Making a Cartoon Out of Support for Israel

The objections of once-reasonable organizations like ADL to the Economist's cartoon on Iran and Obama were stupid, wrong and counterproductive, for a long list of reasons.

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

The cartoon police have scored another famous victory: They have forced one of the world's most respected and principled publications, The Economist, to remove a cartoon from its website over claims of anti-Semitism. Not that there were any official complaints by any recognized Jewish community or Israeli authorities, but the pack of hungry media watchdogs terrorizing the web can, at the drop of a pen, generate a simulated wave of rage that is capable of making even grizzled media moguls quake in their boots.

This virtual world of outrage has created such an impression that even once-respectable organizations such as the Anti-Defamation League and the Wiesenthal Center are now wasting their time policing the press.

The offending drawing accompanied a feature on the future of the talks on Iran's nuclear program and pictured presidents Barack Obama and Hassan Rohani trying to shake hands above a chasm, while the Iranian leader was being held back by bearded Iranians and his American counterpart was chained to the seal of the United States Congress.

Where was the anti-Semitism? Good question! A casual glance would never have noticed, but the eagle-eyed immediately spied the subtle change to the Congressional seal where two of the stars had been altered to blue and white stars of David. Cue the Pavlovian accusation of anti-Semitic "canard" (a world that really should only be used in culinary settings) that "the Jews control the Congress."

Well, it could mean that if you particularly wanted it to, or if you already believed it was the case. It makes more sense to interpret the cartoon as saying that Israel is influential on the Capitol (which it undoubtedly is) and that it has been lobbying senators to vote for new sanctions on Iran (which it has), nixing any future talks with the Iranians for the foreseeable future. But don't let any sensible explanation divert the canardinals from their righteous rage.

The cartoon originally appeared in last Friday's print edition of the Economist and as the storm gathered over the weekend, quite rightly, the magazine's editors elegantly demurred from apologizing and instead simply removed it from the website; they simply removed it from the website adding at the foot of the page that "The print edition of this story had a cartoon which inadvertently caused offence to some readers, so we have replaced it with a photograph." The obviously intended irony here is wonderful; after all, cartoons are supposed to cause offense advertently and anyone who chooses to take offense when none was intended is doing so on his own account.

Some may say that even if the cartoon wasn't actually anti-Semitic in any real way, it was still right to object to it because it did allude to a theme much beloved of Jew-haters and history teaches us that we should err on the side of caution in these matters. Even if one accepted that, the heavy-handed and hysterical way the ADL and others went about their objections, with National Director Abe Foxman demanding "a full-throated apology" and an explanation from the Economist "why this image implying Jewish control was so outrageous and hurtful could only have served to bolster the image of the American Jewish leadership (no, not of all Jews, just the self-appointed leaders) as thin-skinned bullies with no sophistication or regard for nuance whatsoever.

Their objections were stupid, wrong and counterproductive for a long list of reasons. Firstly, because bullying is always wrong and censorship is nearly always wrong. Secondly, because they have succeeded once again in cheapening the noble fight against real Jew hatred. They will get some kudos for their grandstanding from their like-minded supporters, but the supporters Israel really needs, those with question marks and the capability to see shades of gray in the increasingly polarized public debate over Israel's role in the Middle East and standing in American politics, will have been further estranged. All they have done is reinforce the image of a forceful and belligerent Israel incapable of addressing an issue without a sledgehammer. They have done Israel no favors by trying to suppress the questions Israel must answer, first of all to itself.

Maybe there is a chance that diplomacy can solve the Iranian nuclear issue, or at least provide a justification for further sanctions and even military action if diplomacy fails (the Economist is rather skeptical of this). Certainly it is in Israel's interests to find out. Questioning whether or not Israel is doing the right thing by lobbying Congress in an effort to hamper the diplomatic efforts is not only legitimate but also in Israel's interests. Foxman and his minions haven't made that question go away, only further succeeded in making the American-Jewish establishment a poor caricature of sensible leadership.

Detail of the Economist cartoon by Peter Schrank featuring a Star of David on the Congress emblem.
The controversial Economist cartoon that was on its Middle East & Africa landing page until Tuesday afternoon.
Detail of the Economist cartoon by Peter Schrank featuring a Star of David on the Congress emblem.

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