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Drawing the line: cartoons and antisemitism

See also Pictorial guide to antisemitism and its abuse
UPDATED: This posting has a number of cartoons, starting with Gerald Scarfe’s,  and these items:
1) Martin Rowson: Scarfe’s Netanyahu cartoon was offensive? That’s the point;
2) Bell, Rowson, Latuff, other cartoons denounced as antisemitic;
3) Anshel Pfeffer: Four reasons why U.K. cartoon of Netanyahu isn’t anti-Semitic in any way;
4) Left Futures: Shame on the Board of Deputies of British Jews for marring Holocaust day with a false accusation of antisemitism;
5) Richard Silverstein: Scarfe’s Israeli Election Cartoon Grotesque and Offensive, Just Like Israeli Occupation
6) Rachel Shabi: Criticize Israel – but without the vile and offensive cartoons
7) Latuff: Anti-Zionism is NOT anti-semitism;
8] Ian Black: Cartoon symbols of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict review of 2006 exhibition;

Cartoon by Gerald Scarfe for which Rupert Murdoch apologised after the Board of Deputies denounced it as antisemitic

Scarfe’s Netanyahu cartoon was offensive? That’s the point

The fact that Murdoch felt the need to apologise for Gerald Scarfe’s cartoon demonstrates the form’s enduring power

Martin Rowson, The Guardian,
January 29, 2013

I greeted news of Rupert Murdoch’s apology for an allegedly antisemitic cartoon by Gerald Scarfe in the Sunday Times with a sigh of deep weariness. But before we get up to our oxters in the guts of my foul craft, let’s pick some of the bones out of this latest scandal. Note, first, that Murdoch’s apology was to Binyamin Netanyahu personally, as one member of the global elite showing solidarity to another. Remember, also, that Bibi is a favourite posterboy for Murdoch’s brand of neo-conservative cheerleading.


Gerald Scarfe’s ‘I saw a baby die today’, a depiction of Bashar al Assad guzzling babies’ blood. No complaints or apologies.

As to Scarfe’s cartoon specifically, it seems to me almost identical to every other blood-spattered pictorial lament for man’s inhumanity to man he’s knocked out over the past 40 years. Except in this case, because of the subject matter and the timing – on Holocaust memorial day – the trademark Scarfean gore could, if you chose, have wider ramifications. And so it has proved.

If, like me and other cartoonists, you’ve produced cartoons critical of the actions of the state of Israel and then received thousands of emails, most of which read “Fuck off you antisemitic cunt”, you tend to get a bit jaded. But over the years I’ve received similar responses – and worse, including death threats – from Muslims, Catholics, US Republicans, US Democrats, Serbs, atheists and the obese, as well as from supporters of Israel. After a while, the uniformity of the response can tempt you into thinking that this is all contrived and orchestrated, and certainly a lot of it is.

But then again, you may know that the standard complaint – “This is the most disgracefully antisemitic cartoon to be published since the closure of Der Stürmer” – can only be made because Julius Streicher’s foul Nazi rag regularly published the vilest antisemitic cartoons imaginable, which prepared the ground for and then cheered on the greatest crime in human history. In the long shadow of the Holocaust, perhaps it’s just about understandable – if not forgivable – that each time I drew Ariel Sharon, a fat man with a big nose, as being fat and having a big nose, it was therefore considered reasonable for me to be equated with mass murderers.

The responses, though, probably have more to do with the nature of the medium than its content. Visual satire is a dark, primitive magic. On top of the universal propensity to laugh at those in power over us, cartoons add something else: the capacity to capture someone’s likeness, recreate them through caricature, and thereby take control of them. This is voodoo – though the sharp instrument with which you damage your victim at a distance is a pen. None of this is benign. It’s meant to ridicule and demean, and almost all political cartooning is assassination without the blood.

But add to that the way we consume this stuff and you get the perfect recipe for offence. In newspapers, cartoons squat like gargoyles on top of the columns, and while you nibble your way through the columnists’ prose for several minutes, you swallow the cartoon whole in seconds. The internet has also changed things. British cartoonists find their work being consumed, via the web, by people in nations who haven’t had more than 300 years of rude portrayals of the elite.

When Steve Bell and I first had our cartoons for the Guardian published online, many Americans would recoil in horror at our depictions of their president. Steve and I got many emails pointing out that Bush was their head of state, deserved some respect, and then asked if we’d ever depict our royal family in the same disgraceful way.

At that point, of course, you pull back the curtain on Gillray’s depictions of George III shitting on the French fleet. Indeed, in the mid-1780s, the French ambassador warned Versailles that Britain was teetering on the verge of another revolution, 150 years after they’d last cut off their king’s head. His evidence? The kiosks stretching down the Strand, all selling satirical prints depicting the royals in the most disrespectful and disgusting ways imaginable.

That he was wholly wrong should, perhaps, give the armies of the offended pause, even if other cartoons – like the filth in Der Stürmer – have misused the voodoo.

You need, in the end, to apply the simple acid test for satire – as well as journalism: does it comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable? True, the Nazis used cartoons, but so has everyone else, from Stalin’s Soviet Union to Iran today.

Iran countered the Danish Mohammed cartoons with their own joking about the Holocaust. But that’s not satire, because state-sponsored satire is the ultimate oxymoron.

And speaking of Nazis, Hitler was a huge fan of the Evening Standard’s David Low. The Express cartoonist Carl Giles, then a war cartoonist, was given a Luger as a souvenir by the Commandant of Belsen after its liberation because the man was a huge fan of his cartoons. Of course, after Hitler got into power and Low started, beautifully, to take the piss, Low, along with his cartooning colleagues Illingworth, Vicky and even Heath Robinson, was placed on the Gestapo’s deathlist. (In fact, Vicky got it from all directions: a cartoon for Beaverbrook’s Evening Standard in the 1950s calling for the abolition of the death penalty so enraged a doctor in Harrow that he wrote to the paper lamenting the fact that Vicky and his family managed to escape from Nazi Germany 25 years earlier.)

Which gets us back to Scarfe. As the Israeli paper Haaretz has already observed (arguing the cartoon isn’t antisemitic at all), if Scarfe had spent the last 50 years solely offending Israel, his critics might have a point. The fact is, he, like the rest of us, is there to offend everyone.




Martin Rowson’s cartoon of the Israeli attack on Lebanon. Tom Gross, in his webpage of anti-Israel cartoons, had this caption: “Once liberal British newspaper, The Guardian, has, like much other coverage of Israel in the British media, a virulence which is hard to distinguish from outright anti-Semitism. This cartoon by Martin Rowson (July 19, 2006) is arguably anti-Semitic. Here Stars of David are being used as knuckle dusters on a bloody fist to both punch a young boy and to crush George Bush, the American president.”


Steve Bell’s cartoon of Netanyahu during Operation Pillar of Defense, suggesting he was manipulating William Hague and Tony Blair caused a similar set of loud complaints that it was antisemitic



Cartoon by Carlos Latuff depicting Israel’s winning of the right to host a UEFA tournament.  Many of his cartoons are effective critiques of Israeli policies (see Top analyst from CIA compares apartheid in Israel and South Africa) but of the cartoonists who have been condemned as antisemitic,  we at JfJfP postings think Latuff is the one who strays over the line; he uses the Star of David (all Jews) as a symbol of Israeli militarism and makes frequent equations between the Holocaust and Israel’s oppression of the Palestinians (images intended as an offensive reproach to Israelis that they, as descendants of Holocaust victims, should have learned the lesson of where racism and ignoring the rule of law leads.) However, such a point fails to grasp the reality of what actually happened during the Holocaust or Shoah. 



Four reasons why U.K. cartoon of Netanyahu isn’t anti-Semitic in any way

Netanyahu’s depiction is grossly offensive and unfair but that is only par for the course for any politician when cartoonist Scarfe is at his drawing-board.

By Anshel Pfeffer, Ha’aretz
January 28, 2013

A cartoon that appeared in this London’s Sunday Times this week depicting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu building a wall with blood-red colored cement, trapping in between the bricks Palestinian-looking figures, is causing the latest is-it-or-is-it-not-anti-Semitism furor.

The usual suspects have all weighed in: the Anti-Defamation League, the Board of Deputies of British Jews, and Israel’s ambassador to the United Kingdom, clamoring for the venerable cartoonist Gerald Scarfe’s head and asking how the pro-Israel Sunday Time’s proprietor, Rupert Murdoch, could allow such a travesty.

The accusation is straightforward enough. Scarfe’s drawing is classic anti-Semitism using typical motifs of Judeophobia, and is doubly hateful for having appeared on international Holocaust Remembrance Day.

It is hard to argue that 68 years after the liberation of Auschwitz, the hatred of Jews has disappeared from the civilized nations of western Europe, but there are more than enough real manifestations of racism and xenophobia, directed at Jews and other religious and ethnic groups in Britain and the rest of the continent, for us to be spending our efforts confronting. Pillorying Scarfe and his cartoon cheapens a noble cause, as this was not anti-Semitic by any standard. Here are four reasons why.

1. It is not directed at Jews: There is absolutely nothing in the cartoon which identifies its subject as a Jew. No Star of David or kippa, and though some commentators have claimed Netanyahu’s nose in the cartoon is over-sized, at most this is in line with Scarfe’s style (and that of cartoonists) of slightly exaggerating physical features. Jew-noses are prevalent in truly anti-Semitic cartoons that routinely appear in Arab newspapers – you can find them easily on the web. They are big, bulbous and hooked snouts, and look nothing like Netanyahu’s nose a-la-Scarfe. Furthermore, Netanyahu is an Israeli politician who was just elected by a quarter of Israeli voters, not a Jewish symbol or a global representative of the Jews.

2. It does not use Holocaust imagery: It has become generally accepted – justifiably I think – that comparing Israel’s leaders and policies to those of the Third Reich is borderline, if not full-on anti-Semitism. Not only because there is no comparable genocide in human history, but because choosing it to describe the actions of the Jewish state is a nasty slur identifying Israelis as the successors of the Holocaust’s victims turned into perpetrators of a second Holocaust. But there is nothing in Scarfe’s cartoon that can put the Holocaust in mind. Perhaps someone thinks that the wall should remind us of the ghetto, but don’t forget, Scarfe is the original designer of Pink Floyd’s The Wall. Should the Sunday Times have not published the cartoon on International Holocaust Memorial Day? Only if one believes that is a day in which Israeli politicians have immunity from being caricatured. Such a belief would certainly cheapen the memory of the Shoah. The Sunday Times, as it names indicates, appears only on Sundays and this was the end of elections week in Israel – when else did you expect them to feature a cartoon of Netanyahu?

3. There was no discrimination: If Gerald Scarfe had been a benign and gentle artist, treating the subjects of his cartoons with due respect and reverence, sharpening his pencil only on Israeli and Jewish figures, there would be grounds here for assuming he was tainted by the most ancient of hatreds. Anyone who has had even a casual glance at Scarfe’s oeuvre of over half a century knows that is not the case. Netanyahu’s depiction is grossly offensive and unfair, but that is only par for the course for any politician when Scarfe is at his drawing-board. Scarfe has spent his entire career viciously lampooning the high and mighty – Netanyahu is in illustrious company.

4. This is not what a blood libel looks like: Some have claimed that the blood-red cement Netanyahu is using in the cartoon to build his wall indicates a blood libel motif. Well of course it’s blood but is anyone seriously demanding that no cartoon reference to Israeli or Jewish figures can contain a red fluid? The classic European blood libel, like many other classic European creations, had a strict set of images which must always contain a cherubic gentile child sacrificed by those perfidious Jews, his blood to be used for ritual purposes. It was a direct continuation of the Christ-killer myth. Scarfe’s cartoon has blood-cement but no blood libel components – it almost seems he was careful not to include any small children among his Palestinian figures (one of the eight is arguably an adolescent) so as not to have any sort of libel scenery. The blood libel was a terrible feature of Jewish life in Europe up until the beginning of the 20th century, and the myth still occasionally emerges from between the cracks in some East European backwaters to this day. To ascribe Scarfe’s cartoon with any of its features distorts another chapter of Jewish history.



Shame on the Board of Deputies of British Jews for marring Holocaust day with a false accusation of antisemitism

By Left Futures
January 2013

The Board of Deputies of British Jews has shamed itself and marred International Holocaust Day with a false accusation of antisemitism that does a disservice to the memory of the six million Jews who perished, and indeed to Jews in Britain and elsewhere who face genuine antisemitic attacks.

The Board of Deputies yesterday lodged a complaint with the Press Complaints Commission at a cartoon by Gerald Scarfe in yesterday’s Sunday Times, which it claims:

depicts Benjamin Netanyahu bricking up Palestinians and using blood for mortar, which is shockingly reminiscent of the blood libel imagery more usually found in parts of the virulently antisemitic Arab press (sic – our emphasis).

The Sunday Times denied that the cartoon was antisemitic, describing Scarfe’s imagery as “typically robust“, and added:

It is aimed squarely at Mr Netanyahu and his policies, not at Israel, let alone at Jewish people. It appeared yesterday because Mr Netanyahu won the Israeli election last week.

The Israeli liberal daily, Haaretz, today published a detailed explanation of why the cartoon is not anti-semitic:

It is not directed at Jews: there is no Jewish imagery whatever in the cartoon, and Netanyahu is an Israeli politician not a representative of world jewry;
It does not use Holocaust or Nazi imagery
There was no discrimination: it is entirely in keeping with the rest of Scarfe’s imagery which, whilst always robust, does not specifically target Jews or even Israel in any way;
This is not what a blood libel looks like: although there is allusion to blood in the red cement, there none of the usual blood-libel imagery found in traditional and even modern antisemitic cartoon.

Haaretz adds:

It is hard to argue that 68 years after the liberation of Auschwitz, the hatred of Jews has disappeared from the civilized nations of western Europe, but there are more than enough real manifestations of racism and xenophobia, directed at Jews and other religious and ethnic groups in Britain and the rest of the continent, for us to be spending our efforts confronting. Pillorying Scarfe and his cartoon cheapens a noble cause, as this was not anti-Semitic by any standard.

Those who campaign in support of Palestinian rights are used to false accusations of antisemitism or, in the case of Jews, “self-hatred”. These false accusations, designed to silence critics of Israeli policy and damage the reputation of Palestinian supporters, serve only to undermine criticism of genuine antisemitism (including when it occurs on the Left or in pro-Palestinian circles), or indeed of il-considered and thoughtless remarks such as those of David Ward MP.

The Board of Deputies (together with the Anti-Defamation League and Israel’s ambassador to the United Kingdom) also claimed that the cartoon was “all the more disgusting on Holocaust Memorial Day, given the similar tropes levelled against Jews by the Nazis“. By doing so it is the Board of Deputies and not the Sunday Times that is guilty of a crime against the memory of those who died in the Shoah.

The Chief Rabbi was sensibly more restrained in his criticism of the Sunday Times. He did not accuse them of antiseitism. However, according to the Jewish Chronicle, he said that

regardless of the intention, the danger of publishing this type of cartoon on Holocaust Memorial Day in a respected national newspaper was that such images “reinforce a great slander of our time: that Jews, victims of the Holocaust, are now perpetrators of a similar crime.

I accept that analogies are increasingly drawn between Israeli policy and that of the Nazis (including by many Israeli politicians), and that such analogies are best avoided. However, it is simply not the case that it is widely alleged (as would be necessary to create the “great slander of our time” which the Chief Rabbi alleges) that Israelis (never mind Jews) are perpetrators of a crime similar to the Holocaust. And especially not in this cartoon.



Scarfe’s Israeli Election Cartoon Grotesque and Offensive, Just Like Israeli Occupation

By Richard Silverstein, Tikun Olam
January 1, 2013

Rupert Murdoch has opened up a can of worms by attacking the award-winning cartoonist for his flagship Sunday Times, Gerald Scarfe. Murdoch called “grotesque and offensive” a cartoon called “Israeli election: will cementing peace continue?” It depicts a brutish Bibi Netanyahu as bricklayer building the Separation Wall with the blood of Palestinian victims who are entombed within it.

First, let’s set the record straight: the cartoon is grotesque and offensive. But so is the Occupation. I would maintain that despite the jarring, horrific emotions it instills in the reader, it is within the tradition of the great cartoonists from Thomas Nast to Honore Daumier. Revisit some of their cartoons and how they depicted Boss Tweed and the villains of their era. They made them out to be porcine brutes swilling on the blood, sweat and tears of their victims.

Now let’s address the accusation of blood libel made by pro-Israel standard bearers like Stephen Pollard of the Jewish Chronicle. The charge is nonsense and based on a total misapprehension of Jewish history. The traditional blood libel involved accusing Jews of drinking the blood of Christians or baking the blood of a child into Passover matzo. This is a classic anti-Semitic trope which had no basis in reality. Rather, it was a fraudulent charge meant to justify baseless hatred of Jews.

Let’s examine the record of Bibi Netanyahu. Have his decisions not caused the gruesome deaths of Palestinians, both young and old? Has he not enthusiastically endorsed building not just the West Bank Wall but a new wall to insulate Israel from African refugees fleeing oppression in their homelands? Is there no validity to Scarfe’s view that the Israeli elections will only ratify this murderous status quo as far as Palestinians are concerned?

So is Scarfe’s image repulsive. Is it deeply troubling? Does it paint Israel and its leader in the most repellant light? Yes it does. Will it cause viewers to hate Israel any more than they might already? Will it provoke acts of anti-Semitism?

These questions are formulated backwards. The real question is will Bibi’s murderous acts not provoke such hatred toward Israel and Jews? It is these which are most offensive. Scarfe is merely doing his job as artist to reflect the horrifying reality of Israeli Occupation.

Israel, if you don’t like what you see in this cartoon you can do something about it. Don’t call the Times of London. Don’t ask for Scarfe’s head on a platter. End the Occupation. End the killing of children as happened in Gaza recently when a Netanyahu-ordered bloodbath killed 180, mostly civilians.

Another factor worth considering is that the cartoon was published on Yom HaShoah. This of course offends the pro-Israel crowd to no end. It supposedly indicates a Jewicidal impulse in Scarfe. Or it means he’s promoting pogroms against the world’s Jews by pointing out Israel’s sins. The truth of the matter is that most of the world doesn’t know on what date Yom HaShoah falls. Most editors don’t check their calendars to make sure they don’t criticize Israel on this day. I know that Holocaust-obsessed pro-Israel Jews find it convenient to drum up the Holocaust when it suits their political purposes. These are the same people who hardly care about actual Holocaust survivors like the ones whose welfare Bibi’s government is abandoning in Israel.

Stop abusing the Holocaust for political advantage. It’s repugnant and offensive to the memory of the 6-million and the few survivors who remain. Before you attack me for this sentiment you’ll have to attack the survivors themselves who’ve adopted this viewpoint. And before you tar and feather me in the comment threads, calling me a heartless Holocaust denier, go back and search through this blog for my own posts about the Holocaust. I will not allow anyone here to question my bona fides on that score.

Prominent Jewish cartoonist, Eli Valley, writing at the Daily Beast has bravely embraced the cartoon, displaying a list of truly anti-Semitic images from the historical archives [Pictorial guide to antisemitism and its abuse]. When he comes to the Scarfe cartoon he notes: “This is an image critical of Benjamin Netanyahu’s policies in the West Bank.” He goes on to attack the UK Jewish Board of Deputies, displaying their own ad attacking on the cartoon. Valley’s caption reads: “This is an exploitation of Jewish historical trauma.” He then displays the image of Netanyahu in the cartoon and writes: “This will not lead to anti-Semitism.” Then he shows an image of the Separation Wall with the caption: “This might lead to anti-Semitism.” Valley’s entire series of images is brilliant and precisely right.

Martin Rowson writing in the Guardian [above, item 1]echoes some of my views. My opinion ironically runs counter to Rachel Shabi, a regular contributor to Comment is Free [below]. The liberal Zionist Haaretz was only too happy to feature her attack on the cartoon in its pages. Curiously, it chose to censor the image by cropping out the Palestinians entombed with the Wall. This act of excision precisely mirrors the liberal Zionist need to white out the most troubling aspects of Occupation and Israeli reality.

Personally, I think Shabi had a failure of nerve. The Occupation is ugly. It is obscene. So is this picture. Deal with it.



Criticize Israel – but without the vile and offensive cartoons

Even if Scarfe’s cartoon isn’t anti-Semitic, it is still vile and offensive. Given enduring, and well-founded, Jewish sensitivities over certain imagery, it is manifestly preferable to caricature and castigate Israeli leaders without them dripping buckets of blood. There is hardly a shortage of material.

By Rachel Shabi, Ha’aretz
January 30, 2013

It’s a rare event for me to be in agreement with the U.K. Jewish Chronicle’s editor, Stephen Pollard, but that is what happened after the publication of a cartoon by Gerald Scarfe in last weekend’s London Sunday Times, on International Holocaust Remembrance Day. The now-infamous cartoon has Benjamin Netanyahu building a wall using blood as cement, trapping anguished, Palestinian-looking people in between the bricks.

Speaking to the BBC on Tuesday, Pollard explained his objections. “If you print such cartoons you have to be aware of the consequences,” he said. “One will be that some people will describe those cartoons – I’m one of them – as anti-Semitic. That doesn’t mean that I would ban the publication of such cartoons, but I think if you’re going to draw such cartoons, you have to be aware of the cultural resonances, and precisely who you’re giving offense to.”

I don’t think the cartoon is anti-Semitic – as Anshel Pfeffer has pointed out in Haaretz, it does not feature a Star of David, a kippa, or any other giveaway visual code references to Jews. But it is nonetheless a vile and offensive cartoon, because of all that spurting blood-as-cement and the inevitable blood libel associations. I know this isn’t absolutely water-tight, technically, or unanimous, or straightforward; I know many think that I should just get over it, but there it is: it triggers unease over the association of a Jew with another people’s blood. That’s where I agree with Pollard: the bit about cultural resonances.

Should the media tell other people when it is appropriate, or not, to have their cultural sensitivities offended? Should cartoons constantly push those buttons to try to prove that they don’t really exist? And when people say they are offended by cartoons, do we tell them to shut up because there are greater things to be offended by?

The trouble with the tone-deafness over the offense this cartoon has caused is that it is hiding behind good reasons. Some assume that objection to Scarfe’s piece is based on an attempt to shut down criticism of Benjamin Netanyahu, or of Israeli policy. Some ask why Israel should get special treatment from satirical cartoonists, for whom blood-red is pretty much a palette staple. And many are justifiably angered over Israel’s punishing occupation and are venting, repeatedly, in this conversation about cartoons: What about the far greater crimes committed by Israel every day? Why this delicate squeamishness about blood in print, when real, live Palestinians are bleeding? Why should Jewish outrage over an ambiguous cartoon be indulged, while unequivocal Palestinian suffering is ignored?

It’s a stuck script, because many of the same groups that try to stifle criticism of Israel are the ones now protesting the cartoon – so the suspicion is that the two objections are actually one and the same. And so, positions grow entrenched: Some Jewish people might feel the whole controversy proves that critics of Israel just don’t like Jews very much. Meanwhile, some opponents of Israeli policy might conclude that the cries of anti-Semitism are just another attempt to shut down debate.

These strands are all too often conflated and we must be vigilant to keep them distinct. It is, quite obviously, possible to find the bloody cartoon offensive while at the same time be vocally critical of Israel. To spell it out (as it does seem terribly elusive to some): This is because being Jewish and being pro-rightist-Israel are two different things. Conversely – and this really should go without saying – it is possible to criticise Israel without offending Jews. And to be cleared of any false accusations of offensive imagery is really easy: just avoid the tropes.

Of course, cartoonists are free to publish what they like, and we are free to argue about the merits of their work afterwards, but why choose to pitch at this level? Given enduring, and well-founded, Jewish sensitivities over certain imagery, it is manifestly preferable to caricature and castigate Israeli leaders without the buckets of blood. There is hardly a shortage of material. And that way, we can all focus on the actual politics being addressed and not get dragged into a senseless, inflammatory and degrading argument about the right to offend.



Carlos Latuff



Cartoon symbols of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

Arab cartoons that use antisemitic images are evidence of the damage done by festering hostilities, writes Ian Black
{Discussion of the exhibition Cartoons and Extremism: Israel and the Jews in Arab and Western Media, London 2008-9

By Ian Black, Middle East editor, Guardian
December 19, 2008

An image from exhibition at the Political Cartoon Gallery in central London Photograph: Political Cartoon Gallery
With a Star of David symbol emblazoned on his back, an Israeli soldier with bloodied hands bayonets a Christ-like figure in his mother’s lap in a classic “pieta” setting; Auschwitz concentration camp is recast as the besieged Gaza Strip; repulsive, hook-nosed Jews are portrayed as snakes or vampires; Ariel Sharon wears a swastika symbol or embraces Adolf Hitler – these are just some of the images to have appeared in Arab cartoons in recent years.

It is hardly news that the conflict in the Middle East is corrosive and hateful, but it is still shocking to see just how bad things can look in some of the works currently on critical display at London’s Political Cartoon gallery.

The author Joel Kotek, whose book accompanies the exhibition, argues that the background to what is happening today is centuries of Christian, European anti-Semitism, when the Jew was reviled as Christ-killer, usurer and leech.

All this was at a time, long before the birth of modern Zionism at the end of the 19th century, when Jews lived in Muslim lands as a tolerated religious minority. And the dreadful culmination of the Nazi Holocaust, of course, was the prelude to the establishment of Israel — and the Palestinian “nakba” or catastrophe — in 1948.

Sixty years on, it is disturbing that so many of these images – adapted to fit contemporary events – are still in circulation Even with peace treaties between Israel and two of its neighbours, Egypt and Jordan, and a change of Arab mood and policy that now accepts that Israel is a permanent fixture in the Middle East, the failure to resolve the Palestinian issue is a terrible open wound.

This is treacherous territory. Israelis and Jews are sometimes too quick to dismiss criticism of Israel, by Arabs and others, as anti-semitism. Arabs accuse Jews of “exploiting” the Holocaust to “cover up” crimes against the Palestinians.

The British Jewish philosopher Brian Klug has written helpfully on this point: “Critics often single Israel out unfairly, or defame the state, or criminalise it, and so on. All of which undoubtedly is biased. But is it necessarily anti-Semitic? No, it is not. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a tragic and bitter struggle. The issues are complex, passions inflamed, and the suffering in both populations is great. In such circumstances, there is bias on both sides.

“Then when is this bias anti-Semitic? Seen through the eyes of an anti-semite, Jews are essentially alien, powerful, cohesive, cunning, parasitic, and so on. Opposition to Israel or its government is anti-semitic when it employs some variation or other of this fantasy – just as criticism of Arabs is racist when it is based on the stock figure of the Arab as cunning, lying and degenerate, or as a hateful terrorist who attaches no value to human life.”

As Klug suggests, and some cartoons demonstrate, the lines between anti-Zionism, legitimate criticism of Israel and anti-semitism can become easily blurred when the subject is as emotive as the suffering of Palestinians and is blamed on US bias towards an overwhelmingly powerful Israel. In recent years, the war in Iraq, neocon thinking about the Middle East and jihadi discourse about “crusader-Zionist” conspiracies have made matters much worse.

It is striking that some of the nastiest of these images come from Egypt, where hostility to Israel remains strong despite three decades of formal peace.

In 2001, a cartoon in the state-owned al-Ahram, the most famous newspaper in the Arab world, depicted exultant Israelis toasting peace with Palestinian blood — a recurrent theme with an ancient and blatantly racist echo.

A year later, Bahrain’s Akhbar al-Khalij printed another classic anti-semitic stereotype — a bearded Orthodox Jew teaching George Bush, drawn as a parrot, to repeat the words: “I hate Arabs.”

Perhaps the most offensive cartoon in Kotek’s book is from the Kuwaiti paper al-Rai al-Aam in 1988: it shows a skullcap-wearing Jew baking a live Arab in an oven that looks like a concentration camp crematorium.

But Arabs are not alone: some European and American cartoonists use similar images, with the Brazilian Carlos Latuff drawing, without inhibition, on judeophobic stereotypes in the service of the anti-globalisation movement.

Cartoons from Iran are a recent addition to this grim gallery, and often feature Holocaust denial and the equation of Zionism with Nazism. The Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has attracted enormous controversy by questioning whether the Holocaust took place and organising a competition of cartoons on the subject in response to the Danish cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad.

Klug’s advice to the Muslim and Arab worlds is worth repeating: “Every time you draw on anti-semitism, you fuel the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – by reinforcing the anger and fear that many Jews, inside and outside Israel, understandably feel.”

Too much significance can be attached to mere cartoons. As Kotek points out, they are by their nature exaggerated, exasperating and never neutral. But peddling racial and religious prejudice is dangerous and wrong.

The conflict between Israel and the Palestinians does have a religious dimension, but it is fundamentally a political one and can only be resolved by political means: negotiations based on mutual recognition and compromise. These cartoons are yet another reminder of how urgent that task is.

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