Sunday Times, Holocaust Memorial Day: blood and antisemitism.
On Holocaust Memorial Day 2013, the Sunday Times has run a cartoon by its famously acerbic cartoonist, Gerald Scarfe, that depicts Benjamin Netanyahu using blood to cement a wall that he is building, that has parts of bodies trapped within it. (See it here, on the Commentator website.)
The bodies trapped in the wall seem to be more living than dead. They appear to be of various religions or ethincities, with the youth at the bottom looking as if he could well be Jewish, perhaps wearing a kippah. Women in headscarves can be clearly seen.
The blood drips off Netanyahu’s trowel and oozes between the laid bricks, like wet concrete. The blood is so central to the image that it will, inevitably, bring many Jews (and non-Jews also) to think of the antisemitic Blood Libel: the infamous medieval charge that Jews take the blood of others for religious purpose.
The blood imagery, sometimes explicitly as Blood Libel, is commonly found in obscene anti-Israel propaganda in Arabic and Iranian media. Scarfe’s image comfortably fits within this canon of extreme contemporary anti-Israel hatred.
In response to initial complaints, the Sunday Times pointed out the obvious – that the cartoon is typical Scarfe, that it depicts Benjamin Netanyahu rather than all Jews and that it has been run following Netanyahu’s Israel election victory:
This is a typically robust cartoon by Gerald Scarfe. The Sunday Times firmly believes that it is not anti-Semitic. It is aimed squarely at Mr Netanyahu and his policies, not at Israel, let alone at Jewish people. It appears today because Mr Netanyahu won the Israeli election last week. The Sunday Times condemns anti-Semitism, as is clear in the excellent article in today’s Magazine which exposes the Holocaust-denying tours of concentration camps organised by David Irving.
As ever, we are immediately drawn into the old ‘is it antisemitic, isn’t it antisemitic’ routine – as if anybody could ever prove what actually goes on in Gerald Scarfe’s head; and as if what goes on in his head is the most important thing in all of this.
For sure, Gerald Scarfe has ‘a thing’ about blood. It is a theme that repeats in his cartoons. For example, his Sunday Times cartoon of 26th February 2012, literally shows Syria’s President Assad guzzling blood from a cup that has “children’s blood” written on it. So, he has not singled out Benjamin Netanyahu for the blood treatment and he is perfectly capable of drawing a full-on blood libel should the mood take him. Neither has Scarfe singled out Netanyahu for physical disfigurement. This is how he draws people, regardless of their nationality or religion.
Unfortunately for Jews – and for satirists - antisemites and antisemitism also have ‘a thing’ about blood; and especially about the allegation that Jews murder others (children in particular) in order to use their blood or organs for heinous purpose. It is a harsh fact that blood has long played a profoundly disturbing part in the history of antisemitism, and this has obvious consequences for Jews and antisemites today. The actual intentions of Gerald Scarfe and the Sunday Times count for very little within this broader context of history, and its contemporary emotional and racist impacts.
So, the cartoon, regardless of the wishes of Scarfe and the Sunday Times, regardless of it specifically being anti-Netahyahu rather than anti-Jew, will seriously distress many Jews and will give pleasure to many antisemites. (Indeed, CST has already received many calls and emails on this cartoon from upset and angry members of the public.) This is, after all, how antisemitism actually works, for its victims and its proponents. For those practical reasons, this cartoon will (like the Dave Brown / Independent cartoon of Ariel Sharon eating babies) be perceived as part of the canon of contemporary antisemitic imagery, as are the many other cartoons that associate Israeli leaders with blood in hideous ways.
And, with the cartoon having been published on Holocaust Memorial Day, its power to offend and upset the emotions of Jews is greatly worsened.
(For more information about the grotesque use of blood in contemporary anti-Israel and antisemitic propaganda, see the book “Cartoons and Extremism. Israel and the Jews in Arab and Western media”. Written by Joel Kotek and published with the support of CST, European Jewish Congress and Anti-Defamation League. Some of its images may be viewed here.)