I don’t care for Scarfe’s cartoon – or political cartoons generally. But I don’t find it anti-Semitic

Cartoons are often expressions of indignation masquerading as comedy


Heard the one about the four Jewish writers sitting on a stage in a royal palace at the Jaipur Literary Festival discussing the condition of the Jewish novel? The Jewish novel in Jaipur? Circumcision, shiksehs, Yiddish gags? Yes, hard to credit. As one of the writers, I found it hard to credit even as it was happening. But here’s the punchline: there wasn’t a single Jewish joke or reference the 500 attentively listening Indians didn’t get! I’ve encountered more bemusement at a reading in St John’s Wood.

It hadn’t occurred to me what a singular experience it would be, discussing Jewishry in a non-Christian country and not having to apologise for killing Christ. I don’t say I’m charged with deicide every time I speak at Edinburgh or Hay-on-Wye, but the topic of Israeli culpability does frequently come up in one form or another, and it’s hard sometimes not to feel you’ve got blood on your hands again.

You might say this drama exists only in my head. Drop the “only” and I’ll meet you halfway. What measure of objective truth is there, after all, when it comes to colloquy? The hearer interprets what he hears. The speaker means more than he knows he means. But there was nothing for a visiting Jew with supersonic hearing to twitch his ears to in Jaipur, no history of theological charge and countercharge, no 2,000-year-old suspicion. Here was a festival of literature that was truly both festive and literary. Readers turned up in vast numbers, listened, smiled, asked intelligent questions, bought books, got jokes, told jokes, and made every writer feel his occupation mattered. What is more, many of them were young.

Young India

I mean no ingratitude or disrespect to those good enough to come and hear me on the stump in Dartington or Cheltenham, but youth is not what distinguishes them. In Jaipur, I saw a future for the book. The young who turned up with shining eyes were not ashamed of being interested in writing. There was none of that swaggering ignorance we allow our children to parade, as though the fewer words they’ve read the cooler they are. If you want to punish teenagers in India you tell them they won’t be able to take their exams. Think on that and weep.

Only a fool would suppose a literature festival is a microcosm of a country. A literature festival self-selects. But it tells you something about the culture and what it told me I admired. Still high on the enthusiasm, the cleverness, the open-mindeness and an unaccustomed freedom from the imputation (real or imaginary) of belonging to an accursed race, I arrived back to find the Liberal Democrat MP David Ward and the cartoonist Gerald Scarfe being accused of anti-Semitism. Home sweet home.

David Ward barely merits one’s contempt. Only a moral nincompoop or a scoundrel would align the Holocaust and the “atrocities” visited by Jews on Palestinians. You know the argument: where was the point in sending Jews to Holocaust University if they came away only with numbers tattooed on their arms and no degree in human kindness? Clegg should dump Ward in that circle of Liberal Democrat hell presided over by Baroness Tonge. Their conversation would be monotonous but they’d get along.

Gerald Scarfe’s now infamous cartoon is a different matter. I don’t find it anti-Semitic. Yes, the wall is cemented with blood, but I don’t agree it thereby invokes the Blood Libel. If it’s the Blood Libel resurrected in our time you want, go to Caryl Churchill’s Seven Jewish Children where the blood of innocent Palestinian babies dribbles out of the ravening mouths of Jews. Blood cement might be melodrama but it’s not libel.


Scarfe denies the charge of anti-Semitism and he has never looked or sounded remotely like an anti-Semite to me when I have met him. Not that what an artist avows can ever be the last word about his art. Intention is only half the story. Associations swirl around language and depiction; echoes are heard; the infections of other times never disappear entirely, and a work might end where it never meant or wanted to go. But Scarfe, unlike many whose work has caused comparable distress, has offered his regrets. He has apologised for the timing, and while he has otherwise stuck to his guns, as he has every right to, he hasn’t gloried obdurately in the offence.

For all Scarfe’s graphic genius, I can’t say I care for this cartoon. I can’t say I care for political cartoons generally. Though they claim kinship to the comedy family, they rarely play with the ambiguities on which comedy thrives. They are more often expressions of indignation, and indignation is comedy’s poor relation – as unsubtle as the spluttering anger it arouses.

And here’s the problem with this cartoon. Not that it’s grotesque – grotesquerie is the cartoonist’s business – not that it intends offence to Jews, or even that it intends offence to Netanyahu – who could be said to invite it, anyway – but that the offence it itself takes to a vexed political situation (the cartoonist, too, being an offended party) is single-voiced and sentimental. I don’t lay specific blame on Scarfe. This is the routine discourse of the times – a discourse which, if we dig deep enough, is indeed, in its sentimental, vilifying form, anti-Semitic in origin. Perhaps those Jews who are crying foul detect that. But distinctions are essential. We can accuse someone of a commonplace political indignation without having to accuse him of anti-Semitism, too.

The fear is never far away, though: they told us we killed Christ and here they are again, though no longer Christianly inclined, still telling us we’re butchers. The youngsters in Jaipur would have understood the black comedy of that.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer - Junior / Mid Weight

£15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: To support their continued grow...

Recruitment Genius: Marketing Data Specialist

£22000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They are the go-to company for ...

Recruitment Genius: Search Marketing Specialist - PPC / SEO

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join the UK's leadin...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This caravan dealership are currently recruiti...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Rafael Nadal is down and out, beaten by Dustin Brown at Wimbledon – but an era is not thereby ended  

Sad as it is, Rafael Nadal's decline does not mark the end of tennis's golden era

Tom Peck
Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

Is this the future of flying?

Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

Isis are barbarians

but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

Call of the wild

How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate
Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

The science of swearing

What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

Africa on the menu

Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'
10 best statement lightbulbs

10 best statement lightbulbs

Dare to bare with some out-of-the-ordinary illumination
Wimbledon 2015: Heather Watson - 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

Heather Watson: 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

Briton pumped up for dream meeting with world No 1
Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve

Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve
Dustin Brown: Who is the tennis player who knocked Rafael Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?

Dustin Brown

Who is the German player that knocked Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?
Ashes 2015: Damien Martyn - 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

Damien Martyn: 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

Australian veteran of that Ashes series, believes the hosts' may become unstoppable if they win the first Test