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Controversial New York Times Cartoonist Tells Media Line: I’m Not Anti-Semitic

Antonio Moreira Antunes defends caricature as critique of Israeli policy, with cartoonists saying the line between legitimate criticism and offensive portrayals is difficult to pinpoint

The artist behind a controversial cartoon that appeared in last Thursday’s International New York Times is defending his work, saying its purpose was to criticize Israeli policy, not the Jewish people.

The cartoon depicted Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu as a guide dog wearing a Star of David and leading a blind US President Donald Trump, who is wearing a yarmulke. It immediately sparked outrage among many people who condemned it as anti-Semitic, saying it drew parallels to Nazi-era propaganda.

The artist behind the caricature was originally published in the Expresso weekly newspaper and was then distributed through a syndicate that works with the Times.

In a statement to The Media Line, the Portuguese cartoonist, Antonio Moreira Antunes, who goes by the mononym Antonio, said the purpose of the cartoon was to criticize “Israel’s growing expansionism with the support of Trump” against decisions by the UN and provisions stipulated in the Oslo Accords.

“This policy is, from my point of view, blinded and led by Netanyahu under Trump’s tutelage, hence the parallelism with the guide dog and the blind,” Antonio told The Media Line. “There are people who only see what they want to see and accept no criticism of Israeli politics and immediately label critics of anti-Semites, Islamic terrorists and even Nazis. Of course I’m not anti-Semitic or somehow sympathetic to Islamic or Nazi terrorism.”

The New York Times removed the cartoon online and issued an official apology. A Times spokesperson told The Daily Beast that it would stop using the service that syndicated the cartoon.

Darryl Cagle, an American editorial cartoonist who also runs a syndication service that distributes material to over 850 newspapers, said offensive art is a recurring problem in the industry.

“We often have to make decisions about whether cartoons should be killed because they are racist or too offensive,” Cagle told The Media Line. “Usually, the cartoons we kill cross the line of being too sexually explicit or using four-letter words. The most common anti-Semitic metaphors we see equate Jews with Nazis.”

Cagle added that political cartoonists “have a special obligation to avoid anti-Semitic cartoons more [than] other offensive tropes because of the prominent role that cartoonists had in the Holocaust.” He said he believed that part of the controversy surrounding Antonio’s cartoon was the Star of David.

“A recurring problem is the use of the Star of David, which depicts Judaism, rather than the Israeli flag, with the two blue stripes, depicting the nation of Israel,” he elaborated. “This cartoon makes that mistake – and compounds it by putting a yarmulke on Trump.”

Cagle added that he believed Antonio “meant to make the point that Trump is blindly following Netanyahu’s lead, but with the religious symbol and yarmulke, the cartoon has a very different message.”

Cagle also noted that political cartoonists “want to be as offensive as they can, but they want to offend the right people for the right reasons.” He added that he himself would not have published this specific cartoon.

“I would have killed it – but if the cartoon had no Star of David or had an Israeli flag in the place of the Star of David, no yarmulke on Trump and a recognizable caricature of Netanyahu, I would not have killed it,” Cagle said, adding that he himself had drawn the Israeli leader as well as former US president Barack Obama as dogs in the past.

Shay Charka, who produces a weekly political cartoon for Israel’s Makor Rishon newspaper, said Antonio’s caricature was inherently anti-Semitic. In response, he created his own version.

“My editor and I came up with a raw idea to use the same format… but instead to represent anti-Semitism as a dog leading the blind New York Times,” he told The Media Line. “A caricature exaggerates and is intended to ridicule, so it’s clear that there will be people offended.”

He said he believed that artists must be free to determine when invisible boundaries have been crossed. But in this case, one was.

“I stopped for a moment when I saw the cartoon and reached the conclusion that yes, inserting Jewish national and religious [symbols] transforms it into an anti-Semitic statement that is in line with traditions linked to the Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” Charka said, referring to a fabricated, early 20th-century text that claimed to lay out Jewish plans for world domination.

Not all are in agreement with Cagle and Charka.

Avi Katz, a children’s book illustrator who also works as a freelance cartoonist, defended Antonio’s work and said the meaning was lost in translation.

“Any reader in New York who reads the New York Times recognizes the face of Netanyahu,” Katz explained to The Media Line. “Maybe in Portugal, Antonio wasn’t sure they would and had to stick in the [Star of David] just to make sure people identified the character without writing the name.”

Katz himself is no stranger to controversy. Last July, he was sacked by the biweekly Jerusalem Report for his illustration portraying Netanyahu and Likud lawmakers as pigs.