“Negotiating with Iran: a big gap to close”: The Economist, 18/01/14. Cartoon: Peter Schrank.

The Seal of the United States Congress tells an observer a number of salient facts about American politics: the olive branch stands for America’s commitment to peace; the arrows represent its readiness for war; and the Star of David, which The Economist has helpfully added to the original design, symbolises the control of Jews and/or Israel over America’s policies of war and peace.

Peter Schrank’s cartoon, which accompanies an article on negotiations with Iran in this week’s Economist, depicts President Obama with his ankle shackled to the Judaised seal of the US Congress, thereby prevented from shaking hands with Iran’s President Rouhani, who is being restrained by his nefarious-looking, US-flag-burning compatriots.

The message is that either American Jews or Israel (and it is unclear which, because the Star of David is both a Jewish and Israeli symbol) are holding the United States back from making peace with Iran – and moreover, that they are doing so through their control of the machinery of the American government, since the Star of David is incorporated into the official insignia of the US, alongside the stars and stripes. The Israel Lobby, as the cartoon rather nefariously hints, is not a separate influence on the US government – it is a constituent part of it.

Schrank’s previous cartoons have hardly been kind towards Israel, but one can only wonder what was going through the mind of his editors: there are questions about the impartiality of the magazine’s coverage of Israel, but as last week’s very fair and reasonable “Who is a Jew?” feature suggests, The Economist is hardly an anti-Semitic publication.

Intentionally or not, however, Schrank’s cartoon is now an addition to the disturbing trend of cartoons hinting at the sinister control of Western governments by Israel or Jews, following Steve Bell’s Guardian cartoon showing Netanyahu as a puppeteer with Tony Blair and William Hague as finger-puppets, and a cartoon in the Qatari Al-Watan newspaper depicting an Orthodox Jew driving with Obama’s head as a gearstick and the UN logo as his steering wheel.

I shan’t accuse The Economist directly of anti-Semitism, but it bears repeating that the EUMC Working Definition, adopted by the British government, covers “stereotypical allegations about Jews as such or the power of Jews as collective — such as… the myth … of Jews controlling the… government” and also covers “using the symbols and images associated with classic antisemitism… to characterise Israel or Israelis”. Readers are invited to draw their own conclusions.

The notion that Jews control the world’s major institutions of power, including governments, media and banks, is one of the most established and pernicious myths peddled against Jews, and it is difficult not to see continuity between contemporary hints about “Zionist” control of world governments and nineteenth-century cartoons depicting a Jewish octopus with its tentacles over the globe.

In France, 29% believe Jews have too much control of international financial markets; in Italy, 39% believe Jews have too much power in the business world; and in Hungary, Poland and Spain, well over half of the population believes at least one of these propositions. In the United States, 14% believe that “Jews have too much power in the U.S. today”, and that’s from the most philo-Semitic of countries out there.

Anti-Semitic tropes enjoy even greater vibrancy in the Muslim world, where the Elders of Zion is taken as gospel, Jewish conspiracies are more common than Jews, and The Economist is available too – subtly, and quite probably unintentionally, reinforcing such prejudices.

The Economist’s readership might be more intelligent than the general public, but it should not flatter itself. Even if its readers believe the myth of Jewish power in proportions far lower than is average, their perceptions are hardly likely to be dispelled by such cartoons, which contribute towards a toxic drip-drip in public discourse, confirming the unarticulated suspicions about Jewish power of those who find that such beliefs are neither rare nor taboo.

It may well be that the cartoon was intended only as a nod to the influence of Israel or AIPAC in Washington’s policy-making on Iran; and perhaps the cartoonist had good reasons not to include a Tricolore and shahada, despite similar pressure from the French and Saudis. Nevertheless, it does not take a Professor in Anti-Semitism Studies to understand how such an image can reinforce the myth of the Jewish conspiracy in the minds of those already convinced of its veracity, and for whom the words “Jewish lobby” trip too easily off the tongue.

Cartoons work by using images and symbols familiar to readers in order to induce them to read between the lines and infer a particular unspoken message from the image. The best that can be said about Schrank’s cartoon is that it is ambiguous, but this ambiguity is precisely what makes it so noxious: the Economist can dissociate itself from the most toxic of interpretations, but still the process of “wink wink, nudge nudge” will continue to encourage readers, quite reasonably, to jump to conclusions about Jewish control over Capitol Hill from the incorporation of the Star of David into official US symbols.

Belief in a Jewish conspiracy is sufficiently prevalent worldwide that for the Economist to buttress them, even unintentionally, is negligent at best and utterly reckless at worst. If there is nuance, the Economist cannot protest innocence when it is lost in translation.

Update: The Economist has pulled the cartoon from its website, explaining: “The print edition of this story had a cartoon which inadvertently caused offence to some readers, so we have replaced it with a photograph.” Given that the article makes no mention of AIPAC, the Israel Lobby, or indeed Israel (bar a passing reference in brackets to Benjamin Netanyahu), this was probably a wise move.

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