This Tony Auth cartoon has caused a stir in several Philadelphia, Jewish, and on-line circles since it was printed in the Philadelphia Inquirer last Thursday. The cartoon, which depicts a fence in the shape of a Jewish star dividing Palestinian civilians, has come under fire – as do most on the left about Israel – as not only critical of the Sharon government but anti-Israel, and not only anti-Israel but antisemitic. And, as in most but not all cases when Israel is the topic and antisemitism is charged, the charge doesn’t hold weight.
At the heart of the issue with this cartoon is the symbolic use of the Magen David, the Jewish star. Because Auth uses a religious symbol, the argument goes, the cartoon represents a religious – rather than political – slur, a blood libel. Because the star is employed in connection with a depiction of oppression, the cartoon’s message must be that the religion, and the coreligionists, associated with the star are oppressive. But this argument disregards the appropriation of the Jewish star a century ago for the flag of the State of Israel. The star, which appears in the center of the flag framed above and below by horizontal stripes, is its only recognizable symbol, and appears solo in a range of administrative contexts, as understandably is also a mainstay of pro-Sharon lobbies. So why the Magen David does not belong to the lexicon of acceptable symbols for Auth is seems to me difficult to argue.
This may seem like a belated nitpick, but there’s a larger and more persistent issue here. Whatever one believes about the religious nature of the state, I think intellectual honesty demands a recognition that any self-identified religious state inherently blurs the discourse, insofar as most of us legitimize and call for judgments of states and political actors of a type that we don’t want or legitimate of religions or religious groups. But pundits on both sides can fall prey to a desire to have it both ways. A couple months ago I called a Yale professor active on the Yale-Peace listserve on a seeming inability or willful refusal to distinguish between Jews, Zionists, Likudniks, Israelis, and neoconservatives. But the double standard on the right is more subtle and more ubiquitous: Groups that defend the Israeli government are pro-Jewish and speak for Jews, but when critics of Israel conflate the state and the religion it’s bigotry. It would be gratifying to see more politicians willing to distinguish the Jewish community and Arik Sharon when it comes to commentary they agree with and commentary they don’t.
Katha Pollitt, in an essay on flags after September 11, wrote that symbols are doors and it’s time to walk through them (when I asked her in person what she had meant by that quote, she said she didn’t remember ever writing it). Symbolic politics is inherently potent and inherently fraught. And all cartoons are charicature. As cartoonists go, Auth isn’t a particular favorite of mine, although he has his moments. But Auth’s cartoon has three symbols. The first, as described above, is perhaps the primary symbol of the state. The second, Palestinian civilians, exist by the millions in the territory occupied by that state. And the third, the fence in question, is lengthening even now. The criticism of Auth for using the symbol, and the implication that his symbolism is akin to Nazi propaganda and/or is comparing Israelis to Nazis to Nazis, makes it easy to forget that in this case life preceded art. The actual fence, in fact, looks a lot uglier than portrayed in the cartoon. Auth chose to make a statement – not a particularly new one – about the construction of the fence in the name of the star and its impact on men, women, and children. Debatable? Sure. Bigotry? No.