Gerald Scarfe has discovered, painfully, that even cartoonists are vulnerable to those who would police criticism of their political bedfellows. His proprietor has described his cartoon as unacceptable, grotesque and offensive, and he has fallen foul of the Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom, a man who believes that his post gives him a moral authority and public standing that his utterances do not merit.
There’s a curious tone to this debate of course, and it’s one where even I am self-policing. It is possible to be acutely aware of the evil wickedness that was the Holocaust (even though that is a disputed term*) and yet to not agree with the Chief Rabbi or Rupert Murdoch on this issue.
It is to greatly be hoped that Benjamin Netanyahu was offended by Scarfe’s cartoon. That’s the duty of cartoonists, to offend. The sensitivity of the target of their spite is not a consideration for cartoonists, or should not be. It’s just their job to point out the blindingly obvious, that Netanyahu and his oppressive regime with its walls and its violence is responsible for the unjustifiable deaths of Palestinians.
One of the problems, of course, is that too many writers and political commentators want to take sides. It is possible to be critical of Netanyahu and his vile policies without endorsing the kleptocratic terrorism of Hamas, who seem dedicated to twin goals of murdering Israelis and preventing democracy amongst the Palestinians. It’s an uncomfortable line to have to argue amongst the British left, some of whom all too easily use anti-imperialism and the close relationship between Isael and the USA to justify less than critical support for the Palestinian regime and its terrorism. There are others on the British Left of course who uncritically support Israel, and blame the Palestinians both for their current circumstances and for the violence that some of them resort to. they’re equally wrong, Sometimes it’s a cop out to wish a plague on both their houses, and sometimes, as in this case, it is justifiable. In fact, as an aside, I’d argue that in any dispute between two competing sets of nationalists (as in Ireland, for instance – where the Irish Nationalists are opposed by Ulster Nationalists who are rapidly discovering that they hate the rest of the world and the UK almost as much as they hate the Irish) a plague on both your houses is a preferable starting point to the sophistry of trying to decide which flavour of nationalism you prefer.
I’ve no special knowledge of the work of Gerald Scarfe so I don;t know if he’s ever offended the Palestinian leadership in the same way he’s offended the Israelis, so I can’t claim he subscribes to the ‘plague on both their houses approach’. In truth, I’m no fan of Scarfe’s, and dislike his work aesthetically, but his right to offend isn’t affected by my distaste for his art. Nevertheless it’s important to remember that balance is not a duty for individual cartoonists – they offer us snapshots, not manifestos, and their audience are astute enough to know that.
Central to the row over the cartoon has been the use of blood, and the imagery of corpses being used to build a wall, as a reminder of the blood libel that was perpetrated against Jews in medieval Europe. It’s part of the warp and weft of anti-Semitism in Europe, the idea that Jews were uniquely susceptible to cruelty and therefore deserving of being treated more violently and less fairly than others. Or to put it another way, they were othered to a great extent by a lie.
Sometimes, holding up a mirror, even to our friends, can involve a challenge to their view of themselves that is offensive to them, We have to be acutely aware of our own weaknesses and frailties before we appoint ourselves moral arbiter of others, to reflect upon the beam in our own eyes before we try to point out the speck of dust in someone else’s, and yet it must be possible to point out, in a debate about the future of Palestine, that Netanyahu’s policies give succour to those who seek to present Israel and the Jews as uniquely wicked. Should we always be prohibited from saying that the Israeli government has the blood of Palestinians on its hands? Not in our view.
Whenever anyone sets out to police criticism you have to ask yourself why they’re seeking to do it. In this case, it’s pretty clear that the references to the past are used to hinder criticism of Israel in the present. As this blog has argued more than once, as soon as people start fighting over the imagery, not the ideas, you know that the substantive debate will be lost in the fog of the battle.
*Some writers dislike the use of the term holocaust because it is offensive to some religious Jews. others seek to divide the wickedness visited upon the Jewish communities of Europe from the wickedness visited upon the gypsy, roma, gay, ethnic and dissenting communities of Europe. It’s certainly the case that the history of what went on, of the difference between the concentration and extermination camps but the similarity of outcomes for many of the victims is too large for this blog, but could constructively feed into an understanding of whether Holocaust memorial day is only of significance because of the Jewish victims of the Nazis.