Simple, Offensive and Out There
Cartoons and Extremism: Israel and the Jews in Arab and Western Media
Vallentine Mitchell, 201 pages, $26.95.
Joel Kotek’s “Cartoons and Extremism: Israel and the Jews in Arab and Western Media” is overwhelming. A portable gallery of some of the most revolting antisemitic cartoons and images available, the book traces popular antisemitic imagery from its theologically based origins in the medieval period — with side trips to Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union — to its main focus on contemporary anti-Israel and antisemitic cartoons in the modern Arab, Iranian and Western press.
Unpleasant as they are to look at, there is no question that vicious antisemitic cartoons should be collected and documented in order to understand the persistence of an angry and futile Judeophobia that spans the globe. Kotek, a professor at Belgium’s Free University of Brussels, has done a yeoman’s job amassing such a large collection of them. They are culled mainly from anthologies, like that of the Stephen Roth Institute for the Study of Contemporary Antisemitism and Racism, as well as from such Web sites as Memri and Palestine Media Watch, and those of the Arabic Press. Kotek indicts not only Arab cartoonists for engaging medieval anti-Jewish tropes but also their fellow travelers elsewhere, including those from Europe who should know better.
Essentially a continuation of Arieh Stav’s 1999 work “Peace: The Arabian Caricature,” which also chronicled the development of early antisemitic imagery into similar, contemporary manifestations in the Arabic press, “Cartoons and Extremism” fulfills a need that became apparent at a 2001 United Nations’ anti-racism conference in Durban, South Africa, during which antisemitic cartoons were disseminated by a number of anti-Israel NGOs. Originally published in French in 2005, under the title “In the Name of Anti-Zionism: The Image of the Jews and Israel in Caricature Since the Second Intifada,” the book has since been updated with material from the infamous Iran Holocaust Cartoon Contest and with sprinklings from the Western press.
The offending cartoons are categorized according to theme: those that engage what Kotek calls “antisemyths,” or antisemitic myths — among them, the Jew as demon; Christ-killers, and Jews as animals, dominators of the world, vampires and child murderers. There are also conflations of anti-Zionism and antisemitism. Unfortunately, however, the book is not particularly well organized: With a preface; three forewards; author’s notes, and five chapters with 33 subchapters, four appendices, an epilogue and footnotes, it’s a bit unwieldy. Many of the drawings were apparently reproduced from low-resolution Web images, leaving them pixilated and difficult to read. Additionally, many of the cartoons’ texts are left without translation, leaving the reader to wonder what they say. One may add to this a number of typos (including the caption “… the 1911 Mendel Meilis blood libel …”— it’s “Beilis”).
Though Kotek provides a good historical overview of European antisemitism and the imagery it produced, the book lacks a cogent analysis of these contemporary cartoons other than to point out their salient antisemitic features. For the most part, the cartoons are simply thrown in the reader’s face with the apparent intention to shock and to disgust. And guess what? It works. But the underlying questions of why and how these cartoons have traction in the places they are published are left untouched. There is, for example, a chapter on Greek antisemitic cartoons that lacks any commentary whatsoever, leaving the reader with more questions than answers.
If the many grotesque images aren’t enough, the level of revulsion is augmented by the placement of unrelated antisemitic quotes from the Arabic press next to many of the cartoons. It is not clear what purpose this serves, other than to increase the antisemitism quotient and to make the reader uneasier still about the way the Arabic press treats the Jews. Rather than to inform and contextualize in a serious way, the collocation seems more like a scare tactic and an attempt to turn the book into an angry tour de force of Arab antisemitism rather than a thoughtful analysis thereof.
While Kotek rightly notes that cartoons function best in the “democratic public arena,” he also states bizarrely that the “cartoon is an art form that requires a minimum of freedom in order to exist” — an odd comment, considering the fact that it appears in the middle of a book full of cartoons, most of which come from oppressive societies. Moreover, he is not correct: Totalitarian societies produce a great many cartoons. The difference is that they function more as propaganda than as editorials, something he doesn’t discuss. He seems to allude to it when he argues that an important factor in the scapegoating of Israel and Jews arises from a lack of Arab self-criticism, but with the book providing no background on such attitudes in Arab culture, it’s difficult to know.
The lack of an assessment of the context means it’s difficult to know if what we are seeing is an accurate and representative appraisal. It is problematic that the book does nothing to ground the reader in Arab journalism or in Arab cartooning. The impression is given that every newspaper in the Arab world, from Morocco to the Persian Gulf, visually resembles the Nazi weekly Der Stürmer. While there may be a certain level of consensus regarding Israel, the Arabic press is by no means a single entity and is certainly not homogeneous in appearance or opinion. And while Kotek may show us antisemitic and anti-Israel cartoons from many different countries, there is no sense of the frequency or intensity with which they appear, nor do we know in which places and on what occasions. As a result, “Cartoons and Extremism” paints the entire Arab world (as well as Iran and Turkey) with a wide brush, one that does not seem particularly accurate.
Adding to the confusion is that the book also includes many cartoons that criticize Israel severely — sometimes in extremely harsh and upsetting ways — but are not truly antisemitic. An entire chapter, for example, is dedicated to the work of Brazilian cartoonist Carlos Latuff (see box below), whose material is furiously critical of Israel and its leaders in often terribly obnoxious ways. His work will surely upset even nominal supporters of Israel, but it is a stretch to categorize his cartoons as antisemitic, and it is a disservice to the fight against genuine antisemitism to have included them.
“Cartoons and Extremism” even calls Latuff “the contemporary Drumont of the internet.” For the uninformed, Edouard Drumont was the founder of the French “League of Antisemites” and the publisher of La Libre Parole, a magazine that printed numerous classically antisemitic cartoons during the years of the Dreyfus Affair. So, this is a serious charge.
But who is Carlos Latuff? He is an extreme left-wing cartoonist who has produced thousands of cartoons on world political events. A mostly self-taught artist, Latuff gained an interest in politics after he had seen a documentary on the Zapatista uprising in Mexico. He began drawing political cartoons. “The main inspiration for my political cartoons,” he explained, “is my indignation about the cowardice, police brutality, state terrorism, imperialism, capitalism, in Brazil, in the Middle East and everywhere. It’s my way to expose the crimes of the oppressor and the resistance of the oppressed.”
A significant number of Latuff’s cartoons have to do with the Israel-Palestine conflict, something that became important to Latuff after he visited the area in the late 1990s.
It’s true that Latuff’s Israel-Palestine cartoons are harshly (this may be too soft a word) critical of Israel. The images can be brutal, and Latuff often uses the Holocaust as a metaphor for the conflict. He also depicts Israel’s leaders as devils and vampires, and Israeli soldiers as baby killers. But let’s be clear: The animus is directed at the State of Israel, its leaders and its army. None of Latuff’s cartoons libels the entire Jewish people, something that would seem to be necessary in order to charge Latuff with antisemitism.
There is little question that Latuff’s cartoons will be upsetting to anyone who even nominally supports Israel. Latuff specifically uses imagery that is meant to provoke and disturb Israel’s supporters. He is, after all, a propagandist for the Palestinian side, and he does his job exceptionally well. Perhaps this is what so upsets Joel Kotek: Latuff’s cartoons manage to viciously attack Israel without resorting to what many of the Arab cartoonists have had to do: caricaturing Jews in the traditional European manner, with grotesquely large noses and hunchbacked bodies, attacking the Jewish people as a whole.
In one odd moment, the author thanks the cartoonists he is exposing as antisemites for their “friendly collaboration” in allowing their work to be published in his book. If he was in contact with these cartoonists, it’s too bad he didn’t bother asking them what their motives were. It also seems like a lost opportunity to discuss the issues involved, especially since he hopes his book will “alert the cartoonists of the Arab-Muslim region to a certain sense of responsibility.” If one of Kotek’s expressed goals is to reduce the anti-Jewish vitriol in Arab cartooning, some attempt at a dialogue with those he perceives as irresponsible would have been a good start.
It’s praiseworthy that one of the goals of “Cartoons and Extremism” is to convince Arab cartoonists to “promote the cause of peace and justice, not that of war and hatred.” But it bears keeping in mind that most of the cartoons in this book are more a form of propaganda than critical editorial cartoon. While Kotek is well-meaning in exposing the wrong-headedness of this type of caustic imagery, he ignores the social context of a mostly dictatorial region where propaganda rules and where an atmosphere of censorship allows conspiracy theories to flourish. Until self-criticism begins to play a larger role and realistic prospects for peace begin to exist, we will continue to see Israel and Jews as the major targets of Arab cartoonists. Without a serious analysis as to why these images continue to appear, and without an attempt at dialogue with their creators, what results is a microcosm of the Arab-Israeli conflict: furious accusations exchanged between two parties that don’t listen to each other, punctuated by terribly ugly images in the media.
Eddy Portnoy is a writer living in New York.