More than a cartoon: What Jews talk about when they talk about antisemitism


The Gerald Scarfe Sunday Times cartoon controversy has followed a familiar pattern, with some arguing that the depiction of the bloody trowel wielding Israeli Prime Minister torturing innocent souls – published on Holocaust Memorial Day – evoked the classic antisemitic blood libel, while others (including Guardian contributors and cartoonists) dissented, claiming that Scarfe had no racist intent and was merely critiquing the policies of a head of state who happened to be a Jew.

In response to some who have noted, in Scarfe’s defense, that he had previously depicted Syria’s Assad using a similar blood motif, Stephen Pollard of The JC aptly noted: “But there’s never been an anti-Alawite blood libel, and the context matters. The blood libel is central to the history of antisemitism.”

Though Scarfe may have indeed possessed no antisemitic intent whatsoever, Pollard is stressing that the effect of the cartoon simply can’t be ignored, and that historical context matters.

When we talk about antisemitism at the Guardian and ‘Comment is Free’ on this blog we’re not claiming to possess some sort of political mentalism – a piercing moral intuition which grants us access to the souls of their journalists and contributors.  Similarly, we’re not suggesting that we can ever tell with any degree of certainty that, when we argue that criticism of Israel crosses the line to antisemitism, the writer who’s the focus of our ire is necessarily haunted by dark Judeophobic thoughts.

Rather, many of us who talk seriously about antisemitism are skilled at identifying common tropes, narratives and graphic depictions of Jews which are based on prejudices, stereotypes and mythology and which have historically been employed by those who have engaged in cognitive or physical war against Jews.

Though I’m now an Israeli, an apt analogy on the moral necessity of understanding and being sensitive about the racist context of seemingly benign ideas can be derived from my experience growing up in America.

Those who grew up in the US and inherited not the guilt but the moral legacy of slavery and segregation intuitively understand that we owe African-Americans an earnest commitment to strenuously avoid employing the linguistic, cultural and political currency of racism’s tyrannical reign.  Though race relations have matured immeasurably by any standard, and codified bigotry all but eliminated, there are, nonetheless, unwritten prohibitions against language which, even though often unintended, hearkens back to the past, evoking the haunting memory of the nation’s past sins.

In America, comedians avoid black-face routines, in which white performers create a stereotyped caricature of a black person.  A mainstream newspaper wouldn’t publish a cartoon depicting an African-American as lazy and shiftless, nor would any publication present a black public figure (in any context) as  a boot licking  ‘Uncle Tom.  And, someone using the N-word (in public or private) would be rightfully socially ostracized or at least stigmatized as crude racist.

Such political taboos in America have developed organically over time in response to a quite particular historical chapter, and are recognized by most as something akin to an unwritten social contract on the issue of race.  White Americans can not ever fully understand black pain, the learned cognitive responses from their collective consciousness, but it is reasonable of them to expect that we not recklessly tread, even if without malice, on their sacred shared memory.  

Further, whites who honor this implied covenant – and avoid evoking such narratives and imagery – by and large don’t bemoan the so-called “restrictions” placed on their artistic or intellectual expression, or complain that African-Americans are stifling their free speech.  Rather, such unwritten rules, social mores and ethical norms about race are typically understood to represent something akin to a moral restitution for a previous generation’s crimes.  While in the US, the First Amendment affords legal protection to those who would engage in anti-black hate speech, it is largely understood that responsible citizenship often requires self-restraint – the greatness of a people measured by what they are permitted to do, but decide not to in order to preserve national harmony, what’s known in Judaism as Shalom bayit.  

When Jews talk seriously about antisemitism they are asking those who don’t wish to be so morally implicated to avoid needlessly poisoning the political environment which Jews inhabit.

They are appealing to the better angels of their neighbors’ nature by asking them not to carelessly conjure calumnies such as the “danger” to the world of Jewish power or conspiracies , Jews’ “disloyalty” to the countries where they live, that Jews share collective guilt for the sins of a few, that they’ve come to morally resemble their Nazi persecutors, or that Jews intentionally spill the blood of innocents.

In short, we are asking that decent people avoid employing canards which represented the major themes in Europe’s historic persecution of Jews, and which, tragically, still have currency on the extreme left, the extreme right, and, especially, in much of the Arab and Muslim world today.

The Scarfe/Sunday Times row is about more than the cartoon itself, and it is certainly not about the “right” to offend. It’s about sober but passionate pleas by a minuscule minority that decent people not afflict the historically afflicted, and to recognize their moral obligations to not provide aid and comfort to anti-Jewish racists.  

We are asking genuine anti-racists to resist becoming, even if unintentionally, intellectual partners or political fellow travelers with those who trade in the lethal narratives and toxic calumnies associated with the resilient Judeophobic hatred which has caused us immeasurable pain, horrid suffering and indescribable calamities through the ages. 

50 comments on “More than a cartoon: What Jews talk about when they talk about antisemitism

  1. The unconscious, projected hatred in Scarfe’s cartoon is pernicious because it falls on fertile ground now, and it is not available to his own consciousness otherwise he would not have done it.

    And as for “..They are appealing to the better angels of their neighbors’ nature by asking them not to carelessly conjure calumnies such as the “danger” to the world of Jewish power or conspiracies..” that may well be the case but it is wasted effort. One cannot reason with deluded conspiracy theorists of this type, or indeed with conspiracy theorists at all, as I have written elsewhere here. Far too much of their emotional energy is invested in “proving” that their delusions are true.

    • Interesting, Mitnaged, but I would raise doubts about the hatred in Scarfe’s cartoon being unavailable to his consciousness. I believe he meant to draw what he did, that he planned it for the effect it had, otherwise he would have apologised immediately for the fact that he had done it, for the offence it caused, and not only for his appalling lack of sensitivity.

      No, the mainstream media, with very few exceptions and led by the likes of the Guardian which, after all, has admitted that its antisemitism is problematic to it, has made such Jew-hatred acceptable by lowering the barriers of constraint so that it becomes possible without the widespread censure it might have been met with formerly.

    • Blood libel is based on the antisemitic, Christian rumor that Jews were killing gentile newborns and using their blood for religious rituals.

      There is not a single child in Scarfe’s cartoon.

  2. “[Scarfe] had previously depicted Syria’s Assad using a similar blood motif …”

    Read it and weep, trollster Nat …

    • After I posted four times that CIF Watch deliberately ignored this information, Mr Levick got the message at last. Read it and weep, Pretz.

      • http://cifwatch.com/2013/01/29/a-place-where-guardian-cartoonist-steve-bell-can-find-real-antisemitism/
        Said CiFW article included this quote: “it’s sort of like a mirror image of the cartoon Scarfe did the week before … President Assad clutching the head of a baby”

        Nat’s opening comment on the thread below that very article?
        “What CIF Watch forgot to tell: Scarfe often makes use of images of blood in his cartoons … a recent cartoon of the Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad … CIF Watch did not mention it”.

        Classic trolling.

          • Please do explain.

            And how about reflecting on making an utter fool of yourself? You’ve been ‘ad.

            • Pretzel to Nat: “how about reflecting on making an utter fool of yourself?”

              Pretzel, that’s not possible. Nat’s sole purpose for being here is self-aggrandisement and flattery. Making a fool of herself ain’t on this particular delusional menu, no matter how much you make her eat her own hypocritical shit.

        • Pretzel do you really think that Nat could explain anything with his under the room temperature (measured in Celsius) IQ?

  3. Pingback: The CST » Blog Archive » More than a cartoon: What Jews are talking about when they talk about antisemitism

  4. More than a cartoon, what people like Scarfe are thinking about when they talk about Israel:

    To have come up with that cartoon, Scarfe must believe in the Nazi type propaganda by the media, Islamists and politicians and see the Jewish state of Israel as perpetrating the most heinous crimes against humanity. That to me is the real worry. This image of Israel as a Nazi state and Gaza as a concentration camp inversion of reality gives anti-Semitism the credence that some lefties, fascists and Islamist crave. As I’ve said in my previous comment, many Westerners (including no doubt Scarfe) believe 9/11 and other terrorist activities and Jew hate happen because of Israel and its treatment of Palestinians, whereas in reality, Muslim Jew hatred dates back to the time of Mohammad and has nothing to do with the modern I/P issue. No matter what the lefty progressives think, even if Israel did not exist today, the hate filled religious texts of Islam, like it has done for centuries past, would still be read and acted upon in the Muslim world (and also now in the West). People identify with the history and suffering of African Americans in a way that they don’t with the history and suffering of Jews. Blacks are seen as victims, Jews are seen as enslavers and evil. This is the thinking behind Scarf’s cartoon and no doubt previously behind Goebbles’ efforts too.

    • I don’t want to be an apologist for Scarfe or others like him, far from it, but the imagery in Nazi type propaganda is in a sense universal when it comes to demonising. You or I cannot know that Scarfe looked at a cartoon from the ME or the Nazi era and that gave him the offensive ideas. What we can know is that the current climate in UK society has made such offence acceptable (except towards Islam or Muslims) because of the role of the media such as the BBC and the Guardian in normalising Jew-hatred in public discourse. This has taken the brakes off, so to speak. Of course Islamists and allegedly pro-Palestinian (but in actuality anti-Israel) machinators feed into it and off it and all their input feeds the Jew-hating beast and helps it grow.

      No, where Scarfe is culpable is by being apparently unaware of the deep offence he would cause and refusing to apologise for it. He holds that in common with the distinctly smelly Steve Bell who is very likely to have plagiarised at least one of his cartoons about Israel from Stormfront – which very strongly suggests that he visited the page and thought what he plagiarised to be a “good cartoon”.

    • June, seriously, you have no diead what you’re talking about.

      “Muslim Jew hatred dates back to the time of Mohammad”

      This is inacurrate. Antisemitism is a Christian tradition fueled by the ridiculous idea that “Jews killed Christ” and by the competition between Judaism and Christianity after Christians became a separate religion, many centuries ago.

      Jews have lived in Muslim societies for centuries and centuries. Not only were they safe in these societies, but they were protected from Christian persecution in countries like Spain. Antisemitism is a Western, Christian invention.

      • One thing still keeps me baffled:
        That you, a disgusting, paid, huckster and brabbler gets to tell others that they “have no idea what [they] are talking about…
        It gets a laugh out of me, let me tell you.
        For those of you reading this, who are not trolls(“Nat”, this is therefore not for you), consider this:
        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Islam_and_anti-Semitism
        Shocking, and obviously revolting hatred conceived in Islam’s holy texts, which leaves little room for any toleration or mitigation;
        Notably, this passage from the Hadith:

        “The Day of Judgement will not come about until Muslims fight the Jews , when the Jew will hide behind stones and trees. The stones and trees will say O Muslims, O Abdullah, there is a Jew behind me, come and kill him. Only the Gharkad tree, (a certain kind of tree) would not do that because it is one of the trees of the Jews.”

        • 101, you seem to be intellectually unable to articulate your thoughts. As a result, instead of engaging in a respectful debate, you shout and insult people who dont agree with you as if you were a 109-year old child.

          That’s quite entertaining.

          • Ha! It would appear — pathetic, formulaic attempts at ridicule on your part aside(seriously, can’t you come up with something a tad more original? You’re paid, after all; earn it!), that you clearly can’t read(!):
            How in the world could you miss this?


            For those of you reading this, who are not trolls(“Nat”, this is therefore not for you)…

            Run along now, troll.

      • “June, seriously, you have no diead”

        Dear ‘Nat’ I don’t have one of those either.
        Where can I get one of these ‘diead’ from?
        Are they expensive?
        Do you have to feed them peanuts, as your organ grinder does with you?

      • Absolute revisionist garbage Nat. Are you completely unaware of the aprtheid systemof dhimmitude, in which Jews were forbidden to travel, were restricted to what jobs they could do, and had to pay jizya? Oh, and the odd pogrom.

        You are an apologist for these crimes Nat – it is shameful.

        • Dear Adam, we will strive to defend democracy in Israel and in the USA against hard right wing nutcases who want to impose their extremist ideology.

          The recent elections in Israel were a good reminder that racist far right wing nuts will not be allowed to succeed – Israeli citizens will no let fascist extremists who preach hatred of Islam and Christianity destroy Israel, and they will not let them defame Jewish values. In the same manner, American citizens will not let racist nutcases defame American values of equality, justice and tolerance.

          The likes of terrorists Yigal Amir or Baruch Goldstein will not be allowed to succeed. They belong to the garbage cans of history.

          • “we will strive to defend democracy in Israel and in the USA”

            Dear ‘Nat’ “we” being who exactly?

            • We = the overwhelming majority of citizens of Israel who want the country to remain a democracy, and who will not let a handful of far right-wing, self-hating Jewish extremists preach religious and racial hatred in the country. The likes of Yigal Amir and Baruch Goldstein are bound to fail.

                • Gerald, a clear majority of Israeli citizens support the two-state solution. Hard right wing movements who preach hatred of other peoples and countries are counter-productive. It is not hatred that has allowed Israel to have peace with Jordan, but mutual understanding. This is what we must all strive for.

        • Adam, seriously, you have no idea what you’re talking about.

          “Muslim Jew hatred dates back to the time of Mohammad”

          This is inaccurate. Antisemitism is a Christian tradition fueled by the ridiculous idea that “Jews killed Christ” and by the competition between Judaism and Christianity after Christians became a separate religion, many centuries ago.

          Jews have lived in Muslim societies for centuries and centuries. Not only were they safe in these societies, but they were protected from Christian persecution in countries like Spain. Antisemitism is a Western, Christian invention.

          • Not only were they safe in these societies, but they were protected from Christian persecution in countries like Spain.

            Yes … but only to a certain degree – and this was centuries ago.

            Antisemitism is a Western, Christian invention.
            Jew-hatred undeniably exists in the contemporary Muslim world – and its origins have bollock all to do with the Christian precedent.

            • I wonder whether Mr Levick is aware that the horrors of the Holocaust were carried out by Christian Europeans, not by Muslim Arabs?

            • Antisemitism is definitely an issue in some Middle-Eastern countries today, but it’s inaccurate to write that Muslim antisemitism has existed for centuries. Antisemitism is a Christian phenomenon, fueled by the sick, absurd idea that “Jews killed Christ”. This is all the more ridiculous that the Bible clearly says that he was executed by the Romans, who were ruling over the Jewish kingdoms at the time.

              • What was the Granda Massacre of Jews then?!
                An instance of Muslim love?!
                What do those verses of the Hadith, quote below connote?
                AND WHY are you trolling on a month-old thread?!
                You’re a disgusting, violence-exculpating revolting Dutch troll.
                Piss off.

          • “they were protected from Christian persecution in countries like Spain.”

            Dear ‘Nat’ are you unaware of the massacre of the Jewish population of Granada in 1066?
            Dear ‘Nat’ they were massacred by local Muslims, an estimated 5,000.
            Dear ‘Nat’ have you forgotten, if you ever knew, that parts of Spain used to be under Muslim occupation until it was freed from their yoke.

            • Jewish communities lived peacefully under the Muslim rulers of Granada until the Christian “reconquista” which thrills you, Gerald. Catholic Spain forced the Jews to convert under threat of expulsion or even execution, calling them Marranos (meaning “pigs” in Spanish).

              You have strange friends, Gerald.

  5. The majority of Guardian readers, predictably, are siding with Scarfe, Bell and Co. in declarin the Sunday Times cartoon not antisemitic, and can be seen by the mainly disturbing comments underneath the following article (I couldn’t read through all of them, as they mad me feel sick):
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2013/jan/29/is-the-sunday-times-cartoon-antisemitic
    Arguing their point they resort to the same kind of anti-Israeli/antisemitic language and imagery employed by these cartoonists. They lack even the remotest kind of empathy for Jewish people who felt attacked by this kind of Stuermer-like propaganda – published callously by the Times on Holocaust Rememberance Day. – This kind of openly displayed hatred of Israel, as showing in those comments, shockingly has indeed become mainstream opinion among the readers of an ostensible ‘progressive’ paper. The so-called mainstream media. like the Guardian, the BBC, the Times (and their equivalents in other countries) have made it acceptable to think and talk in these terms, consciously shaping public opinion to make anti-Israel-hatred (what they term ‘criticism’ – which it ain’t, as it lacks any kind of reason, restraint or proportionality) appear the ‘norm’ in large parts of Western society. What a disgrace.

    • The majority of Guardian readers are not on CIF, Lisa.
      You are right about anti-Israel and anti-semitic opinions, however.
      We should remember that this poisonous climate has specific repercussions as we saw last March in Toulouse ( Mohammed Merah murdering innocent Jewish schoolchildren ).

    • Lisa, this cartoon did not attack “the Jewish people”, it attacked Benyamin Netanyahu’s support to the expansion of illegal settlements in the Palestinian territory.

      Netanyahu is an Israei, right-wing politician, not a Jewish symbol.

        • Benyamin Netanyahu is a secular politician who is the Prime Minister of the state of Israel.

          Mr Netanyahu is not, and never will be a Jewish symbol.

          You wouldn’t dare tell your rabbi that Bibi is a Jewish symbol, SerJew. He’d not talk to you again.

        • I disagree with you Mr Levick, I don’t see antisemitic imagery here. This drawing of Netanyahu looks pretty much like Scarfe’s cartoons of other world leaders.

          Please have a look at the cartoon he drew of Assad, where you see the Syrian leader drinking the blood of a baby – I guess you won’t say that it is “antisemitic imagery”?

          That said, I fully agree that publishing this cartoon on Holocaust Memorial Day is bad taste and improper.

    • Arguing their point they resort to the same kind of anti-Israeli/antisemitic language and imagery employed by these cartoonists.

      Anti-Semitic language? Really? What kind of proportion of BTL people are you referring to?

      The majority of Guardian readers, predictably, are siding with Scarfe, Bell and Co. in declarin the Sunday Times cartoon not antisemitic

      What a load of nonsense.
      The vast majority of Guardian readers will not have even commented on – will not be even aware of – the thread you link to!

      Look at the following thread:
      http://cifwatch.com/2013/01/16/not-banned-by-the-guardian-white-nationalist-crusader-against-the-holohoax/

      By your logic, one could conclude that a fair proportion of “CiFWatch readers” are neo-Nazis.

      Stop the pathetic slurs against the Guardian and its readers, please.

      And why do others here agree with nonsense they must know to be patently untrue?

  6. Adam, I agree with the many fine points of your post. I’ll offer not so much a dissent – I do agree – but a sidelight on the U.S. black racism analogy. A significant exception arose with the election of Barack Obama. It may have been only Rush LImbaugh who referred to him as “Barack the Magic Negro” and who said if Obama were not black he would have been tour guide in Honolulu. It may have been only a small number of racist Tea Party demonstrators who depicted Obama as a witch doctor with a bone through his nose, and in other stereotypically derogatory images, but it was countless American conservatives who refused to acknowledge these acts as racist.

    What we are all talking about here is how pervasive is a similar blindness on the Western left to anti-Semitism. Of course, they are not identical phenomenon – they have their unique histories and manifestations. But there are insights to be had by examining, where they are present, the blind left eye and right one that resemble each other and cannot see each other.

    • Hi Jay,

      Based on our previous conversations I think its safe to say that we respectfully disagree on the level of anti-black racism in American society, but I think I’ll defer on getting into a debate about that subject on this forum.

      However, I will say that you rarely if ever hear mainstream voices in America complain because certain epithets, negative cultural stereotypes and other forms of abuse against African Americans are socially unacceptable the way I increasingly hear such complaints in the US, Europe and elsewhere about what you “can” and “can’t” say about Jews.

      It strains credulity to imagine the NYT, for instance, running a cartoon of Obama which evokes racist depictions of blacks in a manner similar to the way the Guardian’s Steve Bell evoked classic antisemitic notions of all powerful Jews when he depicted Bibi controlling Blair and Hague like puppets.

      My use of the American black context (however imperfect) was meant to illustrate a point that I know we agree on: that certain cultural taboos against degrading historically persecuted minorities are in fact healthy for a liberal society.

      Thanks as always for your comments.

      • Hang on.

        Which mainstream voices in the US, Europe and elsewhere complain because certain epithets, negative cultural stereotypes and other forms of abuse against Jews are socially unacceptable?

    • but it was countless American conservatives who refused to acknowledge these acts as racist.
      Because countless American conservatives are themselves racist.

  7. Just to be clear, I agree with all of your response, and this below is exactly right.

    “However, I will say that you rarely if ever hear mainstream voices in America complain because certain epithets, negative cultural stereotypes and other forms of abuse against African Americans are socially unacceptable the way I increasingly hear such complaints in the US, Europe and elsewhere about what you “can” and “can’t” say about Jews.

    It strains credulity to imagine the NYT, for instance, running a cartoon of Obama which evokes racist depictions of blacks in a manner similar to the way the Guardian’s Steve Bell evoked classic antisemitic notions of all powerful Jews when he depicted Bibi controlling Blair and Hague like puppets.”

    Anti-Semitism is now becoming mainstreamed and challenged as genuine in its various manifestations in a manner that no other racism is.

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