Thursday, February 14, 2013
Cartoon controversy on Holocaust Memorial Day.
The controversial drawing, by Gerald Scarfe, published on 27th January - Holocaust Memorial Day, has caused fierce debate. Scarfe depicts the recently re-elected Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, using red blood to cement a wall with people trapped within it. Published by the Sunday Times, the picture features the caption “Will cementing peace continue?”
The central theme of the picture is the red blood that seeps out from the bricks and drips from Netanyahu's trowel. This image has the power to invoke anti-Semitic imagery of Blood Libel, a grossly false accusation that Jews murder children, to use their blood in religious rituals. Yet the theme of blood is a frequent feature of Scarfe’s work. He seems to have gained a ‘thing’ for blood. In another Sunday Times picture, published on 26th February 2012, Syria's President Assad is seen to be guzzling a cup full of blood that is labelled ‘Children's Blood’, further supporting the notion that this picture of Netanyahu is not just an exception. Scarfe has a long history of provocative cartoons, often coming from a more liberal perspective.
Scarfe’s depiction of the Israeli elections stimulated immediate criticism, one being from the Board of Deputies of British Jews, an elected group representing Jewish people in the UK whose chief executive, Jon Benjamin, stated that the picture was reminiscent of blood libel imagery. Nevertheless, Rachel Lasserson, editor of the Jewish Quarterly, noted that people must be able to distinguish between discussions of settlements and the West Bank and general anti-Semitism. Anshel Pfeffer, Haaretz, writing for an article in the Guardian, argues that Scarfe seems to have been careful not to include any small children - one is arguably an adolescent - in order to not have any libel imagery. Pfeffer further argues that attacking Scarfe and his cartoon only cheapens a noble cause, as it is not anti-Semitic. In addition, Mark Gardner, of the Community Security Trust, writing for the Guardian, notes that, irrespective of an individual’s nationality or religion, this is just the way Scarfe draws.
The Sunday Times initially defended the picture, saying that was a typical cartoon by Scarfe, which was "aimed squarely at Mr Netanyahu and his policies, not at Israel, let alone at Jewish people". However the next day, Rupert Murdoch distanced himself and the paper from Scarfe, by tweeting on his personal Twitter account that “Scarfe has never reflected the opinions of the Sunday Times”. Additionally, Daniel Taub, the current Israeli Ambassador to the UK, condemned the paper. He argued that the idea of Israel’s security barrier being concocted from Palestinian bodies and blood was ‘baseless’.
On Tuesday, the Sunday Times met with various representatives of the UK Jewish community. One of the main points presented by the Jewish communities is that Jews (and others) around the country reacted with disgust to the image, but even more so to Scarfe’s use of blood and that it was published, by a leading `British newspaper, on Holocaust Memorial Day. Martin Ivens, current acting editor to the paper, condemned Scarfe for crossing the line, with the illustration published in the Sunday Times on Holocaust Memorial Day, despite the illustrator being renowned for his "consistently brutal and bloody" work. Ivens further noted that “insulting the memory of the Shoah or invoking the Blood Libel’ was the last thing the newspaper had wanted to do. Scarfe also issued his own statement the same day, stating that the Sunday Times had for the past forty-six years given him freedom to criticise world leaders and that the cartoon and criticism was directed at Netanyahu, and “not of the Jewish people”. He also noted that he was "stupidly completely unaware" it was being published on Holocaust Memorial Day and “regrets the timing” of its publication.
In sum, upon reacting to this image, we should be careful in distinguishing whether it some sort of political comment and a religious insult. Granted the date of its publication on Holocaust Memorial Day is insensitive, yet I do not believe it is an assault on the Jewish religion by any means. The image is an unpleasant one, but confusing it with something else can be problematic and as Pfeffer in the Guardian writes, it only “cheapens a noble cause”.
The cartoon calls on a lot of imagery that is sensitive to a number of parties. It invites criticism and debate, which was Scarfe’s intention - to have some sort of shock factor. However, although there are similarities to the anti-Semitic notion of Blood Libel, it is not one and the same. The caricature includes no children (there is in fact one adolescent), and this may be deliberately done by Scarfe to keep away from any association with the blood libel. Regardless, it is clear from the depiction that this is a jab at Netanyahu's government, as well as his policies. This is not directed at the Israeli people, nor the Nation of Israel, as there is absolutely nothing in the cartoon which identifies its subject as someone of Jewish origin.