Jacob Remes deserves, depending on your judgment, the credit or the blame for pitting Josh Cherniss and I against each other over Tony Auth’s recent cartoon. His original take on Auth’s work is here; his more extensive, and fairly moderated, take, in response to my earlier post, is here. In responding to his eloquent piece, I should start by noting that there is a great deal about which, in principle, Josh and I agree. We stand by the importance of distinctions between anti-Sharon, anti-Israel, and antisemitic sentiment, and recognize that, as he says, “many extreme and dogmatic defenders of Israel,” as well as too many critics of Israel, “casually ignore this distinction, to their great dishonour.” We both maintain that, as Josh says, “we should be careful in how we employ symbols — and may with justice criticize others for not taking such care — ESPECIALLY when we agree with the point they were trying, or may have been trying, to make.” Josh and I both share with Tony Auth an opposition to the “separation fence,” the occupation, and the settlement project. And like Josh, I’ve felt and expressed a special frustration with those who use unjust tactics or offensive rhetoric in the service of a cause I share. The case of Professor Qumsiyeh, to which I alluded in my previous post, who sent to the Yale Coalition for Peace listserve what he believed was the membership list of the pro-war Yale College Students for Democracy, and was actually the list for an Israel discussion listserve, is for me the most telling recent example. Instructively, but not surprisingly, after I and then other students in Yale Peace rebuked him over the listserve, the story was spun as further evidence of the antisemitism of the left without mention that leftists had been the first to condemn his actions.
It doesn’t seem worth devoting too much space to defending myself from an accusation of having “an ideological persecution complex,” especially given Josh’s admission of using my “minor side-comment as an opportunity to express [his] thought” about the attraction of the victim posture. I’ll just say that I agree that demonstrating persecution is not a substitute for demonstrating virtue (Josh’s word choice), while sharing that I think accusations of a “victim mentality” are too often – in other contexts – a substitute for confronting the arguments offered by, or the injustice witnessed by another. I don’t believe (despite being called a Nazi, a self-hating Jew, etc. on occasion) that being a Jewish critic of Israel makes me a victim of some sort. But I also don’t believe that making the personal and empirical observation that much left criticism of Israel “come[s] under fire…as not only critical of the Sharon government but anti-Israel, and not only anti-Israel but antisemitic” represents “a wallowing in victimhood, a sheer love of whining and feeling put upon,” or even a lesser shade of such.
Josh suggests that because Sharon does not appear in Auth’s cartoon, it must be anti-Israel at the least rather than anti-Sharon. Terms like “anti-Israel” are as ambiguous as they are charged – the cartoon is only anti-Israel, as I see it, in the sense that it presents a strident critique of Israel and uses the central symbol of the state in connection with oppression. That may pass Josh’s bar for anti-Israel – I wouldn’t render that inherently anti-Israel any more than I would a depiction of, say, the Statue of Liberty carrying Japanese into internment camps anti-American. To me the cartoon is anti-Sharon in the sense that it dramatically criticizes a policy of the Sharon government, even if Arik himself is absent from the cartoon. But at the center of our dispute isn’t how to draw different shades of political criticism of the state but how to draw the line between political criticism of the state and religious bigotry – the charges being leveled at Tony Auth now are not primarily of offering anti-Israel criticism but rather of offering antisemitic criticism – although much of the criticism comes from people and organizations, I should note, who seem to be interested in charging the latter only when it offers an opportunity to discredit the former.
Josh reads me incorrectly as seeing “the ‘appropriation’ of the Star of David as the symbol for Israel — and, thus, the symbol for supporters of Israel, including diehard Likudniks (and worse) — as somehow making it cease to be a symbol of the Jewish people.” Not at all. The Jewish star today is identified as a symbol of the Jewish faith and people, and as a symbol of the state and government of Israel (while I maintain that the Jewish star is used and has been as a religious symbol, Josh is right to remind me that the historical root and dominant use of the Jewish star is as a symbol of the Jews more than of Judaism). But just as the political symbol doesn’t erase the historic meaning of the star, neither should the latter invalidate the former. Josh seems to be suggesting either the reverse of the statement he attributes to me – that the use of the star as a symbol of the Jewish people makes it invalid as a symbol for Israel – or that the star is a valid symbol for Israel but inaccessible to Israel’s critics. Either of these arguments seems to me rather troubling, both, I think, for obvious reasons. There’s little of substance I would disagree with in Josh’s characterization of the historical and current resonance of the Jewish star – as he says, “It has been worn — sometimes proudly and voluntarily, sometimes forcibly and with shame and fear — by Jews throughout history.” No one could reasonably argue with Josh’s admonishment that “given how potent and fraught symbolic politics are, we should be careful how we employ symbols…” But that said, we should also be careful how we read symbols. And I don’t think it’s unreasonable for Auth to use the star in the cartoon as representative of the state which imposes the fence on the civilians – the fence and the civilians being the second and third symbols of the cartoon. And I strongly reject the idea – one promulgated on print and around the web, but one which in fairness Josh implied in his original post but seems to have backed away from – that to do so makes Auth a bigot. I can’t think what the better symbol for this particular cartoon would be – the menorah, in my judgment, which appeals on the seal of the state, is a distant second as a national symbol. It also co-exists as a religious symbol (and an evocative one which, like most Jewish symbols, is tinged with memories of oppression), and it lacks the currency in the American consciousness that the star has as a symbol for Israel. Josh’s conclusion may be that a cartoon of this type – combining the national symbol of a state with a symbol of the oppression it’s visiting on others – simply shouldn’t be drawn. I don’t think that’s an easily acceptable conclusion. .And again, I think it’s illustrative that the Israeli government, Israeli politicians, and right-wing lobbies all plaster their material with the symbol of the star. While I might sometimes find such use of the star (much like much of the use of the American flag) tasteless, I wouldn’t deny them that symbol from their vocabulary.
Incidentally, if Auth intentionally adapted a similar-looking Nazi cartoon, obviously that would be tremendously problematic. But absent that, as aesthetically unsettling as the similarities might be, I don’t think the argument that Auth’s cartoon resembles a Nazi one is an effective critique
Josh seems to fail, or decline, to distinguish between provocative and offensive commentary – or between that which offends and that which is offensive. Political cartooning is a provocative medium, and some of its best achievements are among its most provocative. Tony Auth’s cartoon after the lynching of Israeli soldiers in Ramallah on October 12, 2001 (I remember because I was in Hod HaSharon at the time), redrawing the photo of one of the Palestinian killers pressing his blood-stained hands against a window and replacing him with the image of Yassir Arafat, was highly provocative (and like much of Auth’s work, not overly clever). And provoking intentionally – a charge Josh levels against Auth – doesn’t strike me as poor behavior on the part of an artist. But if offensive works are to be condemned (but not – I assume Josh agrees with me – censored), then offensiveness must be some quality – like, say, religious bigotry – beyond being observed to offend some people. I agree with Josh that, “It should be very easy to criticize Israel on its merits right now, and not be open to imputations of anti-Semitism from any reasonable person.” But when critics of Israel are subjected to imputations of antisemitism, we should ask ourselves whether the problem is the critics of Israel, or the critics’ critics. Josh shifts in his post between criticizing Auth for being offensive, and criticizing Auth for opening the left up to attack from the right, for giving “a gift to the Likud.” And while I agree with Josh that one mistake peace movements make is a failure to disavow bigotry promulgated in their name, I’d contend that another mistake peace movements make is allowing themselves to be cowed out of making difficult charges by the threat of being tarred with unjustified accusations of bigotry. There are few to the left of Alan Dershowitz who can criticize Israel in a manner that CAMERA would approve. One of the major obstacles to the execution of a coherent Jewish response to genuine antisemitism is the frequency of spurious charges. As Uri Avnery argued, antisemitism used to be a charge that people shrunk from with haste. Now the real antisemites have safe cover among the increasing ranks of non-antisemitic critics branded with the label. In other words, absolutely there’s a difference between Die Sturmer and (as much as I hold its cartoons in about the same estimation the writers of Seinfeld do) the New Yorker. Which is why treating the New Yorker like Die Sturmer is such a mistake. I’ll admit to being somewhat mystified by Josh’s narrative in which the Likudniks and their American allies were “slinking about silently trying to ignore the marriage law” before Tony Auth spurred them on and rendered them “suddenly up in arms” – I think this may be another case where the “blogosphere” fails to reflect the pulse of the broader populace.
Was Auth’s cartoon the most effective image to convey his message? I’m not sure. But the charges of bigotry leveled against it are unjust, and in many cases, quite suspiciously motivated. I’m glad Josh has backed a few steps away from them. Where Josh accuses Auth of poor political judgment, or failure to advance the cause of the peace movement, I’m skeptical. But his charges of foolish offensiveness I have to reject.