How should we respond to the controversy over the Gerald Scarfe cartoon? Last Sunday – Holocaust Memorial Day – the Sunday Times published a cartoon by Scarfe, its regular cartoonist, depicting the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu building a wall with blood-red coloured cement, in which were trapped Palestinians.
The cartoon instantly created international outrage. The Board of Deputies of British Jews, which has complained to the Press Complaints Commission, denounced the cartoon as ‘shockingly reminiscent of the blood libel imagery more usually found in parts of the virulently anti-semitic Arab press’. It was ‘all the more disgusting’ for being published on Holocaust memorial day, ‘given the similar tropes levelled against Jews by the Nazis’. Israel’s ambassador to Britain, Daniel Taub, similarly condemned ‘The use of vicious motifs echoing those used to demonise Jews in the past’. The ‘crude and shallow hatred of this cartoon’ made it ‘totally unacceptable on any day of the year’ and ‘particularly shocking and hurtful on international Holocaust remembrance day’. In Jerusalem, the Speaker of the Knesset, Reuven Rivlin, wrote a letter Monday to his British counterpart, John Bercow, expressing the Israeli people’s ‘extreme outrage’ at the cartoon. He was ‘shocked that such cartoons can be published in such a respectable newspaper in the Great Britain of today, fearing that such an event is testimony to sick undercurrents in British society’. It ‘blatantly crossed the line of freedom of expression’. ‘We will think about how to act against the paper’s representative here in Israel’, warned Yuli Edelstein, Israel’s Public Diplomacy and Diaspora Affairs Minister.
Rupert Murdoch took to Twitter to apologize. ‘Gerald Scarfe has never reflected the opinions of the Sunday Times’, he tweeted. ‘Nevertheless, we owe major apology for grotesque, offensive cartoon.’ Sunday Times editor Martin Ivens met with leaders of the British Board of Deputies this week personally to offer his apologies.
So, was the cartoon anti-semitic? And should the Sunday Times have published it?
Scarfe’s cartoon is not about Jews, nor even about Israeli actions in general, but specifically about Netanyahu’s policies. Netanyahu is not identified as a Jew. He is not, for instance, wearing a kippa, nor is he wrapped in a Star of David. The cartoon is certainly vicious, grotesque, brutal, spiteful. That, however, is the nature of political cartoons, which often take malicious glee in skewering their subject through cruel exaggeration. ‘Almost all political cartooning’, as Scarfe’s fellow cartoonist Martin Rowson has put it, ‘is assassination without the blood’. Scarfe, in particular, turns every political figure, from Margaret Thatcher to George W Bush, from Vladimir Putin to Tony Blair, into a hideous caricature, liberally splashing his work with blood and gore. The week before the Netanyahu carton, Scarfe had depicted the Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad as a green, wraith-like creature drinking greedily from an oversized cup labeled ‘Children’s Blood’. The Netanyahu cartoon, as Rowson pointed out, ‘seems to me almost identical to every other blood-splattered pictorial lament for man’s inhumanity to man [Scarfe's] knocked out over the past 40 years’.
‘Blood libel’ – the grotesque claim that Jews kill Gentile children to use their blood for ritual purposes – has a long history in European anti-semitic thought, and was for many centuries central to the persecution of Jews. It is a myth that still flourishes in large parts of the Arab world, and in a more modern form, in the darker corners of the left. Recent claims that Israeli forces in Gaza and in Haiti harvested the organs of Palestinians and of earthquake victims, claims promoted by among others the Swedish social democratic tabloid Aftonbladet and leading British Liberal Democrat Jenny Tonge, are the 21st century versions of the ancient blood libel myth.
Scarfe’s cartoon is clearly not in this tradition. Many critics have suggested that while the cartoon may itself not be an expression of the blood libel, it will inevitably be exploited by those who do espouse such claims. That may well be true. But do we really want to insist that it is unacceptable for anyone to suggest that an Israeli politician might have blood splattered hands?
While Scarfe’s cartoon may not be anti-semitic, the denunciations of it as representative of a dark historical tradition is a familiar tactic. Cast your minds back, for instance, to the controversy over The Satanic Verses. Critics of Salman Rushdie’s novel continually dismissed it as an illegitimate work of literature because it was part of ancient tradition of Western Islamophobia. ‘The parody of Muhammad and the Muslim traditions in The Satanic Verses’, claimed the Muslim philosopher Shabbir Akhtar, ‘has clear echoes for the worst brand of Orientalist sentiment for which the term “prejudice” is decidedly lenient’. The Syrian-born secularist novelist Rana Kabbani claimed that Western ‘attitudes to Muslims are profoundly marked by half-conscious folk memories of struggle stretching back over the centuries’.
I am not trying to compare Scarfe’s cartoon to The Satanic Verses. What I am pointing to, rather, is the long tradition of trying morally to undermine a work deemed unacceptable by plucking it out of its context and placing it in a different and unsavoury historical narrative.
Anti-semitism still flourishes in many parts of the world. The left all too frequently ignores the issue, especially within its own ranks. The line between criticism of Israel and anti-semitism often gets crossed. But to pillory Scarfe’s cartoon as anti-semitic, or as standing in the blood libel tradition, is to ‘cheapen a noble cause’, as the liberal Israeli newspaper Haaretz put it, devaluing the meaning of anti-Semitism and of the struggle against it.
Perhaps most striking is the contrast between the response to Scarfe’s cartoon and the response to another set of cartoons that became even more controversial – the Danish Muhammad caricatures published in 2005 in Jyllands-Posten. Stephen Pollard, editor of the Jewish Chronicle, suggested that while the Sunday Times had ‘the right’ to publish the ‘disgusting’ cartoon, it was nevertheless a ‘misjudgement’ to have exercised that right. ‘Clearly’, he insisted, ‘there was a mistake made in printing the cartoon.’
Compare this to Pollard’s response to the Danish cartoons. ‘They are certainly offensive to a large number of Muslims’, he wrote. ‘But so what?’ It was ‘not only right that the Danish Mohammed cartoons were free to be published; after the campaign to have them banned and the associated threats, it became imperative that they were published as widely as possible.’ For, ‘If free speech means anything, it surely includes the ability to question, and to mock, the belief that Mohammed rewards jihadists.’
But if it is right to offend ‘a large number of Muslims’, which it is, why is it wrong to offend Jews? And if free speech must, quite rightly, include ‘the ability to question, and to mock, the belief that Mohammed rewards jihadists’, why should it not also include the ability to question and to mock Benjamin Netanyahu’s policies towards Palestinians?
It is true that Pollard did not deny the right of the Sunday Times to have published the cartoon, merely insisting that it was wrong to have exercised that right. But why not make the same distinction with respect to the Danish cartoons? Why was it a ‘misjudgment’ to print the Scarfe cartoon but an ‘imperative’ to publish the Muhammad caricatures?
Scarfe’s cartoon is no more unacceptable than were the Danish cartoons. Indeed in many ways Danish cartoons could be seen as more objectionable. Scarfe’s caricature was grotesque and offensive but it was merely an attack on Netanyahu’s policies. Many of the Danish cartoons, on the other hand, such as the most controversial caricature depicting Muhammad wearing a turban in the form of a bomb, could more easily be read as an attack on Muslims as a group.
The distinction that Pollard raises between the right to free speech and the wisdom of exercising that right is important. It is also slippery. Too often these days that distinction is used not to defend the right to publish even obnoxious material, but to try to close down debate while still proclaiming the virtues of free speech. ‘I believe in free speech but…’ has become an all too familiar argument.
Too much of the debate about free speech is shot through with double standards. Many of those who defended the publication of the Danish cartoons have been outraged by Scarfe’s cartoon. Equally many of those who insist that the Sunday Times was right to publish Scarfe objected to Jyllands-Posten publishing the Muhammad caricatures. Such double standards can only feed the rhetoric of the reactionaries and increase the pressure for even greater censorship of ‘offensive’ work. Ironically, Pollard himself has pointed this out. When, four years ago, the Dutch authorities sought to prosecute the Arab European League for publishing a cartoon that denied the Holocaust, Pollard described the prosecution as ‘unjustified, stupid and deeply counter-productive’:
The Dutch chairman of the AEL says that the organisation deliberately published the cartoon on its website to highlight a double standard in freedom of speech rules in which anti-Muslim cartoons are permitted but anti-Jewish cartoons are banned. And one has to say that the Dutch authorities’ decision shows that he is right.
What was true then is also true now.