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  • The Implacable Urge to Defame: Cartoon Jews in the American Press, 1877–1935 by Matthew Baigell
  • Florette Cohen (bio)
The Implacable Urge to Defame: Cartoon Jews in the American Press, 1877–1935. By Matthew Baigell. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2017. 240 pp.

Matthew Baigell's The Implacable Urge to Defame: Cartoon Jews in the American Press, 1877–1935 presents a compelling examination of derogatory caricatures of immigrants and minorities, particularly Jews, following the Civil War area through World War II. While it is a well-known fact that this period in American history was rife with anti-immigration policy and legislation, few realize the extent to which anti-Semitism permeated American culture (particularly the media) during this period.

Baigell's depiction of bone-chilling, hair-raising anti-Semitic cartoons, followed by both positive and negative photographic and artistic images of Jewish immigrants on the Lower East Side, draws speculations as to the root of anti-Semitism. Reasons presented include Jewish otherness, the need to belong, morality, immoral greed, religious beliefs and political affiliations. Social scientists, myself included, tend to agree with Baigell's assessment that many of the stereotypes relating to anti-Semitism are mutually contradictory and shift radically from era to era and from location to location. Jews have been condemned for being seditious Communists and for being avaricious capitalists. Globally, fascists in Nazi Germany and in 1980s Argentina accused their nations' Jews of having hidden loyalties to socialist regimes, while the Soviet Union regularly persecuted its Jews for harboring secret sympathies for the West. Jews have been castigated as being corruptly cosmopolitan and as being narrow-minded traditionalists; as being heretical free-thinkers and as being mystical obscurantists; as being weak, ineffectual, and effete and as stealthily advancing toward worldwide domination. Sentiments in the U.S. did not differ greatly.

Psychological theories presented by Baigell to account for the anti-Semitism portrayed in negative stereotypical cartoons include the scape-goat theory of prejudice, suggesting that anti-Semitism is a projection of one's own problems on a vulnerable group; objectification theory, in which the object of scorn is negatively generalized; and self-hatred among Jews themselves. Ultimately Zionism, or Jewish nationalism, was also used to cast doubt on Jewish loyalty and justify anti-Semitism, as it would seem that one could be either 100% American or not American [End Page 441] at all. In several instances, Baigell points out that Jewish political cartoons in America were so offensive they rivaled those of Nazi Germany, prompting fear of what was to follow. Anti-Semitic cartoons, political commentary and works of art may indeed be a precursor of worse things to come. Such was the case in Nazi Germany, Communist Russia and most recently the Muslim Middle East.

Baigell presents three cartoons from American magazines of Jews as an octopus, with tentacles encompassing the world. Nearly identical cartoons were produced during the Nazi Era and currently are in circulation in Middle Eastern newspapers. Similarly, Baigell presents several cartoons of a Jewish Uncle Sam, suggesting Jewish financial control and world domination. Again, similar cartoons appeared in Nazi era periodicals and a mainstream American periodical. This begs the question of why the Jewish outcome was so different in the United States after World War I. Since publication of the Baigell-referenced cartoons, American Jews have gained admittance to previously restricted universities, housing, hotels and country clubs and experienced significant social and economic integration.

While Baigell's book is compelling and informative, further research is needed to understand the obviously different outcomes experienced by American and European Jewry despite the similarities presented in American, European and Middle Eastern popular media and culture. My own research investigating prejudice expressed in political cartoons in the U.S. indicates that anti-Semitic cartoons were rated as more justifiable than identical anti-Asian cartoons under psychologically threatening conditions, suggesting that anti-Semitism may indeed serve as a motivator for cartoonists and artists. Given that anti-Semitism is completely illogical, we may never arrive at an acceptable conclusion, but we must never waver in our efforts to understand the phenomena and continue to combat it to the best of our ability.

Florette Cohen
College of Staten...


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pp. 441-442
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