Defining anti-Semitism down


Tom Gross has collected a sampling of Arab press cartoons post flotilla. He asks:

When will politicians realize that anti-Semitism, both Arab and Western, including that in the media, is a severe impediment to solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?

It’s a good question, but it has more than one answer. One has to be: When we come up with an intellectually rigorous definition of anti-Semitism.

Tom Gross lacks one.

Some of the cartoons he includes are pronouncedly and explicably anti-Semitic. The lead cartoon, replacing the Star of David with a swastika, is; Any use of the swastika not directly related to the Nazis diminishes the significance of the Holocaust. Any application of the swastika to Israel or to Jews goes even further, negating the significance of the Holocaust.

If every Israeli objectionable act is a Holocaust, then nothing is a Holocaust. Jewish suffering means nothing.

The same goes for the cartoons that feature ancient caricatures of Jews as cloaked and hook-nosed.

These also use religious garb as a metaphor. In this case, that, too is anti-Semitic, because they suggest a religious underpinning to the action, in this case the flotilla raid; the religion itself is impugned as inalterably bloodthirsty. I have seen cases, though, (not among the cartoons Gross compiles here) where the matter is a little more vexed: If a decision by an Orthodox body is involved — if the cartoonist or satirist is targeting the Shas Party, for instance — then, the use of religious garb is legitimate.

Where Gross goes off the rails, I think, is in his inclusion of cartoons that depict the Israeli flag and other national symbols. He likens the use of the Star of David and the menorah, as religious symbols, to cartoons mocking Mohammed.

There are two problems with this: First, Mohammed is a legitimate target, religion is a legitimate target, Judaism is a legitimate target, as long as the attacks have to do with provable tenets. A vegetarian who mocks shechita as cruel should not risk being impugned as an anti-Semite. The vegetarian may not be operating within a general consensus about the practice, but according to the conventions specific to philosophical vegetarianism, it is undeniably cruel.

The cartoons in Gross’ collection that depict religious Jews as murderers are anti-Semitic because they take a normative national act — a military raid, however justified, or not — and attach to it a depiction of the religion of Judaism as essentially bloodthirsty. This is not only a calumny, it is one that has led to violence against Jews. The difference, in terms of Mohammed, would be, say, in depicting the prophet in a cartoon making an issue of the second class status of women in much of the Islamic world (legitimate); and as a shifty bargain-obsessed vendor (illegitimate, and a calumny that has been used to diminish Arabs).

Second, these — the Star of David and the menorah — are not just symbols of religion, they are symbols of state. Such symbols are part of the language of cartooning — we can’t exempt them any more than Muslims could exempt those flags that depict the crescent moon, or Christians exempt the Swiss flag. It’s an absurd standard.

The two Kuwaiti cartoons Gross includes are illustrative:

Using a Star of David to crucify a dove? Sure it’s anti-Semitic, but only because it invokes the calumny of the Jewish murder of Christ. But the rotating, blood-tipped ninja? It’s not to my taste, but what’s anti-Semitic about it? It attaches bloodthirstiness not to a people or to a religion, but to a national policy. It would easily transfer to any flag that depicts stars, and there are plenty.

There’s a similar dichotomy in the two Lebanese cartoons:

The depiction of Bibi as fanged with bullets comes close, at least, to crossing a line, by invoking notions of Jewish vampirism. The blood-red sea? What does that mean, except that innocents died at sea? We may not regard the nine dead as "innocent," but it is hardly anti-Semitic for the Lebanese cartoonist to embrace that narrative, any more than it was racist for hundreds of cartoonists to assume OJ Simpson’s guilt or uphold his innocence before that case was settled. Or even since, for that matter.

The depiction of a menorah as a weapon is ugly, in my taste, but it is an Israeli national symbol.

The least offensive cartoon, I find, stripes a fierce dragon in the colors of the Israeli flag that keeps rescuers from reaching a desolate Palestinian.

All this invokes is the fierce isolation imposed by a blockade. A couple of tweaks — arming the Palestinian with a rocket launcher — and the cartoon could be pro-Israel.

When we are promiscuous with the charge of anti-Semitism — applying it, for instance, to the dragon, whom I’ve kind of grown to like — we diminish its meaning, and we make it easier for the politicians Gross decries to ignore the phenomenon.

A caveat: When I use "legitimate" and "illegitimate" here, I’m not calling for any censorship. Let all these cartoons run, I say, just as the Danish cartoons should never have been censored. However, I agree with Gross’ implied argument that the Arab governments allowing these cartoons would not allow cartoons that offend Islam, or even Arab nationalism. In that context, allowing these cartoons to run is, as Gross suggestspolitical, and the governments deserve to be called on it when the cartoons cross into anti-Semitism.

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