Not only was Gerald Scarfe’s cartoon <em>not</em> anti-Semitic; hysterically saying it was makes any rational criticism of it impossible

Israeli forces march along Israel's separation barrier (Photo: PA)

I have always believed that anti-Semitism is not merely one of the most disgusting but also one of the most dangerous political attitudes thrown up in the political chaos of the last 150 years (its roots go back further, of course, but the term was invented around 1873 by one Wilhelm Marr to describe the policy that he and others advocated toward Jews, based on what he called “racism”). That’s why I think it should not be used too readily, or simply used as a means of discrediting someone who has expressed an opinion, usually to do with the policies of the State of Israel, by which you are offended or with which you merely disagree.

Two examples of this phenomenon have just made the news. The first was to do with a cartoon by Gerald Scarfe. Like all Scarfe cartoons, it is intentionally offensive. The Sunday Times, of course, is not available on the net, but you can see the cartoon by going to the Jerusalem Post. The Post itself puts it like this: “The Sunday Times marked Holocaust Memorial Day in a less-than-traditional manner, running a virulently anti-Israel cartoon depicting a big-nosed Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu paving a wall with the blood and limbs of writhing Palestinians. The cartoon included a caption beneath the image entitled ‘Israeli elections – will cementing peace continue?'”

The Jerusalem Post doesn’t directly accuse Scarfe of anti-Semitism, though it does go on to say that “British anti-Semitism has made headlines throughout the week after Liberal Democrat MP David Ward accused “the Jews” of inflicting violence on Palestinians on a daily basis,” and questioned how they could do this so soon after their “liberation from the death camps”.

The Sunday Times defended Scarfe from the accusation of anti-Semitism, and Ward himself has denied it. How convincing are the accusations of anti-Semitism? And how valid were the rebuttals? I focus on the Scarfe cartoon, since it is more memorable, and since the opinion of some obscure Lib Dem MP is by definition here today and gone tomorrow: Scarfe won’t be. The Sunday Times simply says in its defence that “This is a typically robust cartoon by Gerald Scarfe. The Sunday Times firmly believes that it is not anti-Semitic. It is aimed squarely at Mr Netanyahu and his policies, not at Israel, let alone at Jewish people.” (And incidentally, that “big-nosed” representation of Netanyahu is hardly anti-Semitic: this is the smallest nose I have ever seen on a Scarfe cartoon).

The Board of Deputies of British Jews, never slow off the mark or unduly moderate in its own utterances, said the cartoon was “shockingly reminiscent of the blood libel imagery more usually found in parts of the virulently anti-Semitic Arab press”. The term “blood libel” refers, of course, to medieval stories that Jews murdered Christian children to use their blood during their rituals, stories which led to some of the most shameful atrocities against the Jews ever committed before Hitler himself brought the phenomenon to its sickening climax in the death camps.

Now, the trouble with attacking Scarfe by trying to associate him with all that, is that it removes the possibility of disposing of his attack on the great wall the Israelis have built between themselves and the West Bank, by making the real argument against the cartoon’s message: that Scarfe is just wrong. There is a great deal to be said against the wall. But rightly or wrongly, it was put up so that the Israelis could protect themselves against being slaughtered, not so that they could themselves do any slaughtering. It may be true that elsewhere, many Palestinians have died as a result of Israeli retaliation against Hamas rocket attacks: but the rocket attacks came first: if there had been no rockets, there would have been no retaliation. The way to stop the Israelis killing Palestinians is for the Palestinians to stop killing them.

The trouble with reacting against Scarfe’s cartoon by accusing him of a “blood libel” is not simply that it’s unjust, but that it makes it impossible to criticise the cartoon for what’s really wrong with it. It gives the impression, not of a reasoned critique (to which Scarfe is vulnerable) but of a trigger-happy paranoia. I do see that publishing the cartoon on Holocaust memorial day was an unbelievably insensitive thing to do (the ignorant Scarfe says he didn’t even realise that’s what that Sunday was). But the “blood libel” accusation simply made any kind of rational dismissal of Scarfe’s crass attack impossible.

And, yet again, it seemed to justify the equally knee-jerk reaction that some Jews really do seem to have a tendency to a paranoid reaction to any kind of criticism. I will bet that somebody is going to attack me for being anti-Semitic in this post. I’m not anti-Semitic: and I don’t think that Gerald Scarfe’s cartoon is. That’s also the view of some Jews at least. “Pillorying Scarfe and his cartoon,” argued the Israeli paper Haaretz “cheapens a noble cause, as this was not anti-Semitic by any standard.”

“Here are four reasons why,” it continues: I give you Haaretz’s arguments uncut (since unfortunately, they appear to be no more generally available on the paper’s website). Having read them I have no more to say, this says it all. Just one thing, though: like me, Haaretz has its reservations about the Board of Deputies of British Jews, who really should reflect more carefully before issuing their overheated press releases. These are Haaretz’s reasons for saying that Scarfe’s cartoon isn’t anti-Semitic:

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 its 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.

I rest my case.