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Beyond Apologies: The British Blood Libel Cartoon

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Apologies offered by the British Sunday Times for an anti-Semitic cartoon published on International Holocaust Remembrance Day address only one, albeit major, aspect of this issue.

The paper stated that publishing the drawing “was a mistake and crossed the line.” It admitted that Gerald Scalfe’s caricature reflected “historical iconography that is persecutory or anti-Semitic.” The cartoon showed Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu building a wall using what appeared to be the blood of Palestinians as cement. The caption read, “Will cementing peace continue?” The paper’s owner, Rupert Murdoch, had apologized earlier.

The effectiveness of an apology requires that both offender and victim agree that what took place was wrong. In this case, however, the apologies also underscore the need to ask several questions. One issue not addressed is that the cartoon inverted the truth rather than exaggerated it. Scarfe suggested that what is mainly a security fence – presented here as a wall – was meant to kill Palestinians. But of course it was constructed in order to prevent Palestinian murderers from entering Israel and killing Jewish civilians.

Further, the drawing reflects a major anti-Semitic motif with historical origins in Britain – the blood libel. It was invented in the twelfth century in Norwich. At that time, it was falsely claimed that Jews had killed for ritual purposes a 12-year-old Christian boy named William. The story kept going around. A few decades later, as was true in many other places in England, the Jews of Norwich were murdered. From Britain the blood libel about the Jews spread to other countries.

Where, one must ask, are the apologies for other cartoons using iconography that recalls the blood libel, both in Britain and elsewhere? Perhaps the best-known caricature in this genre was published by the British daily The Independent. Dave Brown drew then-Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon as a child eater. There was never an apology.

In answer to protests, the UK Press Complaints Commission cleared Brown’s cartoon. It was further “normalized” after it won the Political Cartoon Society’s Political Cartoon of the Year Award for 2003. The award was presented to Brown at the offices of the prestigious Economist weekly by Labour MP and former minister for overseas aid Clare Short.

At the time, Zvi Shtauber was the Israeli ambassador to Britain. He told me later, “Simon Kelner, the editor of The Independent, is Jewish. I asked Kelner whether The Independent had ever published a similar caricature of a public figure. He had to go back eighteen years to find a similar one. Tim Benson, the president of the Political Cartoon Society…saw nothing wrong in the award-winning racist cartoon.”

The Independent was not the only “progressive” paper to print blood libel cartoons. In April 2005 The Guardianpublished a cartoon by Steve Bell depicting Michael Howard, the then-leader of the Conservative Party and a Jew, with vampire teeth (one of which was dripping blood) and holding a glass of blood. The caption read: “Are you drinking what we are drinking? Vote Conservative.”

To add insult to injury, Annabel Crabb of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation praised him, in a TV interview, for the cartoon.

Belgian political scientist Joël Kotek has a collection of thousands of anti-Israel and anti-Jewish hate cartoons from Arab and Western media. He has published a selection of these in his book Cartoons and Extremism. One only has to compare the above mentioned British caricatures with that broad selection, mainly from the Arab world and some from the Nazi period, to see how their iconography fits in perfectly.

A 2011 study by the University of Bielefeld, for the German Social Democrat Friedrich Ebert Foundation, found that 42 percent of the British people – a percentage similar to that in some other European countries – believe Israel is conducting a war of extermination against the Palestinians. Who planted this extreme anti-Semitic worldview in British minds? Which politicians, media figures, academics and church and union leaders have consistently helped strengthen the genocidal image that so many in the UK hold regarding Israel? The lines crossed here were of an infinitely greater magnitude than publishing an anti-Semitic caricature on International Holocaust Remembrance Day.

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Apologies offered by the British Sunday Times for an anti-Semitic cartoon published on International Holocaust Remembrance Day address only one, albeit major, aspect of this issue.

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