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Crossing the Line Between Satire and Hate

Last year, I took issue with Forward cartoonist Eli Valley’s Halloween graphic in which he explained why Israel was inevitably heading toward absorption into a majority Palestinian state. That was a nasty piece of agitprop combining tastelessness with shameless distortions of history. But in comparison to this year’s edition, I have to admit it seems a bit more reasonable than I thought it was at the time. After all, arguing that Israel’s defenders are harming it may be unreasonable and disconnected from reality, but underneath Valley’s deliberate attempts to outrage Jewish and Zionist sensibilities there is an argument, even if it is a foolish one.

But that’s more than you can say for his disgusting “Scary Science Experiment” in which he depicts a Dr. Frankenstein-style Jewish scientist (“Dr. Lowenstein”) being commissioned in 1957 by David Ben Gurion to clone Anne Frank with some DNA from Judah Maccabee. The result is — get it? — Anne Frankenstein, a monster who escapes in 1967 and then madly spreads havoc and fear around the world and whose latest escapade is to warn about red lines about Iran in a lame spoof of Benjamin Netanyahu’s United Nations speech last month.

There will be those who will argue that this is merely satire–and Halloween-themed satire at that–and should be taken as merely an attempt to provoke thought about Jewish and Israeli sacred cows. No doubt the editors of the Forward who allowed their pages to be polluted by it told themselves that. Maybe they even believe it. Maybe they also think turning a symbol of the Holocaust into a metaphor for Zionism gone mad is clever, even if there’s nothing particularly funny about Valley’s screed. Perhaps it even reflects their own sensibilities about the reality of contemporary Israel in which they think its right-wing/religious majority doesn’t represent their values and is therefore unworthy of support or respect. But that they think Valley’s work is within even the most generous definition of reasonable comment ought to be a sign that it is they who have lost their way. When a Jewish publication begins to publish a cartoon that is firmly within the tradition of Nazi ideologue Julius Streicher’s anti-Semitic illustrations, it is time for those associated with the Forward to ponder whether they have lost touch with not just Jewish values but with those of responsible journalism.

Let’s be clear about what Valley has done in this cartoon. This is not just the usual leftist argument about self-destructive right-wingers, but a full-blown attempt to depict Israel as a monster, built on the ashes of the Holocaust but instead replicating its horrors. This is not just hostility to Zionism masquerading as an attempt to save it from the Zionists, but propaganda illustrated in the language of hate. The problem here is not just that using Anne Frank in this manner is tasteless and calculated to offend Holocaust survivors and any Jew who cares about the subject, though it is all those things. It is that by doing so in this manner, Valley has stepped across the divide between fair comment and political satire into the realm of anti-Semitic invective.

To have expected the editors of the Forward to say that this was something that should be considered beyond the pale in their pages is not to try to impose conservative sensibilities on them or to make them conform to a standard by which the Holocaust should be treated as a religious theme never to be offended by sacrilege. One needn’t advocate a rule in which the toes of important Jewish constituencies are never trodden upon to understand that there are some lines that should not be crossed. Even on Halloween, that pagan tradition that is so popular today that it has even begun to challenge Christmas as America’s favorite holiday, depicting Israel as an Anne Frankenstein monster is the sort of thing that should have been seen as vile rather than clever. It is one thing to claim that we shouldn’t take the threats to Israel’s existence from Palestinians and Iran seriously or to depict fears of anti-Semitism as exaggerated. It is quite another to draw modern Israel as a Holocaust-inspired monster.

Valley went too far this time, yet somehow those in charge of the Forward are too much the prisoners of their own prejudices about Israeli politics and their own conceit about their role in Jewish intellectual life to see it. Instead of congratulating them for their capacity to generate outrage, those who fund the Forward need to do some soul-searching about how far the paper has sunk from its mandate to stand up against anti-Semitism and where it is going.

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