More Than a Cartoon: What Jews Are Talking About When They Talk About Antisemitism
by Adam Levick
The Gerald Scarfe Sunday Times cartoon controversy has followed a familiar pattern, with some arguing that the depiction of the bloody trowel wielding Israeli Prime Minister torturing innocent souls – published on Holocaust Memorial Day – evoked the classic antisemitic blood libel, while others (including Guardian contributors and cartoonists) dissented, claiming that Scarfe had no racist intent and was merely critiquing the policies of a head of state who happened to be a Jew.
In response to some who have noted, in Scarfe’s defense, that he had previously depicted Syria’s Assad using a similar blood motif, Stephen Pollard of The JC aptly noted: “But there’s never been an anti-Alawite blood libel, and the context matters. The blood libel is central to the history of antisemitism.”
Though Scarfe may have indeed possessed no antisemitic intent whatsoever, Pollard is stressing that the effect of the cartoon simply can’t be ignored, and that historical context matters.
When we talk about antisemitism at the Guardian and ‘Comment is Free’ on this blog we’re not claiming to possess some sort of political mentalism – a piercing moral intuition which grants us access to the souls of their journalists and contributors. Similarly, we’re not suggesting that we can ever tell with any degree of certainty that, when we argue that criticism of Israel crosses the line to antisemitism, the writer who’s the focus of our ire is necessarily haunted by dark Judeophobic thoughts.
Rather, many of us who talk seriously about antisemitism are skilled at identifying common tropes, narratives and graphic depictions of Jews which are based on prejudices, stereotypes and mythology and which have historically been employed by those who have engaged in cognitive or physical war against Jews.
Though I’m now an Israeli, an apt analogy on the moral necessity of understanding and being sensitive about the racist context of seemingly benign ideas can be derived from my experience growing up in America.
Those who grew up in the US and inherited not the guilt but the moral legacy of slavery and segregation intuitively understand that we owe African-Americans an earnest commitment to strenuously avoid employing the linguistic, cultural and political currency of racism’s tyrannical reign. Though race relations have matured immeasurably by any standard, and codified bigotry all but eliminated, there are, nonetheless, unwritten prohibitions against language which, even though often unintended, hearkens back to the past, evoking the haunting memory the nation’s past sins.
In America, comedians avoid black-face routines, in which white performers create a stereotyped caricature of a black person. A mainstream newspaper wouldn’t publish a cartoon depicting an African-American as lazy and shiftless, nor would any publication present a black public figure (in any context) as a boot licking ‘Uncle Tom’. And, someone using the N-word (in public or private) would be rightfully socially ostracized or at least stigmatized as crude racist.
Such political taboos in America have developed organically over time in response to a quite particular historical chapter, and are recognized by most as something akin to an unwritten social contract on the issue of race. White Americans can not ever fully understand black pain, the learned cognitive responses from their collective consciousness, but it is reasonable of them to expect that we not recklessly tread, even if without malice, on their sacred shared memory.
Further, whites who honor this implied covenant – and avoid evoking such narratives and imagery – by and large don’t bemoan the so-called “restrictions” placed on their artistic or intellectual expression, or complain that African-Americans are stifling their free speech. Rather, such unwritten rules, social mores and ethical norms about race are typically understood to represent something akin to a moral restitution for a previous generation’s crimes. While in the US, the First Amendment affords legal protection to those who would engage in anti-black hate speech, it is largely understood that responsible citizenship often requires self-restraint – the greatness of a people measured by what they are permitted to do, but decide not to in order to preserve national harmony, what’s known in Judaism as Shalom bayit.
When Jews talk seriously about antisemitism they are asking those who don’t wish to be so morally implicated to avoid needlessly afflicting the afflicted.
They are appealing to the better angels of their neighbors’ nature by asking them not to carelessly conjure calumnies such as the “danger” to the world of Jewish power or conspiracies , Jews’ “disloyalty” to the countries where they live, that Jews share collective guilt for the sins of a few, that they’ve come to morally resemble their Nazi persecutors, or that Jews intentionally spill the blood of innocents.
In short, we are asking that decent people avoid employing canards which represented the major themes in Europe’s historic persecution of Jews, and which, tragically, still have currency on the extreme left, the extreme right, and, especially, in much of the Arab and Muslim world today.
The Scarfe/Sunday Times row is about more than the cartoon itself, and it is certainly not about the “right” to offend. It’s about sober but passionate pleas by a minuscule minority that decent people not afflict the historically afflicted, and to recognize their moral obligations to not provide aid and comfort to anti-Jewish racists.
We are asking genuine anti-racists to resist becoming, even if unintentionally, intellectual partners or political fellow travelers with those who trade in the lethal narratives and toxic calumnies associated with the resilient Judeophobic hatred which has caused us immeasurable pain, horrid suffering and indescribable calamities through the ages.