).
Even though the settings of Mad Men and Ivanhoe are separated by eight centuries, Rachel Menken could almost be Isaac talking about the struggles of European Jews. Even in the face of truly hateful anti-Jewish threats – from Wamba "joking" about feeding Isaac pork to Front-de-Boeuf threatening to torture him to death – Isaac remains a successful businessman.
His success lies in the fact that he keeps working, no matter how much his clients abuse him. He is hugely stubborn, and he never gives up. Isaac sometimes seems to be a coward in Ivanhoe, like when he bows and grovels in Cedric's hall at Rotherwood or when he agrees to give Prince John money even though he demands an unfair amount from him. But though Isaac often appears timid, underneath his fearful mask is a tough heart and a spine of iron.
Okay, so we have tried to present a fair analysis of Scott's sympathetic depiction of Isaac in Ivanhoe, but we have to admit, we still have some problems with it.
Scott reminds us over and over again that Isaac has to deal with terrible prejudice against his people. Since the Saxons and the Normans are openly horrible to him, Scott says, it's not surprising that Isaac has become a timid man. If you're surrounded by haters all the time, of course you're going to become paranoid and defensive. In these respects, Scott appears sympathetic to Isaac's troubles.
But there's a flip side to Scott's portrayal of Isaac. He also says that Isaac is greedy and a miser, which are both common, awful stereotypes about Jewish people. When Robert Locksley/Robin Hood negotiates with Prior Aymer to help save Rebecca, Locksley actually warns Isaac, "Do not thou interrupt me with thine ill-timed avarice" (33.67). In other words, Locksley is telling Isaac not to ruin his efforts to help Rebecca through his greedy desire to hang onto his money.
We know that Isaac is a devoted father to Rebecca, so is it really possible he would hesitate for one second to give up his money to save his only daughter? Yet that's what the novel appears to imply. Isaac eventually declares that he would give up his whole fortune to save Rebecca, but the very suggestion that he might not says something about the greed that supposedly underlies his character.
Scott quotes a Shakespeare line from The Merchant of Venice on this exact theme, in the epigraph to Chapter 22: "My daughter – O my ducats – O my daughter!" This quote suggests that Jewish characters (in Shakespeare's case, the moneylender Shylock) love money as much (or more) than their own flesh and blood. By giving Isaac the same characteristics that a lot of anti-Jewish portrayals might also use, Scott undercuts his own message against prejudice.