Cartoon showing ‘dog’ Netanyahu leading ‘blind’ America is no slur

Cartoon showing ‘dog’ Netanyahu leading ‘blind’ America is no slur April 30, 2019
israel anti-semitism trump netanyahu
A Star of David adorns the Israeli national flag. (Jakob Breivik Grimstveit, Flikr, CC BY-SA 2.0)

I must protest.

Again.

Criticizing Israel is not in itself anti-Semitic.

Such a criticism would only be anti-Semitic — defined as “hostility to or prejudice against Jews” — if it also denigrated Israeli Jews simply for their Jewish culture or faith.

Yet, proponents of Israel in America and beyond continuously conflate any and all political criticisms of the Jewish-majority state with personal condemnation of all Jews.

They’re not.

Which is not to say that real anti-Semitism — virulent Jew hating — is not manifestly surging worldwide, including in the United States, for some as yet unexplained reason except the rise in xenophobic white supremacist, fascist disgust with non-white immigrants and Jews.

Just the other day, a 19-year-old kid in California carried an assault-style rifle into a Jewish synagogue and started firing — killing a fearless woman in the congregation who stepped between the rabbi and gunman, and non-fatally wounding several others, including a young girl. He is now in police custody.

So, there’s that, these horrifically frequent hate-fueled shootings of people of faith around the world — whether they be Jews, Christians and Muslims — that seem to be increasing exponentially.

What is fair criticism? What is hate speech?

But criticizing Israel is in a different category entirely than criticizing Judaism and its adherents — it’s political, not an ethnic or religious, condemnation. The difference is when the criticism focuses on a nation and the policies of its political leaders versus when it targets a people’s purported ethnicity or religion.

However, that doesn’t stop Israel aficionados from screaming “anti-Semitism” every single time the policies of Israel and their effective subjugation and dehumanization of Palestinians is condemned.

The latest instance of a bogus charge of anti-Semitism was in an article yesterday by regular New York Times columnist Bret Stephens. If he were a PR flack for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the spin piece would not have read any differently.

Stephens lambasted a political cartoon the Times published in its smaller-circulation international edition. It showed President Donald Trump (wearing a Judaic yarmulke and skullcap), portrayed in sunglasses as a figurative blind man, being pulled along by a guide dog representing Netanyahu, with a Star of David hanging from its collar.

To me, this was a completely appropriate political cartoon that fairly implied that Israel was leading a feckless America to do its bidding. Whether or not that’s true is beside the point in this debate. The question is whether it prejudicially denigrates Jews rather than fairly criticizes Israeli policy.

A fair criticism

Clearly it specifically criticizes Israel, and tags the U.S. for being its dupe. The cartoon has nothing to say about the Jewish faith or Jewishness, except indirectly when it logically employs the Star of David symbol to represent the Jewish state, not as a dog whistle against Jews.

Using the Star of David around the dog’s neck is doubly appropriate in that Netanyahu is a virulently right-wing Zionist, a demagogue of the political movement that created Israel as a homeland for Jews and is still rabidly committed to protecting it. And, don’t forget, the Star of David is on the Israeli flag.

What is to be fairly condemned in all of this is that to create an apartheid Jewish nation required confiscating land of Palestinian Arabs, most of whom happen to be Muslims, and treating those within state boundaries as second-class citizens and subjugating those beyond as threats to national security.

The political charge leveled by the cartoon says nothing about Judaism and its adherents, per se, so it is not anti-Semitic. Since it’s wholly targeted at sovereign Israeli and American politics, it’s political. This, of course, doesn’t mean that people who oppose Israel aren’t ever anti-Semites, as well, but this cartoon does not indicate that.

Think of a Jim Bakker cartoon. He’s wearing a cross.

If this were anti-Semitic, then it would likewise be anti-Christian to depict a cross hanging from the neck of, say, convicted televangelist swindler Jim Bakker in a political cartoon denouncing him for illegally fleecing his flock. The cross would not a slur in that context but a marker to identify Bakker — whose Christian boni fides are what directly provided him with carte blanche to cheat his faithful out of millions.

The point is, Bakker in this fictitious cartoon was being criticized not for his faith but his criminality, as Netanyahu in the real cartoon is being depicted not as a hateful Jew but as a manipulative political Machiavelli. The former would be anti-Semitic, the later appropriate political commentary.

Stephens in his column, however, sees the Trump-Netanyahu cartoon as an undeniably egregious example of anti-Semitism.

“Here was an image that, in another age, might have been published in the pages of Der Stürmer,” he wrote. “The Jew in the form of a dog. The small but wily Jew leading the dumb and trusting American.”

Swap Putin for Netanyahu in cartoon

Let’s say the cartoon instead depicted the dog as Vladimir Putin, and that the hammer and sickle were Russia’s national symbol for its traditional Christian Orthodox faith, as the Star of David is for Israel (it’s the only emblem on its the flag). Would that be anti-Orthodox?

“The problem with the cartoon isn’t that its publication was a willful act of anti-Semitism. It wasn’t,” Stephens contends. “The problem is that its publication was an astonishing act of ignorance of anti-Semitism.”

So, he’s saying that anything that is viewed by Jews today as having been truly anti-Semitic in the past, as with Nazi propaganda, should be prohibited from use in the present even if the purpose is clearly political and non-anti-Semitic.

The Times publicly and effusively apologized for publishing the cartoon.

It shouldn’t have. The cartoon is the kind of appropriate political commentary the First Amendment originally envisioned and continues to protect. It was not hate speech.

It’s silly to think we can only criticize Israel and its leaders if we don’t even obliquely reference its national faith, from which the state is indivisible.

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