Cutting satire - Israeli cartoonists on NYT 'antisemitic' cartoon

Israeli political cartoonists chime in on the controversial ‘New York Times’ caricature

Antisemitic cartoon in New York Times (photo credit: SETH J. FRANTZMAN)
Antisemitic cartoon in New York Times
(photo credit: SETH J. FRANTZMAN)
In the real estate world the anthemic guideline is location, location, location. In the sphere of cartoons and caricatures, it could be argued that context is the baseline for deciding how to convey a concise and biting message, but without overstepping any redlines.
The latter is a point mooted by a number of professionals in the wake of the furor prompted by the New York Times caricature that caused an uproar around the world. The cartoon, by Portuguese illustrator António Moreira Antunes, portrayed a blind President Trump, wearing a kippa, being led by Benjamin Netanyahu drawn as a dog on a leash with a Star of David collar.
After it was reprinted in the International Edition of The New York Times, igniting a firestorm of controversy, the Times at first deleted the cartoon from its syndication website, saying it was offensive and that it was an “error of judgment” to print it. But the paper later offered a full apology, saying it was “deeply sorry” and that “we are committed to making sure nothing like this happens again.”
Antunes told The Jerusalem Post’s Amy Spiro this week that he doesn’t understand how people view his work as antisemitic.
“I do not seek controversy,” he wrote. “I try to make critical cartoons of situations that seem to me wrong, unfair and undemocratic. I have already made drawings on the politics of my country, Spain, France, Russia, Italy, Iran, China, Saudi Arabia, USA, Brazil, United Kingdom, North Korea, etc.”
Antunes bristled at the notion that his cartoon would be viewed as antisemitic.
“What will be the reason why I cannot do a critique of Israeli policy without being immediately categorized as antisemitic?” he wrote. “I have nothing against the Jews, but I have many things against the politics of Israel.”
A SURVEY of local professional cartoonists presents a wide range of response to Antunes and his cartoon.
Yaakov Kirschen, the talent and wit behind the long-running Jerusalem Post cartoon strip Dry Bones, believes that Antunes’s drawing feeds off decades-long tropes that portray Jews as the devil incarnate, money-grabbing characters who basically rule the world. According to Kirschen, Antunes slipped easily, far too easily, into the age-old riff of creating an easy target for universal ire, a scapegoat for all the world’s ills.
Did the Antunes work venture into previously uncharted unsavory waters, or was it, indeed, just a regurgitation of an age-old line of attack?
“I don’t think it’s a matter of not being something new,” he says. “A basic truth is that movements that want to take over the world do not necessarily need a god. But what they always need is a devil, an enemy – someone, a devil, which must be defeated and which the movement can defeat.”
That, Kirschen posits, is a neat ruse for justifying the means to the ultimate end of world domination, regardless of the identity of the manipulator. “If it’s communism, the devil is capitalism. If you are Nazis, the devil is the Jews. If you are an Islamist, then the devil is the infidels.”
When it comes down to it, he says, it is all a matter of negating the constructive elements of the school of thought or religion in question, and presenting the public solely with the bad stuff.
Before we chatted, Kirschen referred me to a website called the Secret Codes Hidden War, which contains several dozen images originally printed in such formats as Nazi propaganda tabloid Der Stürmer in the 1930s and 1940s, various Soviet publications, the Iranian entry to the 2008 International Gaza Cartoon Contest, works from Spain and Argentina, and even a 1983 cartoon by Pulitzer Prize-winning Dick Tracy cartoonist Dick Locher.
Kirschen is clearly not enamored with the subject matter of the New York Times caricature, but is equally disappointed with what he says is an abject absence of innovation on the part of the Portuguese cartoonist.
“In this cartoon we have the Jew as a dog. There is nothing there that says Israel. It is a dog with a Jewish star that is leading a blind Trump who is wearing a kippa. This is a classic infection. If The New York Times doesn’t know it, that is unbelievable. What we have here is one of the classic [antisemitic] images. If you get to the [Secret Codes Hidden War] website, you’ll see those images. You would think a cartoonist would be creative enough to come up with a new image. But they can’t because they are infected. Their cartoons are infected [with antisemitic sentiment].”
CELEBRATED CARTOONIST and comics illustrator Uri Fink takes a very different view of the New York Times hullabaloo.
“My instinctive reaction to the cartoon was that we should stop being crybabies,” he says. “I thought that it’s time we stopped being oversensitive, and that we come out of this looking stupid.”
Fink does agree with Kirschen on the matter of the lack of inventiveness, although he doesn’t see anything basically antisemitic in the drawing.
“The cartoon is a failure because it drags up old associations. I don’t see Jews there. I see Bibi. It’s specific. It’s not as if he [the cartoonist] is saying all the Jews are like that. It’s Bibi. He’s leading Trump. So what?”
Then again, the cartoonist has to be sensitive to what people may make of what they offer on a public platform.
“People come with their baggage,” Fink notes. “You mustn’t ignore that. The cultural baggage is there. We [cartoonists] use established tropes and terms everyone recognizes. So we have to be sensitive to what we put into a caricature, to how people may take it.”
Fink says he and his co-professionals have to be constantly on their guard, to obviate damaging misinterpretation.
“Something can pop out unintentionally, and then someone may be put in mind of something that reminds them of something that is inappropriate. We shouldn’t go there. We should be aware that people may take that in an unwanted direction, even if I didn’t mean that. I think that’s what happened here.”
Fink says he endeavors to give such contentious elements a wide berth. “I would never portray Bibi as evil, with a big nose. That takes you straight in the direction of Der Stürmer.”
It is important, Fink feels, to avoid stereotypes and elements that certain parties may take the wrong way.
“In my cartoons for Maariv, I never portray haredim with a long nose. They all have a really small Swedish nose.”
The milieu is of paramount importance. “The keyword is context,” Fink adds. “Today it is very easy to take a caricature out of its original context, because of social media. A caricature has a lot of power. You have to be careful.”
FOLLOWING THE New York Times publication, Israel Hayom caricaturist Shlomo Cohen returned fire earlier this week with his own offering, which did a copy-paste job with the Antunes drawing and presented it on the front page of the fictional New York Stürmer. Talk about context!
Cohen has his own ideas about crossing redlines, and where creativity ends and gratuitous provocation begins. “Freedom of expression is not the ultimate principle. Freedom of thought is the ultimate principle. But to have freedom of thought, you need to have the ability to express that.”
Cohen, much like Kirschen and Fink, feels that the New York Times cartoon fell way short of the mark in that respect – the ability to express thought. “To a degree, antisemitic caricatures don’t bother me. The problem is when the caricaturist conveys inaccurate information.”
Cohen, too, feels that Antunes displayed abject unoriginality. “When a caricaturist becomes baselessly crass, that means he didn’t have an idea. If he’d had a good idea, he wouldn’t have needed to be vulgar. It’s like a stand-up comedian who gets onto the stage and doesn’t have any jokes, so he just says pee and poop.”
Meanwhile, illustrator Zeev Engelmayer is less moved by the Netanyahu-Trump drawing, and doesn’t see it as an expression of blatant antisemitism. He prefers to take a step back and consider what exactly is portrayed.
“I understand how you could look at the caricature and think of Der Stürmer. It’s too easy to go that route. As soon as you hear ‘antisemitic,’ as soon as you mention Der Stürmer, you straightaway invalidate the possibility of listening to criticism. You say, OK, that’s antisemitic.”
Engelmayer suggests this is a two-way street situation. “Unfortunately, I think we are hypocritical. You see lots of pictures of Trump wearing a kippa, with Bibi Netanyahu, with Jewish leaders.  All these images evoked very positive responses. They warm our hearts. We say: Wow! Trump loves us.”
Engelmayer feels it’s a matter of what’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. “As soon as we see Trump with a kippa, in a context of criticism, that’s a powder keg. That immediately sends us in the direction of antisemitic caricature. I think that’s hypocritical.”
For the professionals, the jury appears to be still out.