“Stop Your Cruel Oppression of the Jews”: Reading a Cartoon

Posted on January 20, 2014


Flohri (1905) - Stop Your Cruel Oppression of the Jews

Stop Your Cruel Oppression of the Jews.
Emil Flohri, Judge, September 1905.
Source: http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2004671428/

When I present my work on the Jewish migration, I like using this cartoon in order to illustrate the traditional thesis that the Jewish migration from the Pale of Settlement was caused by the pogroms. It shows a Jewish town, on that right, that was hit by a pogrom, and a stream of Jewish refugees fleeing it on their way to become immigrants in the United States. The cartoon is interesting in its own right, and I wanted to share my thoughts on how I understand it.

It was published in Judge, one of two U.S. leading satirical magazines that regularly commented on political events with writings, illustrations, and cartoons. The scene on the top left shows President Theodore Roosevelt reproaching Tsar Nikolai II: “Stop your cruel oppression of the Jews,” and “Now that you have peace without, why not remove his burden and have peace within your borders?”. The cartoon was published in late September 1905. The immediate context was the signing of the Treaty of Portsmouth a few weeks earlier. The treaty was brokered by President Roosevelt and brought the Russo-Japanese War to an official end. Roosevelt, leveraging on his diplomatic achievement, is depicted reminding the Tsar to correct another issue that tainted Russia’s relations with Britain and the United States—the suppression of the Jewish minority in Russia. This was one month before a massive wave of hundreds of pogroms swept through the Pale of Settlement, bringing the anti-Jewish violence to its worst pitch ever since Jews were brought under the dominion of the Tsars.

The artist who created the cartoon was Emil Flohri (1869-1938). He had been a political cartoonist since he was sixteen years old, and during the last decade of his life he became a pioneer in the new medium of animation, the man behind Mickey Mouse. More precisely, Walt Disney’s chief background designer.

Emil Flohri, 1931. Drawn by animator Jack King. Source: http://afilmla.blogspot.com/2009/04/backgrounds-in-1931_19.html

Emil Flohri, 1931.
Drawn by animator Jack King.
Source: http://afilmla.blogspot.com/2009/04/backgrounds-in-1931_19.html

The cartoon is quite masterful, with an intelligent composition of three scenes in different zooms (the pogrom, the migration, and the two leaders), all woven into a single continuous image. Text is used within and outside the frame to explain the more complex concepts, such as the specific modes of oppression (autocracy, cruelty, etc.), or to label Roosevelt and the Russian Jew. But some of these concepts are conveyed through visual means. The link between the burden carried by the old Jewish man and the Tsar himself is made explicit by the shape of the weights that are added over the heavy sack the Jew carries: they are topped with crowns that clearly replicate the crown of Tsar Nikolai himself.

The image of the old Jewish man deliberately resonates with the traditional iconography of the archetype of The Wandering Jew (see image below), the tragic protagonist of the popular medieval legend. After insulting Christ on his last walk through the Via Dolorosa, he was cursed to wander upon the face of the earth until the second coming of Christ without finding a home and a rest. The choice to use the iconography of the Wandering Jew amounts to a comment on the condition of the Jews: they have no home and are destined to be eternal migrants.

The Wandering Jew,  Gustave Doré (1856). A drawing for The Legend of the Wandering Jew.

The Wandering Jew, Gustave Doré (1856).
A drawing for The Legend of the Wandering Jew.

The traditional figure of the Wandering Jew carries a certain measure of despise, as the condition of eternal wandering was a divine punishment inflicted for denying Christ and insulting him. It is often depicted in a derogative way, with stereotypical negative Jewish attributes. Indeed, it became the model for many anti-Semitic depictions of Jews since the second half of the nineteenth century. None of this is apparent in Flohri’s cartoon. The attributes of the Jew are a long white beard, earlocks, and a head cover, but neither he nor his fellows behind him seem morally crooked or deserving of their punishment. Instead, the face of the Jew projects respectability, tiredness, and a sad acceptance of his destiny. Despite his old age and the burden he carries, he still walks with a wide step while looking forward, perhaps suggesting that the vitality of the Jews cannot be overcome by their misfortunes.

Further Reading

Scant information on Flohri’s work is posted by early animation enthusiasts:

Backgrounds in 1931, in Hans Perk’s A. Film L.A. blog

Schubert by Emil Flohri, in Michael Barrier’s blog