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

Share

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.

Spluttering

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

Austen Lloyd: Employment Solicitor

£30000 - £60000 per annum + Excellent: Austen Lloyd: Employment Solicitor - Ke...

Argyll Scott International: Risk Assurance Manager

Negotiable: Argyll Scott International: Hi All, I'm currently recruiting for t...

Austen Lloyd: Clinical Negligence Solicitor

Highly Competitive Salary: Austen Lloyd: HAMPSHIRE MARKET TOWN - A highly attr...

Ashdown Group: IT Systems Analyst / Application Support Engineer (ERP / SSRS)

£23000 - £30000 per annum + pension, 25days holiday: Ashdown Group: An industr...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Bill Cosby speaks onstage at the Thurgood Marshall College Fund 25th Awards Gala on 11 November 2013 in Washington  

Bill Cosby: Isn’t it obvious why his accusers have stayed silent up until now?

Grace Dent
 

Our political landscape is not changing anywhere near as much as we assume it is

Steve Richards
How bad do you have to be to lose a Home Office contract?

How bad do you have to be to lose a Home Office contract?

Serco given Yarl’s Wood immigration contract despite ‘vast failings’
Green Party on the march in Bristol: From a lost deposit to victory

From a lost deposit to victory

Green Party on the march in Bristol
Putting the grot right into Santa's grotto

Winter blunderlands

Putting the grot into grotto
'It just came to us, why not do it naked?' London's first nude free runner captured in breathtaking images across capital

'It just came to us, why not do it naked?'

London's first nude free runner captured in breathtaking images across capital
In a world of Saudi bullying, right-wing Israeli ministers and the twilight of Obama, Iran is looking like a possible policeman of the Gulf

Iran is shifting from pariah to possible future policeman of the Gulf

Robert Fisk on our crisis with Iran
The young are the new poor: A third of young people pushed into poverty

The young are the new poor

Sharp increase in the number of under-25s living in poverty
Greens on the march: ‘We could be on the edge of something very big’

Greens on the march

‘We could be on the edge of something very big’
Revealed: the case against Bill Cosby - through the stories of his accusers

Revealed: the case against Bill Cosby

Through the stories of his accusers
Why are words like 'mongol' and 'mongoloid' still bandied about as insults?

The Meaning of Mongol

Why are the words 'mongol' and 'mongoloid' still bandied about as insults?
Mau Mau uprising: Kenyans still waiting for justice join class action over Britain's role in the emergency

Kenyans still waiting for justice over Mau Mau uprising

Thousands join class action over Britain's role in the emergency
Isis in Iraq: The trauma of the last six months has overwhelmed the remaining Christians in the country

The last Christians in Iraq

After 2,000 years, a community will try anything – including pretending to convert to Islam – to avoid losing everything, says Patrick Cockburn
Black Friday: Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

Britain braced for Black Friday
Bill Cosby's persona goes from America's dad to date-rape drugs

From America's dad to date-rape drugs

Stories of Bill Cosby's alleged sexual assaults may have circulated widely in Hollywood, but they came as a shock to fans, says Rupert Cornwell
Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

As fans flock to see England women's Wembley debut against Germany, the TV presenter on an exciting 'sea change'