Satire or Anti-Semitism? Anti-Semitism

'It is not the cartoon's skewed picture of the Middle East conflict that is at issue. It is the use of the classic "blood libel" of Jews murdering gentile children for their blood'
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The Independent Online

YES

I am not easily offended, much less shocked – at least not by media coverage of Israel and the Middle East. For though I have edited the oldest and most influential Jewish newspaper in the world for the past dozen years, for a dozen years before that I was a foreign correspondent, often a war correspondent – beginning in the late 1970s in the Middle East and based, as it happens, not in Israel but in Beirut. I am also an American, with a burning First Amendment belief in the right, and the value, of free expression. Freedom-of-expression guarantees would be meaningless – indeed, unnecessary – if they did not sometimes safeguard forms of expression that may offend.

I am not easily offended, much less shocked – at least not by media coverage of Israel and the Middle East. For though I have edited the oldest and most influential Jewish newspaper in the world for the past dozen years, for a dozen years before that I was a foreign correspondent, often a war correspondent – beginning in the late 1970s in the Middle East and based, as it happens, not in Israel but in Beirut. I am also an American, with a burning First Amendment belief in the right, and the value, of free expression. Freedom-of-expression guarantees would be meaningless – indeed, unnecessary – if they did not sometimes safeguard forms of expression that may offend.

But the editorial cartoon in this Monday's edition of The Independent I found not only offensive, not only shocking – but appalling. Intended, I assume, to offer pointed commentary on the following day's general election in Israel, it showed an unclothed, savage Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon biting off the bloodied head of a Palestinian child. The picture implicitly drawn of Israel's conflict with the Palestinians – as, literally, a matter of naked Israeli aggression – is, even given the conventions of editorial cartoons, so simplistic and one-sided as to be a perversion of the truth.

To the extent that Sharon's landslide election victory this week was indeed partly a product of the military muscle he has deployed over the past 18 months, it is worth remembering that the electoral appeal of that policy was ultimately powered by dozens of Palestinian terror-bomb attacks. Sharon's army has, in its West Bank and Gaza operations, inevitably, tragically, claimed the lives of innocent civilians, even children. The Palestinians have repeatedly and deliberately targeted civilians. Hamas and Islamic Jihad and the Al-Aqsa Brigades (part of Yasser Arafat's own Fatah movement) have routinely strapped explosives on to their own children and sent them off with the sole aim of killing as many non-combatant Israelis – men, women, children – as they can take with them.

But it is not the cartoon's skewed picture of the conflict that is at issue. It is its use of one of the oldest images of Euro- pean anti-Semitism, the fuel for pogroms and ultimately for the Holocaust – the classic "blood libel", of Jews murdering gentile children for their blood. The day on which the cartoon appeared was Holocaust Memorial Day, and I had been to visit London's Wiener Library, one of the world's most powerfully chilling archives of Nazi-era documents, photographs and other artefacts. It includes, among other things, an autographed edition of Hitler's Mein Kampf; Nazi pamphlets and picture books with dehumanising images of the Jewish people whom the Nazis were poised to exterminate. There is even a snakes-and-ladders-style board game in which players targeted Jewish businesses and got extra points for deporting their owners. And, yes, there are cartoons – in some cases, eerily similar to the one published in The Independent.

The classic defence for resuscitating such images nowadays is that one can criticise Israel, its policies and its leaders, without being anti-Semitic. That is true. No country and no leader – particularly a country in armed conflict with a neighbour, and a leader who was found by an independent Israeli inquiry two decades ago to share indirect responsibility for the Lebanese militia massacre of Palestinians in the Beirut camps of Sabra and Shatila – can or should expect to be immune from criticism.

But some criticism of Israel is anti-Semitism. Monday's Independent cartoon would have sat wonderfully well in any one of dozens of hate-journals churned out in Arab capitals; or in the pre-perestroika Soviet propaganda sheets I would come across when based in Moscow in the early 1980s; or on the shelves of the Wiener Library.

Holocaust Memorial Day, first observed in this country two years ago, has as its aim not only to remember the murder of millions by the Nazis, but to try to grasp how the killing was allowed to happen, and to ensure that it, or other genocides, cannot happen again. The main culprits in the mass murder of European Jewry, of course, were the Nazi leaders and their henchmen, who herded Jews and Roma and others into the camps and the ovens and the gas chambers. But it was made possible by the complicity of hundreds of thousands of bystanders, who either helped the murder machine to function or simply looked the other way. And that, in turn, was made possible by a steady process of dehumanisation of the intended victims (as was, in a different context, the humiliation and abuse of black people in the lynch-mob days of the American South; or in apartheid South Africa, which I covered during the state-of-emergency years in the 1980s.) The victims are not, after all, human beings. They are vermin.

They are the sort of creatures that kill babies, bite off their heads, and drink their blood.

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