Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Blood Libels and Antisemitism in the UK


This is the top half of a cartoon by Gerald Scarfe that was printed in the Sunday Times newspaper last weekend, 27th January. The Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, is pictured building a wall that imprisons people - presumably Palestinians - between the bricks. The mortar he is using appears to be made from blood. The caption at the bottom read, "Will cementing the peace continue?"

This is a country that still believes in freedom of the press, and one doesn't have to agree with Scarfe's perspective. However, to have published this on International Holocaust Memorial Day seems at best utterly bad taste. At worst some have accused him of antisemitism. News International mogul Rupert Murdoch apologised via his Twitter account saying that a "major apology for grotesque, offensive cartoon" was owed. Scarfe apologised for the "very unfortunate timing" of the publication, and insisted that he was not antisemitic. In an interview with the Jewish Chronicle, he said that his drawing "was a criticism of Netanyahu, and not of the Jewish people:  there was no slight whatsoever intended against them."

I am inclined to believe that this is what he believes. I do think, however, that there is a bit of a problem with the imagery he used. The bloody mortar evokes imagery of the blood libel that has haunted Jewish communities across the world since medieval times. It originated with the false claim of Jewish guilt for the crucifixion of Jesus; and developed into the even more false belief that Jews used the blood of murdered Xians (especially children) in their rituals, e.g., that it is a vital part of the recipe for Passover matzah or the filling for the hamantaschen pastries eaten at the festival of Purim. This blood libel has been the excuse for premeditated physical attacks on Jewish communities for centuries, and is thus a somewhat sensitive subject. To use blood imagery and expect it to be seen outside that context is ingenuous. Nevertheless, this does not automatically make it antisemitic.

Roy Greenslade has a good article in today's Evening Standard where while arguing for freedom of the press he also reminds us of the responsibilities of the author and the editors. He writes about Scarfe and Steve Bell of the Guardian:

"Though I doubt whether the cartoonists meant to be anti-semitic, complainants would surely say this is the point - unintentional racism is as unacceptable (arguably worse), than intentional racism. It was undoubtedly thoughtless and neither man can plead naivety. They are veterans in a craft that exists in order to offend."
(The rest of Greenslade's article is here.)

In the end, I would say that what happened was thoughtless, but not antisemitic. In the Guardian, Anshel Pfeffer points out that:

"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."
(the rest of the Guardian article is here)

There are enough people in the world who hate others and promote that hatred - we do not need to increase their number by adding Gerald Scarfe to their cabal.

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