Taking It on the Nose? A Fresh Look at Cartoon Jews and Anti-Semitism

August 1, 2017 | , ,

The Implacable Urge to Defame: Cartoon Jews in the American Press, 1877-1935, by Matthew Baigell, Syracuse University Press, 240 pp., $29.95

Diaspora Boy: Comics on Crisis in Israel and America, by Eli Valley, OR Books, 144 pp., $25

For years, I’ve been doing a little experiment with the students in my Jewish literature classes, whenever I’m about to teach a graphic novel like “Maus” or “The Rabbi’s Cat.” I ask them to take out a piece of paper and a pen or pencil. I tell them that I’m going to give them an instruction, and that they have to respond without asking any questions. Then, once they’re ready, I say: “Draw a Jew.”

Feel free to try this at home.

After a couple of minutes, the students put down their pencils, and we talk about what they’ve drawn. One of my favorite questions to ask first is this: “How many of you drew a woman?” (Usually, it’s at most one or two in a room of two dozen students.) But what’s really interesting is to ask, “How many of you drew a big nose?” I can’t recall a single class in which at least one or two students hasn’t then, somewhat sheepishly, held up a drawing of a stick figure with a toucan’s beak.

The goal of the exercise isn’t to ferret out closeted anti-Semites; often all the students in the room are Jewish. The point is to press them to think about the problem of Jews and cartoons.

A sharp student or two will draw a stick figure with no distinguishing features, and explain, “Jews don’t look different from other people, so I just drew a person.” And of course, they’re right: Jews don’t look one way or another–and if you have any doubts about that statement, you probably haven’t spent enough time perusing the Diaspora photographs of Frederic Brenner.

But the problem, others will be quick to point out, is that if you’re an artist and you draw an undistinguished stick figure (or even a more detailed, but still generalized representation of a person), your audience–at least in the United States–will not assume it is a Jew. So, if your goal is to represent Jews, you will inevitably have to deploy some kind of symbol, whether it be a literal symbol, a Star of David or chai, or some other kind of distinctive cultural marker: a Yiddish or Hebrew word, a piece of gefilte fish, a shaytel or kippah or Jewish summer camp T-shirt.

Such symbols are necessary to identify Jews in novels and film and video games and paintings, too, but this is especially a problem for cartoons, which by their conventions stylize, abstract, and exaggerate human characteristics.

Often that quality of cartoons has led, as in my little classroom experiment, to disturbing results. For his new book, “The Implacable Urge to Defame,” the art historian Matthew Baigell combed through the popular American graphic magazines of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, especially Puck, Judge and Life, and turned up hundreds of cartoons representing Jews, and he remarks that he “cannot recall a single [one] in which a Jewish person is not given a bulbous nose.”

The Jews in these cartoons often have absurdly stereotypical names (starting in “Cohen or Isaac,” ending in “stein or berg,” Baigell says), and typically they embody one or another anti-Semitic stereotype: They scheme, bargain and cheat; they are foreign, un-American, vulgar; they don’t assimilate but overrun America; and they enjoy nothing more than burning down their own shops to collect insurance.

Though it may be news to some readers, the existence of such cartoons in the American press has been well-documented since at least the 1980s by the scholars John and Selma Appel, among others. What motivates Baigell’s project is a sense that these earlier scholars have not condemned the racism of these cartoons strongly enough; he calls the Appels “too easy-going, too generous, and too tolerant.”

In his righteous indignation, however, Baigell tends to steamroll over everything that is complicated and fascinating about his material, and about cartoons in general. (He also misses key sources, especially those treating Yiddish cartoons in America and misreads some cartoons.)

To understand these troubling cartoons, it helps to consider them in relation to other images that circulated in other American mass media of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, especially in vaudeville, joke books, cinema” and music, which Baigell mostly doesn’t. As the music critic Jody Rosen’s album of archival recordings, “Jewface,” and Jeffrey Shandler and J. Hoberman’s book “Entertaining America: Jews, Movies, and Broadcasting” make strikingly clear, troublingly cartoonish representations of Jews were very common in many media, and, curiously, they were often either created by Jews or popular among Jewish audiences, or both.

A 1907 movie by Edwin S. Porter, called “Cohen’s Fire Sale,” for example, presents a hideously stereotypical Jew, with a nose so freakishly large he can’t kiss his wife without poking her in the eye, who burns down his store, cheerfully, for profit. Yet a contemporaneous report in a Yiddish newspaper noted that the film was played at a theater owned by Jews for an entirely Jewish audience, most of whom loved it.

Why? How could images that, to our eyes, look absolutely vicious, not have elicited outrage from our immigrant great-grandparents? It was not simply that they had internalized ambient anti-Semitism and become self-haters; let’s not condescend to our ancestors that much. The more likely explanation is that Jews a hundred years ago, just like Jews today, had an “implacable urge” to laugh at themselves–even to the extent that they found humor in outlandish cartoon representations, at least some of which were created by Jewish artists.

That’s not to say that there can’t be genuinely pernicious cartoons. A sizeable proportion of Baigell’s selections are repulsive and hateful, like an 1899 Life cartoon in which a grossly stereotypical Jew doesn’t care whether his friend drowns, but wants to keep his jewelry: “If you don’t come up again, Goldstine, can I keep the diamond?” An 1897 cartoon critique of collusion in the theater business personifies the alleged corruption as a disgusting, monstrous Jew-faced octopus, strangling starlets. These are awful to look at, but, as Baigell notes, they are not entirely surprising in a time and place where lots of anti-Semitism–for example, keeping Jews out of hotels and colleges and swimming pools–was common.

By painting all of the cartoons with a single, angry brush, Baigell misses that some of his examples had their sights on targets other than the Jews. A cartoon that Baigell judges one of “the most pernicious” in all of his findings, for one glaring example, printed in Puck in 1891, offers up an Uncle Sam figure distributing “moldy bread” and “spoiled meat” to starving Native Americans. Baigell writes that “the seller is identified as a Russian Jew by the can around his neck,” and sees the cartoon as a rank, racist attack on the “all-devouring Jewish merchant.”

He’s wrong, though: look closely at the cartoon, and another canister, hanging lower down, says, “Irish famine,” and there are others you can’t quite read. The title of the cartoon is “Consistency,” and we can easily enough reconstruct the subject of its critique: hypocritical America, as represented by Uncle Sam, seeks charity for suffering Jews and Irish abroad–the labeled canisters have coin slots, for collecting donations–but continues to cheat and brutalize its own needy minorities. Whatever you might feel about this claim, it simply is not anti-Semitic.

This isn’t the only time that Baigell imputes anti-Semitism to a cartoon erroneously, and it turns out that over the course of an entire book, Baigell can barely identify a single cartoon, of any kind, that isn’t offensive to him. When he goes looking for positive images of Jews to contrast to the awful caricatures, he cites photographs and illustrations, not better cartoons. This suggests that his problem isn’t just that many specific cartoons were racist; he seems unable to appreciate and effectively interpret the satirical intentions and methods of caricature as a genre.

Baigell’s book makes me wonder how, a century from now, a historian will interpret Jewish caricature in America circa 2017.

That putative future historian will lament, I expect, the alt-right trolls and white nationalists who have lately dredged up some of the worst old caricatures, and created their own variations, as part of their campaigns to harass and threaten American Jews, which are undeniable acts of anti-Semitism. But I hope that s/he will also consider the cartoon satires of Eli Valley, newly published in a gorgeous, enormous and important collection called “Diaspora Boy.”

For more than a decade, Valley has self-consciously drawn on the history of caricature to portray specific Jews as repulsive grotesques; like Art Spiegelman before him, he feels the problem of Jews and cartoons deeply, and turns it to his advantage as a satirist. He chooses as his subjects those he views as infamous Jewish hypocrites, like Abraham Foxman and Sheldon Adelson, and then distends their faces, adding jowls and bulges of flesh. He twists Benjamin Netanyahu’s eyes into inhuman positions. He does this to render visually the disgust he feels about their statements and behavior, whether it’s Bibi’s loving come-ons to Evangelical Christians or Alan Dershowitz’s “demonization” of Richard Goldstone. And although his most frequent targets are conservative, Valley savages hypocrites wherever he can find them, whether they’re hipsters laboring to make Jewishness “edgy and ironic,” or liberal rabbis walking back their progressivism.

Executed in a distinctive style that results in heavy, dark, cramped pages, Valley’s comics feel like being trapped in a room filled with intemperate uncles and aunts, in which everybody’s yelling about Israel, anti-Semitism and Jews, Jews, Jews. It’s a room that will feel familiar, uncomfortably so, to any member of a synagogue, any attendee at a Passover seder, and any reader of a Jewish newspaper.

It could be said of almost every one of Valley’s cartoons that it goes too far. Many were in fact censored by one publication or another, or, after being published, were criticized for insensitivity or branded as anti-Semitic–often by the very individuals Valley lampoons for crying anti-Semitism as a dodge.

But even when they cross a line, and maybe especially when they cross a line, these comics deserve to be read by anyone who cares about contemporary Jewish life, especially about the relationship between Jews in America and Israel. They refuse to let you shrug your shoulders at or look away from contemporary Jewish problems, like labor abuses at kosher slaughterhouses or the gleeful exploitation of anti-Semitism for fundraising purposes by Jewish nonprofits. They are works of self-conscious Diaspora art in the tradition of the Prophets, and all their many descendants among modern Jewish writers, who are obsessed and energized by Jews’ individual and collective failings and hypocrisies.

Still, wrenched out of context, or misread in context, whether willfully or just out of clumsiness, it wouldn’t be impossible to confuse Valley’s cartoons with those of the white nationalist anti-Semites emboldened by the election of President Trump. Such confusion would be a mistake, and it would shed light neither on Valley’s cartoons nor the distressingly anti-Semitic ones, nor on the perennial problem of Jews and cartoons. Let’s hope it’s a mistake our future historian won’t make.