A minor brouhaha erupted in the UCLA Jewish community two weeks ago over a cartoon published in the Daily Bruin, portraying the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, appearing to rewrite some of the Ten Commandments. There were several reasons why many members of the community found the cartoon objectionable. The primary reason given was the conflation of Israel’s actions and Jewish religious law; Netanyahu is somehow changing Jewish law so that it reflects immorality rather than morality and that as a result the Jewish religion is morally culpable for his actions. While the cartoon could potentially be interpreted in this way, a less strained interpretation of the cartoon would be that Netanyahu is breaking with Jewish law in his political program.
Let us consider two parallel hypotheticals:
1) After fundamentalist evangelical preacher, Jerry Falwell Jr., endorses President Trump’s immigration executive order, a member of the ACLU pens a cartoon portraying Falwell crossing out in his Bible the word “love” in the phrase “love thy neighbor” and replacing it with “hate.”
2) After the Iranian Ayatollah issues a virulent denunciation of the State of Israel, invoking death threats for its Jewish citizens, a cartoonist pens a cartoon portraying the Ayatollah crossing out in the Quran the word “not” in the phrase “Take not life, for it is sacred.”
In the first case, the Christian response would not be to decry the cartoon as anti-Christian because of its portrayal of Christian values. By contrast, conservative Christians would likely respond by demonstrating how Falwell’s stance would be in line with other Christian values, while most liberal Christians would agree with the cartoon’s message that Falwell’s version of Christianity is false. In the case of the Muslim cartoon, you would have many tired new-left types decrying it as Islamophobic. However, many others, myself included, would publicly or privately deride that response as political correctness run amok.
In all cases, we would see kind souls decrying the cartoon as unnecessarily inflammatory, regardless of its message. But political cartoons will always be disproportionately inflammatory, compared to written arguments; the message of a one-frame picture jumps out at the reader much quicker and stronger than the wall of text in an op-ed. As a result, the message will be much more deeply felt, either positively or negatively, by the reader. Cartoons, more than any other media, are designed to be inflammatory. Ultimately, however, whether or not the cartoon is inflammatory does not necessarily connote antipathy toward a particular religion. This is an independent test. And in all three cases above, generalized antipathy is not shown.
Most other critical reasons given for why the cartoon is anti-Semitic do not stand up for scrutiny. Some argue that Netanyahu is drawn as a Jewish stereotype. Indeed, with the exception of the nose, the cartoonist’s rendition of Netanyahu is strikingly similar to that of respected Israeli political cartoonist, Yossi Verter. In fact, our cartoonist draws a Bibi with a smaller and less pointed schnoz!
Some say that the cloaked reference to the commandment “Thou Shalt Not Kill” is a blood libel. While, again, people’s sensibilities differ, the case is by no means airtight. Generally speaking, blood libel involves a level of maliciousness drawn into the Jewish figure that is just not seen here, and there are direct references to killing Palestinians, often children, which, again, is absent. While one could argue that the blood libel is introduced covertly, we should keep in mind that the concept of negating the commandment could just as easily be invoked in cartoons criticizing anything from drone strikes to abortion.
None of this is meant to argue that the cartoon is good; I personally found it unimaginative, pedantic and, in all honesty, lame. But those attributes in and of themselves do not make the cartoon anti-Semitic, and I think those who denounced it as such were doing so based on a strained interpretation. This is unfortunate because it will give more fuel to those on all sides who seek to neuter any press seen as unnecessarily offensive. The Students for Justice in Palestine, perhaps rightly, denounced the cartoon and distanced themselves from the cartoonist. But make no mistake, they know they now have a golden parachute in case anything critical of them or their cause gets published in the Daily Bruin. Some might argue that a comparable cartoon directed at the Palestinian leadership or movement would either not be published or face massive denunciations. If so, then it means we have reached a new armed peace between the Israeli and Palestinian camps at UCLA — each side will be exceedingly deferential to the feelings of the other, at least when it comes to cartoons in the Daily Bruin. And perhaps that is not a bad thing, particularly considering that Israel-Palestine cartoons in the Daily Bruin may well be a waste of cartoon space. It, nevertheless, sets an unhappy precedent.
Finally, none of this is to say that perception of anti-Semitism is overblown at UCLA. As a freshman, I, like all members of the Jewish community, were shocked at the callous anti-Semitism on display during the Rachel Beyda scandal. As a sophomore, I was, again, surprised during the Daniel Bernstein scandal at UC Santa Cruz. In no way does this “scandal” approach the notoriety of either of the last two. If this is the worst anti-Semitic incident at UCLA this year, we can count ourselves fortunate.