Among the stunning side-effects of the past three years of Middle East violence has been the flood of crude, defamatory attacks on Israel in influential European media.
London's Independent newspaper reflected this trend, running a cartoon that pictured Ariel Sharon naked and devouring a headless Palestinian child. The caption read: “What's wrong? You never seen a politician kissing babies before?”
In Italy and Ireland, incendiary cartoons cast Sharon as a Christ-killer in his treatment of Palestinians. The French media offered their public depictions of Israel as - in the words of documentarian Jacques Tarnero - a brutish “robocop” oppressing Palestinian kids; at the same time, one French media outlet called the savage killing of Israeli 13-year-olds Kobi Mandel and Yossi Ish-Ran near Tekoa in the West Bank “the murder of two young Jewish colonists.”
But, most objectionable, in many of Europe's storied capitals Israelis have been avidly likened to Nazis. Swastikas, Gestapo references and Hitler comparisons have blossomed in the mass media of nations whose Jews were rounded up and murdered 60 years ago.
Political leaders have also sometimes promoted this odious linkage, as did Oona King, a British parliamentarian of African-American and Jewish parentage, on describing her recent visit to Gaza. In her account in The Guardian on June 12, 2003, which was full of false claims about Israeli policies, she accused Israel of confining Palestinians in Gaza as Jews had been confined in the Warsaw Ghetto, and concluded by encouraging readers to join in boycotting Israeli products.
America's mainstream media, like its political arena, have been largely free of such extreme, abhorrent anti-Israel and anti-Semitic characterizations. Yet infection can spread. Far from being offended by Oona King and her reckless statements, St. Petersburg Times correspondent Susan Taylor Martin read and cited the The Guardian story admiringly.
In a June 22 piece entitled “Israel's building of wall stirs ghetto comparison” Martin uses King's statements about the Warsaw Ghetto and Gaza to draw her own connections between Nazi policies and the construction of a separation wall in the West Bank. After visiting Israel's Holocaust memorial museum, she observes: “Another dark story is unfolding just a few miles away. In the West Bank, contractors are building a 25-foot wall - twice as high as the one in Warsaw - as part of an elaborate barrier that eventually will stretch more than 200 miles and restrict Palestinian movement into Israel.” She adds: “It's a good bet more than a few visitors to Yad Vashem reflect on certain disturbing similarities between the notorious Warsaw Ghetto and what is transpiring in the Palestinian territories. But a British member of Parliament whose mother is a Jew dared put into words what others have only thought.”
What is to be said about Martin's irresponsible assertions, and of editors who permit publication of the obscene comparison between Israel building a wall to protect itself against incursions by murderous bombers, and the bestial Nazi roundup and slaughter of more than 400,000 Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto?
Jews died in the Ghetto by the thousands from disease, starvation and capricious Nazi murder. Beginning in July 1942 they were rounded up and shipped to the Treblinka death camp to perish by the hundreds of thousands. Only 50,000 remained in early 1943, when organized Jewish resistance grew, culminating with the April 19 uprising against Nazi forces sent to eradicate the few still alive. One survivor described Germans shooting “like ducks” Jews who leapt out of high buildings set on fire by Nazi flame-throwers. The evil inherent in any and every such detail of the genocidal onslaught is comprehensible to most people.
Yet the St. Petersburg Times editors and their correspondent failed to distinguish between such barbarism and Israel's construction of a protective wall that entails at worst expropriating land, uprooting trees in some places (60,000 of which have been replanted by Israel for the owners), severing certain Palestinian towns and villages from commercial activity and inconveniencing family members and friends who want to see one another.
The Florida newspaper ran five letters responding to the offensive Martin column. One writer wondered why commentators on Israel's constructing a wall would not lament the tragedy - and outrage - that Jews remain mortally besieged scores of years after the Nazi genocide. But that line of thought is evidently not as titillating to certain journalists as comparisons, however false, between Jews and Nazis.
The Irish statesman and writer Conor Cruise O'Brien once observed that a signal of anti-Jewish bigotry in comments on Israel is “if your interlocutor can't keep Hitler out of the conversation... feverishly turning Jews into Nazis and Arabs into Jews.”
It is an insight many European journalists, and some Americans, would do well to ponder.
Originally published in the Jerusalem Post on July 15, 2003.