Sunday was Holocaust Memorial Day. I therefore expected some sort of attack on Jews, generally: of the “what was done to them they are now doing to the Palestinians” type. Holocaust Memorial Day is rapidly becoming, as one commentator observed, the new Easter, where a special focus on the supposed perfidy of Jews can be expected.
I was a little upset too – but it was the timing, the co-incidence with Holocaust Memorial Day, the fact that I had expected it to be marked by some jibe, that amplified my emotional response. But the more I looked at Scarfe’s cartoon, the less I thought it could be described as antisemitic. And believe me, I do generally pick up on antisemitism.
The CST Blog article by Mark Gardner reflects what I felt and thought pretty well:
The blood imagery, sometimes explicitly as Blood Libel, is commonly found in obscene anti-Israel propaganda in Arabic and Iranian media. Scarfe’s image comfortably fits within this canon of extreme contemporary anti-Israel hatred
For sure, Gerald Scarfe has ‘a thing’ about blood. It is a theme that repeats in his cartoons. For example, his Sunday Times cartoon of 26th February 2012, literally shows Syria’s President Assad guzzling blood from a cup that has “children’s blood” written on it. So, he has not singled out Benjamin Netanyahu for the blood treatment and he is perfectly capable of drawing a full-on blood libel should the mood take him. Neither has Scarfe singled out Netanyahu for physical disfigurement. This is how he draws people, regardless of their nationality or religion.
Unfortunately for Jews – and for satirists - antisemites and antisemitism also have ‘a thing’ about blood; and especially about the allegation that Jews murder others (children in particular) in order to use their blood or organs for heinous purpose. It is a harsh fact that blood has long played a profoundly disturbing part in the history of antisemitism, and this has obvious consequences for Jews and antisemites today. The actual intentions of Gerald Scarfe and the Sunday Times count for very little within this broader context of history, and its contemporary emotional and racist impacts.
So, the cartoon, regardless of the wishes of Scarfe and the Sunday Times, regardless of it specifically being anti-Netahyahu rather than anti-Jew, will seriously distress many Jews and will give pleasure to many antisemites. (Indeed, CST has already received many calls and emails on this cartoon from upset and angry members of the public.) This is, after all, how antisemitism actually works, for its victims and its proponents. For those practical reasons, this cartoon will (like the Dave Brown / Independent cartoon of Ariel Sharon eating babies) be perceived as part of the canon of contemporary antisemitic imagery, as are the many other cartoons that associate Israeli leaders with blood in hideous ways.
And, with the cartoon having been published on Holocaust Memorial Day, its power to offend and upset the emotions of Jews is greatly worsened.
You can make a fair point about the timing of the cartoon. You can make a sensible observation about the use of blood imagery by antisemites – drawing on religiously inspired perspectives on Jews – and the inevitability that such a cartoon will be seen in the same way. You can certainly say, as the Board of Deputies did, that Netanyahu should have not been depicted in the same way as Assad, because Assad has killed many many more people.
However, I think a little more is required for a cartoon to be regarded as antisemitic. Blood plus the killing of children. The controlling of foreign politicians. Equating Jews and Nazis. But simply saying that a politician, even a Jewish politician, is ‘bloody’ just doesn’t cross the line.
This doesn’t mean that Jews, some Jews at least, wouldn’t be upset by such imagery. A number of black South Africans genuinely felt that there was an element of racism in the depiction of Jacob Zuma as a sex mad idiot. But, frankly, you’re allowed to say that.
Similarly a number of transsexuals were upset by Suzanne Moore’s use of the phrase “Brazilian transsexual”. I can see why. If you’re constantly expecting attacks, because you are constantly attacked, you’re likely to be touchy. But, again, there really wasn’t anything particularly outrageous about the Suzanne Moore’s piece.
The thing is, the politics of hurt and outrage do work. To some extent. Suzanne Moore’s article resulted in demonstrations, absurd pieces on blogs, claims that she was either encouraging or glorying in the murder of Brazilian transsexuals, and really nasty threats and jibes which forced Suzanne Moore off twitter. Transsexuals got an apology.
But at what cost? I expect a number of observers of the Brazilian Transsexuals fuss will have ended up thinking that transsexuals are absurdly touchy and a bit mad. Is that really a “victory” worth having?