Antisemitism expresses itself in many forms, but few are as lethal or as persistent as the caricature of the hook-nosed Jew sitting on a pile of cash looking pleased with himself.
This kind of image has appeared countless times over the centuries in a range of countries and cultures, always with the same goal of depicting the “Jew” as a sinister other who pushes his own sectarian interest at the expense of society as a whole. The most recent example came from the British newspaper The Guardian—not the first time this publication has been taken to task for featuring antisemitic caricatures and probably not the last time either.
In this case, the cartoon demonized Richard Sharp, the outgoing chairman of the national broadcaster, the BBC. Drawn in a deliberately grotesque style, the image was composed of two figures: Sharp and former British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who was portrayed as a pudgy naked baby sitting atop a brown pile of debris cheerily assuring Sharp that “I put you down for a peerage in the New Year’s Honors list,” which is Brit-speak for being formally nominated for elevation to the House of Lords.
As befits an ambitious, self-aggrandizing Jew keenly enhancing his social status, at least in the mind of the antisemite, Sharp was drawn with a fleshy face, a hooked nose and a sly, underhanded expression while carrying a box labeled “Goldman Sachs,” the investment bank where he previously worked and where he served as the boss of current British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak. Separately and together, all these elements conveyed a strong sense of Sharp as a quintessentially Jewish infiltrator, bending one of Britain’s most cherished institutions together with the country’s prime minister to his every whim.
The cartoon generated widespread outrage inside and beyond the British Jewish community. As a consequence, The Guardian removed the image from its website and proffered an apology to the Jewish community and anyone else who was offended. The cartoonist, Martin Rowson, also produced his own lengthy apology, in which he confessed to feeling “enormous regret, idiocy and deep shame.” He also said that he was aware that Sharp was Jewish but nonetheless claimed that this “fact never crossed my mind as I drew him.”
The Guardian clearly has a great deal of explaining to do—not least as to why its editorial staff is seemingly unable to identify antisemitic images that denigrate Jews with about as much subtlety as a cartoon of the Prophet Muhammad wielding a bomb (which would be rightly and uncomplicatedly denounced as Islamophobic), or one of a hoodie-clad black youth robbing a white person at gunpoint (which would be rightly and uncomplicatedly denounced as racist).
There are two (at least) possible explanations for this lack of awareness. The first is fairly benign; that people these days have very little cognizance of what antisemitic imagery constitutes because they barely see it around them, especially when compared with their generational equivalents in the previous two centuries. The second is more troubling; that complaints of antisemitism are a priori suspect, because they are a means of shutting down legitimate debates about Jewish influence, particularly when it comes to supporting the State of Israel.
The dismissal of Jewish concerns about antisemitic hostility to Israel’s existence as merely the exploitation of historic Jewish victimhood to perpetuate the current victimhood of the Palestinians—an argument that has been frequently advanced in the pages of The Guardian—has resulted in a desensitization towards antisemitism more generally. If Israel is regarded as an oppressive state with wealthy Diaspora Jews eagerly supporting it with money and political influence, then there is very little space for any empathy with the community’s current sense of insecurity or any identification with the persecution that defined previous generations.
In these situations, a typical response of Jewish leaders has been to call for more education—about Judaism, Jewish culture, the Holocaust, the relationship between Israel and Jewish communities abroad and much more. The problem with advancing “education” as a means of dampening down antisemitic feeling is the rather large assumption that the knowledge and insights gained in a classroom session will trump the antisemitic bigotry imbibed on social media, in school playgrounds, in certain mosques and in other locations, both real and digital.
Precisely because there are no guarantees of success, it is vital that whatever educational programs are offered are first-rate in terms of substantive analysis and hard-hitting in terms of the conclusions that are drawn. Last month, I wrote about an extraordinary collection of antisemitic images and objects—postcards, walking sticks, paintings and other trinkets—currently housed at the Technical University of Berlin in Germany. Assembled in the aftermath of the Holocaust by Arthur Langerman, a Belgian Jewish survivor of the Holocaust, the collection spans several centuries and continents.
Having covered antisemitism for more than 20 years, I like to think that I am relatively inured from being shocked at such images, but I’ll admit that I wasn’t prepared for what I saw in the Langerman collection. Every monstrous depiction of Jews you could possibly imagine, including the sexual abuse of children, the execution of Jesus and the joyful of participation of Jews in usury, is contained therein.
Langerman explained to me that his primary motive in gathering this collection (the largest of its kind in the world) was to try and answer a perennial question: How could an apparently civilized country like Germany dehumanize and then exterminate 6 million Jews? “The answer is that they were inundated with antisemitic images showing Jews as rats, bugs, spiders—vermin that you have to get rid of. This was the message they were receiving 100 years before the Shoah. It’s why I have never found a single statement from a Nazi saying, ‘I regret what I did,’” he told me.
Slowly but surely, similar imagery is creeping once again into public discourse. Sad as it is to say, Rowson’s caricature of Richard Sharp in The Guardian could sit quite happily in Langerman’s collection. For that reason, every political cartoonist should be given the opportunity to study Langerman’s archive and Jewish organizations would do well to arrange their visits.
Will imparting knowledge of the long tradition of visual antisemitism persuade cartoonists that while a Jewish person is, like anyone else, fair game for satire, their Jewishness should be left out of the equation? We owe it to ourselves to try.
Ben Cohen is a New York City-based journalist and author who writes a weekly column on Jewish and international affairs for JNS.