Benjamin Netanyahu casts Hitler mustache on Angela Merkel / Marc Israel Sellem
Ah, the hazards of light and shadow.
When Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke at a press conference today with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, he didn’t mean to point his finger in a way that would cast upon her face a distinctly Hitler-mustache-like shadow. But point he did — and Jerusalem Post photographer Marc Israel Sellem captured the moment in a photo that’s now gone viral.
The image has unleashed a tidal wave of laughter, praise and puns. BuzzFeed ran it under the tongue-in-cheek headline “There Is Nothing Strange About This Photo of Angela Merkel — And You’re Crazy If You Think Otherwise.” Gawker ’s headline joked that “Angela Merkel Did Nazi This One Coming,” engendering a slew of comments like “Something’s not Reich here” and “Heil get you every time.” Inhabitants of the Twittersphere have been busy nominating it for “Picture of the Year,” while the photographer’s personal Facebook page has been inundated with back-slapping comments from friends (“Congratulations!” “Bravo!”).
But the photographer himself, and his employer, seem to be taking an altogether more bashful approach. Sellem initially uploaded the photo to his Facebook page, but then deleted it, according to BuzzFeed. The Jerusalem Post has said that it will not use the photo, with reporter Lahav Harkov taking care to clarify that the image did not (despite appearances) get posted to the Jerusalem Post’s Facebook page, and tweeting in quick succession:
Just want to clarify that none of the higher-ups at JPost are pushing that picture. It’s not on our site and won’t be in the newspaper. ampmdash; Lahav Harkov (@LahavHarkov) February 25, 2014
@ThorstenBr @iPostFeed It obviously was accidental. And JPost management didn't release it. I only tweeted once I saw it was already viral ampmdash; Lahav Harkov (@LahavHarkov) February 25, 2014
There’s a whiff of embarrassment and defensiveness about these remarks — and that’s probably just as it should be. Looking at this photo, you can’t help but laugh. But you also, well, kind of cringe.
Likening Merkel to Hitler — even accidentally and non-verbally — is especially cringe-worthy given what a conciliatory posture the German leader has taken towards world Jewry, the State of Israel, and even Netanyahu’s right-wing government. She took time out of her election campaign to pay her respects at the Dachau concentration camp. She called for the people of Germany to show “civil courage” in the fight against anti-Semitism. She said that a boycott against Israel is “not an option.” She even came out in support of Netanyahu’s controversial demand that the Palestinians recognize Israel as Jewish, calling that recognition “critical.”
All of these things make a Merkel-Hitler comparison awkward — so much so that, instead of just calling it “Picture of the Year,” we might do better to call it “Embarrassing Picture of the Year.”
The Jerusalem Post is right not to run such a photo. And their staff members are right to be (or at least publicly act) a bit bashful about the whole thing.
But, of course, the good sense they’re showing means almost nothing in practice. The image is out there, flooding news sites, social media sites, and even Getty Images. The sad fact is that today will be remembered not as the day a German leader received Israel’s highest civilian honor — oh yes, amidst all the laughter, did you not hear that Merkel received the Israeli Presidential Medal of Distinction from President Shimon Peres? — but as the day she was likened to her most notorious countryman.
Ironically, while accepting the medal from Peres, Merkel herself saw fit to bring up that countryman’s ignominious legacy. “In light of Germany’s responsibility for the tremendous suffering of the Jewish people in the Holocaust, receiving this award today is something of a miracle,” she said.
In other words, she acknowledged that the shadow of the Holocaust looms long and large over Germany’s relationship with Israel. Apparently, she just didn’t realize how literally that phrase applies.
Sigal Samuel is the Forward’s deputy digital media editor. When she’s not writing for the opinion section, she’s hunting down her Indian Jewish family’s kabbalistic secret societies. Her novel “The Mystics of Mile End,” available in Canada and forthcoming in the U.S., tells the story of a dysfunctional family with a dangerous mystical obsession. Her writing has also appeared in The Daily Beast, The Rumpus, BuzzFeed, Tablet and The Walrus, among others. Contact Sigal at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow her on Twitter at @SigalSamuel.