A leering, hook-nosed Jew, beginning to disrobe, prepares to pounce upon a helpless non-Jewish woman who cowers in fear on the ground before him. This disturbing image, so common in anti-Semitic propaganda in past centuries, this week made an appearance with a modern twist: the hook-nosed would-be rapist wore an Israeli army uniform, and his intended victim, a weeping Muslim woman, wore a headdress indicating that she represented the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem.
The cartoon, titled “Al-Aqsa is Being Raped,” would be outrageous even if it were the handiwork of some anonymous street corner scribbler. But it is a far more serious matter when it appears—as this one does—on the official website of the Palestinian Authority’s National Security Forces, according to a report by Palestinian Media Watch.
The stereotype of the Jew as sexual defiler reaches all the way back to medieval times. The 13th-century ruler Alfonso X, of Castile, decreed capital punishment for any Jew who, “in great insolence and boldness,” had intimate relations with a Christian woman. With the invention of modern printing techniques and the advent of political cartooning in the late 18th century, sexually themed anti-Semitic cartoons began to appear.
In “Solomon Enjoys Himself with Two Pretty Christian Girls,” the 18th-century English caricaturist Thomas Rowlandson drew a beak-nosed Jew grasping bags of money while cavorting with two topless young women. “Moses in the Bullrushes,” by the English cartoonist G. M. Woodward in 1799, portrayed a swarthy-looking Jew ravishing a woman in a thicket of tall reeds. A four-panel cartoon by the turn-of-the-century French cartoonist Henry Gerbault depicted an obese, sweaty Jew patronizing a non-Jewish prostitute and then shortchanging her on the payment.
Similar themes surfaced in the writings of the early German advocates of racial anti-Semitism, who helped pave the way for the rise of Nazism. Theodor Fritsch’s “Antisemiten-Katechismus,” first published in 1887, argued that Jews, because of their biological nature, caused “moral devastation” among young German women.
“The Jews’ low sensuous disposition and their lack of decency make them the most unscrupulous seducers,” Fritsch wrote. His fabricated quotes from the Talmud, allegedly authorizing Jews to sexually assault any gentile girl over the age of three, impressed readers who would never have seen or understood an actual page of Talmud. Fritsch’s book went through numerous printings, selling some 75,000 copies by 1930.
In his book “Mein Kampf,” Adolf Hitler wrote of “the black-haired Jew boy, diabolic joy in his face, [who] waits in ambush for the unsuspecting [German] girl whom he defiles with his blood and thus robs her from her people.”
Not surprisingly, anti-Jewish sexual themes became a staple of the notorious Nazi newspaper Der Sturmer, edited by Julius Streicher. Allegations of Jews sexually assaulting German women frequently became headline news, boosting circulation through a salacious combination of anti-Semitism and sexual topics that were otherwise taboo.
The Jewish attacks were not individual crimes but rather part of an international Jewish conspiracy to “racially defile” Aryan womanhood, according to Streicher. Sexual contact with a Jew permanently “poisoned” a German woman’s blood. “Racial defilement forces itself into the body,” until the woman’s body “gradually loses its own characteristics” and “the alien spirit” gains control of her, he wrote. Eventually, the defiled German woman turns into a kind of de-facto Jew.
Der Sturmer staff cartoonist Philipp Rupprecht, who signed his cartoons “Fips,” supplied a steady stream of sexually themed anti-Semitic caricatures. A huge, leering spider with a Jewish face reaches out to ensnare an innocent German maiden. A swarthy Jewish doctor menacingly approaches a sedated female German patient in her underclothing. A Jewish assailant lurks behind a German girl, his thoughts revealed to the reader: alcohol, dancing, sex.
At first glance, the Palestinian Authority’s cartoon of the Israeli soldier preparing to rape a Muslim woman might seem to be cut from a different cloth. Here the woman symbolizes a mosque, and the cartoon appears at a time of genuine turmoil in Jerusalem. But the essence of the cartoon is all too similar to that of its historical predecessors, appealing to its readers’ basest instincts by preying on primal fears about outsiders despoiling “their” women.
One should always be careful about comparing contemporary individuals or events to those of the Nazi era. Hitler analogies have been overused by pundits and often produce more heat than light. Sometimes, however, the line dividing legitimate commentary from crude hate-mongering is crossed, and a look back at phenomena of earlier times can be sadly enlightening.
Dr. Rafael Medoff is director of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, in Washington, DC. He is coauthor of the forthcoming book “Cartoonists Against the Holocaust.”