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No laughing matter

February 06, 2013

A RECENT cartoon by Gerald Scarfe in Britain’s the Sunday Times reportedly depicted Syrian President Bashar al-Assad “as a green, wraith-like creature drinking greedily from an oversized cup labelled ‘children’s blood’”.

It elicited no complaints — at least none that were considered newsworthy.

That seems fair enough, given that it was a political comment on the appalling state of affairs in Syria — and anyone familiar with Scarfe’s caricatures knows all too well that grotesquerie is his trademark.

But all hell broke loose last week, when Scarfe’s cartoon showed the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, plastering a wall with (implicitly) Palestinian blood, accompanied by a caption that read: “Will cementing peace continue?”

It was clearly a comment on the previous week’s Israeli election. But accusations of anti-Semitism were aided by the fact the cartoon appeared on International Holocaust Remembrance Day, marking 67 years since the liberation of Auschwitz by the Soviet Union’s Red Army in 1945. Scarfe has since claimed he was unaware of the coincidence — which isn’t hard to believe — and apologised for the cartoon’s timing, but not its content.

“This drawing was a criticism of Netanyahu, and not of the Jewish people: there was no slight whatsoever intended against them,” he said in a statement. This ought, of course, to have been fairly obvious. Yet the Board of Deputies of British Jews was quick to complain that the image was “shockingly reminiscent of the blood libel imagery more usually found in parts of the virulently anti-Semitic Arab press”.

This led Anshel Pfeffer to ask in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz: “Is anyone seriously demanding that no cartoon reference to Israeli or Jewish figures can contain a red fluid?”

The Sunday Times’ recently appointed acting editor, Martin Ivens, initially defended Scarfe’s “typically robust” cartoon, describing it as “aimed squarely at Mr Netanyahu and his policies, not at Israel, let alone at Jewish people”. Within 24 hours he had drastically changed his tune after Rupert Murdoch, the newspaper’s unrelentingly pro-Israeli proprietor, tweeted: “Gerald Scarfe has never reflected the opinions of the Sunday Times. Nevertheless we owe major apology for grotesque, offensive cartoon.”

Not reflecting the newspaper’s policies is entirely to Scarfe’s credit, of course — notwithstanding the fact that he has been associated with The Sunday Times considerably longer than Murdoch. The international media tycoon claims not to lean too heavily on his editors, yet within a day he had Ivens grovelling to “Jewish community leaders”.

And it is hardly a coincidence that American components of Murdoch’s empire, such as The Wall Street Journal and The Weekly Standard, have been at the forefront of efforts to doom the prospects of Chuck Hagel, US President Barack Obama’s nominee for defence secretary, on the grounds that his backing for Israel is not quite unequivocal.

In his confirmation hearings Hagel, who until 2008 represented Nebraska as a member of the Republican Party, was confronted with past statements such as: “The Jewish lobby intimidates a lot of people up here [on Capitol Hill]” and “I’m a United States senator, not an Israeli senator”. He floundered in his responses, clearly realising that if confirmed he will be compelled to be considerably less outspoken on such matters.

In his nomination statement, Obama cited Hagel’s service in Vietnam and the fact that he saved his brother’s life on the battlefield — but not the fact that the brother, Tom, became a vociferous critic of the US military’s murderous involvement in that country long before Chuck had second thoughts about the intervention.

It is nonetheless notable that Mr Hagel, having experienced the depredations of combat, is a reluctant warrior. He was once considered a suitable running mate for George W. Bush and initially supported the Iraq war, but subsequently changed his mind. He has in the past favoured negotiations with Hamas and opposed sanctions against Iran, and evidently recoils from the prospect of a military conflict with the latter.

Perhaps none of this means very much, given that as a member of the cabinet he would be obliged to go along with the administration’s policies, including its vociferous support for Israel (notwithstanding the personal animus between Obama and Netanyahu). Yet to the extent that his views on Middle Eastern issues have hitherto been imbued with a degree of common sense, he is considered persona non grata by an Israel lobby determined to prevent the US from applying the kind of pressure that could possibly lead to a negotiated settlement.

Israeli voters last month defied almost universal predictions of a marked drift farther to the Right, thereby weakening Netanyahu’s hand, but it would require an inordinate degree of optimism to perceive this result as a precursor to a push for peace. The far greater likelihood is further years of drift, with the gradual expansion of illegal settlements on occupied territory decisively burying prospects of a two-state solution. There is precious little surprise in Israel’s designation of the United Nations Human Rights Council’s call for the withdrawal of all settlers as “counterproductive and unfortunate”.

As for the outcry over the cartoon in the Sunday Times, it would only be fair to acknowledge that however over-the-top the Israeli-Jewish response was, it was far less reprehensible than the usual response by Muslim extremists to caricatures they find offensive, which all too often entails rioting, violence and bloodshed.

Besides, a fair number of Jewish voices have defended Scarfe. Hardly any of them, however, has sprung to the defence of British Liberal Democrat MP David Ward, who was castigated by his party for lamenting on the eve of Holocaust Remembrance Day that “the suffering by the Jews has not transformed their views on how others should be treated”.

Ward subsequently admitted his comment was loosely worded — he did not intend to castigate all Jews. But in his defence he quoted one of his leading critics, Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel, who once aptly noted: “I swore never to be silent whenever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor … Silence encourages the tormentor…”