On April 29, readers of the New York Times were treated to a rarity in the world of journalism. While newspapers publish letters and occasionally opinion pieces critical of their editorial decisions, it is rare for an in-house writer to pen an article excoriating his employer. But that day, Times columnist Bret Stephens accused the paper of anti-Semitism from its own pages.
The headline on Stephens’s column was straight to the point: “A Despicable Cartoon in The Times.” It concerned a syndicated comic, published in the paper’s international edition, that depicted a dog with the face of Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu wearing a Star of David on its collar leading a blind, skullcap-wearing Donald Trump around. The image was drawn by Portuguese artist Antonio Moreiera Antunes and first published in Expresso, a Lisbon newspaper.
As Stephens — and many others who criticized the Times for the cartoon in the days following its publication last week — noted, the problematic nature of the cartoon was not its editorial point of view, the allegation that Trump follows wherever Netanyahu leads. It was that the imagery was straight out Der Sturmer, the official newspaper of Nazi Germany. In one picture it encompasses a raft of anti-Semitic memes, including the Jew as a dog and Israelis or Jews manipulating foreign countries like the United States. The depiction of Trump wearing a head covering consistent with Jewish worship represents the attempt to depict friends of Israel and the Jews as proto-Jews themselves and, by definition, apostates to their own faith.
By the time the column appeared in print, the Times had apologized, though it took two tries. The first was a clarification saying that the cartoon was “offensive” and that publishing it was an “error in judgment”; the second said the paper was “deeply sorry” and blamed it on a mid-level editor who, it said, had not had proper supervision. Since then, the Times has published an editorial apologizing further.
While Stephens defended the paper against the charge of institutional anti-Semitism, he also noted that for many Times-watchers, the appearance of the cartoon was hardly surprising. If groups such as the American Jewish Committee refused to accept the paper’s apology, it was because the comic was very much in keeping with the Times’ attitude toward the Jewish state. The paper’s news coverage is consistently adversarial toward Israel, while its editorial section seems bent on legitimizing anti-Zionism. It’s hard to blame that still-unnamed mid-level editor for thinking that Antunes’s cartoon was in-bounds.
As Stephens wrote, the Times has had a long and troubling relationship with Jews, Zionism, and Israel. Its publishers, the Ochs and Sulzberger families, were proud Jews but ardent anti-Zionists in the decades before the establishment of the state of Israel. As with others who opposed Zionism in this period, they feared a Jewish state would present a challenge to their American patriotism and undermine their personal status.
As noted in the recently published Print to Fit: The New York Times, Zionism and Israel, by Wellesley College historian Jerold Auerbach, most Jews who espoused that point of view came to reject it after the Holocaust, especially once the reality of Israel as a place where persecuted Jews could find a safe refuge was established. But the publishers of the Times still saw Jewish nationalism and Israel as incompatible with their view of American liberalism. The fact that the Times’ pages largely ignored the Holocaust while it was happening has long been taken as evidence that its owners didn’t want to be seen as highlighting the suffering of Jews, and that they valued this more than they valued combating anti-Semitism. As Auerbach writes, the Times’ antagonistic coverage of Israel is a natural extension of that unfortunate history.
But Stephens is right: The problem isn’t so much the paper’s history as it is the inability of its current leaders it to understand the connection between the demonization of the Jewish state and anti-Semitism.
While the Times, like the rest of the liberal mainstream media, remains resolute in its opposition to right-wing anti-Semitism and eager to connect President Donald Trump to any uptick in hate crimes, it is blind or indifferent to expressions of hatred for Jews from left-wing sources. Stephens characterizes this problem as “ignorance” — but considering that, as he acknowledges, the newspaper is “hyper-alert” to every other conceivable expression of prejudice, this creates a terrible double standard. While Israel’s government, like any other, is fair game for criticism, the point of anti-Zionism is the delegitimization of Israel itself. Editors who claim to oppose all sorts of bigotry simply don’t grasp that a movement whose sole focus is the destruction of the one Jewish state on the planet is inherently anti-Semitic. And once you’ve legitimized anti-Zionism, imagery and arguments about Israel and the Jews that might once have been easily seen as beyond the pale are no longer viewed with alarm.
Indifference to anti-Semitism isn’t limited to the staff of the New York Times. It is a growing problem that was aptly illustrated by the fawning coverage of Representatives Ilhan Omar (D., Minn.) and Rashida Tlaib (D., Mich.) even after they vented anti-Semitic tropes every bit as vicious as the Times cartoon. The willingness of the liberal establishment to rationalize their prejudices and to treat the pushback against them as inherently anti-Muslim speaks volumes.
Until writers and editors in the mainstream media instinctively understand that anti-Semitism, whether in the guise of anti-Zionism or in more traditional forms, is as much of a taboo as other forms of prejudice, hateful “errors of judgment” like the Times cartoon will continue to proliferate.