Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s recent trip to Israel was triumphal. At a time when Israelis frequently feel criticized, boycotted, abandoned, delegitimized, he represented the silent majority of citizens in the world’s major democracies who not only accept Israel’s right to exist, but cherish Israel’s contribution to the world.
And in an era when Canada’s importance in the world is often underappreciated, Israel’s warm welcome and the resonance of Harper’s words proved that Canada counts. Unfortunately, in Montreal, the happy story of Harper’s pilgrimage was sullied somewhat by Aislin’s controversial cartoon blasting the trip. Many deemed the cartoon anti-Semitic – I do not – and I think the disagreement is instructive.
The cartoon pictured Harper’s face wrapped in the Israeli flag, with the Jewish Star prominently smothering his mouth. The implication was that Harper’s true thoughts were being silenced. Those who thought it was anti-Semitic felt Aislin was claiming that “The Jews” were muffling Harper and that Aislin’s Jewish imagery triggered anti-Semitic accusations of Jewish power and money manipulating politicians.
I know the despicable past and odious present of those accusations. I do not dismiss them or take them lightly. I believe Israel’s critics should have a moral responsibility not to stir the anti-Semitic beasts that are so easily roused in the world today, even in the enlightened West. But allow me to offer two, more benign, readings of the cartoon.
As a Zionist, I understand that Judaism is both a nation and a religion, meaning that the Jewish Star is both a national and religious symbol. Aislin did not use the Jewish Star, he used the Jewish Star on the Israeli flag, which is the flag of a sovereign country. The Zionist revolution entailed bringing the Jews back to history, maturing enough to take responsibility and take criticism. If Aislin wants to criticize Israel, isn’t it reasonable to use the Israeli flag with its Jewish Star as a cartoonist’s shorthand, as the most recognizable symbol of Israel?
I regret that we live in a world where anti-Semitism continues, where the delegitimization of Israel has anti-Semitic foundations, where anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism overlap and where, therefore, it is hard sometimes to criticize Israel without appearing anti-Semitic.
As an historian, I recall that in the 1980s, the Canadian prime minister, Brian Mulroney, and the American president, Ronald Reagan, hit it off. Both were conservatives trying to reform liberal policies. Both were Irish raconteurs. And they had great chemistry together. Many Canadian progressive elites – who claim they are beyond patriotic yet harbour an anti-Americanism that in itself expresses their patriotism – feared this friendship. They worried that Mulroney was being too chummy and that Canadian needs were being subordinated to American whims. Had Aislin – who probably believed that – drawn a cartoon with Mulroney’s face smothered by an American flag, would anyone perceive that as bigoted or simply caustic?
Israel must be mature enough as a country to accept harsh criticism, even as critics should be wise enough not to inflame historic sensitivities built up unhappily over millennia of suffering. But I would rather live in a world wherein we give each other the benefit of the doubt and are slow to take offence, than live in a hair-trigger, hyper-sensitive world wherein caricatures of Mohammed lead to death threats and riots.
Within that spectrum, of course, note that the Jewish community’s anguish was sincere, but the protests were peaceful. The most dramatic move contemplated was cancelling Montreal Gazette subscriptions – which is a legitimate move, even if the objection was only about Aislin’s politics not his imagery. That’s part of the democratic give and take. Cartoonists (and columnists) provoke, and sometimes their publishers pay the price (or reap the benefit).
There is also a tactical issue here. Unless a cartoonist really crosses the line, fighting satire with outrage is usually a losing proposition. You look unnecessarily thin-skinned – and give the offending cartoon far more publicity than you intended – which is what happened with the Aislin counter-attack.
Ultimately, Stephen Harper proved Aislin wrong. Harper is just not that good an actor. His four-day trip to Israel was not bought or dictated. It was a sincere expression of genuine friendship by a statesman who understands that for all its challenges and shortcomings, Israel is a plucky democracy doing great things and sharing core Canadian and democratic values. Maybe that’s what upset Aislin and the other blame-Israel-first types most!