Anti-Semitism and the Jewish caricature

Emma Teitel on the Sunday Times’ controversial cartoon

Jack Guez/AFP/Getty Images

Sunday Times cartoonist Gerald Scarfe, the man who brought you the album art on Pink Floyd’s The Wall, erected another wall this past weekend. The new one looks a lot like the old one, except that it’s built atop dying Palestinians and their blood provides the mortar. Oh, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stands in as architect, his caricature complete with oversized ears and (you guessed it) a formidable nose. His horns, they say, are vestigial.

The writing on the wall as inferred by the Anti-Defamation League?

We don’t need no Jewish Nation.

Here’s Michael A. Salberg, the ADL’s International Affairs Director:

“The Sunday Times has clearly lost its moral bearings publishing a cartoon with a blatantly anti-Semitic theme and motif which is a modern day evocation of the ancient ‘blood libel’ charge leveled at Jews.”

I wasn’t aware that the Times had moral bearings, but the ADL isn’t entirely wrong in their “blood libel” charge. Scarfe’s Netanyahu does look a lot like this, and this, and this. There’s also the awkward bit about the cartoon being published on International Holocaust Remembrance Day. Even Rupert Murdoch, who owns the newspaper, managed an apology. He called the cartoon grotesque.

But there remains a big gaping hole in this tale of anti-Semitism. For one, Scarfe isn’t an anti-Semite. Yes, to a lot of Jews (myself included) the cartoon appears anti-Semitic, but that has less to do with Scarfe–a man who has depicted several political leaders he abhors, most of them non-Jews, with exaggerated facial features in exaggerated ways—and more to do with context. Tony Blair, for example, (another one of Scarfe’s subjects) doesn’t belong to a religious group with a history of systemic discrimination. Or genocide. Neither does George W. Bush, or Bill Clinton–other leaders the cartoonist has taken aim at over the years. Netanyahu, on the other hand, does. Unlike Bibi, Blair, Bush, and Clinton don’t belong to a minority whose facial features were altered grotesquely throughout propaganda history, not for comic effect, but to instill fear and incite violence.

Scarfe has affirmed that he is not an anti-Semite—that he had no idea Holocaust Remembrance Day would fall on the same day the paper published his Bibi Netanyahu-architect-of-death cartoon. Here he is talking to the press, below:

“The Sunday Times has given me the freedom of speech over the last 46 years to criticize world leaders for what I see as their wrong-doings. This drawing was a criticism of Netanyahu, and not of the Jewish people…I was, however, stupidly completely unaware that it would be printed on Holocaust day, and I apologize for the very unfortunate timing.”

Anti-Zionists and ADL critics will of course say that the date on which the cartoon was published is irrelevant. If Scarfe’s beef is with a government, not a people, what does Holocaust Remembrance Day have to do with anything?

The answer, as he now knows, is everything.

The day has everything to do with the deed because it is, at this point in history, almost impossible to draw a sensational political caricature of a Jewish person without evoking images of Der Sturmer. The history is still too recent, the wounds still fresh.

If Gerald Scarfe is to learn anything from this, let it be that until further notice, like it or not, the only socially acceptable time to draw a Jewish caricature is at a Bar Mitzvah.

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