Anti-Semitism in the eye of
the beholder – using ‘anti-semitism to silence cartoonists
This cartoon in a German paper was deemed ‘anti-semitic’
From the Der Sturmer stable
This is a cartoon in the Nazi paper Der Sturmer – I’ll leave it to you to work out the similarities, if any, with the above cartoon
Another obviously antisemitic cartoon from Der Sturmer
Cook is one of the best and most thought provoking writers around. An award winning former Guardian journalist
he lives in Nazareth.
issue he writes about, the mystification of anti-Semitism, is an important
one. If people are confused about the
differences between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism then it is doubly difficult when
it comes to works of art, especially cartoons.
me offer a guide. Anti-Semitic cartoons have
an intent behind them – which is to depict the Jew as the devil, the lecherer,
the controller. Pictures of Netanyahu tend to depict someone who is willing
to kill ever increasing numbers of Palestinians. The context and intent is entirely different.
Yair Netanyahu’s cartoon above had all the right anti-Semitic ingredients
last year, there was a campaign both in Hungary and in Israel against George
Soros, the archetypal Jewish financier.
The campaign in Hungary, led by its Prime Minister Viktor Orban was
undoubtedly anti-Semitic. That in Israel
was much the same. Soros’s crime being
to have financed some Israeli human rights groups. He was portrayed in an anti-Semitic cartoon
by none other than the son of Benjamin, Yair Netanyahu in a cartoon that had
every ingredient of anti-Semitic caricature.
Little wonder that it was praised by David Duke former Grand Wizard of
the KKK and Andrew Anglin, editor of the neo-Nazi Daily Stormer. However the usual culprits didn’t jump up and
down about anti-Semitism.
Neo-Nazi Andrew Anglin just loved Yair Netanyahu’s cartoon
is clear, beyond any doubt, that ‘anti-Semitism’ has become the principal
weapon of the Zionist movement and Israel’s defenders. It should be said at once that it has not won
over the vast majority of ordinary people but it has befuddled and confused
important layers of people politically,
not least in the Labour Party, where it has had a chilling effect on peoples’
willingness to discuss let alone motivate criticism of Israel. Given the nature of the witchhunt, where
anything anti-Zionist is called anti-Semitic by the witchhunters, this is not
In his eagerness to please the Zionists Murdoch engaged in one of those well-known anti-semitic caricatures – the ‘Jewish owned press’
A cartoon on Netanyahu not deemed anti-semitic by the Board would be so anodyne that it wouldn’t be worth drawing
years ago there was one of these artificial Zionist controversies over the a
cartoon by Gerald Scarfe in the Sunday
Times. It portrayed a bloody Netanyahu
cementing a wall with the bodies and heads of Palestinians. For some unearthly reason it was considered anti-Semitic
by those who make it their business to ensure that any portrayal of the Zionist
state is channelled into accusations of Jew hatred. Of course on any objective basis there was
nothing anti-Semitic about Scarfe’s cartoon.
If it had been a portrayal of the US President or George Bush or Trump
today then no one would have batted an eyelid.
Jonathan Cook describes, a similar controversy has blow up over a German cartoon. Like the Scarfe controversy there seems
little doubt that this is a false accusation by the supporters of Israel. It is noticeable that when it comes to
cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad then anything goes but if you depict Netanyahu
as the murdering bastard he is then you risk the heavens falling in.
No doubt depicting the Apartheid wall was also anti-semitic
with the nonsense about the long erased mural that Jeremy Corbyn had supported
on grounds of free speech. Corbyn was
forced to backtrack by the ‘anti-Semitism’ storm in late March and accept that
he hadn’t noticed its anti-Semitism.
Fake leftists like Richard Seymour and Owen Jones joined in the hue and
cry but those of us who are more familiar with anti-Semitic cartoons of the Der Sturmer variety could not detect any
anti-Semitic content. Conspiratorial
perhaps. Anti-banker yes but anyone
saying that all bankers are Jews is, well, anti-Semitic!
these days Corbyn, whose support for the Palestinians was never based on any
theoretical understanding of why Zionism and Israel are racist, backed down
once again and in so doing made a rod for his own back. If just for once he stood up to his accusers
he would find life far easier.
post was about the firing of a cartoonist, Dieter Hanitzsch, by the German
newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung after its editor became concerned – though, it
seems, far from sure – that a cartoon he had published of Benjamin Netanyahu
might be anti-semitic. Here is the image again.
As I argued then, the meaning
seems pretty clear and uncoloured by any traditional notion of anti-semitism.
It shows the danger that Israel, a highly militarised state, will use its win
at the Eurovision song contest, and its hosting of next year’s competition in
occupied Jerusalem, to whitewash the sort of war crimes it just committed in
Gaza, where it has massacred large numbers of unarmed Palestinians.
In fact, the
cartoonist is far from alone in highlighting such concerns. The New York Times
has reported delight among
Israelis at the prospect of what they regard as a “diplomatic victory” as much
as musical one. And, according to the Haaretz newspaper, the Eurovision contest
organisers have already expressed concern to
Israeli broadcasters about likely attempts by Israel to “politicise” the
responding on Twitter to my post was Naomi Wolf, a US Jewish intellectual and
feminist scholar whose body of work I admire. She disagreed with my blog post,
arguing that the cartoon was, in her words, “kind of anti-semitic”.
subsequent exchange she also noted that she was uncomfortable with the fact
that the cartoonist was German. (For those interested, the complete exchange
can be found here.)
In the end,
and admittedly under some pressure from me for clarification, she offered an
illustration of why she thought the cartoon was “kind of anti-semitic”. She sent a link to the image below,
stating that she thought Hanitzsch’s cartoon of Netanyahu had echoes of this
Nazi image of “the Jew” alongside an Aryan German woman.
was astounded by the comparison.
Nazi propaganda sheets like Der Sturmer were anti-semitic because they
emphasised specific themes to “otherise” Jews, presenting them as a collective
menace to Germany or the world. Those themes included the threat of plague and
disease, with Jews often represented as rats; or secret Jewish control over key
institutions, illustrated, for example, by the tentacles of an octopus spanning
the globe; or the disloyalty of Jews, selling out their country, as they
hungered for money.
notes, anti-semitic cartoonists would give the portrayed “Jew” grotesque or
sinister facial features to alienate readers from him and convey the threat he
posed. These features famously included a large or hooked nose, voracious lips,
and a bulbous or disfigured head.
So how did
the cartoon of Netanyahu qualify on any of these grounds? There is no
implication that Netanyahu represents “Jews”, or even Israelis. He is
illustrated straightforwardly as the leader of a country, Israel. There is no
sense of disease, world control or money associated with Netanyahu’s depiction.
Just his well-known hawkishness and Israel’s well-documented status as a highly
And there is
nothing “grotesque” or “other” about Netanyahu. This is a typical caricature,
certainly by European standards, of a world leader. It’s no more offensive than
common depictions of Barack Obama, George Bush, Tony Blair, or Donald Trump.
exactly is this Netanyahu cartoon “kind of anti-semitic”?
Limiting political debate
is not meant as an attack on Wolf. In fact, I greatly appreciate the fact that
she was prepared to engage sincerely and openly with me on Twitter. And I
acknowledge her point that judgments about what is anti-semitic are subjective.
But at the
same time ideas about anti-semitism have become far vaguer, more
all-encompassing, than ever before. In fact, I would go so far as to say the
idea of anti-semitism has been metamorphosing before our eyes in ways extremely
damaging to the health of our political conversations. It is the current
mystification of anti-semitism – or what we might term its transformation into
a “kind of antisemitism” – that has allowed it to be weaponised, limiting all
sorts of vital debates we need to be having.
precisely the promotion of a “kind of anti-semitism”, as opposed to real
anti-semitism, that has just forced Ken Livingstone to resign from the Labour party;
that empowered Labour’s Blairite bureaucracy to publicly lynch a well-known black
anti-racism activist, Marc Wadsworth; that persuaded a dissident comedian and
supporter of the Palestinian cause, Frankie Boyle, to use his TV show to prioritise an attack on a
supposedly “anti-semitic” Labour party over support for Gaza; that is being
used to vilify grassroots movements campaigning against “global elites” and the
“1 per cent”; and that may yet finish off Labour leader
Jeremy Corbyn, currently the only credible political force for progressive
change in the UK.
None of this
is, of course, to suggest that Wolf would herself want any of these outcomes or
that she is trying to misuse anti-semitism. I fully acccept that she has been a
strong Jewish critic of Israel and doubtless paid a price for it with friends
Wolf, those who do consciously and cynically weaponise anti-semitism gain their
power from our inability to stand back and think critically about what they are
doing, and why it matters. There is an intellectual and cultural blindspot that
has been created and is being readily exploited by those who want to prevent
discussions not only about Israel’s actions but about the wider political
culture we desperately need to change.
Israel and Jews
In fact, the
mystification of anti-semitism is not new, though it is rapidly intensifying.
It began the moment Israel was created. That was why a Nazi cartoon – drawn
before Israel’s establishment in 1948 – could never have been described as
“kind of anti-semitic”. It simply was anti-semitic. It attributed
menacing or subversive qualities to Jews because they were Jews.
understand how the current mystification works we need briefly to consider
Israel’s character as a state – something very few people are prepared to do in
the “mainstream”, because it is likely to result in allegations of …
anti-semitism! As I observed in my previous post, this has provided the perfect
get-out-jail-free card for Israel and its supporters.
created as the national homeland of all Jewish people – not of those who became
citizens (which included a significant number of Palestinians), or even of
those Jews who ended up living there. Israel declared that it represented all
Jewish people around the world, including Wolf.
This idea is
central to Zionism, and is embodied in its Declaration of Independence; its
constitutional-like Basic Laws; its immigration legislation, the Law of Return;
its land laws; and the integration into Israel’s state structures of
extra-territorial Zionist organisations like the Jewish National Fund, the
World Zionist Organisation and the Jewish Agency.
A dangerous confusion
It is also
why the rationale for Israel is premised on anti-semitism: Israel was created
as a sanctuary for all Jews because, according to Zionists, Jews can
never be truly safe anywhere outside Israel. Without anti-semitism, Israel
would be superfluous. It also why Israel has a reason to inflate the threat of
anti-semitism – or, if we are cynical about the lengths states will go to
promote their interests, to help generate anti-semitism to justify the
existence of a Jewish state and encourage Jews to immigrate.
So from the
moment of its birth, the ideas of “Israel” and “anti-semitism” became
disturbingly enmeshed – and in ways almost impossible to disentangle.
For most of
Israel’s history, that fact could be obscured in the west because western
governments and media were little more than cheerleaders for Israel. Criticism
of Israel was rarely allowed into the mainstream, and when it did appear it was
invariably limited to condemnations of the occupation. Even then, there was
rarely any implication of systematic wrongdoing on Israel’s part.
only when the exclusive grip of the western corporate media over information
dissemination weakened, first with the emergence of the internet and satellite
channels like Al Jazeera, and more recently and decisively with social media.
Criticism of Israel’s occupation has increasingly broadened into suspicions
about its enduring bad faith. Among more knowledgeable sections of the
progressive left, there is a mounting sense that Israel’s unwillingness to end
the occupation is rooted in its character as a Jewish state, and maybe its
intimate ideological relationship with anti-semitism.
vital conversations to be having about Israel, and they are all the more
pressing now that Israel has shown that it is fully prepared to gun down in
public unarmed Palestinians engaging in civil disobedience. Many, many more
Palestinians are going to have their lives taken from them unless we
aggressively pursue and resolve these conversations in ways that Israel is
determined to prevent.
And this is
why the “kind of anti-semitic” confusion – a confusion that Israel precisely
needs and encourages – is so dangerous. Because it justifies – without evidence
– shutting down those conversations before they can achieve anything.
The Livingstone problem
In 2016 Ken
Livingstone tried to initiate a conversation
about Zionism and its symbiotic relationship with anti-semites, in this case
with the early Nazi leadership. We can’t understand what Israel is, why the
vast majority of Jews once abhorred Zionism, why
Israel is so beloved of modern anti-semites like the alt-right and hardcore
Christian evangelicals, why Israel cannot concede a Palestinian state, and why
it won’t abandon the occupation without overwhelming penalties from the
international community, unless we finish the conversation Livingstone started.
Which is why
that conversation was shut down instantly with the accusation that it was
“anti-semitic”. But Livingstone’s crime is one no mainstream commentator wants
to address or explain. If pressed to do so, they will tell you it is because
his comments were perceived to be “offensive” or “hurtful”, or because they
were “unnecessary” and “foolish”, or because they brought the Labour party
“into disrepute” (Labour’s version of “kind of anti-semitic”). No one will tell
you what was substantively anti-semitic about his remark.
when pressed to explain how Hanitzsch’s cartoon of Netanyahu was anti-semitic,
Wolf digressed to the entirely irrelevant issue of his nationality.
This is the
power and the danger of this “kind of anti-semitic” logic, and why it needs to
be confronted and exposed for the hollow shell it is.
A mural becomes anti-semitic
stage in the evolution of the “kind of anti-semitic” argument is already
discernible, as I have warned before. It is so powerful that it has forced
Corbyn to concede, against all evidence, that Labour has an anti-semitism
problem and to castigate himself, again against all evidence, for indulging in
been on the defensive since a “controversy” erupted in March over his
expression back in 2012 of support for street art and opposition to censorship
amid a row over a London mural that was about to be painted over.
Is this antisemitic or anti-masonic?
After he was
elected Labour leader in 2015, the first efforts were made to weaponise the
mural issue to damage him. The deeply anti-Corbyn Jewish Chronicle newspaper
was – like Hanitzsch’s boss at the Süddeutsche Zeitung – initially unsure
whether the mural was actually anti-semitic. Then the newspaper simply highlighted concerns that
it might have “anti-semitic undertones”. By spring 2018, when the row
resurfaced, the status of the mural had been transformed. Every
mainstream British commentator was convinced it was “clearly” and “obviously”
anti-semitic – and by implication, Corbyn had been unmasked as an anti-semite
for supporting it.
one wanted to debate how it was anti-semitic. The artist has said it was an image of
historical bankers, most of whom were not Jewish, closely associated with the
capitalist class’s war on the rest of us. There is nothing in the mural to
suggest he is lying about his intention or the mural’s meaning. And yet
everyone in the “mainstream” is now confident that the mural is anti-semitic,
even though none of them wants to specify what exactly is anti-semitic about
The 1 per cent off-limits
Much else is
rapidly becoming “anti-semitic”. It is an indication of how quickly this
slippage is occuring that repeating now a slogan of the Occupy Movement from
only seven years ago – that we are ruled by a “global elite”, or the “1 per
cent” – is cited as proof of anti-semitism. The liberal New Statesman recently
ran an article dedicated to
proving that the articulation of basic socialist principles – including ideas
of class war and the 1 per cent – was evidence of anti-semitism.
Boyle’s popular TV show last week, comedian David Baddiel was allowed to misrepresent –
unchallenged – an opinion poll that found 28 per cent of Corbyn supporters
agreed with the statement “the world is controlled by a secretive elite”.
Baddiel asserted, without any evidence, that when they spoke of a global elite
the respondents were referring to Jews. What was this assumption based on? A
hunch? A sense that such a statement must be “kind of anti-semitic”?
young people who support Corbyn have never heard of the Protocols of the Elders
of Zion, and have little idea about Der Sturmer or Nazi propaganda. More likely
when they think of a secretive global elite, they imagine not a cabal of Jews
but faceless global corporations they feel powerless to influence and a
military industrial complex raking in endless profits by engineering endless
mystification of anti-semitism is so dangerous because it can be exploited for
any end those who dominate the public square care to put it to – whether it be
sacking a cartoonist, justifying Israel’s slaughter of Palestinians, destroying
a progressive party leader, or preventing any criticism of a turbo-charged
neoliberal capitalism destroying our planet.
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