Did an Offensive Cartoon Expose Our Own Failings?
by Simon Plosker
With a tweeted apology from Rupert Murdoch himself and the eventual penance of The Sunday Times, what more could we ask for in the wake of Gerald Scarfe’s shocking and offensive cartoon?
Unlike certain other cartoons that have resulted in street riots, fatwas and death threats, the wholly more moderate model of protest adopted by Israel and the global Jewish community appears to have paid some dividends.
Even the Israeli government, so often unwilling or incapable of mounting any substantial counter-offensive has hit back at The Sunday Times through Israel’s Ambassador to London, Daniel Taub and a terse letter from Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin to his UK Parliamentary counterpart.
In addition, over 20 British parliamentarians signed a letter of protest to The Sunday Times. Of course, one cannot understate the effect of thousands of outraged members of the public who took their own action on the urging of grassroots organizations such as my own HonestReporting.
But what would have happened had this same cartoon, portraying a crude caricature of Israeli PM Netanyahu building a wall using blood for mortar while crushing Palestinians, been published on any other day than International Holocaust Remembrance Day?
Over the years, those of us involved in media monitoring have seen countless cartoons that have been deemed offensive, inaccurate, libelous, and sometimes arguably anti-Semitic. Yet the reaction to these has been muted in comparison to the outpouring of anger that greeted Scarfe’s Sunday Times penmanship.
Of course Scarfe’s cartoon, published on a day when the world remembers the victims of the Holocaust, quite rightly touched a collective raw nerve. But should the timing of its publication have been the overriding factor in the level of response?
As Jews, we have often complained of the abuse of Holocaust memory – where Israel’s critics make false and hurtful analogies between Israeli actions and those of the Nazis. Accusations that the victims of the Holocaust are now meting out the same treatment to the Palestinians as was inflicted upon them by the Nazis. Descriptions of Gaza as a concentration camp; charges that Israel misuses the Holocaust to immunize itself from legitimate criticism.
The list of examples goes on, either trivializing the Holocaust or fraudulently serving to magnify the suffering of Palestinians to the level of genocide.
But has Scarfe’s cartoon also exposed an inverted form of Holocaust abuse on our own side? Why should the demonization of Israel be any more or less acceptable when it doesn’t happen to occur on a particular day of the year that is loaded with historical and emotional memory?
After all, would all of those British MPs have put their names to a letter critical of an anti-Israel cartoon if they hadn’t had the “moral cover” of a linkage to the Holocaust? Perhaps I am being overly cynical but it is undeniably rare for Western politicians to put their heads above the parapet for Israel – a cause that is increasingly unpopular and, as in the case of former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, potentially politically damaging.
The bottom line is that Scarfe’s cartoon was offensive on any day of the week and it shouldn’t need a linkage to the Holocaust to prompt our own organizations or decent people everywhere to take action.
If Scarfe crossed a red line, where did we draw that line? Was it the content or the timing of the cartoon? If it was the timing then it’s behooves us to coherently mark out where we place our red line and at what point should appropriate action be triggered when it comes to anti-Israel demonization in cartoons or, indeed, anywhere in the media.
And what if the same cartoon had appeared in another media outlet with more obvious ill feeling towards Israel? While some media such as The Guardian and the BBC appear to be virtually immune to criticism when it comes to Israel, The Sunday Times and many of Rupert Murdoch’s News International titles have traditionally trodden a more balanced and even occasionally sympathetic line. Did the view of The Sunday Times as a “soft target” play any role in pushing some to take action with the increased prospect of a satisfactory outcome?
At my organization, HonestReporting, we are careful over where to draw the line. This doesn’t mean reacting to every piece of criticism of Israel and it doesn’t mean trying to squash legitimate debate on the very complex issues surrounding Israel’s position in the Middle East. It does, however, mean going into battle when the line from legitimate discourse is crossed into unacceptable language or imagery.
Does the Scarfe cartoon represent a “teachable moment” both for us and for the wider public as to what is and what is not acceptable discourse on Israel? Does this mark a more assertive posture from the Israeli government when it comes to defending its corner? And will British MPs be quite so forthcoming on the next occasion when Israel or Jews are unfairly treated in the mainstream media?
Only time will tell but I suspect that, assuming a printed apology appears in the next edition of The Sunday Times, this episode will simply be added to the pantheon of offensive anti-Israel material that has appeared in the UK press on an all too regular basis.
Simon Plosker is Managing Editor of HonestReporting – www.honestreporting.com