The Soviet Roots of Today’s Anti-Semitic Cartoons

June 12, 2019 | Izabella Taborovsky
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On Monday, the New York Times announced that its international edition will no longer feature political cartoons, a decision precipitated by the appearance several weeks ago of an anti-Semitic caricature. That particular image—which depicted Benjamin Netanyahu as a dog pulling Donald Trump by its leash—brought comparisons to the Nazi periodical Der Stürmer, but a more accurate comparison, writes Izabella Taborovsky, would be to the anti-Zionist cartoons found in Soviet publications:

Soviet ideology didn’t allow [for] outright racist anti-Semitism of the Nazi variety. [Soviet propagandists thus] rejected accusations of anti-Semitism, claiming that their ideology was anti-Zionist, not anti-Semitic. In developing their ideas, Soviet ideologues relied for inspiration on the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, on the ideas of classic religious anti-Semitism, and even Mein Kampf, but adopted them to the Marxist framework by substituting the idea of a global anti-Soviet Zionist conspiracy for a specifically Jewish one. Jewish power became Zionist power. The rich and conniving Jewish bankers controlling money, politicians, and the media became the rich and conniving Zionists. The Jew as the anti-Christ became the Jew as the anti-Soviet. Instead of the Jew as the devil, they presented the Zionist as a Nazi.

In practice, the distinction between Soviet anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism often proved a distinction without a difference. The tropes were the same, albeit with a new set of labels. [At the same time], Jews living in the Soviet Union saw their culture and religion decimated, their educational and professional opportunities depleted, and themselves becoming licensed targets of casual grassroots anti-Semitism. . . .

One of the forerunners to the guide dog in the New York Times cartoon is the Soviet Israeli-Zionist dog who loyally served its master, the imperialist Uncle Sam. The smallness of the dog signals its contemptibility. For example, the tiny attack dog in [a] 1969 image is barking mad, dropping bombs instead of saliva at the behest of its American master. The dog wears an Israeli military uniform, but the viewer also knows that the dog is a Jew because of its Jewish facial features. The uniform makes the Jew—and by extension, any Jew—a fair game for demonization.

The concept of a Zionist Jew as a stand-in for Israel who drags the United States toward a destination of its choice—the core idea of the New York Times cartoon—appeared frequently in Soviet caricature. . . . The goal of these cartoons was to demonize Israel and Zionism. But the use of stereotypical [and] pejorative signifiers of Jewishness showed whom its intended audience would find at fault: any Jew they came in touch with.

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