Exploiting Anne Frank
The most tasteless T-shirt ever.
Jun 23, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 39 • By ALVIN H. ROSENFELD
I want to go on living even after my death.
In January, a stenciled image of a smiling Anne Frank wearing a red and white kaffiyeh appeared on the walls of buildings in Amsterdam. Soon after, an enterprising Dutch business firm called Boomerang transferred this image to designer T-shirts and postcards. The cards were distributed free throughout the Netherlands, no doubt to boost sales for Boomerang's politically chic new line of shirts. But it was a risky marketing move to promote a product featuring the face of Amsterdam's most famous martyr made over to look like Yasser Arafat's daughter.
The Israeli ambassador to the Netherlands expressed outrage. So did Dutch Jewish organizations. But that response was not universal. Some were drawn to the newfangled Palestinian Anne Frank and endorsed the artist's political point, which one blogger interpreted to be that "the Zionists, in the name of Jewry, [were] doing to the Palestinians what was done to Jews in Europe." This simplistic formula has become a staple in the rhetoric of contemporary anti-Zionism. The charge it makes is baseless, but it is rhetorically catchy and now routinely employed to tar Israel with the Nazi brush.
What plays well in certain political circles may not play well in business, however. Sensing, perhaps, that their company's image was at risk, Boomerang executives quickly switched to damage control mode. Their aggressively revisionist T-shirt version of Anne Frank now was said to present "an idyllic image of peace."
According to a company spokesman, it was meant, improbably, "to encourage people to reflect on a peaceful solution for Israel and the Palestinians." But Boomerang's spin doctors never explained just how aligning the Holocaust's best known Jewish victim with the symbol of militant Palestinian nationalism could possibly create "an idealistic image in which both states exist alongside one another in peace." The image is not only incongruous but also offensive.
Yet contemporary political iconography has matched it with another image of Anne that is equally obscene: A drawing featured in a 2006 Holocaust cartoon contest sponsored by the Iranian newspaper Hamshahri shows a wasted-looking young girl sinking desolately under the bed sheets, while propped up next to her, a bare-chested, swastika-laden Hitler crows, "Write this one in your diary, Anne!" Above the head of the Führer's victim, a wordless bubble registers the grief of the devastated girl.
The fact that this graphic is vile has not kept it from being widely distributed by, among others, the Arab European League, a Belgian-Dutch Islamic political organization headed by the popular leader Dyab Abou Jahjah. In the wake of the Danish cartoon controversy, Jahjah was offering payback, declaring, "Europe too has its sacred cows."
Indeed it does, but Europe's murdered Jews are not among them. Anne Frank, dead before she had turned 16, was no saint but rather one more addition to the mounds of anonymous corpses at Bergen-Belsen. One need not sacralize her memory in order to pay it a decent respect. Until recently, most people have found it proper to do so, but in an age of resurgent anti-Semitism, respect for even the Jewish dead has become a dwindling commodity.
It gets worse. A few years ago, a writer quoted on the website aljazeerah.info presented the following scheme to copycat Anne Frank's story for partisan purposes:
Actually, there are writers who have been trying all along, appropriating the memory of Anne Frank and turning Jews into Nazis and Palestinians into Jews. The equation is fraudulent--one more instance of applying the symbols of Jewish suffering to anti-Jewish ends--but repeated often enough, it begins to catch on. And so we now have a plethora of Anne Frank lookalikes.
"Meet today's Anne Frank," wrote Yusuf Agha in an article entitled "The Anne Franks of Palestine" on YellowTimes.org a few years ago. Agha quoted one Suad Ghazal declaring, "I am the Palestinian Anne Frank, and Israeli Hitlers who are all around me take pleasure in torturing me." Others write in this same self-pitying, self-deluded vein.
What does it all signify? Anti-Semitism is back, sometimes packaged anew. One especially cruel innovation is to convert the victims of Nazi slaughter into advocates for causes they had nothing to do with and never would have condoned. These Anne Frank makeovers exemplify this trend and also point up its morally corrosive side.
To bed Anne Frank with Hitler and drape her in Yasser Arafat's trademark headscarf is tantamount to killing her a second time. And to substitute made-in-the-Middle East counterfeits for the real Amsterdam diary is to lie against history itself.
Alvin H. Rosenfeld is professor of English and Jewish Studies at Indiana University and the author most recently of The Writer Uprooted: Contemporary Jewish Exile Literature.