Essays — April 2013

Drawing truth to power

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In late January a brief controversy erupted amongst British Jews, of the kind that periodically flares up. The subject was a cartoon by eminent illustrator Gerald Scarfe, showing Benjamin Netanyahu build­ing a wall, burying Palestinians inside it, with blood as cement. Inopportunely, though apparently accidentally, the cartoon was published on Holocaust Memorial Day. Following an outcry, the Sunday Times editor apologised to a delegation from the Board of Deputies and Rupert Murdoch expressed his disapproval on Twitter. Despite this apology there was no consensus amongst British Jews over whether or not the cartoon could be considered antisemitic and whether it should have been published. To discuss the affair and its wider implications, we invited Steve Bell, resident cartoonist at the Guardian, and Eli Valley from The Forward to enter into a dialogue on stereotypes, representation, power, and the responsibility of the cartoonist. This feature is dedicated to Mohammad Saba’aneh, Palestinian cartoonist for Al-Hayat al-Jadida newspaper, currently serving a 4-5 month sentence in an Israeli prison.

 

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Dear Steve,

Let’s talk about Jews!

Or, barring that, let’s talk about cartoons, taboos, the legacy of antisemitism and the moral obligations of power.

Without rehashing The Scarfe Horror exhaustively, it’s probably important to note the two primary objections to a work that criticised the Israeli government’s repression of West Bank Palestinians and asserted that the recent Israeli Elections will do nothing to change these policies:

  1. It used blood libel imagery.
  2. It was printed on a day that commemorates the Holocaust.

The first is dispelled quickly: Unless it’s an actual blood libel image (which, yes, is frankly common in Arab and Muslim press depictions of Israel and Jews and, yes, should be condemned), there is no reason that the colour red should be deemed verboten in imagery concerning the military occupation of the West Bank. In fact, to insist that the occupation be depicted as bloodless touches on a deeper myopia that seeps through internal Jewish conversations surrounding Israel and the moral obligations of power.

The second objection is dispelled by Scarfe’s own admission that he wasn’t aware of the date on the calendar — an ignorance I share, as I associate Holocaust remembrance with Yom Hashoah, which falls in April. Who knew there was another day? And who knows, had the cartoon been delayed by a week, if that wouldn’t have fallen on another day of remembrance? There are, sadly, many dates of remembrance. And what does it say about the durability of Jewish national sovereignty that one cannot criticise Israeli government policy on anniversaries of Jewish national despair?

In fact, it becomes absurd when you recognise that the cartoon had nothing to do with persecution and everything to do with power — in this case, the power of military occupation. In both objections — the blood libel and Holocaust commemoration — discussion of power was dispelled by a focus on persecution, past or potential. I’m fascinated by the dichotomous self-perception of modern Israel as both martyr and messiah — certain aspects of which I explored in a recent piece, the Golem-inspired  Diary of Doctor Loewenstein. And with that plug, I would love to hear your thoughts.

All the best,

Eli

 

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Dear Eli

Great! Let’s talk about Jews! But how can I talk about Jews if I’m not Jewish?

I may be an insensitive clod but why should the blood libel be relevant? Scarfe clearly wasn’t suggesting that Jews eat children, unless you accept the premise that, firstly Netanyahu represents all Jews and not simply himself or the state of Israel, and secondly he is eating children. The cartoon clearly fails on both counts.

My colleague Dave Brown on the Independent did a cartoon of Ariel Sharon some years ago, based on the famous Goya painting of Saturn eating his children which caused an almighty uproar, and apparently unwittingly appeared in 2003 on the same less well known Holocaust memorial day (it’s January 27th and is the anniversary of the day that Auschwitz was liberated. It only dates back to 2001, which explains why it hasn’t properly sunk in as a memorable date yet). I did and still would defend Dave to the hilt since the cartoon was clearly about Sharon and the state of Israel, not about “the Jews”.

I was recently criticised for a cartoon depicting Netanyahu at a podium with a couple of glove puppets in the form of Tony Blair and current Foreign Secretary William Hague. It was a cartoon about the pusillanimous UK response to “Operation Pillar of Defense”. It engendered a almighty rumpus whereby I was accused of employing “antisemitic tropes”. Again it was not a cartoon about “the Jews” but specifically about Netanyahu. It used the “trope” of a man with two glove puppets. It lacked the “trope” of actually being antisemitic. Or is antisemitism dependent on what is in the eye or mind of the beholder, rather than what lies within the intention of the artist? It’s a moot point.

You say that blood libel imagery is common in the Arab and Muslim press. While I’d agree that equally visceral and generally (and stereotypically) anti-Jew imagery is commonplace I would suggest that it’s more or less tit for tat with the kind of visceral anti-Arab and anti-Muslim imagery you find everywhere in the Israeli and western press. The context is political rather than racist or genocidal.

I think your final paragraph, about discussion of power being dispelled by a focus on persecution, past or potential, sets out the dilemma very eloquently, so where do we go from here?

Regards,

Steve

Dear Steve,

Puppets are adorable! Even the Simon Wiesenthal Center is selling cute little puppets representing HORRIBLE PLAGUES for Passover. But I do understand the sensitivities given the history of antisemitic imagery. The Simon Wiesenthal Center is not, to my knowledge, selling “Jew puppets.” By the same token, though, your cartoon was not antisemitic. If you had drawn a generic Jewish “type” controlling world leaders, then it would be. But Benjamin Netanyahu is a specific person with specific power, the uses and misuses of which are fair game for satire.  And despite Netanyahu’s protestations to the contrary, he represents global Jewish sentiment no more than does Krusty the Clown. But this goes back to the issue of Jews and power — specifically, in contemporary times, military power, as was represented in your cartoon by the missiles behind Netanyahu. The new contradiction has bordered on cliche: despite our power we refuse to believe we possess power.

To a certain extent it’s a generational phenomenon — many who grew up in the era or aftermath of the Holocaust will have a hard time grappling with the reality of our relatively newfound strength. But in some ways this same phenomenon has been cynically exploited by those who wield the power — as happened recently when an American nominee for Secretary of Defense was intimidated by lobbying groups for claiming that said lobbying groups intimidate. Maybe it’ll take another generation to dissipate, or maybe we’ll never dislodge ourselves from a self-image of persecution as long as there is self-interest in maintaining that image.

The blood libel interests me because it shifts the lens from power and persecution to history and place. Specifically, the European history of the blood libel, and the ways it was used as a tool of oppression during a period in which Jews had less power, certainly militarily. When Muslim or Arab media exhumes this myth regarding Israel, depicting a generic “Jew” drinking Gentile blood without bothering to subvert the imagery in any way, it’s antisemitic. But it’s also bad satire, not very clever, and rather humourless —but I’m not sure humour or insight are the goals of these particular images.

My own comics often satirise contemporary Jewish power through the lenses of Zionist ideology and the myths Jews teach ourselves. I recognise that a large part of my readership is well-versed in the mythology and recognises the subversion. That’s one reason blood libel imagery wouldn’t make sense in my comics. It’s irrelevant to the issues I’m grappling with. But again, those whose ideology depends on a self-image of persecution will see blood libels and the Protocols of Zion everywhere. This is why our cartoons will be attacked even when they’re critiquing Israeli policy and not “Jews” writ large. It’s also why satire of the response to the comics can be even more incisive than the comics themselves. I joke that my comics should be read in tandem with the apoplectic comments beneath them. It’s like a page of the Talmud, with all the internal commentary and argument of the genre, if the Talmud had been written by paranoid schizophrenics. My “Hater in the Sky” comic played with this as well — the comic’s most outrageous parts weren’t, to my mind, the repulsive acts Netanyahu commits against Obama, but the ensuing outrage heaped upon Obama by conservative pundits. Sure enough, the response to the comic seemed like it had been concocted inside the comic itself. A similar effect was seen when Abraham Foxman attacked an unaired Saturday Night Live sketch satirising Hagel’s Senate hearings saying “It focuses on the issue of Israel to such a ridiculous extreme” — which was, according to post-hearings analysis, exactly what the Hagel hearings had done. It was like a loop had been closed, the circuit completed, the script finished by Foxman himself. Such behaviour makes puppets, clowns and cartoons almost superfluous.

Almost.

All the best,

Eli

 

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Dear Eli

Power is always the subject, and art is what artists do (mind you, I wouldn’t trust any artist as far as I could throw him or her, and that includes myself), but how can you generalise or make assumptions about anyone’s identity or ethnic profile? The short answer is you can’t, unless you share that profile, and even then it doesn’t get you very far. I’m OK to abuse the English and the Scots because I’m a self-hating Anglo-Scottish half breed (my cartoon on the forthcoming referendum on Scottish independence brought me a far greater volume of abuse than anything I ever did about Netanyahu) but anything else is more or less out of bounds. Even the Welsh. And anyway, why would I want to? I had a minor problem with Cameron’s predecessor as Conservative party leader, a guy called Michael Howard, a right wing nightmare of a man with a softly sibilant Welsh accent (he hails from Llanelli) who actually does look and sound like a vampire. I actually saw him cross his hands over his chest in the blue shadows of the Conservative Party conference, so I sketched a pictorial proof live, on the spot. The party’s slogan during the 2005 general election campaign was “Are You Thinking What We’re Thinking?” Essentially what the Conservative party was thinking was “why are there so many dirty foreigners stealing our jobs?”. It was a classic piece of coded “dog whistle” politics.

I drew a cartoon of Howard at the podium, in a cape with a cheeky fanged grin holding a small sherry glass of blood, saying “Are You Drinking What We’re Drinking?”Cue more blood libel hysteria. I didn’t know the guy was Jewish and anyway, that’s not the point. Ignorance is no defence. I must confess that, at the time, I wasn’t even sure what the blood libel was. I had to google it.

So as ever we have to trust the integrity of the individual artist, journalist, writer, historian and human being. You can bring in an army of fact checkers, you can moderate, bowdlerise and disinfect your content, but it won’t do any good. The world is full of idiots, many of them willful. One of the most consummately idiotic telephone calls of my life was from a fact checker on the New Yorker questioning me intensely and at length about John Major’s underpants. And they still got it wrong.

These days I’m intrigued at the explosion of under-the-line comments/commentary/crazed abuse/slavish adoration. Newspapers (not least my own, the dear old digitally obsessed Guardian) are more concerned with (and some might say insanely lavishing resources on) actually editing their readers, as opposed to their own content. Most papers are cash-strapped, some are losing money hand over fist, but still they continue to sack journalists and employ more and more “community moderators”. Decent people fulfilling a kind of cod-journalistic function for appreciably worse levels of pay and conditions.

Personally I cannot engage with it unless I’ve made an egregious factual blunder. Life’s too short. Never apologise, never explain; if you have to then the cartoon has clearly failed. And as Ronald Reagan probably never said: “Fuck ‘em if they can’t take a joke.”

Very best wishes

Steve

  • Anna Ruiz

    Much appreciated this intelligent dialogue. Shared it with my Middle East Peace groups.

  • Howard

    I’m not quite sure what the point was of this “debate”, since you seem to have the same views. Yes, Jews can be a little too touchy sometimes (as can blacks, etc.). But Steve, you’re crazy if you think that the blatantly anti-Semitic imagery in the Arab press is somehow “tit for tat”. Egypt had a TV dramatization of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, for crying out loud. This is just the reflex of the European left to say, “Well, Israel’s just as bad!” Actually, it’s not.

  • BethesdaDog

    This is garbage.