For Only 48 Hours The Sunday Times of Great Britain Defends its Decision to Publish a Cartoon Critical of Netanyahu by Gerald Scarfe


Cartoon by Gerald Scarfe of The Sunday Times

On Sunday January 27th, Martin Ivens the acting editor of The Sunday Times quickly and firmly stood by editorial cartoonist Gerald Scarfe when one of Gerald’s typically brutal cartoons led to a flood of complaints, and then the same editor almost as quickly and firmly denounced the cartoon after his boss Rupert Murdoch weighed in on the controversy.  Mr. Murdoch is the chairman and CEO of News Corp., the parent company of The Sunday Times.  

The cartoon at the center of this about face is a depiction of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, trowel in hand, building a wall soaked with the blood of Palestinians.  Crushed between the bricks are the faces and limbs of Palestinians in agony.  The caption to the cartoon reads, “Israeli elections: Will cementing peace continue?”  The wall in the cartoon is of course a reference to the ‘separation barrier’ between Israel and the West Bank.  The mention of elections refers to the parliamentary elections held on January 22nd, in which Prime Minister Netanyahu’s ticket squeaked out a narrow victory.  

The cartoon was thus, for the weekly newspaper, a timely comment on the elections results.  But the timing of the publication is also one of the reasons so many took offense to the cartoon.  January 27th is International Holocaust Remembrance Day, commemorating the liberation of Auschwitz in 1945.  Each year on the 27th of January the world mourns the loss of an estimated six million people and vows to never let such atrocities happen again.   

Shortly after the newspaper hit the stands, the Board of Deputies of British Jews, the Anti-Defamation League, the Community Security Trust, the Knesset speaker, and, the Israeli ambassador to Great Britain, among others, went far beyond taking exception to the timing of the cartoon.  They essentially accused the cartoonist of anti-Semitism.  

The Board of Deputies of British Jews filed a complaint with the Press Complaints Commission alleging that the carton “is shockingly reminiscent of the blood-libel imagery more usually found in parts of the virulently anti-Semitic Arab press.”  Blood libel is the horrible lie dating back to the Middle Ages that Jews murder Christian children and drink their blood in religious ceremonies.  The Press Complaints Commission is an independent watchdog organization of the British media. 

Reuven Rivlin, the speaker of Israel’s parliament, wrote to John Bercow, the speaker of the British House of Commons, to express “extreme outrage.”  According to Rivlin, Scarfe’s cartoon “blatantly crossed the line of freedom of expression.” 

Israel’s UK ambassador Daniel Taub spoke with a number of media outlets to express his outrage.  To the Jerusalem Post, (See Jonny Paul's January 28, 2013 article titled 'Times' editor to meet Jewish leaders over cartoon.) the ambassador said the cartoon “bears no relation whatsoever to legitimate political comment.”  In a telephone interview with The Times of Israel he said, “The newspaper should apologize for this.  We’re not going to let this stand as it is.  We genuinely think that a red line has been crossed and the obligation on the newspaper is to correct that.”  It clearly draws “on classical anti-Semitic themes.”  (See Raphael Ahren's January 28, 2013 article titled Israel to demand apology for 'anti-Semitic' Netanyahu cartoon.)

The Community Security Trust (CST) is a charity that monitors anti-Semitism while providing security for Britain’s Jewish community.  The CST’s communication director said in a public statement that, “The blood imagery, sometimes explicitly as blood libel, is commonly found in obscene anti-Israel propaganda in Arabic and Iranian media.  Mr. Scarfe’s image comfortably fits within this canon of extreme contemporary anti-Israel hatred.”  (To see the entire statement, go to the Community Security Trust blog.)   

ADL National Director Abraham Foxman issued a public statement which reads: “There was nothing subtle about the caricatured image of Prime Minister Netanyahu using the blood of Palestinians to build a wall.  While Mr. Murdoch’s apology is welcome, we nevertheless found it disturbing that the newspaper’s senior editors have vigorously defended the cartoon as a form of legitimate criticism.  The cartoon, which is so shocking and reminiscent of the virulently anti-Semitic cartoons we see routinely in the Arab press, is clearly indefensible.”  (To see the entire January 28, 2013 press release, go to ADL Welcomes Murdoch Apology for Outrageous Anti-Semitic Cartoon in The Sunday Times.)

As noted in the above ADL statement, the initial response from The Sunday Times was a vigorous defense of the cartoon.  Initially The Sunday Times stood by its decision to publish the cartoon.  The initial statement from Editor Ivens asserted the cartoon is not anti-Semitic.  It is a “typically robust” cartoon from Gerald Scarfe “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.”  

Also noted in the above ADL statement, Mr. Murdoch’s response did not vigorously defend the cartoon.  Quite the contrary.   Rupert Murdoch declared on Twitter later on that Monday, “Gerald Scarfe has never reflected the opinions of The Sunday Times.  Nevertheless, we owe an apology for grotesque, offensive cartoon.” 

On Tuesday, Martin Ivens issued his about face after meeting with representatives of the UK Jewish community.  The acting editor of The Sunday Times first acknowledged that the timing of the publishing of the cartoon was a terrible mistake.  Then Ivens wrote that even though cartoonist Gerald Scarfe’s work is “consistently brutal and bloody,” this cartoon “crossed the line.  The associations [with anti-Semitism] on this occasion were grotesque and on behalf of the paper I'd like to apologise unreservedly for the offence we clearly caused.  This was a terrible mistake."

For his part, Gerald Scarfe issued the following statement on his website: “First of all I am not, and never have been, anti-Semitic.  The Sunday Times has given me the freedom of speech over the last 46 years to criticize world leaders for what I see as their wrong-doings.  This drawing was a criticism of Netanyahu, and not of the Jewish people: there was no slight whatsoever intended against them.  I was, however, stupidly completely unaware that it would be printed on Holocaust Day, and I apologize for the very unfortunate timing.”  

While acknowledging that Gerald Scarfe’s cartoon is, in the words of Jennifer Lipman of The Independent, “not much for subtlety,” a few individuals are not so quick to label Gerald Scarfe and his latest Netanyahu-bashing cartoon anti-Semitic.  Rachel Lasserson, editor of the Jewish Quarterly, says, “We really need to be able to distinguish between general anti-Semitism and a discussion about the settlements and the West Bank barrier.”  Shane Croucher of the International Business Times meanwhile argues that the mere employment of blood in an editorial cartoon about an Israeli does not necessarily equate to anti-Semitism.  He points out, “there is no young child being slain by a revoltingly-caricatured Jew, with the blood being used in a warped religious ceremony.  While blood is used as the mortar in Netanyahu’s wall, this is obviously portraying a not uncommon view that Palestinian blood is being spilt by the policies of Israel’s government.  It is not a difficult distinction to understand.” (To read the rest of Shane Croucher's January 29, 2013 article, click on Gerald Scarfe's Sunday Times Cartoon Anti-Semitic? You're Having a Laugh.)  Lipman’s judgment is, “Scarfe’s drawing, while undeniably unpleasant – and hardly a nuanced depiction of the political reality (where is hamas in this picture?) – is not to my mind antisemitic.”  (To see Jennifer Lipman's article in The Independent, click on Scarfe's cartoon for the Sunday Times may have been unpleasant, but was it really anti-Semitic?)

Perhaps the most thorough and persuasive defense of the cartoonist and his cartoon is that of columnist Anshel Pfeffer of the liberal Israeli Haaretz newspaper.  Pfeffer wrote that the cartoon is not anti-Semitic for four reasons:

“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. …

2. It does not use Holocaust imagery: …  [T]here is nothing in Scarfe’s cartoon that can put the Holocaust in mind. …

3. There was no discrimination: …. Netanyahu’s depiction is grossly offensive and unfair, but that is only par for the course of 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? …”

(To see the entire column from January 28, 2013, click on Four reasons why U.K. cartoon of Netanyahu isn't anti-Semitic in any way.)

When asked to comment on this controversy, Robert Russell, the Executive Director of the Cartoonists Rights Network International gave the following statment:

"The Cartoonists Rights Network International is also adverse to condeming this cartoon and this cartoonist.  Gerald Scarfe does not have a history of anti-Semitic work.  He does have a history of acerbic cartoons that savagely lampoon powerful politicians he vehemently disagrees with.  He has for instance drawn cartoons of Margaret Thatcher, George W. Bush and Bashar al-Assad that are even more stinging than this cartoon.  In short, there is simply no evidence that Gerald Scarfe has singled out Prime Minister Netanyahu for any reason other than the prime minister’s own policies.  As for this cartoon, it is unquestionably harsh.  Scarfe blames such policies as Netanyahu’s support of the barrier and the prime minister’s preferred location for the barrier, and additional settlements, for the suffering of the Palestinians.  That’s one cartoonist’s opinion.  Whether Netanyahu deserves such a harsh treatment by this and other cartoonists is a matter of debate.  Whether a peaceful and just solution can be arrived at with a different set of policies is also a matter of debate.  Gerald Scarfe’s opinionated artwork is a part of that bigger debate.  Any attempt to remove from the public eye this and other equally opinionated artwork may satisfy the offended.  But that would also help silence a very important and healthy debate about the most effective and humane approach to ending the Middle East’s most enduring conflict.  In other words, there is a great risk in banning strongly expressed opinions.  After all, what then will be banned, and, who gets to decide?  As a nonpartisan free speech organization, CRNI does not take stands on the political stands taken by editorial cartoonists.  We merely defend their right to express their opinions, as long as neither hate nor violence are advocated.  Racist, hateful cartoons will not be defended by our organization.  Plenty of past and present unmistakenly racist cartoons are brought to my attention.  That said, I do not see any hate towards the Jewish community expressed in this cartoon."