Thursday, March 02, 2006

Oh, those Cartoons! Anti-Semitic? Or Anti-Israeli?

In response to Muslim rage over the Danish doodles, Muslims have been challenged with anti-Israeli cartoons taken as evidence of vicious anti-Semitism. But can one criticize the policies of the Israeli state without being accused of anti-Semitism? And what other government has managed to put itself so above criticism? Oh, but look at the cartoons! They are ugly stereotypes of Jews and profane the sacred symbols of Judaism. True enough, but let’s look at the context.

Political cartoons rely on stereotypes that would be crude and bufoonish elsewhere. Any survey of political cartoons would find the French drawn as apache dancers with baguettes, the English are cockneys or snooty umbrella-toters, the Germans are fat, officious men in monocles or women in braids and dirndls, etc., etc… Heaven knows we've been lately awash in Arabs with bulging eyes and unkempt beards, swinging huge scimtars. The cartoon stereotype of the Jew does have ugly historic resonance, but if Israel claims to represent the Jewish people they cannot reasonably protest being represented as Jewish people, even in a medium where most of the people are absurdly crude stereotypes.

Israeli leaders have declared themselves and their government THE representatives of the Jewish people – a claim that many of my Jewish friends and relatives dispute – and this government represents itself with the symbols of the Jewish religion. Take the Jewish star, the mogen david, which is so prominent in these cartoons. I don't like seeing it sullied, but it is the symbol on the Israeli flag. The Israeli state seal exploits a menorah. It is the Israelis who have made the sacred symbols of Judaism, the religion of my own family and forebears, into the signs of a worldly government. Religious symbols should be above vicious caricature, but political symbols are fair game. The Israeli government cannot have it both ways.

The icing on the cake is the comparison of caricatures of Muhammed with caricatures of Ariel Sharon. Inherent in this argument is equating a prophet of God with a particularly brutal politician.
This is not to deny that there is indeed crude and vicious hatred of Jews among Muslims (as there is also among Christians and others!) but when reasonable political criticism is assailed as religious hatred, this is "crying 'wolf''" in a way that makes serious challenges to actual bigotry all the more difficult.

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