Did The New York Times adequately apologize for its anti-Semitic cartoon?

The international print version of The New York Times published a political cartoon caricaturing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as a dog leading a blind Donald Trump in a yarmulke. That was pretty dumb. Its apologies aren’t helping much, because they don’t address what appears to be a pernicious blind spot on the Times’ Opinion team.

I won’t publish the cartoon — if you really want to see it, it’s easy to find online. As to why it was offensive, here’s an explanation from Bret Stephens in the Times’ own opinion pages yesterday.

Here was an image that, in another age, might have been published in the pages of Der Stürmer. The Jew in the form of a dog. The small but wily Jew leading the dumb and trusting American. The hated Trump being Judaized with a skullcap. The nominal servant acting as the true master. The cartoon checked so many anti-Semitic boxes that the only thing missing was a dollar sign.

You missed one, Bret. Caricatured Jews always have cartoonishly big noses. And sure enough, the cartoon Netanyahu has a massive schnozz.

Let’s be clear about what happened here. This is not The New York Times that we all read. The New York Times and the Washington Post used to jointly publish an overseas edition called “The International Herald Tribune.” The Times took it over in 2002 and renamed it “The International New York Times” in 2013 and renamed it again, to “The New York Times International Edition” in 2016. It’s now fully integrated with the New York paper, but it has a separate editorial process.

Apparently that process includes reviewing syndicated political cartoons and publishing them. And apparently, one low-level editor was able to select and publish this cartoon last week without any supervision.

Evaluating the Times’ apologies

Here was the Times’ first apology, tweeted on Saturday.

A political cartoon in the international print edition of The New York Times on Thursday included anti-Semitic tropes, depicting the prime minister of Israel as a guide dog with a Star of David collar leading the president of the United States, shown wearing a skullcap. The image was offensive, and it was an error of judgment to publish it. It was provided by The New York Times News Service and Syndicate, which has since deleted it.

That’s pretty weak. it doesn’t explain what happened and how. It doesn’t promise changes to avoid future problems. And it characterizes the mistake as “an error of judgment,” which minimizes the harm that comes from inflaming anti-Semitism. Shortly after this was tweeted, an anti-Semitic white supremacist nut shot up a synagogue in San Diego, killing one person and injuring several others including the rabbi. This is no time to trivialize anti-Semitism.

A real apology has to be hard. It has to reflect that the person who caused the problem understands the problem, knows who they hurt, accepts blame, apologizes to the people they hurt, and is taking steps to remedy the problem and make sure it doesn’t recur.

That’s what the Times tried to do with a second tweeted apology on Sunday afternoon.

A statement from Times Opinion:

We are deeply sorry for the publication of an anti-Semitic cartoon last Thursday in the print edition of The New York Times that circulates outside of the United States, and we are committed to making sure nothing like this happens again. Such imagery is always dangerous, and at a time when anti-Semitism is on the rise worldwide, it’s all the more unacceptable. We have investigated how this happened and learned that, because of a faulty process, a single editor working without adequate oversight downloaded the syndicated cartoon and made the decision to include it on the Opinion page. The matter remains under review, and we are evaluating our internal processes and training. We anticipate significant changes.

Having to take two tries to apologize is already pretty sad. In my opinion, this has gone from a C-minus apology to a B-minus. It’s still inadequate. Despite the “deeply” (the worst of weasel words), it doesn’t acknowledge who it hurt and why. The answer is not just Jews. The answer is that caricatures intended to exaggerate and denigrate ethnic groups normalizing hate and prejudice and thereby hurt everyone pursing tolerance.

The second statement does promise changes, which is better, but I do wonder how an editor could see this cartoon and not recognize that it’s problematic.

Stephens says that anti-Zionism is indistinguishable from anti-Semitism — in other words, criticism of Israel is always a problem. Here’s what he wrote:

How have even the most blatant expressions of anti-Semitism become almost undetectable to editors who think it’s part of their job to stand up to bigotry?

The reason is the almost torrential criticism of Israel and the mainstreaming of anti-Zionism, including by this paper, which has become so common that people have been desensitized to its inherent bigotry. So long as anti-Semitic arguments or images are framed, however speciously, as commentary about Israel, there will be a tendency to view them as a form of political opinion, not ethnic prejudice. But as I noted in a Sunday Review essay in February, anti-Zionism is all but indistinguishable from anti-Semitism in practice and often in intent, however much progressives try to deny this.

If the Times wants to criticize Israeli policy, I’d be fine reading that. Not everything Israel does is worthy of defending. I’m sure there are plenty of editorial cartoons that could make that point.

But spare me the big-nosed Jews conspiratorially influencing everything American prints and everyone in American government. Spare me the disgusting vision of Trump wearing a yarmulke. Spare me any bigoted caricatures of any ethnic group.

Surely you don’t need those to make a point about politics. And if you think you do — if you think printing ethnic and religious caricatures is an “error of judgment” rather than an error of attitude, then you’ll have to think a little harder about how you make your editorial decisions.

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One Comment

  1. There’s no such thing as Anti-Italianism. Or Anti-Scotism. Or anti-Russianism. Why? Because all nations are allowed their own pride in who they are as a nation. There’s only one exception. One.

    This is not to say that you can’t criticize Israel, even perhaps for being excessively nationalistic and having its own term for love of its land. Criticism isn’t demonization, except of course, all too often when it comes to one nation. Buildings are bombed every day somewhere in the world, but only when it happens in Gaza does anyone seem to care. Only when it happens in Gaza does it make the front page of the Times – a bit of an exaggeration, but not a huge one.

    One day, a few years ago, there were three articles about Israel in the Times. One on the front page, one on page 5, and another on the editorial page. There was also one about Gaza, and how Egypt had bulldozed a 3-mile wide strip previously containing homes and shops to create a security zone. It was on page 8, to the left of the page, where you’d never look.

    It’s OK to criticize Israel, it’s not anti-Semitic to do so, not at all. Obsessing over Israel and everything you might not like to the exclusion of concern over other things more important might be.