Beyond apologies: Blood libel cartoon
Op-ed: Who helped strengthen genocidal image that so many British people hold regarding Israel?
By Manfred Gerstenfeld
Apologies offered by the British weekly The Sunday Times for an antisemitic cartoon published on International Holocaust Remembrance Day address only one, albeit major, aspect of this issue. The paper stated that publishing the drawing "was a mistake and crossed the line." It admitted that Gerald Scarfe's caricature had reflected "historical iconography that is persecutory or antisemitic." The drawing showed Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu building a wall using what appeared to be the blood of Palestinians as cement. The caption read, "Will cementing peace continue?"
The general importance of apologies is that both offender and victim agree that what took place was wrong. In this case however, the apologies also underscore the need to ask several additional questions. One issue not addressed is that the cartoon inverted the truth, rather than exaggerated it. Scarfe suggested that what is mainly a security fence - presented here as a wall - was meant to kill Palestinians. However, it was constructed in order to prevent Palestinian murderers from entering Israel and killing Jewish civilians.
Furthermore, the drawing reflects a major antisemitic motif which has its historical origins in Britain - the blood libel. It was invented in the 12th century in Norwich. At that time, it was falsely claimed that Jews had killed a 12-year-old Christian boy named William for ritual purposes. The story kept going around. A few decades later, like in many other places in England, all of the Jews in Norwich were murdered. From Britain, the blood libel about the Jews spread to other Christian countries.
Another important question is: Where are the apologies for other cartoons using iconography which recalls the blood libel, both in Britain and elsewhere? Perhaps the best known caricature in this genre was published by the British daily The Independent. Dave Brown drew then-Israeli-Prime-Minister Ariel Sharon as a child-eater. There was never an apology for this antisemitic iconography by that daily.
In answer to protests, the UK press complaints commission cleared Brown's cartoon. It was further "normalized" after it won the UK's "Political Cartoon of the Year Award for 2003" of the Political Cartoon Society. The award was presented to Brown in November 2003 at the offices of the prestigious Economist weekly by Labour MP and former Minister for Overseas Aid, Clare Short.
At the time, Zvi Shtauber was Israel's ambassador to the UK. He told me later, "Simon Kelner, the editor of The Independent, is Jewish. I asked Kelner whether The Independent had ever published a similar caricature of a public figure. He had to go back 18 years to find a similar one. Tim Benson, the president of the Political Cartoon Society…saw nothing wrong in the award winning racist cartoon."
The Independent was not the only "progressive" paper to print blood libel cartoons. In the middle of the previous decade, Michael Howard, a Jew, was leader of the Conservative party, then in opposition. In April 2005, The Guardian published a cartoon by Steve Bell depicting Howard with vampire teeth, one of which was dripping blood, and holding a glass of blood. The caption read: "Are you drinking what we are drinking? Vote Conservative." To add insult to injury Annabel Crabb, of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, praised him in a TV interview for that cartoon. Bell has also elsewhere drawn Howard with vampire teeth.
Belgian political scientist Joël Kotek has a collection of thousands of anti-Israel and anti-Jewish hate cartoons from Arab and Western media. He has published a selection of these in his book Cartoons and Extremism. One only has to compare the above-mentioned British caricatures with that broad selection, mainly from the Arab world and some from the Nazi period, to see how their iconography fits in perfectly.
A study by the University of Bielefeld for the German Social Democrat Friedrich Ebert Foundation found in 2011 that 42% of the British people – and a percentage similar to that in some other European countries - believe that Israel is conducting a war of extermination against the Palestinians. A major question should be asked - who has planted this extreme antisemitic world view into the minds of the British? The cartoons are thus just the tip of the iceberg of a far larger question which concerns British authorities and the population at large.
The apology by the paper gets it right by stating, "the image we published of Binyamin Netanyahu … appeared to show him reveling in the blood of Palestinians." A question now to be asked is: Which British politicians, media, NGOs, academics and trade unions have consistently helped strengthen the genocidal image that so many British hold regarding Israel? Creating that world view was more than a mistake. It is a crime. Here, lines of an infinitely bigger magnitude have been crossed than by an antisemitic caricature published on International Holocaust Remembrance Day.
Manfred Gerstenfeld is a board member and former chairman of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs (2000-2012). He is a recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award (2012) of the Journal for the Study of Antisemitism.