WASHINGTON (Washington Jewish Week) — Is it anti-Semitic when someone defaces a photo of a Jew by adding devil horns, a mustache, goatee and a unibrow?
Yes, says Redskins owner Dan Snyder.
No, say numerous observers, including Redskins fans.
The doctored photo of Snyder appeared in the Nov. 19 Washington City Paper illustrating an article titled “The Cranky Redskins Fan’s Guide to Dan Snyder.”
Snyder filed suit Feb. 2 alleging that the article was defamatory and libelous, charging among other things that the image is anti-Semitic. He is seeking $2 million in damages.
Snyder has Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, on his side. In a statement issued Feb. 2, Cooper said that while it’s OK to deride public figures, it’s not OK to use the devil image.
“It is inappropriate and unacceptable when a symbol like this — associated with virulent anti-Semitism going back to the Middle Ages, deployed by the genocidal Nazi regime, by Soviet propagandists and even in 2011 by those who still seek to demonize Jews today — is used on the front cover of a publication in our Nation’s Capital against a member of the Jewish community.”
The paper said Snyder’s Judaism was unrelated to the article or the illustration.
“The story didn’t mention Snyder’s religion at all,” said the publication’s City Desk blog on Feb. 2. “And the illustration is meant to resemble the type of scribbling that teenagers everywhere have been using to deface photos for years. The image of Snyder doesn’t look like an ‘anti-Semitic caricature’ — it looks like a devil.”
Deborah Lipstadt, an anti-Semitism expert and Dorot Professor of Modern Jewish and Holocaust Studies and Emory University, agrees.
“Of course Jews were seen as Devil-like in the Middle Ages,” she said in an e-mail. “But I don’t see it as an overtly Jewish thing.”
Cooper believes the paper erred in not apologizing for the image when the Redskins owner first complained in late November about the article and illustration.
While the image of the devil is not exclusively anti-Semitic, he said in an interview, “I believe if it’s used against a Jew, its impact is anti-Semitic. … If you’re asked to make an apology, you should.”
But David Friedman, director of the Anti-Defamation League’s Washington region, says that context is important.
Snyder is “being demonized because people are angry about his ownership, not because he’s a Jew,” Friedman said.
There is nothing in the article to suggest a motive of anti-Semitism, he said, noting that the article does not mention Snyder being Jewish.
Yet Friedman also said, “If you’re going to play with caricatures, you have to vet that very well.”
Others agreed that nothing in the article suggested anti-Semitic intent.
Even though that type of devil image has been used in anti-Semitic imagery, said Ron Halber, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Committee of Greater Washington, the City Paper illustration “does not strike me as anti-Semitic, and I have a very sensitive antenna for anti-Semitism.”
If anything, Halber said, it reflects poorly on the paper.
“It strikes me as childish and immature,” he said. “It’s like the paper printed a professional photo that a kid touched up.”
Jewish fans of the Redskins, and of football in general, also don’t see anti-Semitism in the illustration — at least not according to an informal Washington Jewish Week online survey and interviews with Washington-area Jews.
“It looks like a devil,” one commenter wrote. “If they wanted to make it anti-Semitic, they would have made his nose big.”
In an interview, Roy Ackerman of Alexandria, Va., said he wasn’t thrilled with the image but didn’t find it anti-Semitic.
“Having grown up as the only Jew in a very Catholic town … and getting the crap beat out of me every day, I’m somewhat sensitive,” he said.
The image, Ackerman said, was “stupid and on par for City Paper, but not anti-Semitism.”
Some commenters who disputed the allegations by Snyder, a member of the Jewish Community Center of Greater Washington’s Jewish Sports Hall of Fame, noted that he is only marginally involved in Jewish community affairs.
“Snyder has a hard time publicly acknowledging that he’s Jewish to begin with, so his charge is surprising,” said one respondent.
In an interview, Washington resident Ezra Weinblatt, 32, said he found it “contrived” that Snyder “is using his Judaism as an opportunity to attack this newspaper that attacked him. There are so many business leaders we have in the Jewish community who are supportive of the Jewish community, and he just seems to be absent.”
Longtime Redskins fan Sara Polon, 33, of Washington said it was Snyder who brought his Jewishness into the mix.
“I think he’s sinking to a new low,” Polon said. “You don’t want to throw around anti-Semitic accusations like that. It’s a dangerous path to do down.
She added, “If every time someone disparages a Jewish person and the automatic reaction is anti-Semitism, it makes Jews look foolish and defensive.”
Another longtime fan, Alan Strober, 46, of Gaithersburg, Md., said nothing about the image initially registered with him as anti-Semitic. Now, viewing it in a historic context, Strober said he can see how it might be regarded as an expression of bigotry.
Still, he said, “I think he should have let it roll off his back.”
Cooper said he issued his statement in response to a request from a Snyder representative, but does not know if Snyder has contributed to the Wiesenthal Center.
“If you’re asking me if it’s quid pro quo, the answer is no,” he said.
Snyder’s representatives have said that if he wins the suit, the money will be turned over to homeless organizations in Washington.
Cooper said he suggested that Snyder give the money to charity because it’s the right thing to do and to avoid inviting another anti-Semitic image — that of a money-grubbing Jew.