31 January 2013 — Media Lens
A crucial element of pro-Israel political lobbying is the reprehensible smearing of justified criticism of the Israeli state as ‘antisemitic’. Thus, a recent cartoon by Gerald Scarfe in the Sunday Times provided a convenient target for outrage.
Scarfe had depicted Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel‘s prime minister, building a wall that encased the bodies of Palestinians depicted in various states of agony. The mortar was blood-red and the caption said: ‘Israeli elections: Will cementing peace continue?’
Netanyahu‘s party had just won the most seats in the recent closely-contested parliamentary elections in Israel. The wall was clearly a reference to the ‘separation barrier’ which Israel claims is there to protect its citizens from Palestinian attacks, but which is in fact being used in a cynical land grab to expand the borders of Israel.
The cartoon was clearly a strong, even shocking, image. But Scarfe, perhaps best known for his illustrations accompanying Pink Floyd’s classic album The Wall, has a long history of acerbic and brutal caricatures, often depicting blood. And he was surely making a valid political point about Israel‘s brutal treatment of Palestinians and the state’s endless colonial expansion, all under the guise of a mythical ‘peace process’.
The Board of Deputies of British Jews, which is ardently pro-Israel, linked to Zionist propaganda interests and a supporter of Israeli attacks on Gaza, submitted a complaint to the Press Complaints Commission alleging that the cartoon ‘is shockingly reminiscent of the blood-libel imagery more usually found in parts of the virulently antisemitic Arab press.’ This is the myth dating back to the Middle Ages that Jews murdered children and used the blood in religious ceremonies.
The Board’s ‘anger was heightened‘ by the cartoon being published on Holocaust Memorial Day: ‘a day meant to commemorate the communities destroyed by the Nazis and their allies in the mid-20th century.’
Israel‘s UK ambassador Daniel Taub said:
‘The image of Israel‘s security barrier, which is saving the lives of both Jews and Arabs from suicide bombers, being built from Palestinian blood and bodies is baseless and outrageous.
‘The use of vicious motifs echoing those used to demonize Jews in the past is particularly shocking and hurtful on International Holocaust Remembrance Day, but the crude and shallow hatred of this cartoon should render it totally unacceptable on any day of the year.’
Meanwhile the speaker of Israel‘s parliament, Reuven Rivlin, wrote to his UK counterpart to express ‘extreme outrage‘.
The essential message beneath the barrage of opprobrium was: Thou shalt not criticise Israel.
Rupert Murdoch: A Friend Of Israel
Initially, the Sunday Times had stood firm. On the afternoon when the storm broke, the paper ‘defended’ the publication of the cartoon, and ‘denied that [it] was antisemitic.’ In a statement, the paper described Scarfe’s imagery as ‘typically robust’, adding:
‘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.’
Martin Ivens, the acting editor of the Sunday Times, said:
‘The last thing I or anyone connected with the Sunday Times would countenance would be insulting the memory of the Shoah or invoking the blood libel.’
But the ‘typically robust’ argument quickly collapsed when the Sunday Times owner Rupert Murdoch stepped into the breach later that day, declaring via Twitter:
‘Gerald Scarfe has never reflected the opinions of the Sunday Times. Nevertheless, we owe major apology for grotesque, offensive cartoon.’
It had not taken long for Murdoch, a self-declared ‘friend of Israel‘, to stamp hard on his ‘acting editor’ Ivens who, despite his pedigree as a pro-Israel columnist, had probably just demonstrated that he is not the safe pair of hands his master would have liked. So much for editorial independence and the ‘free press’.
Anyone in a responsible position in Murdoch‘s news empire, as with the corporate media generally, is under considerable pressure to be favourable towards Israel. Murdoch‘s pro-Israeli position is reflected in his newspapers, and his editors are made well aware that they have to follow the ‘strong views’ which he spends considerable time and force imposing upon them.
In March 2009, the American Jewish Committee honoured Murdoch with their ‘National Human Relations Award’. Only weeks after the brutal onslaught by Israeli forces on Gaza in Operation Cast Lead – with around 1400 Palestinians killed, including more than 400 women and children – Murdoch had this to say to his audience:
‘My friends, I do not pretend to have all the answers to Gaza this evening. But I do know this: The free world makes a terrible mistake if we deceive ourselves into thinking this is not our fight.
‘In the end, the Israeli people are fighting the same enemy we are: cold-blooded killers who reject peace … who reject freedom … and who rule by the suicide vest, the car bomb, and the human shield.
‘Against such an enemy, I will not second-guess the decisions of a free Israel defending her citizens. And I would ask all those who support peace and freedom to do the same.’
Accepting an award in 2010 from the Anti-Defamation League for his support of Israel, Murdoch decried the global ‘ongoing war against the Jews’ and made clear his disdain for criticism of Israel:
‘When Americans think of anti-Semitism, we tend to think of the vulgar caricatures and attacks of the first part of the 20th century.
‘Today it seems that the most virulent strains come from the Left. Often this new anti-Semitism dresses itself up as legitimate disagreement with Israel.’
Sam Kiley, the former Times Africa correspondent, said that he left the paper in 2001 because of pro-Israeli censorship of his reporting on the Middle East. Kiley said that Murdoch‘s close friendship with the then Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon, and the media mogul’s heavy investment in Israel, were the reasons behind his decision to resign.
Kiley wrote that:
‘In the war of words, no newspaper has been so happy to hand the keys of the armoury over to one side than the Times.’
‘The Times foreign editor and other middle managers flew into hysterical terror every time a pro-Israel lobbying group wrote in with a quibble or complaint and then usually took their side against their own correspondent.
‘I was told I should not refer to “assassinations” of Israel‘s opponents, nor to “extra-judicial killings or executions”.
‘No pro-Israel lobbyist ever dreamed of having such power over a great national newspaper.’
Murdoch‘s executives were so anxious to avoid irritating their boss that when Kiley interviewed the Israeli army unit responsible for killing a 12-year old Palestinian boy, he was asked not to mention the dead child in his piece.
‘After that conversation, I was left wordless, so I quit,’ Kiley said.
According to Isi Liebler, an Australian Jewish community leader who now lives in Israel, Murdoch‘s ‘affection’ for the state ‘arose less out of his conservative sensibility than from his native Australian sympathy for the underdog fending off elites seized by conventional wisdoms’. Liebler added:
‘He’s met Israelis, he’s been to Israel, he’s seen Israel as the plucky underdog when the rest of the world saw Israel as an occupier.’
The danger that Murdoch and his News International empire represent to democracy has been well documented. His power to curb criticism of the Israeli state, indeed to promote its agenda, is part of this bigger picture.
The Sunday Times Apologises For Its ‘Terrible Mistake’
Jonathan Cook, an independent journalist based in Israel, noted of the hyerbolic pro-Israeli response to Scarfe’s cartoon:
‘As Holocaust Day comes round again, Israel has taken advantage of the occasion to teach the world a lesson. Not, of course, a lesson about the Holocaust’s universal message but one that Israel can exploit to shut up its critics.’ (Facebook, January 29, 2013)
Cook pointed to a column in the liberal Israeli Haaretz newspaper by Anshel Pfeffer, ‘Haaretz‘s arbiter of all things anti-Semitic’, who had actually found nothing antisemitic in the cartoon even, Cook noted, ‘using his hyper-sensitive measurements.’
Pfeffer was meticulous in explaining why the howls of outrage, manufactured or otherwise, were wide of the mark. He gave four reasons why the cartoon was not at all antisemitic:
‘1. It is not directed at Jews: There is absolutely nothing in the cartoon which identifies its subject as a Jew. […] 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: […] 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. […]
‘3. There was no discrimination: […]. 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? […]’
These sensible arguments were presumably not to the fore when, at 4pm on January 29, ‘representatives of the Jewish Community met with the Sunday Times Senior Editorial Team and News International Corporate Affairs.’ Following the meeting, acting Sunday Times editor Martin Ivens issued a craven apology in which he said:
‘Everyone knows that Gerald Scarfe is consistently brutal and bloody in his depictions, but last weekend – by his own admission – he crossed a line. The timing – on Holocaust Memorial Day – was inexcusable. The associations 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.’
In his 2000 book, The Holocaust Industry: Reflections on the Exploitation of Jewish Suffering, Norman Finkelstein noted that the Holocaust ‘has been used to justify criminal policies of the Israeli state and US support for these policies’ (pp. 7-8). And Noam Chomsky has observed that the Israeli state has long ‘consciously manipulated’ the Holocaust to promote its own interests.
The ‘terrible mistake’ of the Sunday Times, along with the rest of the corporate media, has been to overlook, indeed facilitate, this shameful reality.
The goal of Media Lens is to promote rationality, compassion and respect for others. If you do write to journalists, we strongly urge you to maintain a polite, non-aggressive and non-abusive tone.
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