Prominent Jewish groups around the world this weekend decried a cartoon, which appeared in the U.K.’s Sunday Times and depicted a crude caricature of reelected Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu building a wall cemented with Palestinian blood and bodies. Organizations including the Board of Deputies of British Jews (BDBJ) complained that the image was anti-Semitic, and went as far as to say that artist Gerald Scarfe evoked the slur of “blood libel” historically aimed against Jews.
Rupert Murdoch, chairman and CEO of News Corp., which owns the Sunday Times, was swift in attempts to repair the damage. On Sunday, he tweeted, “Gerald Scarfe has never reflected the opinions of the Sunday Times. Nevertheless we owe major apology for grotesque, offensive cartoon.” Meanwhile, Sunday Times acting editor Martin Ivens publicly stated, “The paper has been written strongly in defense of Israel and its security concerns, as I have I as a columnist. We are, however, reminded of the sensitivities in this area by the reaction to the cartoon and I will of course bear them very carefully in mind in future.”
Since the prolific use of grotesque Jewish caricatures in anti-Semitic Nazi propaganda in Germany, sensitivity around the depiction of Jews in political cartoons has been rightly high. And certainly, Netanyahu’s cartoon depiction bears an uncomfortable similarity to typical, offensive caricatures of Jews. But Scarfe’s drawing was an explicit critique of Netanyahu’s policies and treatment of Palestinians. The cartoon caption read, “Israeli elections. Will cementing peace continue?” The Sunday Times has insisted that no anti-Semitic intent went behind the image. A statement from the publication noted:
[The cartoon] is aimed squarely at Mr Netanyahu and his policies, not at Israel, let alone at Jewish people. It appeared yesterday because Mr Netanyahu won the Israeli election last week. [Complaints had noted that the cartoon was published on Holocaust Memorial Day]. The Sunday Times condemns antisemitism, as is clear in the excellent article in yesterday’s magazine which exposes the Holocaust-denying tours of concentration camps organized by David Irving.
Meanwhile, some commentators have criticized claims that Scarfe’s cartoon equated to an evocation of the blood libel myth. Shane Croucher wrote in the International Business Times:
Scarfe was not anywhere near committing the offense known as blood libel. Blood libels are representations of the vile anti-semitic myth that Jews use the blood of children in religious ceremonies and rituals, even cooking it into food. It is a medieval belief, which perhaps explains why it is so common across sections of the Middle East, but is clearly not one being expressed in the yawnworthy cartoon.
There is no young child being slain by a revoltingly-caricatured Jew, with the blood being used in a warped religious ceremony. While blood is used as the mortar in Netanyahu’s wall, this is obviously portraying a not uncommon view that Palestinian blood is being spilt by the policies of Israel’s government. It is not a difficult distinction to understand.
Perhaps, as Croucher also notes, the important lesson to draw from this incident is that a simplistic cartoon is a poor medium through which to address the vastly complicated Israel-Palestine conflict.
And while the Sunday Times was right to apologize for any offense caused, there are fine lines to tread here too. As celebrated University of California, Berkeley, philosopher Judith Butler argued in her book “Precarious Life,” “the ‘anti-semitic’ charge [has been used] to quell public criticism of Israel” — that there is is a silencing of political criticism when condemnations of Israeli policy are elided with (very real) anti-Semitic sentiments. Butler draws on a public claim once made by Larry Summers, when the then-Harvard president said that criticism of Israel functioned as anti-Semitic in effect even if not in intent. Butler stresses the danger of a claim that collapses protest or condemnation of Israeli policy into the same category of violent speech acts as intentional anti-Semitism:
It is important to distinguish between anti-semitic speech which, say, produces a hostile and threatening environment for Jewish students – racist speech which any university administrator would be obliged to oppose and regulate – and speech which makes a student uncomfortable because it opposes a particular state or set of state policies that he or she may defend. The latter is a political debate, and if we say that the case of Israel is different, that any criticism of it is considered as an attack on Israelis, or Jews in general, then we have singled out this political allegiance from all other allegiances that are open to public debate. We have engaged in the most outrageous form of ‘effective’ censorship.
As far as Scarfe’s cartoon is concerned, it may have been a bad, reductive editorial cartoon. But we are in a dangerous critical space if a grotesque representation of the Israeli prime minister is taken to reflect on all Jewish Israelis, or all Jews. The cartoon’s most vociferous critics, although rightly sensitive to anti-Semitic images, have also in effect foreclosed a space in which Israeli citizens and Jews are presumed in the international media to be distinct — even dissenting from — Netanyahu and his coalition’s views.
Of course, editorial cartoons always risk crossing the line from provocative to offensive. But it seems crucial that even an offensive depiction of Netanyahu should not necessarily be read as offense aimed at Israelis and Jews. As Butler noted, “if the charge of anti-semitism is used to defend Israel at all costs, then its power when used against those who do discriminate against Jews – who do violence to synagogues in Europe, wave Nazi flags or support anti-semitic organisations – is radically diluted.”