Spend any time in the murkier bogs of the social internet — message boards, chans, far-right Eastern European political comment threads, Islam versus the International Zionist Conspiracy LiveJournals — and it won't be long before you come across some version of this image:
Obviously, it's a derogatory caricature of a Jew, and a fairly rote one at that. All of the tropes established by centuries of anti-Semitic iconography in Europe are here: the grotesquely hooked nose, the scheming hands, the evil smile, the wild beard, the misshapen spine, the bulging eyes. It's vile, but familiar.
What is most significant about this image isn't the thing itself — there is far more creative, and far more disturbing, anti-Jewish imagery out there — but its sheer ubiquity. A Google reverse image search for "Jew-bwa-ha-ha.gif," as the file is most frequently, but not always, named, returns 1,210 matches. It's unquestionably the most popular anti-Semitic image on the internet, and if one pauses to think about the scope and reach of the internet, it's easy to make an argument that "Jew-bwa-ha-ha.gif" is the most widely seen anti-Semitic image in history.
So where did it come from, and how is it used?
The drawing has become a mainstay not just of the internet presence of political causes that are sometimes or usually anti-Semitic in their rhetoric, but an established unit in the set of images that comprises the visual language of Reddit, and 4chan, and dozens of other internet fora. And just like every other unit in this set, from photographs and GIFs we find hilarious and adorable to those we find offensive and disgusting, it exists not just as a single image but as a template, a base model for more ornate iterations.
Indeed, the modifications of Jew-bwa-ha-ha.gif are endless. From left to right, the below are posted on a far-right Romanian political blog post blaming Jews for global communism; on a Russian message board that identifies the caricature as part of a Zionist Occupation Government in control of Russia; and on a Polish shock site that jests "the peak of recycling is turning Jews into soap."
Here, a far-far-far-right "alternative historian" mirrors the image and colors it in to set against Paul Krugman.
And this image, playing on the old "filthy Jew" slander, is the header of a 2010 post entitled "The Worst of the Nasty Odors Stinking Up Our World Today" by a blogger named UprootedPalestinian.
So traditional vectors of popular political anti-Semitism make ample use of "Jew-bwa-ha-ha.gif". But so too do the legions of cynical, just-for-the-lulz types who have turned the caricature into a motif of their communities. The following three images are of this kind; the middle image in the photo row is literally "Jew-bwa-ha-ha.gif" collaged out of anime characters, a horrendous kind of peak internet.
Because Jew-bwa-ha-ha.gif depicts such hoary and immediate anti-Semitic stereotypes, it's easy to imagine that it was pulled from the archives of Der Stürmer, the Nazi tabloid that advocated the extermination of European Jewry and frequently published images of this kind. And it's this perception, at least among the unshockable channers, that gives the image its modest subversive charge.
But it is actually quite difficult to assign any sort of historical context, or place, to the image itself. The caricature is supposed to scan as a pale of settlement Jew ("Oy, muh shekels" reads the only comment under the "Judaism intensifies" GIF), and yet the details are obviously wrong. Where is the top hat? Where are the payot? Why does it look thickly lined and pixelated, like the thing was dot-matrix printed and scanned, not carefully drawn on paper? No respectable propagandist in 19th or 20th century Europe could have gotten it so wrong, or would have drawn such inelegant lines.
In fact, they didn't. According to Judith Cohen, the chief photo archivist for the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, the image isn't a Nazi Party caricature at all, though it does clearly bear the influence of Philipp Ruprecht, the Stürmer cartoonist who was sentenced to six years of hard labor after World War II for his work.
So where, exactly, does this weird, contextless, slippery image come from, if not the old hatreds of the Old Continent?
To start with, It's been around in one form or another on crackpot blogs for at least 14 years; an early use (February 2001) on a blog discussing the conspiracy behind Jewish ritual murder of Christians bears the caption "Hymie showing his real side." It's here that the image seems to have first taken the name "Jew-bwa-ha-ha.gif," though the webmaster of the blog, JRBooksOline, did not respond to an email from BuzzFeed News, which offered this person the opportunity to take credit.
This may have also been the first time the image appeared in its now-standard form, and not as only one piece of a larger work. Before 2001, Jew-bwa-ha-ha.gif was just half of a racist cartoon by the infamous (and pseudonymous) cartoonist A. Wyatt Mann (say it out loud):
Mann was a kind of cut-rate R. Crumb with white separatist politics who drew dozens of similar cartoons in the late 1980s and early 1990s, many of which were published by the notorious white supremacist Thomas Metzger. The drawings, which typically blame blacks and Jews (though occasionally other minorities, gays, and feminists) for America's failings, enjoy something of a cult following online amongst hardcore trolls and message board white supremacists, who can be very hard to tell apart.
Indeed, the true identity of A. Wyatt Mann is a source of lively debate within these communities.
The speculation mostly focuses on two men. The first is Wyatt Kaldenberg, who was heavily involved in the White Aryan Resistance in the 1980s and 1990s before publicly renouncing white supremacism. (Kaldenberg is often credited with breaking Geraldo Rivera's nose in a brawl on the Geraldo show in 1988.) He has also vociferously denied being A. Wyatt Mann on his Google+ account, as recently as September of last year:
I am not A Wyatt Man. Nick Bogus is A Wyatt Man.You can't commission art work from me because I can't draw worth shit. I have never drawn a cartoon in my life. I know about a billion websites throughout cyber space claim I am A Wyatt Man, but they are all full of shit. I am not Jane Wyatt, Wyatt Hudson, Sir Wyatt, Wyatt Andrews, nor am I 100,000 other Wyatts. I know this is hard to understand when you are a fucking moron with an I.Q. of 60, but please try.
Kaldenberg says in other posts that evidence for him being A. Wyatt Mann boils down to: 1. His name is Wyatt, and 2. He was an influential white supremacist. In other words, far from compelling. In response to an email from BuzzFeed News, Kaldenberg repeated the sentiment of his Google+ post:
"Nick Bougas is A. Wyatt Man. Only a total fucking moron would think I am A. Wyatt Man."
Bougas is indeed the other chief suspect, and he's an even stranger figure. A cult director and producer who was also one of the first murderabilia collectors, Bougas sidelined doing provocative illustrations for Answer Me!, a "proto-Vice," anti-PC zine published by the writers Jim and Debbie Goad from 1991–1994 in Los Angeles and Portland, Oregon.
Here's a typical Bougas/Answer Me! drawing, which repeats the commonplace of the time that sex-negative feminists like Andrea Dworkin held their views because of their undesirability:
Contrast the Dworkin caricature, signed by Bougas, with these two A. Wyatt Mann caricatures, of Janet Reno and a "bulldyke":
While Bougas did not respond to emails and phone calls from BuzzFeed News asking for comment, Adam Parfrey, the writer of the "Fucking Andrea Dworkin" Answer Me! article, confirmed to BuzzFeed News that Bougas is indeed A. Wyatt Mann. According to Parfrey, who is half-Jewish, Bougas openly discussed the cartoons, but it never caused problems between them.
"He was a very nice, gracious, and good person," Parfrey said.
At times, he even used the pseudonym semi-publicly. Bougas, who made documentaries about both Charles Manson and Anton Lavey, took part in the 8-8-88 Satantist rally in San Francisco. In a photograph taken at the rally, hosted on the Facebook account of the Satanist Nikolas Schreck, Bougas is labeled "A. Wyatt Mann." And in 2012, Vice ran an interview with Zeena Schreck, the daughter of Anton Lavey, that features a 1990 photo credited to A. Wyatt Mann.
Through a spokesperson, Schreck confirmed that Bougas is the cartoonist A. Wyatt Mann.
So. You could stop right there and say that Nick Bougas is the most widely disseminated anti-Semitic cartoonist of all time and not be wrong.
But still: Does that look like a white nationalist to you? Indeed, the images of Bougas on the internet — handkerchief around neck, flowing dyed-blonde hair under flamboyant hats — depict a man who looks more like a pickup artist or a magician than a hardcore race warrior. He was clearly a figure of a, or many, sub-countercultures. And in the early 1990s, in the throes of American culture's most public engagement with the idea of "political correctness" (at least until now), a limited counterculture sprung up that defined itself against what it defensively perceived as the new prevailing values. Spin magazine described the house publication of this movement in its "Worst Things of the 90s":
This sentiment ran parallel to punk and D.I.Y. culture becoming more diverse, and no doubt, there were plenty of alienated bros peeved that they now had to consider the points of view of women and minorities. At the top of this contrarian trash heap was infuriated, working-class whiteboy Jim Goad, who created Answer Me!, a fuck-your-feelings, catch-all zine...
So was Bougas a fervent white nationalist or a kind of race-baiting hipster, a guy for whom associating with a leading white supremacist (Tom Metzger) might carry with it a certain subversive and/or countercultural cool? Parfrey told BuzzFeed News that Bougas' "perspective was similar to Tom Metzger," but then, would Tom Metzger befriend a Jew? Would he date one? According to public records, Nick Bougas — A. Wyatt Mann, the author of the most prevalent image of anti-Semitism on the internet — owns a house in Cumming, Georgia, with a woman named Sandra Weinberg. According to this cached artist's profile page, Weinberg is Bougas' "devoted 'galpal.'"
OK, so what? What does it mean that "Jew-bwa-ha-ha.gif" likely isn't the work of a raving Nazi or some corn-fed Aryan brother, but the doodling of a disaffected provocateur hopelessly misguided by a very specific cultural moment? On one hand, not much. Who cares where these images come from? They still do their damage.
On the other hand, it's worth wondering whether Bougas' cultural moment is over at all. The idea that ironized racism and sexism and anti-Semitism are the bravest subversions of American culture still lives, not in zines or even Vice, anymore, but in subreddits, and chans, and red pill message boards. That's why it is so fitting that Bougas' work has found its best reception in these places. That's why it is so fitting that these places so aggressively sont Charlie.
And maybe the influence of Bougas' sensibility — of the terminally ironic "Jew-bwa-ha-ha.gif" — over the internet is even more direct, even personal. Have a look at the picture below. On the left is Nick Bougas. And on the right is a man who you probably recognize, a hero to many of the very same people on the internet who made "Jew-bwa-ha-ha.gif" what it is today.
Joe Bernstein is a senior technology reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York. Bernstein reports on and writes about the gaming industry and web culture.
Contact Joseph Bernstein at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Got a confidential tip? Submit it here.