It’s a rare event for me to be in agreement with the U.K. Jewish Chronicle's editor, Stephen Pollard, but that is what happened after the publication of a cartoon by Gerald Scarfe in last weekend's London Sunday Times, on International Holocaust Remembrance Day. The now-infamous cartoon has Benjamin Netanyahu building a wall using blood as cement, trapping anguished, Palestinian-looking people in between the bricks.
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Speaking to the BBC on Tuesday, Pollard explained his objections. “If you print such cartoons you have to be aware of the consequences,” he said. “One will be that some people will describe those cartoons - I’m one of them - as anti-Semitic. That doesn’t mean that I would ban the publication of such cartoons, but I think if you’re going to draw such cartoons, you have to be aware of the cultural resonances, and precisely who you’re giving offense to.”
I don’t think the cartoon is anti-Semitic – as Anshel Pfeffer has pointed out in Haaretz, it does not feature a Star of David, a kippa, or any other giveaway visual code references to Jews. But it is nonetheless a vile and offensive cartoon, because of all that spurting blood-as-cement and the inevitable blood libel associations. I know this isn’t absolutely water-tight, technically, or unanimous, or straightforward; I know many think that I should just get over it, but there it is: it triggers unease over the association of a Jew with another people’s blood. That’s where I agree with Pollard: the bit about cultural resonances.
Should the media tell other people when it is appropriate, or not, to have their cultural sensitivities offended? Should cartoons constantly push those buttons to try to prove that they don’t really exist? And when people say they are offended by cartoons, do we tell them to shut up because there are greater things to be offended by?
The trouble with the tone-deafness over the offense this cartoon has caused is that it is hiding behind good reasons. Some assume that objection to Scarfe’s piece is based on an attempt to shut down criticism of Benjamin Netanyahu, or of Israeli policy. Some ask why Israel should get special treatment from satirical cartoonists, for whom blood-red is pretty much a palette staple. And many are justifiably angered over Israel’s punishing occupation and are venting, repeatedly, in this conversation about cartoons: What about the far greater crimes committed by Israel every day? Why this delicate squeamishness about blood in print, when real, live Palestinians are bleeding? Why should Jewish outrage over an ambiguous cartoon be indulged, while unequivocal Palestinian suffering is ignored?
It’s a stuck script, because many of the same groups that try to stifle criticism of Israel are the ones now protesting the cartoon – so the suspicion is that the two objections are actually one and the same. And so, positions grow entrenched: Some Jewish people might feel the whole controversy proves that critics of Israel just don’t like Jews very much. Meanwhile, some opponents of Israeli policy might conclude that the cries of anti-Semitism are just another attempt to shut down debate.
These strands are all too often conflated and we must be vigilant to keep them distinct. It is, quite obviously, possible to find the bloody cartoon offensive while at the same time be vocally critical of Israel. To spell it out (as it does seem terribly elusive to some): This is because being Jewish and being pro-rightist-Israel are two different things. Conversely – and this really should go without saying – it is possible to criticise Israel without offending Jews. And to be cleared of any false accusations of offensive imagery is really easy: just avoid the tropes.
Of course, cartoonists are free to publish what they like, and we are free to argue about the merits of their work afterwards, but why choose to pitch at this level? Given enduring, and well-founded, Jewish sensitivities over certain imagery, it is manifestly preferable to caricature and castigate Israeli leaders without the buckets of blood. There is hardly a shortage of material. And that way, we can all focus on the actual politics being addressed and not get dragged into a senseless, inflammatory and degrading argument about the right to offend.
Rachel Shabi is an award-winning journalist and the author of Not the Enemy, Israel’s Jews from Arab Lands (2009). Follow her on Twitter @rachshabi