The fallout from the controversy over the publication by London’s Sunday Times of an anti-Semitic cartoon on Holocaust Memorial Day has generated a debate of sorts about where the line must be drawn between fair–if offensive–comment about Israel and blatant Jew-hatred. Predictably, some on the left have piped up to say there was nothing wrong with depicting Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu as a villainous murderer dripping with the blood of Arab victims that he was cementing into what we are supposed to think was his country’s security fence. One British defender of artist Gerald Scarfe claimed it was OK to draw Netanyahu in this way since previous cartoons had also roughed up Syrian dictator Bashar Assad. Behind most of the complaints about the outrage expressed by many Jewish journalists and organizations is the usual attitude in which Jews are told to stop being so sensitive and just shut up and let the world say what it wants about Israel.
Fortunately, Rupert Murdoch, the owner of the Sunday Times, isn’t listening to those voices and yesterday issued an apology on Twitter:
Gerald Scarfe has never reflected the opinions of the Sunday Times. Nevertheless, we owe major apology for grotesque, offensive cartoon.
Murdoch deserves credit for stepping up and putting the issue in its proper perspective. But before the dust settles the arguments put forward by Scarfe’s defenders need to be refuted in more detail. There is nothing wrong with criticizing Netanyahu any more than there would be with sniping at any other politician. But the symbolism of Scarfe’s cartoon as well as its timing reflected a disturbing willingness not merely to validate lies about Israeli policies but to portray the country as a heartless murderer of Arabs.
Haaretz’s Anshel Pfeffer claims Scarfe is innocent of the charge of anti-Semitism because the drawing of Netanyahu contains no Jewish symbols like a Star of David, so the offensive libel should be seen as only aimed at the prime minister and not the Jewish state or the Jewish people. Pfeffer also claims not to see any Holocaust imagery.
But the Netanyahu of the cartoon is not a generic political bad guy. He is a hook-nosed killer with blood dripping from his hands. This is straight out of the traditional playbook of Julius Streicher’s Nazi propaganda in which Jews were shown as horrifying defilers of innocent non-Jews. And while Netanyahu’s politics are fair game for comment, the idea of demonizing the security fence as a way by which Israelis are killing Arabs is particularly offensive since it is a clear allusion to the walled ghettos where Nazis killed Jews–a conclusion that most readers picking up the cartoon on Holocaust Memorial Day were hard-pressed to avoid. Nor does Pfeffer’s observation that the dead Palestinians in the cartoon were not children remove the stigma of the blood libel from the cartoon. One of the victims was clearly an adolescent, but blood libels were not only about killing gentile children but about Jews enjoying spilling any non-Jewish blood, a myth this drawing reinforces. To argue that showing Israel’s prime minister spilling the blood of Arabs has nothing to do with libels against his country or people is to make a distinction without a difference. In this case, Netanyahu is just a surrogate for traditional tropes of anti-Semitism.
Moreover, attempts to portray the fence as a crime against Palestinians is particularly hateful. As the editors at the Times surely knew, it was built to keep Arab murderers from slaughtering Jews in suicide bombings, not to facilitate attacks on Palestinians. This trick of trying to pretend that Jewish self-defense is really an act of murder is of a piece with the entire genre of slurs that seek to paint Israel as a new version of Nazi Germany. Like Streicher’s filth, the purpose of such attacks is to relieve anti-Semites of any guilt about their hatred for Jews.
Lastly, the idea that Scarfe should get a pass for smearing Netanyahu because he has also attacked Assad is a further indictment of the mindset of the artist and his defenders. Such a false equivalence seems almost too foolish to need to take down, but let’s point out a few obvious differences between the two men.
The first is that Assad is a dictator who has spent the last two years murdering tens of thousands of his own people in an attempt to hold onto absolute power in Syria. That his father did the same sorts of things during a bloody 30-plus-year reign of terror is no defense of his son’s behavior. Netanyahu is the elected leader of a democracy charged with the defense of his nation against terrorists who are sworn to destroy Israel and to slaughter its people. That sort of moral equivalence isn’t merely wrong-headed, it is a product of the effort to delegitimize Israel and to whitewash those who truly do wish to carry on Hitler’s murderous legacy.
The Scarfe cartoon is troubling not just because of its timing but because it betrays a willingness to smear Israel with the symbols of anti-Semitic invective which have become commonplace among the Jewish state’s European detractors. It merited Murdoch’s apology. But more than that, it ought to cause those who cheered its disgusting imagery and defended its artists to think twice about how European elites have been co-opted into defending and echoing the anti-Semitic myths about Jews and Israel that have become commonplace throughout the Muslim and Arab worlds.