Is anti-Semitism beyond a joke?

Click to follow
JEWRASSIC Park. That was the caption on a cartoon in the Irish Times during the Israeli bombardment of Hizbollah bases in southern Lebanon, which led to a mass flight of the surrounding population. The cartoon itself, by Martin Turner, showed large, carnivorous dinosaurs in hot pursuit of small grass-eating quadrupeds.

The cartoon gave rise to correspondence among Irish Times readers, some of whom denounced it as anti-Semitic and (in some cases) cancelled their subscriptions. Others saw the cartoon as free from anti-Semitism, simply constituting fair comment on an act of aggression by Israel. The editor put a stop to the publication of the correspondence this week. The cartoon has now been reproduced in Israel and seen as evidence of anti-Semitism on the part of the newspaper, and possibly the Irish people.

The Irish Times is certainly not an anti- Semitic newspaper, and never has been. It has always been a liberal paper. In the days of the union it was moderate Unionist: today it is moderate nationalist. There is not much anti-Semitism in Ireland; about the same as in Britain, I think, possibly less; significantly less than in France and Germany. There is no question of conscious anti-Semitic intent behind that cartoon. But the impact of the cartoon is anti-Semitic. Any anti-Semite who sees that caption will drool over it. It will be copied and passed around in the relevant circles: Jewrassic Park - get it?

The very fact that a cartoon so pleasing to anti-Semites can be published in an impeccably respectable and liberal newspaper is significant. No respectable person, or publication, in the second half of the 20th century, is openly anti-Semitic. But many such persons and publications are anti-Israel. Conceptually, that distinction is perfectly clear. In practice it is not so easy to sustain, since Israel is the Jewish state, and most, though not all, of the world's remaining Jews are sympathetic to Israel, in varying degrees and manners. It is difficult, therefore, to keep 'anti-Israel' and 'anti-Jewish' in separate watertight compartments. That caption serves as a reminder of that difficulty.

To equate 'anti-Israel' and 'anti-Semitic' would be unjust. But to fail to observe the existence of an overlap between the two categories would be nave.

There are apparently no anti-Semites around any longer, except among skinheads, rednecks and the like. But it would be rash to assume that the anti-Semitism that was taken for granted among most of the upper and middle classes during most of history altogether disappeared with the end of the Second World War and knowledge of the Holocaust. Some who had hated Jews up to then, and were forced to acknowledge the ghastly consequences of that historic hatred, must have abjured it forever. Others continued to hate Jews but no longer found it acceptable, in social life and in business, to express this directly. For these people, to keep a hostile spotlight on Israel is a congenial form of redirected activity.

Nor is it merely an international outlet. The perceived wickedness of Israel provides high-minded justification for intimidating and/or stigmatising members of one's own local Jewish community. All decent people must condemn this or that action of Israel. So Jews who fail to condemn this, or who even defend Israel, are putting themselves outside the pale of civilised society. Which is just where they belong, according to the feelings of this section of the critics of Israel.

It is rather a small section. Most of Israel's critics are simply against courses of action on Israel's part that they believe to be wrong. That was the conscious motivation behind the cartoon. But there may have been a touch of unconscious anti-Semitism there, and not only in the caption.

The cartoon shows predators in pursuit of harmless prey. But Israel's action was one of retaliation for bombardments from Lebanese territory. It is generally said that it was excessive retaliation. It certainly caused civilian deaths and mass flight of civilian population. But does this indicate an unusual degree of depravity on the part of Israel, as a state?

Suppose that the IRA, using missile bases in Dublin, was regularly bombarding Bristol and Cardiff, and that the government of the Republic of Ireland was unable or unwilling to bring the bombardments to an end. Would Her Majesty's Government content itself indefinitely with sending protest notes to the government of Ireland? Or would it, at some stage, use air strikes against Dublin? I believe that - like any other government under any such form of attack - the British government would use air strikes. Inevitably, innocent Irish civilians would be killed in consequence, and there would be a mass exodus of civilians from Dublin. But would Britain's reaction cause Britain to be seen as a monster of a state, a political equivalent of Tyrannosaurus rex?

I don't think it would, but then Israel is different. And I don't think the difference can altogether be separated from the history of the Jews. Including the history of cartoons of the Jews: a matter to which those who published 'Jewrassic Park' might have devoted some attention. No people have suffered anything like as much, not merely in general, but specifically from cartoons, as the Jews have done, through 16 centuries, including the first half of the present one.

The iconography of the medieval Catholic church used cartoons systematically - whether on paper, on glass or in stone - to debase the image of the Jew, rending it as loathsome and as contemptible as the church possibly could. As society became more secular, from the 18th century on, the cartoons of Jews were less systematic and pervasive but reflected the established negative tradition in a more casual way.

With the advent of manic nationalism in Europe, in the last decades of the 19th century, the cartoons of Jews became again more hostile, more cruel and more purposeful. Finally, the cartoons in Julius Streicher's Der Sturmer did much to prepare the way for the Holocaust. The mass murderers saw the Jews as the living images of what those cartoons had conditioned them to see. A modern cartoonist, contemplating a graphic comment on a news item from Israel, might do well to pause for a moment to consider whether he wishes his work to hang in that enormous grisly gallery.

(Photograph omitted)