Cartoons That Sting

By: Rafael Medoff

A political cartoon depicting Israel’s prime minister as a mass murderer has stirred international controversy and prompted its publisher to publicly apologize. It’s yet another vivid example of how something as seemingly simple and innocent as a cartoon drawing has the power to stir hearts and minds around the globe.

The controversial cartoon, drawn by Gerald Scarfe, appeared in London’s Sunday Times on January 27. It depicted Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu holding a bloody spade and building a wall with Palestinians, writhing in agony, trapped between the bricks. Their blood forms the mortar cementing the bricks together.

Jewish leaders in Great Britain and around the world have strongly criticized the cartoon. Scarfe has his defenders, too, but their arguments have not especially persuasive. Steve Bell, a cartoonist for the British daily The Guardian, defended Scarfe on the grounds that when Scarfe recently drew Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad in an unflattering manner, there was “not a squeak of criticism.” Bell thinks Scarfe’s critics are guilty of a double standard, but evidently he does not realize there is a very good reason for the two different reactions: Syria’s leader is indeed a mass murderer; Israel’s is not.

But of course, that’s not really the point. A political cartoonist, like any editorial writer, is entitled to his opinion, even if he is egregiously wrong on the facts. The laws in a free society, whether England or the United States, protect everyone’s right to present their opinion, even if it is not well-founded, and even if it smacks of bigotry.

At the same time, of course, no newspaper publisher is obligated to publish every editorial or editorial cartoon that comes across his desk. Publishers can, and do, reject cartoons they find to be tasteless or offensive. Sunday Times publisher Rupert Murdoch, upon reflection, decided to publicly apologize for the Scarfe cartoon, because he himself found it “grotesque and offensive.”

Another Murdoch-owned newspaper, the New York Post, likewise publicly apologized after publishing a cartoon in 2009 that some critics considered racist. Cartoonist Sean Delonas, playing off an incident in which Connecticut police shot a violent chimpanzee, drew two police officers standing over the dead monkey, with one saying, “They’ll have to find someone else to write the next stimulus bill.” Delonas denied he was comparing President Obama to the chimpanzee, but the newspaper apologized nonetheless.

Newspaper publishers have good reason to issue such apologies. They don’t want to offend their readers; they want to sell papers. Readers, for their part, are not powerless in such situations. If they find a cartoonist offensive, they can buy a different newspaper or visit a different web site.

In the case of the Scarfe cartoon, some readers took offense not only at the imagery in the cartoon itself, but also the fact that it was published on International Holocaust Remembrance Day. Scarfe himself issued a statement saying that he was “stupidly completely unaware that it would be printed on Holocaust Day,” and he apologized for the offense caused by the timing of his cartoon–although not the offense caused by its content.

Prime Minister Netanyhau himself has said nothing about the matter. He is, of course, not the first Israeli prime minister to have endured the slings and arrows of the world’s cartoonists. Right or left, hawk or dove, every Israeli leader has been through this sort of thing.

Recall, for example, that Yitzhak Rabin’s policy of sending Israeli soldiers to raid the homes of Palestinian rioters and terrorists in 1988-1989 set off a tidal wave of harsh cartoons, some of which went so far as to compare Israeli soldiers to Nazis. Steve Benson, in the Arizona Republic, drew Israeli soldiers sending a “Happy Holocaust” postcard to Palestinians. Doug Marlette, in the Atlanta Constitution, showed Israeli soldiers bursting into a Palestinian home and discovering Holocaust diarist Anne Frank.

Many years later, reflecting on that controversy, Marlette contrasted the response to the Anne Frank cartoon with the response to a more recent cartoon of his that offended Muslims. The latter triggered numerous threats of “death and mutilation” by angry Muslims. As for the Anne Frank cartoon, however, “Naturally some Jews were offended. Then came the inevitable charges of anti-Semitism. But I didn’t fear for my life from the people who gave us the Ten Commandments.”

Cartoonists bring to their easels a wide range of personal experiences, opinions, and styles. They are often clever or funny, but sometimes they can be insensitive or worse. In our forthcoming book Cartoonists Against the Holocaust, my coauthor and I present (among others) cartoons from 1939 critical of President Roosevelt’s refusal to grant haven to the passengers of the refugee ship St. Louis as it hovered off the coast of Florida. We also show an editorial cartoon, by Jerry Doyle of the Philadelphia Record, depicting a group of unemployed college graduates on a “refugee ship” of their own–as if their fate in Franklin Roosevelt’s America was even remotely comparable to that of Jews sent back to Adolf Hitler’s Europe.

It’s true that the anti-St. Louis cartoon accurately reflected the anti-immigration sentiments of many Americans. Likewise, Gerald Scarfe’s cartoon attaching Prime Minister Netanyahu reflects a tilt against Israel that has become widespread among many Europeans. Given that reality, one may assume that, fairly or unfairly, Israel will continue to find itself the target of such jabs. That’s just the nature of living in a world full of cartoonists!

January 2013