Thursday, May 30, 2019
When Trope Is Truth: Many Things Labelled 'Anti-Semitic' Are Just Ethnically & Politically Inconvenient
“Remember the cartoon the New York Times ran from a European syndicate a month ago, showing Netanyahu as a dog with a star of David collar leading a blind Trump wearing a skullcap?” This was Phil Weiss at Mondoweiss the other day, revisiting a controversial op-ed cartoon that “caused a ton of fallout for the newspaper, none of it positive.” According to Weiss, two former Times reporters now say “the cartoon crossed the line, but it could have appeared in an Israeli newspaper without the same level of furor.” As Weiss goes on to explain:
The episode is worth revisiting because it sheds light on the keen sensitivity in the U.S. to apparent anti-semitic imagery — and the corresponding indifference here to anti-Palestinian commentary.
The cartoon by a Portuguese artist, António Moreira Antunes, ran on April 25; and it unleashed a firestorm of criticism. The paper soon apologized for publishing an “offensive cartoon” that “included anti-Semitic tropes” and stated that one editor had made an error of judgment. The view of the cartoon as “baldly antisemitic” was widely shared in the press, due to Antunes’s use of a yarmulke and star of David to identify the two leaders. The ADL said the cartoon was reminiscent of Nazi themes.
And though Antunes protested that he had never intended his cartoon to be anti-Semitic, but had sought to portray a political reality, he did not help his case when he said that the “Jewish propaganda machine” was behind the controversy.
The Times apologized several times. The publisher issued a statement saying that the paper had fallen short of its standards and that the editor who approved the image would face disciplinary action and the paper was “updating our unconscious bias training” to include a focus on anti-Semitism. The paper ended its subscription to the European syndicate that had provided the cartoon.
And the Times editorial page published a lead editorial calling the cartoon “obviously bigoted” and “appalling.” Though it also needed to explain its editor’s “numbness” in not being aware of such obvious bigotry. That was part of the danger.
[H]owever it came to be published, the appearance of such an obviously bigoted cartoon in a mainstream publication is evidence of a profound danger — not only of anti-Semitism but of numbness to its creep, to the insidious way this ancient, enduring prejudice is once again working itself into public view and common conversation.
The editorial went on to apologize for the paper’s failure to cover anti-Semitism in Europe in the ’30s and ’40s:
The Times was largely silent as anti-Semitism rose up and bathed the world in blood. That failure still haunts this newspaper.
It must be noted that pro-Israel forces seized on the cartoon to argue that the Times has a deeply-rooted bias against Israel. The paper was picketed by pro-Israel protesters, among them Alan Dershowitz; and Bret Stephens wrote a column titled, “A Despicable Cartoon in the Times.”
This week, two former Times reporters said the cartoon could have appeared in an Israeli newspaper without a furor. Joseph Berger and Ethan Bronner, both of whom have covered Jewish issues/Israel, spoke to Gary Rosenblatt of the Jewish Week. Bronner noted the legitimacy of the cartoonist’s critique and pointed out that Antunes had used a Jewish symbol to identify Netanyahu because readers might not have recognized him otherwise.
Bronner said he believes the theme of the cartoon, that President Trump is unduly influenced by Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, is “a legitimate topic of commentary and satire.
“The problem is that there is virtually no way to depict Jews or the state of Israel in a cartoon without using liturgical elements of Judaism — a Jewish star, yarmulke, menorah, etc. — and the result is you’re mirroring anti-Semitic cartoons of an earlier era.” He added that if the same cartoon appeared in an Israeli newspaper, it would not have caused such a sensation.
Bronner also said the context is criticism of Israel:
Bronner made a point of noting that the cartoon syndicate in question is in Europe, where the criticism of Israel and its policies is more vocal than in the U.S.
Joseph Berger said the cartoon could have been published in Israel without the same controversy:
As for the cartoon that precipitated the most recent round of anti-Times fervor, Berger said it was the yarmulke on Trump’s head that “made it about Judaism and put it over the edge.” But he acknowledged that had the same cartoon been published in Haaretz, the left-leaning Israeli daily, he and others might not have seen it in as harsh a light.
Berger told Rosenblatt he could not recall such “a self-critical editorial in The Times” as the one apologizing for the failure to cover anti-Semitism in the last century.
This episode seems important to bear in mind because though the cartoon was offensive, the response has been so over-the-top and so grave in character, that it is sure to make anyone who wants to criticize or mock the U.S.-Israel special relationship think twice. (And if you’re going to try to explain Trump’s subservience by blaming Adelson/the Israel lobby, you must be a bigot.) The Corbyn battle in the UK is coming to the Democratic Party soon.
Bronner and Berger’s comments are also a reminder that criticisms of Israel that are OK in Israeli papers are not allowed here, presumably because it’s not OK to discuss some things in front of non-Jews/or Jews can say stuff non-Jews can’t (a rule that applies to other minorities, as well). As Peter Beinart wrote this week in the Forward, he was taught that Jews should be wary about being too critical of Israel in front of non-Jews.
when it comes to pressuring Israel, [there’s] a voice inside their head that says: Don’t turn on your own. The voice says that Israel, whatever its flaws, is family, and the Palestinians are not. It says that when anti-Semitism is rising, including on the left, you don’t throw chum in the water. Once American Christians grow comfortable condemning and pressuring Israel, maybe we’ll find they enjoy it just a little too much.
I can think of many examples of Jewish voices in Israel that couldn’t be published here. Like Eva Illouz’s op-ed in Haaretz saying that the occupation is equivalent to slavery in the U.S. Or Amira Hass’s crushing report in Haaretz this week, “Renovated checkpoints mean Palestinians don’t feel like cows being led to slaughter.” Neither of these pieces was the least bit anti-Semitic, but if someone said it in the U.S., you know that charge would be leveled.
Now let’s flip the script. The Times has run four justifications of Israel’s killing of nonviolent Palestinian protesters in the last year without any apologies for anti-Palestinian racism, without any other columnists stepping in to say, Hey! let alone responses from the publisher and the editorial board mentioning the long history of racism toward Palestinians. Smearing Palestinians, as bloodthirsty terrorists who just want to hurt Jews, and who aren’t seeking their freedom and have no right to resist occupation — this is commonplace in American publications.
P.S. Bronner, now an editor at Bloomberg, is a liberal Zionist; and he said that the Times’s news policy is to treat Israel’s creation as a “triumph of history.” Good to know!
“The premise of the news coverage is that Israel is an ally of the U.S., a triumph of history and homeland of Jews, all of which is praiseworthy.”