Link six equal lines into two equilateral triangles, turn one upside down and on top of the other and you’ve got a hexagram—you’ve also got a loaded geometric compound known as the Star of David.
I once found myself sitting in a campus dining hall next to a friend who shares my Iranian heritage but doesn’t share my political views. We’ve never discussed them, but as hers are quite visible through her involvement in campus activism, we maintained this tacit agreement to keep the peace in our friendship by keeping politics out. While grabbing her fork one day, she noticed my phone, particularly the blue hexagram adorning its rose-colored case.
“What’s this?” she asked, clutching my iPhone.
“Oh, during Hanukkah,” I began, “they were decorating the kosher food station with stickers of dreidels, menorahs, and Jewish Stars. I asked for one and chose the star figuring the others would be so passé post-holiday season.”
“Well you know how I feel about Israel,” she quipped. “I would have chosen the dreidel.”
Struggling to keep my jaw from hitting the floor, I explained that first and foremost the Jewish star has served as a symbol of the Jews since the middle ages—which Google tells me evidence of this relationship actually dates back to a third–to fourth–century century synagogue—and only following the Dreyfus affair in the 19th century was it adopted as a symbol of early Zionists.
It was only after 1948 that the addition of two lines to the star made the symbol officially represent the Zionist state of Israel. When Hitler forced Jews to wear a yellow star, he did not have Zionism in mind. “If someone is wearing a Jewish star, that doesn’t say anything about her relation to Israel,” I told her. “I’m not going to accuse a cross wearer of being an infidel butchering crusader because the cross served as the crusader’s emblem.” In a similar vein, I wanted to tell her I would neither assume every Iranian agrees with the Supreme leader Khomeini, nor that every Muslim is a Jihadist.
My disquiet over this incident subsided, and remained that way for some time, but was recently instigated by a distasteful cartoon by artist Peter Schrank in a magazine widely read by students here at UChicago: The Economist.
The cartoon depicts Obama fettered by a seal of Congress littered with hexagrams/Jewish stars/Stars of David/Zionist symbols while trying to shake hands with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, who himself is pinned down by villainous, American flag–burning Iranian radicals. The cartoon accompanied an article on the dispute between the United States and the Islamic Republic over Iran’s nuclear program, and was eventually replaced after much-deserved objection.
Successful cartoons get their 1,000 words worth of meaning by using familiar images and then encouraging readers to read between the lines to eventually arrive at an intended message. The cartoon from The Economist fails in its nebulousness, namely in its ambiguous presentation of that geometric shape. Is the star referring to Jews? Israel? As exhibited, the illustrator clearly knows how to draw a flag, and if he wanted to draw Israel’s he could have. The symbolism is unclear and as a result, like in the dining hall, Zionism is equated with Judaism—an equation with dangerous consequences.
Not every Jew is a Zionist and not every Zionist is a Jew. If Jews and Zionists were one and the same we wouldn’t have two separate terms. Some ultra-Orthodox Jews vehemently oppose the Jewish state, some ultra-secular aren’t supporters either and, as a Pew study shows, many Jews are just plain apathetic. In fact, Jewish criticism of Israel is now more prevalent than ever before. Jewish philosopher Franz Rosenzweig named his most famous book, The Star of Redemption, after the symbol, and he himself felt returning to Israel would entangle the Jews into a worldly history they should abjure.The Economist cartoon can be compared to the use of the Islamic crescent in a certain context to refer to Turkey instead of Islam—another precarious association.
Why is equating Jews with Zionism dangerous? Because Zionism has become stigmatized, and associated with “racism,” “warmongers,” and “apartheid.” Because in Europe anti-Semitic attacks have been rising since the Intifada. And because in 2012, Mohammed Merah attacked a Jewish school in Toulouse, France, killing a rabbi and his two sons, and then chased a seven-year-old girl, shooting her at point-blank range to “avenge Palestinian children“ since “The Jews kill our brothers and sisters in Palestine.”
But if you want, forget about this sticky semantic syllogism; there is a larger issue with the cartoon: Taken out of context, that same cartoon from The Economist would fit perfectly in an article titled “Jews run America” or “Jews control the West.” Intentionally or not, this cartoon perpetuates pernicious prejudices against Jews by echoing similar images of the past and present.
The cartoon suggests that Israeli/American Jews are using their control of America’s government to thwart peace. Its style evokes anti-Semitic canards around since before the Middle Ages, continuing on to the Weimar Republic, and still to this day. Schrank’s cartoon feeds into age-old conspiracy theories (like the Elders of Zion) that point at the menacing Jewish control of western governments. The cartoon is even reminiscent of the cartoon in the Qatari Al-Watan newspaper illustrating a Jew driving with an Obama-head gear-stick and the U.N. symbol as his steering wheel, in addition to Steve Bell’s Guardian cartoon depicting Tony Blair and William Hague as finger-puppets of Netanyahu.
The Economist can cloak toxic readings in subtlety, but by incorporating the star in the emblem of the U.S. Capitol, it whispers messages of Jewish control over Washington.
I’m not denying the strength of the American Jewish lobby. The problem rests in depicting the Jewish ability to advocate in a democracy, like any other minority, in a sinister manner. There are no hook-nosed men in the back of a synagogue discussing world domination over lox and bagels. Jews operate just like any other people. But by slyly comparing Jews to flag-burning Iranian extremists, and by harboring specific and established anti-Jewish imagery, Schrank’s work implies Jews have evil intention disguised by the legality of Congress. If not overtly, the imagery subliminally propagates baseless Jewish stereotypes which lead to unfounded hate and violence. Israel should be criticized when deserving, and questioning if Jews should be lobbying Congress in an effort to hamper diplomatic efforts is not only legitimate but also in Israel’s interest. Nonetheless, a loaded cartoon with dark implications is not the way to go about addressing the issue.
Especially in recent days, as Islamophobia and anti-Semitism are on the rise, it’s important to know the allusions, words, and facts associated with the images around us, and to think twice before calling someone the Z-word.
The original version of this article was published in the Chicago Maroon.