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Michael Netzer On Cartoonist Emad Hajjaj
posted February 19, 2012

This isn't intended to support or refute charges of anti-Semitism against Emad Hajjaj. I'm not interested much in whether his cartoons are motivated by a disdain for Jews (anti-Semitism) or a sense of justice for the Palestinians, as he says. But I do agree about the US citizen perspective, without ever needing to know for sure if anyone is full of it. That said, a couple of thoughts came to mind from reading Hajjaj's response to the allegations.

Both Hajjaj and President of the Center for Defending Cartoonists, Nidal Mansour, focus on the cartoons as targeting Israeli military and not Judaism or “a specific religion”. Hajjaj says this twice in his response and also gets demonstrably cute by asking how a Semite can be anti-Semitic. It all sounds pointedly logical at the surface, but then logic runs chaotic when further considering the response.

Respecting a religion has nothing to do with anti-Semitism. Semitism itself is not a religion. It is a reference to several peoples who are considered (for the most part) to be descendents of Noah's son Shem (or in some cases, Abrahamic tribes). These peoples are bound by Semitic languages, hence they're called Semites. But anti-Semitism is a reference to discrimination against the Jewish people only, coined in 19th century Europe to describe this type of discrimination. Anti-Semitism does not refer to discrimination against all the other Semitic peoples. In that sense, it is very possible for a Semite who is a Canaanite or a Jordanian, for example, to display anti-Semitic behavior if they discriminate against Jews. It is even possible for a Jew to be anti-Semitic. All they need do is display disdain or hostility towards the Jewish race. I've seen it happen sometimes.

As a child in Lebanon, I grew up in a culture that exuded such open animosity for Jews. It was often channeled towards the Jewish state Israel, as manifesting the biggest evil in the world that the Arab culture knew. In school, we learned that the Jews are not a race or a people, but are only bound and defined by the religion, Judaism. Years later, I discovered the reason for this perception in the Arab world was to disallow the right of the Jews to a country of their own. If the Jewish people are a race, then they are entitled to self-determination and independence, and would logically have such a stake in their historic homeland. But because they are only considered to be a religion, then religions have no such political or nationalistic entitlement. Branding the Jewish people as a religion - not a race - is a central issue in the Arab-Israeli conflict, and the primary reason that the Arab world does not recognize Israel as a Jewish state to this day.

It's interesting to see this argument still a dominant part of the thinking in the Arab world, evidenced by the responses of Hajjaj and Mansour, who shifted the focus of anti-Semitism to the religion of Judaism, somewhat in denial of its basic definition as racial discrimination. If they have nothing against the religion of Judaism, as they say, then they cannot be said to be anti-Semitic. We'd be hard pressed to find a greater distortion of the terms by what appears to be educated people. Some kinks can take a long time to iron out, it seems.

The other striking comment in Hajjaj's response is his concern for the brutality of the war in Gaza, pointing to “Israel bombing civilians”. I know it's a popular narrative concerning that war and it's an interesting Arab position that conveniently tries to sweep their own brutality under the rug so they can play the victims. The Hamas government in Gaza bombed Israel for more than 8 years with little to no Israeli retaliation. The war was launched after all this time and directed at stopping the Hamas aggression - not at “bombing civilians”. The reason civilians were harmed was because Hamas fought the war from within heavily populated civilian areas. They hid their rockets in Mosques and schools, and fired them from within populated areas, instead of staying clear of these areas in order to protect their people. It's interesting that the Arab narrative attests such brutality to their perceived enemies, but does not ever address the barbarism practiced in its own back yard, which is the crux of the conflict in the Middle-East. Crocodile tears and all.

I'm not a big fan of the term anti-Semitism and don't care much for its use. Attesting such motives seems somewhat of a political tool and quite unnecessary. It seems mostly enough to address specific issues without needing to ascertain intentions of bigotry or discrimination. So, I don't think of Hajjaj's work as being either anti-Semitic…or not. I just find his response predictable within the cultural environment he operates in, which roughly also defines the thrust of a certain amount of his cartoons. It is far more a partisan instrument of propaganda for a partly obscured reality, than it is a reliable statement on the reality it supposedly conveys.

Or maybe I'm really as much of a low stakes gentility rhetoric indulger as the next guy, if not even just plain full of it. I can definitely appreciate the absolute sense in not ever knowing.