Author: Rader, Pamela J
Date published: January 1, 2011
Cartoons and Extremism: Israel and the Jews in Arab and Western Media, by Joël Kotek, translated by Alisa Jaffa. Portland, OR: Vallentine Mitchell & Company, 2009. 201 pp. $26.95.
The opening of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in 1993 in Washington, DC gave visitors an educational yet sensory experience where they would not only acquire passports of the Holocaust's victims and survivors, but could see and smell the ripened leather of abandoned suitcases and surrendered shoes. While the Museum engages its visitors' senses and minds and pleads for compassion, Joël Kotek, gleaning cartoons from a variety of Arab-Muslim and Israeli websites, the Stephen Roth Institute for the Study of Racism and Anti-Semitism at Tel Aviv University, and the Anti-Defamation League's bulletins, unveils the power of visual literacy in recognizing stereotypes and their place as propaganda that dehumanizes the Jewish people. Kotek contextualizes the need for this collection of cartoons as coming out of the 2001World Conference against Racism held in Durban, South Africa, when, ironically, an anti-Jewish pamphlet distributed by the Union of Arab Lawyers linked the anti-Jewish sentiments in the Arab-Muslim world to the propaganda inherited by the Christian West. The illustrations, propaganda, and cartoons of anti-Jewish sentiment, as Kotek posits, effectively communicate racism primarily by dehumanizing Jewish individuals and communities. In the spirit of the Durban agenda to end racism and to memorialize the Holocaust and its victims, Kotek, clear and forthright in his purpose, provides his readers with a collection of images that beseech, "never again."
Not assuming any knowledge of the history of anti-Jewish sentiment and its visual propaganda on the part of his readers, Kotek provides a fairly comprehensive background on the history of pictorially representing the Jewish people in the Christian West. Supported with reproduced images, the narrative includes images from twelfth-century Europe to World War II wherein the Jewish person is reduced to three main stereotypes: the vampire, the cannibal, and the ritual murderer. AU three, in medieval Christendom, share their foundations in rumors and their lack of logic or evidence. For instance, Christians believed Jews sucked the blood of children as part of the ritual murders, and linked their ties to Europe's sovereigns with money. "[T]he image of the Jew will," as Kotek posits/come to be inextricably associated with gold and with blood, and deicide will be considered on par with usury": the Jew as Christendom's reviled Judas (p. 1).
Nineteenth-century anti -Jewish vilification begins with the use of Jews as scapegoats of ritual murders in Germany and the region formerly known as Czechoslovakia, and climaxes with the Dreyfus Affaire in France. Versed in European history, Kotek uncovers the absurdity of these myths, or what he calls "antisemyths," but offers visual evidence of how these Christian myths set the stage for Nazi Germany in the nascent twentieth century. As history's victims and survivors will attest, Kotek exclaims, "These are myths that kill!" (p. 22). We are reminded - not just by Kotek's didactic tone - that just because certain myths are commonplace, these recurrences do not make them more accurate or true.
With these early images, Kotek is able to visually narrate the distinctions between cartoon and propaganda. He argues that while cartoons, "[b]y definition . . . display a lack of neutrality or mildness," propaganda's purpose serves to cast doubt on an individual or a group so that these persons' humanity is questioned (p. xix). The potency of visual images reinforces the urgency to continue discussion of the horrific representation of human beings reduced to stock characters. From the perspective of the new millennium, Kotek looks back through history and breaks down the Arab-Muslim world's Judeophobia into eleven categories for which he provides ample graphic examples. Beginning with the Damascus affair in 1840, nineteenth-century Islam takes up anti-Jewish sentiment and slander of the Jew as a poisoner. With a few exceptions, Kotek finds that the Arab-Muslim world does not - historically - use cartoons for self-criticism, which he views as cartoons' nature or purpose, but instead uses the graphic medium to express its frustration with the outside world. This frustration is not rooted in logic or knowledge of the Jewish faith, but rather in the unity of a common scapegoat. Moreover, when he notes the conflation of anti-Zionist images with Nazism, he shows his readers the lack of logic in Unking the two. Twenty-first century Brazilian cartoonist Carlos Latuff "achieves the impossible of being both anti-racist and anti-Semitic at one and the same time" (p. 137); in a particularly absurd cartoon from November 2003, entitled "Ariel Sharon's secret love," Latuff depicts Ariel Sharon and Adolf Hitler in a lip-lock (p. 135). Moreover, Kotek contends that Arab cartoons since 2000 are not caricatures but inventions; caricatures like cartoons exaggerate a truth and do not invent them, as propaganda is wont to do.
Kotek's consistently urgent plea establishes itself with the graphic vocabulary (Jews as vampires, Nazis, etc.) entrenched in a Christian Judeophobic tradition. Propaganda in the form of cartoons or Carlos Latuff 's illustrations and photomontages requires a visual literacy that can be verbalized, but propaganda, by its very nature, seeks to bypass discussion. Visual literacy requires reading responsibly, which is what makes these images dangerous to the younger generation of Arab-Muslims. Iconic figures, such as Che Guevara, are taken out of context by anti-Israeli artists and become reappropriated as a secular Palestinian Christ Savior (p. 138).
Perhaps Kotek seeks to balance out the media's sympathies for the Palestinian cause and their pro-Palestinian stance, as evidenced by the illustrated propaganda whose status as cartoons he calls into question. Furthermore, he raises the implicit question: is the Western left sympathetic to Palestine because of graphic anti-Jewish stereotyping? Kotek concludes his narrative - both visual and verbal - not with a plea for censorship but for limits. He purports that the press and cartoonists must be responsible to its audience, particularly to its children in Arab-Muslim communities who inherit anti-Zionist and Judeophobic vocabulary and grammar. In Appendix 1, Kotek offers four exemplary cartoons that do not stereotype Jews, but they model ways in which Israel and its politics can be critiqued. In an undated cartoon from Ique, which appeared in the Brazilian newspaper, Jornal do Brasil, a dove carries the olive branch of peace in its beak, but finds itself imprisoned in the Star of David; without antisemitic caricature, Ique employs two conventional symbols to reveal Israel's conflicted politics (p. 174). In short, these four cartoons are free of antisemitism and its visual vocabulary of ritual murders, vampires, and deicide.
Pamela J. Rader
Georgian Court University