By Symi Rom-Rymer
Michael Kimmelman’s recent article, “When Fear Turns Graphic,” offered a peek into the process behind making political art, with the recent Swiss pro-minaret ban ads as his focal point. Unfortunately, for me, whatever insights he hoped to share were overshadowed by a surprising naïveté when addressing anti-Muslim sentiment in Europe and his condescending tone towards Americans—his readers.
First of all, Kimmelman airily dismissed concerns over Switzerland’s latent racism: “Much predictable tut-tutting ensued about Swiss xenophobia, even though surveys showed similar plebiscites would get pretty much the same results elsewhere.”
Then, he insulted our intelligence by equating the German and Muslim immigrant experience in Switzerland. “A 46-year-old German (yes, an immigrant himself in Switzerland), he is the father of two adopted children from North Africa although he declined to talk about his personal life.”
Finally, he patronized us by asserting that “it may be hard for Americans to grasp the role [political ads] can play“ in Europe. “In the subways and streets in America, billboards and posters…are basically background noise. By contrast, they’re treated more seriously here, as news, at least.”
Despite Kimmelman’s assertions to the contrary, the fact is that even while violent Muslim extremist groups do exist on the continent, anti-Muslim sentiment is at least as serious a problem — in Switzerland and across Europe.
According to a recent Open Society Institute report on Muslims in Europe, 50% of Muslim respondents experienced religious discrimination at some point over the last 12 months (as opposed to 9 per cent of non-Muslims). The report also outlined some initial steps that local and national officials and leaders are taking to address this and other discrimination problems. So, if the Europeans themselves are acknowledging and attempting to address the problems, why can’t we?
Furthermore, to make a genuine comparison between the German and Muslim immigrant experience in Switzerland is like saying Harvard graduates face the same kind of struggle to find a job as high school grads.
Lastly, find me an American who is not, on some level, aware and affected by political signage and I have a bridge to sell you. To say that Americans don’t treat political images seriously reveals a real disconnect from American society. It is as if he has been living in a vacuum since 2000.
Reading articles by American journalists about the minaret ban–this being the most recent–I keep having the same thought. If political posters were hung and distributed in Switzerland, or in other European cities, that targeted Jews in the way they targeted Muslims, the people in those countries would be reviled and their leaders would be criticized widely in the American media. Why then has there not been a similar response to these instances of discrimination? Why has the criticism been more muted? There’s clearly a double standard here.
John McCloy, Assistant Secretary of War during WWII and one of Truman’s ‘Wise Men’, declared in the early post-war years that “the world will carefully watch the new Germany… One of the tests by which it will be judged will be its attitude toward the Jews and how it treats them.” Perhaps its time for the maxim to be updated. All minorities deserve the opportunity to live freely in a country of their choosing and be treated with respect. But until that utopia comes to pass, let the tut-tutting recommence.
Symi Rom-Rymer writes and blogs about Jewish and Muslim communities in the US and Europe. She has been published in JTA, The Christian Science Monitor and Jewcy.