Another visit to the world of Eli Valley of the Jewish Forward
Anyone who sees Eli Valley’s cartoons and his brilliant creations such as Bucky Shvitz, Sociologist for Hire or Stuart, the Jewish Turtle is unlikely to forget them in a hurry. But Valley, like other bitingly satirical cartoonists you can name, does not have an easy ride. Here the anonymous blogger of the Philosophy and Law website defends Valley against the charge leveled against him in Commentary magazine of being – you guessed it – self-hating. On this topic, see Eli Valley’s 17-Point Guide To Anti-Semitism And Its Abuse published in January this year on Peter Beinart’s Open Zion website.
Earlier postings on this website:
And don’t miss Bucky Shvitz, Sociologist for Hire: In the Memory Box [“Life was good, plus or minus the usual margin of error”]
The cartoons of Eli Valley make me happy. Not only because his work is unique, creative, and sharp-edged, but because the absolute hysteria that every new publication occasions within the Jewish press has become, for me, a way to gauge the ideological focus of those media outlets.
Valley’s most recent cartoon was in no way a disappointment, but it did make me want to write something. Commentary magazine instantly came out with a virulent criticism of Valley’s new cartoon, Crossing the Line from Satire into Hate. Now, just to air a couple of matters: Commentary is a resoundingly right-wing paper (I think the editorial board of Commentary would agree with this) whose editorial focus is on the threat posed to the Jewish community by criticism of Israel, any religious accommodation of Islam, as well as regularly featuring articles declaring the immanent Second Holocaust (this characterization they might not agree with). If you have never read Commentary, I encourage you to do so–I also encourage you to cue up some YouTube videos of cute kittens or something before you start so that the adorable cuddliness can assuage the deep and existential terror that follow your reading.
Being surprised at Commentary‘s criticism of Eli Valley (who is artist-in-residence at The Jewish Daily Forward) is like being surprised when nuns are critical of pre-marital sex. That being said, Commentary‘s recent criticism is particularly important, insofar as it makes precisely the classic move made by right-wing Jews in the attempt to discredit left-wing Jews–calling them ‘self-hating.’ It is worth quoting what Jonathan Tobin, the author of the Commentary piece, wrote about Valley’s recent cartoon:
“This is not just the usual leftist argument about self-destructive right-wingers, but a full-blown attempt to depict Israel as a monster, built on the ashes of the Holocaust but instead replicating its horrors. This is not just hostility to Zionism masquerading as an attempt to save it from the Zionists, but propaganda illustrated in the language of hate. The problem here is not just that using Anne Frank in this manner is tasteless and calculated to offend Holocaust survivors and any Jew who cares about the subject, though it is all those things. It is that by doing so in this manner, Valley has stepped across the divide between fair comment and political satire into the realm of anti-Semitic invective.”
I’m an academic. I like to approach statements as an academic. So rather than either spit back at Tobin OR praise Valley, I am going to reproduce the cartoon here. And then, taking deep breaths to avoid hyperventilation and keeping an eye on my blood pressure, I’m going to try to talk about it. Specifically. And as with all analyses of a specific work, you MUST begin by reading the primary source.
The basic plot [click on image to the left and then click on the image you get in the Jewish Daily Forward to enlarge it] is not overly complicated–in 1948 the protagonist, a geneticist named Dr. Lowenstein, is approached by David Ben Gurion and Chaim Weizmann, both of whom are concerned that simply having a Jewish State is insufficient to ensure the survivial of the Jewish people unless their character is fundamentally changed. To this end, Ben Gurion and Weizmann ask Lowenstein to create a serum that combines the DNA of Anne Frank and Judah Maccabee–Anne Frank, Ben Gurion exclaims, “embodied the humanism and literary brilliance of an entire people,” and Weizmann proclaims that a combination of Anne Frank and Judah Maccabee “would meld…the warrior with the artist–the perfected Jew in our reclaimed homeland!”
Now there are, I think, two important things to keep in mind at this point–Valley has offered no criticism whatever of either Anne or Judah. They are, quite literally, symbols, which makes the way they are used that much more interesting. A good friend of mine, a professor of Jewish Studies to whom I sent this cartoon, responded by saying that it was certainly interesting but (to paraphrase) “the notion of some pure and perfect Anne Frank and Judah Maccabee is itself a construction.” My friend, who had no previous experience with Valley’s work, attributed this notion to Valley, but any perusal of Valley’s work reveals that there are no sacred cows. Valley does not seem to be saying that Anne Frank was perfect, but that her use to politicians has been as a pure and ideal symbol. Ben Gurion and Weizmann, who are and who stand for the important post-WWII Jewish nationalists and the first generations of leaders of Israel, believe that she is perfect.
It is the plot of a classic Halloween movie or horror story. Dr. Lowenstein creates the serum and administers it to a test subject. Instead of demonstrating the perfect combination of Anne Frank’s sensitivity and Judah Maccabee’s aggression, it becomes increasingly schizophrenic. That is, instead of its sensitive side moderating its aggression and its aggression making its sensitivity recognize pragmatic necessity, the specimen is simultaneously oversensitive and aggressive. Catastrophically, the human test subject then escapes, taking the serum and using it to contaminate the water supply, so that more and more people develop these same schizophrenic tendencies, a combination of sensitivity to danger and militant agression which, in the panels of Valley’s comic, lead directly to the escalation of the conflict with Iran, and to Netanyahu’s famous ‘red line’ illustration.
Jonathan Tobin is entitled to his opinion, as are we all. But let us consider some of the specifics of his criticism.
1. Tobin writes that this is a cartoon “firmly within the tradition of Nazi ideologue Julius Streicher’s anti-Semitic illustrations.”
This is the most serious criticism that Tobin makes. And anyone who took his post seriously enough to do background would know that–it would have been useful for Tobin to hotlink his comment about Julius Streicher to some basic information. But in brief: Julius Streicher was an incredibly important Nazi, who founded and edited Der Sturmer, the pre-eminent vehicle of Nazi ideology and propaganda. Hitler himself publicly supported the newspaper and required that it be prominently displayed. Streicher (although I am not aware that he actually drew the cartoons appearing in Der Sturmer) also wrote anti-Semitic children’s books, organized the boycott of Jewish businesses, ordered the burning of the synagogue of Nuremberg in 1938, and was upset that the authors of the Nuremberg Laws did not consult him. When Germany was defeated, he was tried (possibly mistreated) and executed in the first Nuremberg Trials for crimes against humanity. He remains a hero of free speech for the still blooming and terrifying neo-Nazi movement: the following website contains an entire article on Streicher as a martyr for free speech, and includes a claim that they have translated and made available for purchase the English version of Der Sturmer. It is a very grim website: http://www.stormfront.org/truth_at_last/archives/julius.htm
If Tobin is going to argue that Eli Valley in any well resembles Streicher the man…then we are living in different universes. But to give the comparison the benefit of the doubt, let’s just look at the illustrations that Streicher sponsored. Because that is what reveals what might be Tobin’s fundamental misunderstanding. Perhaps Valley is echoing Streicher’s style, or some particular aspect of his ideology.
Graphically, I suppose one could argue that there are similarities, although a number of them can be accounted from by the fact that both were produced using black and white ink drawing. Streicher’s cartoons do certainly pervert Jewish physicality–the tropes of being dingy and dirty, manipulative and power-hungry, effeminate and poisonous, are displayed in Der Sturmer‘s pages through hooked noses, stooped shoulders, and occasional transformations into their snakes or pigs. And yes, Valley plays with Jewish physicality as well. But Valley does it intentionally–his cartoons on the topic, particularly Israel Man and Diaspora Boy and Dawn of the Chimpanzees, are a fight against ideological attempts to link Jewish masculinity with Jewish nationalism.
The only other possibility that I can think of is that Tobin is referring to the fact that Streicher cultivated a virulently racial anti-Semitism that identified Jews as genetically and irreparably inferior and dangerous to the rest of the human race. I don’t think Tobin could be making this point–he has read political cartoons before, right?–but I will still say it: in Valley’s cartoons and in Dr. Lowenstein in particular, the genetic combination is a metaphor. It stands in for the political process of combining different individuals, events and ideas in order to produce or as the result of an ideology. We all get that, right? Valley’s point, it seems to me, is that modern Jews are influenced by a combination of ideologies whose mixture can be dangerous. The constant calls to be a perfect combination of things can force two personalities together, but the results are not actually combination. Oh metaphor…
2. He also writes that the cartoon is a “full-blown attempt to depict Israel as a monster, built on the ashes of the Holocaust but instead replicating its horrors,” and “draw[s] modern Israel as a Holocaust-inspired monster.”
There are a lot of things going on here. But most are pretty simple to address. Valley rarely depicts Israel. He depicts Israeli Jews and Diaspora Jews, but not ‘Israel’ as such. His cartoons are, visually and narratively, centered around individuals. In Dr. Lowenstein, we are in fact never restricted to Israel–it is a project inspired by Jewish nationalism, but its effects appear quite global. Insofar as Valley criticizes Israel for not having learned certain lessons from the Holocaust…well…I’m honestly not sure why that is such a terrible suggestion to make. If being Jewish in the 21st century means studying and learning about the Holocaust and taking it seriously, then it is essential that we continue having a real conversation about what lessons must be learned, and how Jews–all Jews–can exemplify those lessons.
And finally–no, Jewish nationalism is not ‘Holocaust inspired.’ It developed long before the Holocaust and well before the 20th century. But Jewish nationalism did get a bump. Historians, including the Israeli Schmuel Ettinger, have argued that the effects of anti-Semitism and the Holocaust shifted Jewish aspirations towards a state. And aside from that, the arrival of thousands upon thousands of refugees to ports in British Palestine certainly made a difference to the British.
3. Therefore, Tobin writes, “Valley has stepped across the divide between fair comment and political satire into the realm of anti-Semitic invective.”
It is obvious, based on my previous argument, that I think this is a ridiculous claim. I’ll admit something: when I first read Dr. Lowenstein, I was shocked speechless for a moment. I often am by Valley’s work. In fact, I rely on it. Sometime’s Valley’s work is ugly, but it is rare today to find an artist who has the courage to be ugly. You can’t read Valley for pure ‘enjoyment,’ at least not until the second or third reading–it requires more attention than that. But it is intended to disturb, and it is intended to make you question.
The real shame of Tobin’s post is that he falls back into a pattern–he draws his own version of Netanyahu’s ‘Red Line,’ and once someone has crossed that Red Line there is nothing left to be said except for whatever is communicated by a full-frontal nuclear assault. When you call someone a Jew-hater it silences them. Ironically however, it only silences those who are NOT Jew-haters, while the real haters take on that designation with pride. And there are those who I think deserve such a designation! But it is, all too often, used by members of the Jewish right as a disciplinary tool against members of the Jewish left. And that is what it seems to be here.
Eli Valley’s voice is an important one. It is a Diasporic Jewish voice, one that maintains the right of Diasporic Jews to own and value their derspersion, just as Jews have done for thousands of years. So why does Valley direct his criticism at Israel? Because if you grow up as a Diasporic Jew in North America, one way or another you will develop a relationship with Israel. Trips, educational, social, and matrimonially-oriented are offered, free of charge. Communal, social, and monetary support is requested. Israel, you are told, will make you smarter, stronger, and sexier.
And as a Diasporic Jew? There is a sense in which it becomes a constant litany of people telling you that your Jewishness is not enough, that there is another way you could or should be doing things. People are beginning to talk and write more now about the need to reconfigure the relationship between Israel and the Diaspora, and Valley’s cartoons contribute some real insight into what some features of that reconfigured relationship might need to be.
If I could say something to Tobin, it might be this: criticize Valley as much as you want–take issue with his contention in The Hater in the Sky that pro-Israeli American policies are harming America’s own interests, or explain why you do not believe that the traditional Jewish nationalist linkage between land and masculinity is still being deployed.
But don’t yell “Nazi” and run. Take those ideas and those arguments seriously.
And keep the dictionary definition of ‘metaphor’ handy.