From Consortium News
T he New York Times was so sorry last month for publishing an allegedly anti-Semitic cartoon showing Benjamin Netanyahu as a guide dog leading a blind Donald Trump, that it has decided never to run any satirical cartoon on any topic again.
Based on five minutes of googling, the consensus seems to be that it's a gross over-reaction. But the reason the Times can't stop apologizing is that the cartoon shows the Israeli prime minister with a blue Star of David around his neck and Trump with a yarmulke atop his orange hairdo. Using such symbols in this way makes many people uncomfortable, which is understandable.
But imagine, if you will, a cartoon showing Canadian President Justin Trudeau with a maple leaf on his shirt, Angela Merkel with a German eagle, France's Emmanuel Macron dressed up like Napoleon, or Britain's Theresa May draped in a British flag? Why don't any of those stir an outcry?
The reason, one might counter, is that those images are political whereas the Star of David is religious. True, but that's precisely the point. Canada, France, and Germany are all secular societies in which church and state are firmly separate. (Britain is a bit more complicated thanks to the queen's role as head of the Church of England, but that's another story.) But the upshot is zero overlap as far as political and religious imagery are concerned.
Indeed, for all its sins, the same is true even for the United States. Think of America and what comes to mind Uncle Sam, a bald eagle, or a missile-laden F-16? Perhaps. What does not come to mind is the cross even though 75 percent of Americans identify as Christian, a higher portion than Canadians (67.3 percent), Germans (64.2), Brits (59.5), or French (51.1). Thanks to the First Amendment and a succession of Supreme Court cases dealing with things like school prayer, the U.S. government has been de-religionized and the very idea of America has been de-religionized as well.
But it's not true for Israel. To the contrary, the same Star of David that appears in the cartoon also appears on the national flag while the yarmulke is also virtually a national symbol thanks to the growing ultra-orthodox influence. Instead of separation of church and state, the consequence is an ever-closer union. Back in 2003, the late historian Tony Judt stirred a hornet's nest by pointing out that Israel has less in common in this respect with other postwar nations than it does with the ethno-religious states of the 1920s and '30s. As he put it in The New York Review of Books:
"At the dawn of the twentieth century, in the twilight of the continental empires, Europe's subject peoples dreamed of forming 'nation-states,' territorial homelands where Poles, Czechs, Serbs, Armenians, and others might live free, masters of their own fate. When the Habsburg and Romanov empires collapsed after World War I, their leaders seized the opportunity. A flurry of new states emerged; and the first thing they did was set about privileging their national, 'ethnic' majority defined by language, or religion, or antiquity, or all three at the expense of inconvenient local minorities, who were consigned to second-class status: permanently resident strangers in their own home."
Ironically, the most inconvenient local minority of all was the Jews, who were all but obliterated when the same ethno-states were taken over by fascism during World War II. Yet, under the Zionists, Israel has reduced Palestinians to strangers in their own land as well.
Indeed, the situation is far worse than when Judt wrote. Where Israel "risks falling" into the camp of "belligerently intolerant, faith-driven ethno-states," as he put it, it's now the leader of the pack, a role model for up-and-coming ethno-authoritarians like Hungary's Viktor Orba'n, Brazil's Jair Bolsonaro, or, of course, Trump, as they make their way through an increasingly illiberal political landscape.
One purpose of an ethno-state is to dazzle, confuse, and disarm. There are many reasons that the Star of David appears on the Israeli flag, but one of the most important is to de-legitimize the criticism of de-legitimization by making it all but impossible to attack the Jewish state without attacking Jews. Outsiders wind up damned if they do and damned if they don't, spineless apologists for an increasingly brutal regime if they keep their mouths shut, and anti-Jewish bigots if they dare to speak up.
This is the boat that António Moreira Antunes, the unfortunate Portuguese artist behind the Times cartoon, finds himself in now that he's been branded as anti-Semite across the globe. Antunes says he merely wanted to use Israeli national symbols to make a point, which is that "Trump's erratic, destructive and often blind politics encouraged the expansionist radicalism of Netanyahu." Yet he found himself running headlong into a buzz saw of condemnation almost before he laid down his pen.
Not only does such doubled-edged symbolism make honest criticism more difficult it also makes real anti-Semitism easier. Traditionally, anti-Semites have hidden their bigotry behind seemingly legitimate criticism of the Jewish state. Going on about this or that crime against the Palestinians is supposedly a way of going on and on about the Jews without quite saying so. But as the British anti-Zionist campaigner Tony Green stein points out, today's anti-Semites are good deal cleverer. Instead of hiding behind criticism, they hide behind support.