Author: Sam Seliger
In its April 27 international edition, the New York Times published an editorial cartoon. This cartoon depicted Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as a dog, wearing a collar with a Star of David (both a traditional Jewish symbol and the emblem of the Israeli flag) around his neck, while pulling a blind Donald Trump wearing a yarmulke (Jewish head covering worn during worship or throughout the day). Many from across the political spectrum were quick to deride the comic as anti-Semitic. The Times issued a series of apologies, fully accepting that the comic, which a foreign artist drew for a separate periodical and a Times editor later chose for publication in the international edition, was offensive.
But was it actually? No. Admittedly, some of the depictions lacked nuance; the portrayal of Trump wearing a yarmulke was probably not necessary and didn’t help anything. But still, the comic is not anti-Semitic. There are no exaggerated portrayals of a person with a big nose and hunched back, wielding bags of cash. There is nothing that makes any generalization about, or even mentions, the Jewish people. The cartoon just criticizes Netanyahu’s influence on President Trump. It certainly isn’t supportive of the current Israeli leaders, but that’s about it.
Much to the confusion of seemingly everybody, criticism of Israel has little to do with anti-Semitism. Just because somebody opposes some or all of the actions of the government of the Israeli Jewish state does not mean that they harbor any negative feelings toward Jewish people.
Take, for example, Rep Ilhan Omar (D-Min). After calling out pro-Israel lobby AIPAC with a tweet that alleged the organization was buying off American politicians, she faced tremendous backlash and allegations of anti-Semitism. While her comments did evoke the long-standing anti-Semitic stereotype that Jews use their money to control global politics, her numerous critics ignored the fact that she was right, and that pro-Israel PACs spend far more than PACs aligned with any other foreign country. While Omar’s comments were ignorant of a long and painful history, writing them off as inherently anti-Semitic was, much like the Times comic, an attempt to shield Israel from any and all criticism by labeling any and all critiques as anti-Semitic, and thus de-legitimizing them.
The practice of equating anti-Israel statements with anti-Semitic ones has become incredibly widespread, and it has two dangerous consequences. The first is that it makes it all but impossible to make criticisms, even the most mild and legitimate, of Israel and/or its government. Israel, just like every other country, is far from perfect.
Few would deny that the U.S. and our government are deserving of criticism; in fact, Americans are quick to criticize our own government, and protesting has been an important source of political change in our nation’s history. If, as many Jews believe, American Jews should remain highly involved in the State of Israel and work to improve it, then criticism is necessary. How else but through civil discourse are people supposed to call out problems they see?
By preventing rational criticisms of Israel’s many issues such as corruption, religious discrimination and civilian casualties in Palestinian settlements, supporters of Israel prevent those issues from being addressed. To say that these issues exist and are serious does not make me, a Jew, anti-Semitic. It simply means I want Israel to improve.
Many people feel that the general public is too quick to call out any critique of a Jewish person or organization as anti-Semitic. Speaking from personal, anecdotal experience, some feel that Jews have a unique and privileged exemption: Jews can call anything anti-Semitic and avoid facing consequences.
Calling out political cartoons about Israel will only worsen this problem, and as time progresses, more and more people may adopt the viewpoint that Jews are privileged. This is tremendously dangerous. Think of the story of the boy who cried wolf: after he pretended there was a wolf too many times, people ignored when there actually was a wolf. And the wolf of anti-Semitism certainly exists today. It is more present and more dangerous than it has been in the United States for many years. With mass shootings explicitly motivated by anti-Semitism and bomb threats at Jewish organizations across the country, Jews in America today are legitimately afraid of violence targeted against them, something that has not been the case for many decades.
If American Jews want the general public to stay vigilant in opposition to anti-Semitism, they need to make sure that they are crying about the right wolf.