Editorial: Talking About What Pictures Say

Becky O’Malley
Tuesday July 20, 2004

Sometimes, one picture is worth a thousand words. But pictures are subject to multiple interpretations, and so it seems that on certain topics when we run a picture we need to add explanatory words as well. Last week we ran a cartoon by our editorial car toonist which depicted the wall which Israel is currently erecting in Palestinian territory. It was identified as such by having the flag of Israel superimposed on it: a six-pointed star with bars above and below. A sign was tacked to the wall: “Condemned by the International Court of Justice.” It was a simple graphic representation of an actual current event which has been reported in many papers. But for a few readers (not many, thank goodness) there was something about the cartoon which seemed to imply hostility to Jewish people in general (what is commonly called anti-Semitism) rather than criticism of the policies of the current government of Israel. One caller left a message identifying himself as a Marin County lawyer, and said that he had been planning to run a weekly ad in the Daily Planet, but that he had decided not to because of the paper’s “anti-Semitism.” (Excuse me, but I don’t really believe he’d planned the ad, sorry.) A woman called after hours, hoping to leave a voice mail message, but I picked up the phone. She said that she thought the use of a religious symbol like the star was anti-Semitism, and later called again to say that she was reporting the paper to the Anti-Defamation League. The problem, which we’ve explained in this paper before, is that Israel chose to use a religious symbol on its national flag, but that doesn’t make the flag off-limits as a political symbol. The Union Jack, the British flag, incorporates a cross, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be used in political cartoons.  

In our newsroom we enjoy listening to an ongoing discussion between two reporters, one of whom tends to defend many of Israel’s recent political actions and the other who is critical of most of them. They’re both Jewish by heritage, of course, and I strongly suspect that each of them would be willing to argue the other’s position under the right circumstances. The more pro-government fellow once asked, in an exasperated way, why everyone cares so much about what Israel does? Good question. Why, ind eed, do so many Americans, and so many people in Berkeley in particular, care about Israel? The answer is like the one given by experienced parents when their kids want to do something because “everyone else is doing it.” We always said “no, because WE are NOT everyone else.”  

For most of us around here, Jewish or not, Israel is not “everyone else.” And even, Jews are not “everyone else.” Our expectations are simply higher for Israel, and that’s a mark of respect for Israel’s history and its meaning for Jews, not of disrespect or anti-Semitic prejudice. Why do some of us criticize Israel? For the same reason we tell our kids when we think they’ve made a mistake: because we care about you.  

Across the page you’ll see a graphic which a reader submitted “t o counter the cartoon on the wall being build around Israel” under the title of “one picture says it all.” This map does indeed tell a story, but like most pictures it tells different stories to different viewers. It shows a tiny Israel, symbolized by tha t same flag with the Star of David—really the only way to do it. Many much larger countries surround it, countries where the common denominator is that Islam is the majority religion. It’s the caption that says it all for me: “End the unjust Jewish occupa tion of Arab lands!” The comment seems to be intended as sarcasm, like the comment in the accompanying letter, “We are just such bullies!!!!” The implication seems to be that a tiny powerless little Israel is surrounded by big powerful Arabs. 

What’s path etic about this illustration is that it represents true anti-Semitism. The Merriam-Webster online dictionary defines “Semitic” this way: (1) “of, relating to, or constituting a subfamily of the Afro-Asiatic language family that includes Hebrew, Aramaic, A rabic, and Amharic” (2) “of, relating to, or characteristic of the Semites” and only (3) “Jewish.” We’re not the first to point out that Semitic heritage is what Arabs and Jews share. It’s what distinguishes both of them from the many other ethic groups w hich have adopted the Islamic religion. It is a form of racism to say that all Moslems are Arabs, when in fact the countries on the map, labelled by implication as “Arab lands,” are from a wide variety of non-Semitic ethnic and linguistic groups, and have many citizens whose religion is neither Islam nor Judaism. Merriam-Webster defines anti-Semitism as “hostility toward or discrimination against Jews as a religious, ethnic, or racial group.” But consistency (like some other dictionaries) suggests that it’s also a form of anti-Semitism to exhibit hostility toward or discrimination against Arabs as a religious, ethnic, or racial group. Arabs are not a religious group; one of their most distinguished spokesmen, the late Edward Said, was raised as a Protesta nt Christian. Jews who circulate this graphic are doing what they criticize others for doing: acting anti-Semitic. And you could even argue that they’re being anti-Semitic in the ordinary language sense: that they’re doing something which is harmful to Je ws.  

It is possible to have an intelligent, reasonable and civilized discussion about the morality and practicality of the Israeli government’s current actions in the occupied territories. We know it’s possible because we see it demonstrated in our newsroom all the time. But no one’s cause, especially Israel’s, is served by circulating ignorant racist propaganda images like the graphic on the facing page.  


—Becky O’Malley