A cartoon that appeared in this London's Sunday Times this week depicting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu building a wall with blood-red colored cement, trapping in between the bricks Palestinian-looking figures, is causing the latest is-it-or-is-it-not-anti-Semitism furor.
The usual suspects have all weighed in: the Anti-Defamation League, the Board of Deputies of British Jews, and Israel's ambassador to the United Kingdom, clamoring for the venerable cartoonist Gerald Scarfe's head and asking how the pro-Israel Sunday Time's proprietor, Rupert Murdoch, could allow such a travesty.
The accusation is straightforward enough. Scarfe's drawing is classic anti-Semitism using typical motifs of Judeophobia, and is doubly hateful for having appeared on international Holocaust Remembrance Day.
It is hard to argue that 68 years after the liberation of Auschwitz, the hatred of Jews has disappeared from the civilized nations of western Europe, but there are more than enough real manifestations of racism and xenophobia, directed at Jews and other religious and ethnic groups in Britain and the rest of the continent, for us to be spending our efforts confronting. Pillorying Scarfe and his cartoon cheapens a noble cause, as this was not anti-Semitic by any standard. Here are four reasons why.
1. It is not directed at Jews: There is absolutely nothing in the cartoon which identifies its subject as a Jew. No Star of David or kippa, and though some commentators have claimed Netanyahu's nose in the cartoon is over-sized, at most this is in line with Scarfe's style (and that of cartoonists) of slightly exaggerating physical features. Jew-noses are prevalent in truly anti-Semitic cartoons that routinely appear in Arab newspapers - you can find them easily on the web. They are big, bulbous and hooked snouts, and look nothing like Netanyahu's nose a-la-Scarfe. Furthermore, Netanyahu is an Israeli politician who was just elected by a quarter of Israeli voters, not a Jewish symbol or a global representative of the Jews.
2. It does not use Holocaust imagery: It has become generally accepted - justifiably I think - that comparing Israel's leaders and policies to those of the Third Reich is borderline, if not full-on anti-Semitism. Not only because there is no comparable genocide in human history, but because choosing it to describe the actions of the Jewish state is a nasty slur identifying Israelis as the successors of the Holocaust's victims turned into perpetrators of a second Holocaust. But there is nothing in Scarfe's cartoon that can put the Holocaust in mind. Perhaps someone thinks that the wall should remind us of the ghetto, but don't forget, Scarfe is the original designer of Pink Floyd's The Wall. Should the Sunday Times have not published the cartoon on International Holocaust Memorial Day? Only if one believes that is a day in which Israeli politicians have immunity from being caricatured. Such a belief would certainly cheapen the memory of the Shoah. The Sunday Times, as it names indicates, appears only on Sundays and this was the end of elections week in Israel - when else did you expect them to feature a cartoon of Netanyahu?
3. There was no discrimination: If Gerald Scarfe had been a benign and gentle artist, treating the subjects of his cartoons with due respect and reverence, sharpening his pencil only on Israeli and Jewish figures, there would be grounds here for assuming he was tainted by the most ancient of hatreds. Anyone who has had even a casual glance at Scarfe's oeuvre of over half a century knows that is not the case. Netanyahu's depiction is grossly offensive and unfair, but that is only par for the course for any politician when Scarfe is at his drawing-board. Scarfe has spent his entire career viciously lampooning the high and mighty - Netanyahu is in illustrious company.
4. This is not what a blood libel looks like: Some have claimed that the blood-red cement Netanyahu is using in the cartoon to build his wall indicates a blood libel motif. Well of course it's blood but is anyone seriously demanding that no cartoon reference to Israeli or Jewish figures can contain a red fluid? The classic European blood libel, like many other classic European creations, had a strict set of images which must always contain a cherubic gentile child sacrificed by those perfidious Jews, his blood to be used for ritual purposes. It was a direct continuation of the Christ-killer myth. Scarfe's cartoon has blood-cement but no blood libel components - it almost seems he was careful not to include any small children among his Palestinian figures (one of the eight is arguably an adolescent) so as not to have any sort of libel scenery. The blood libel was a terrible feature of Jewish life in Europe up until the beginning of the 20th century, and the myth still occasionally emerges from between the cracks in some East European backwaters to this day. To ascribe Scarfe's cartoon with any of its features distorts another chapter of Jewish history.
Follow me on twitter @AnshelPfeffer
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