Cliff May

Let's not call the political cartoonist Pat Oliphant an anti-Semite or even an Israel-basher. Let's just be clear about what he is doing: encouraging those whose intentions are genocidal.

Hamas unambiguously falls into that category. The Hamas Charter calls for Israel to be "obliterated." Hamas' founder, Sheikh Ahmad Yassin, said Israel must "disappear from the map." Hamas spokesman and legislator Sheikh Ahmad Bahr has said that both Israel and America "will be annihilated," adding: "Kill them all, down to the very last one." Hamas-owned Al-Aqsa TV has promised: "We will wipe out the people of Zion, and will not leave a single one of them."

Oliphant is not just any opinion monger. He is the most widely syndicated political cartoonist in the world, winner of the Pulitzer Prize and other prestigious awards. The drawing he distributed in late March shows a headless (therefore inhuman) figure representing Israel. The creature wears jackboots and is goose-stepping (because Nazis wore jackboots and goose-stepped). It has a brawny, hairy arm wielding a sword (to suggest it is primitive and bellicose). It is pushing a Star of David (the symbol of both Israel and Judaism) that has a shark's face with an open mouth and long, sharp teeth (no explanation needed). It pursues its victim: a tiny, defenseless mother and child labeled "Gaza."

The symbolism here is unoriginal. Dehumanizing Jews in cartoons is a tradition that dates back at least to Germany  in the 1930s and has been maintained in the Arab press ever since.  Nor is it novel to equate 21st century Jews with their 20th century executioners. But until now, such images have rarely, if ever, been so legitimized in the mainstream media. A corner has been turned.

Oliphant may not be interested in the context for the conflict between Israel and Hamas, but others should be. There is, for example, the fact that Israel occupied Gaza as a consequence of the 1967 war waged against Israel by Egypt, Syria, Jordan and other Arab states. Prior to that, Gaza was an Egyptian territory. There also is the fact that in 2005 Israel ended its occupation of Gaza.  This fact is pertinent too: Many Gazans have supported Hamas knowing full well that the organization's top priority is to wage jihad against Israel.

In recent years, that has meant raining missiles on Israelis, not least on Israeli mothers and children. A few months ago, Israel launched a three-week air and ground offensive in an effort to make Hamas stop.

It is not only Israel's supporters who blame Hamas for the death and destruction that resulted. "The one responsible," said Nimr Hammad, an advisor to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, is "Hamas, and not the Zionist entity, which in its own view reacted to the firing of Palestinian missiles."

Wars can never be garden parties but during the recent conflict, far from acting like a headless monster, the Israel Defense Force took extraordinary efforts to limit civilian casualties, including, for example, making phone calls to Palestinian civilians to urge them to leave areas that would be targeted.

By contrast, Hamas took steps to increase non-combatant deaths. For instance, an Israeli armored brigade commander told The New York Times that his troops encountered "a woman, about 60 years old, walking with a white flag and six to eight children behind her, and behind them was a Hamas fighter with his gun. "We did not shoot him," the commander said.

Israeli scholar and author Barry Rubin, in a trenchant analysis of Oliphant's drawing, does not charge the cartoonist with anti-Semitism or even hatred of Israelis. "What is involved here," he writes, "is a lack of understanding," but one that is "so enormous that it will incite hatred; cause violence and death; and block policies needed to help people-including Palestinians who are supposedly the object of [Oliphant's] sympathy but thus doomed to suffer under a repressive regime with a permanent war policy."

Rubin argues, too, that Oliphant's image "represents the mentality that will plague every Western and democratic state in the coming years. Imagine the exact same cartoon but with the Magen David replaced by the Stars and Stripes-the evil America attacking the Taliban or al-Qaida, or Iraq, or Muslims in general."

Which raises this question: Do Oliphant and others like him believe that no people under attack by militant Islamists have the right of self-defense? Or are only Israelis expected to accustom themselves to absorbing punishment indefinitely?

I'm not sure which answer would be the more disturbing.


Cliff May

Clifford D. May is the President of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.