Eddy Portnoy
The Jewish Daily Forward (Opinion)
January 30, 2013 - 1:00am

When it comes to cartoons, it’s usually Muslim fundamentalists that throw hissy fits. But, in a turn of events, some of our storied communal defenders, Abraham Foxman and Marvin Hier among them, have taking the lead. Indiscriminately tossing around accusations of anti-Semitism, our fearless leaders have attacked at least three editorial cartoonists over the past few months on charges that they have defamed the Jewish people.

Representing important institutions, you’d think that Foxman, of the Anti-Defamation League, and Hier, who represents the Simon Wiesenthal Center, might have figured out how to differentiate an anti-Semitic cartoon from an editorial cartoon that criticizes Israeli policy. Although both are undoubtedly experts on anti-Semitism, they both seem to take leave of their senses when it comes to criticism of Israel. And yet both claim to be ardent supporters of free speech. Except when it comes to that one thing, that Israel thing.

So when the London Times published a cartoon showing Benjamin Netanyahu cementing Palestinians between bricks of a wall, it was a perfect opportunity for Foxman to pipe up, accusing the cartoonist of evoking the blood libel. Britain’s Chief Rabbi opined that the cartoon caused “immense pain to the Jewish community in the UK and around the world.” The Israeli ambassador to Britain, who also chimed in on behalf of the International Jewry, argued that the cartoon added insult to injury, as it was published on European Holocaust Memorial Day.

Okay, so the cartoon and its timing were a bit ham-handed, for which Acting Editor of The Sunday Times Martin Ivens apologized. Gerald Scarfe, who has been visually excoriating British politicians since the late 1960s, was the artist behind Pink Floyd’s, The Wall. It appears, walls are, when all else fails, his fallback metaphor.

Sure, his cartoon wall dripping with Palestinian blood references the separation wall, which incidentally, isn’t particularly newsworthy right now, so it doubles as a symbol of Netanyahu’s recalcitrance vis-à-vis the peace process and how it crushes Palestinian life. Netanyahu comes in for some harsh criticism here, but so do all the other public figures Scarfe has drawn over the years. In fact, compared to Margaret Thatcher, Bibi gets off easy. It’s an obnoxious cartoon, but it’s not anti-Semitic. It’s also been removed from the Times website.

It’s not a particularly clever cartoon, but, thanks to a distinctly Jewish hysteria that raises its hackles when Israel or its leaders are on the receiving end of a perceived slight, it’s garnered a huge amount of press. The inaccurate accusations of blood libel and anti-Semitism seem to be attempts to stifle such commentary, and, perhaps more importantly, to get figures like Foxman and Hier in the spotlight. Press coverage such as this cartoon has received and, even better, Rupert Murdoch’s tweeted apology for it are fundraising gold for their organizations.

Are Jewish leaders and politicians off limits for editorial cartoonists? Are only the most milquetoast criticisms of Israel permitted in an editorial field that is notorious for its brutal critiques? It bears repeating that not all criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic. To slap that label wantonly on anything they don’t agree with, Israel’s supporters risk degrading the meaning of anti-Semitism.

It goes without saying that the ADL and the Wiesenthal Center have done great work combatting anti-Semitism and racism. But when they overreach, as they’ve done here, it’s a huge disservice to their cause.

This said, it’s an absolute mystery as to why they missed the chance to attack Guardian cartoonist, Steve Bell’s mid-November piece, which showed Netanyahu as a puppet master, holding up small versions of Tony Blair and William Hague on a podium. Perhaps they felt their British counterparts could handle it on their own, which they did, with the same type of overreactive aplomb.

Again, Bell’s cartoon was aimed only at Bibi and his perceived British minions and not the Jews at large. But, London’s Jewish Chronicle brought out the anti-Semitism charge, and it caused a ruckus. This time, the charge at least had some rationale as Bell unwittingly used an anti-Jewish puppeteer trope that has been around since the Nazi era. While Bell obviously didn’t intend it as such, hypersensitive sensibilities perceived it as crossing a line. Even the Guardian’s Readers Editor agreed. But where were our hall monitors?

At the time, Hier was busy fulminating over a different cartoon, one by Brazilian cartoonist, Carlos Latuff, which showed Netanyahu standing over a ballot box, squeezing votes out of a dead Palestinian child. Hier was so incensed that he put Latuff the No. 3 slot in the Wiesenthal Center’s hokey, year-end top 10 list of anti-Semites, right behind the Muslim Brotherhood and Iran.

“[It’s] almost worse than an anti-Semitic cartoon,” said Hier in response to the cartoon. What might be worse than an anti-Semitic cartoon isn’t made clear. But, according to Hier, this one nearly crosses the red line that’s apparently after that other red line. The irony is that this isn’t an anti-Semitic cartoon at all. It is an attack on Benjamin Netanyahu that accuses him of wringing votes out of Palestinian deaths during the recent conflagration in Gaza. In case the Wiesenthal Center needs a reminder, editorial cartoons typically use extreme exaggeration, as this one does, to make their points. The question this cartoon so indelicately raises is whether it’s possible for a country’s leader to initiate attacks on an enemy in order to gain votes in an upcoming election. Yes, it’s a vicious, one-sided attack, but vicious is standard fare — and should be — for an editorial cartoon.

That’s really the point here, that editorial cartoons are the angry delinquents of the opinion page, there to ruin the party with their vulgar displays. They pull their political targets apart in ways that text can’t. Their visual lexicon is part joke and part serious. They bend reality in ways that allow barely recognizable figures perform the impossible and still maintain credulity. Most people understand that political cartoons are an integral part of a normative editorial page and accept their distortions as a unique form of critical commentary. The context in which they appear is also important: The Guardian and the London Times are not Der Stuermer. Their existence as part of a free press in a liberal democracy precludes that. Why the ADL and the Wiesenthal Center can’t grasp that is a mystery.

Slapping “anti-Semitism” on every obnoxious editorial cartoon that criticizes Israeli policy is mission creep for Foxman and Hier. There’s plenty of real anti-Semitism out there for them to deal with, and they know it. Genuine, truly rank anti-Semitic cartoons are published frequently throughout the Arabic, Farsi and other presses, cartoons that are not satire, but propaganda. Both organizations know this. But getting an apology Tweet from Rupert Murdoch garners a lot more press than one from an unknown Bahraini editor.


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