scarfe cartoon

How should we respond to the controversy over the Gerald Scarfe cartoon? Last Sunday – Holocaust Memorial Day – the Sunday Times published a cartoon by Scarfe, its regular cartoonist, depicting the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu building a wall with blood-red coloured cement, in which were trapped Palestinians.

The cartoon instantly created international outrage. The Board of Deputies of British Jews, which has complained to the Press Complaints Commission, denounced the cartoon as ‘shockingly reminiscent of the blood libel imagery more usually found in parts of the virulently anti-semitic Arab press’. It was ‘all the more disgusting’ for being published on Holocaust memorial day, ‘given the similar tropes levelled against Jews by the Nazis’. Israel’s ambassador to Britain, Daniel Taub, similarly condemned ‘The use of vicious motifs echoing those used to demonise Jews in the past’. The ‘crude and shallow hatred of this cartoon’ made it ‘totally unacceptable on any day of the year’ and ‘particularly shocking and hurtful on international Holocaust remembrance day’.  In Jerusalem, the Speaker of the Knesset, Reuven Rivlin, wrote a letter Monday to his British counterpart, John Bercow, expressing the Israeli people’s ‘extreme outrage’ at the cartoon. He was ‘shocked that such cartoons can be published in such a respectable newspaper in the Great Britain of today, fearing that such an event is testimony to sick undercurrents in British society’. It ‘blatantly crossed the line of freedom of expression’.  ‘We will think about how to act against the paper’s representative here in Israel’, warned Yuli Edelstein, Israel’s Public Diplomacy and Diaspora Affairs Minister.

Rupert Murdoch took to Twitter to apologize. ‘Gerald Scarfe has never reflected the opinions of the Sunday Times’, he tweeted. ‘Nevertheless, we owe major apology for grotesque, offensive cartoon.’ Sunday Times editor Martin Ivens met with leaders of the British Board of Deputies this week personally to offer his apologies.

So, was the cartoon anti-semitic? And should the Sunday Times have published it?

Scarfe’s cartoon is not about Jews, nor even about Israeli actions in general, but specifically about Netanyahu’s policies. Netanyahu is not identified as a Jew. He is not, for instance, wearing a kippa, nor is he wrapped in a Star of David. The cartoon is certainly vicious, grotesque, brutal, spiteful.  That, however, is the nature of political cartoons, which often take malicious glee in skewering their subject through cruel exaggeration. ‘Almost all political cartooning’, as Scarfe’s fellow cartoonist Martin Rowson has put it, ‘is assassination without the blood’. Scarfe, in particular, turns every political figure, from Margaret Thatcher to George W Bush, from Vladimir Putin to Tony Blair, into a hideous caricature, liberally splashing his work with blood and gore. The week before the Netanyahu carton, Scarfe had depicted the Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad as a green, wraith-like creature drinking greedily from an oversized cup labeled ‘Children’s Blood’. The Netanyahu cartoon, as Rowson pointed out, ‘seems to me almost identical to every other blood-splattered pictorial lament for man’s inhumanity to man [Scarfe’s] knocked out over the past 40 years’.

scarfe assad

‘Blood libel’ – the grotesque claim that Jews kill Gentile children to use their blood for ritual purposes – has a long history in European anti-semitic thought, and was for many centuries central to the persecution of Jews. It is a myth that still flourishes in large parts of the Arab world, and in a more modern form, in the darker corners of the left. Recent claims that Israeli forces in Gaza and in Haiti harvested the organs of Palestinians and of earthquake victims, claims promoted by among others the Swedish social democratic tabloid Aftonbladet  and leading British Liberal Democrat Jenny Tonge, are the 21st century versions of the ancient blood libel myth.

Scarfe’s cartoon is clearly not in this tradition.  Many critics have suggested that while the cartoon may itself not be an expression of the blood libel, it will inevitably be exploited by those who do espouse such claims.  That may well be true. But do we really want to insist that it is unacceptable for anyone to suggest that an Israeli politician might have blood splattered hands?

While Scarfe’s cartoon may not be anti-semitic, the denunciations of it as representative of a dark historical tradition is a familiar tactic. Cast your minds back, for instance, to the controversy over The Satanic Verses. Critics of Salman Rushdie’s novel continually dismissed it as an illegitimate work of literature because it was part of ancient tradition of Western Islamophobia. ‘The parody of Muhammad and the Muslim traditions in The Satanic Verses’, claimed the Muslim philosopher Shabbir Akhtar, ‘has clear echoes for the worst brand of Orientalist sentiment for which the term “prejudice” is decidedly lenient’. The Syrian-born secularist novelist Rana Kabbani claimed that Western  ‘attitudes to Muslims are profoundly marked by half-conscious folk memories of struggle stretching back over the centuries’.

I am not trying to compare Scarfe’s cartoon to The Satanic Verses. What I am pointing to, rather, is the long tradition of trying morally to undermine a work deemed unacceptable by plucking it out of its context and placing it in a different and unsavoury historical narrative.

Anti-semitism still flourishes in many parts of the world. The left all too frequently ignores the issue, especially within its own ranks. The line between criticism of Israel and anti-semitism often gets crossed. But to pillory Scarfe’s cartoon as anti-semitic, or as standing in the blood libel tradition, is to ‘cheapen a noble cause’, as the liberal Israeli newspaper Haaretz put it, devaluing the meaning of anti-Semitism and of the struggle against it.

Perhaps most striking is the contrast between the response to Scarfe’s cartoon and the response to another set of cartoons that became even more controversial – the Danish Muhammad caricatures published in 2005 in Jyllands-Posten. Stephen Pollard, editor of the Jewish Chronicle, suggested that while the Sunday Times had ‘the right’ to publish the ‘disgusting’ cartoon, it was nevertheless a ‘misjudgement’ to have exercised that right. ‘Clearly’, he insisted, ‘there was a mistake made in printing the cartoon.’

Compare this to Pollard’s response to the Danish cartoons. ‘They are certainly offensive to a large number of Muslims’, he wrote. ‘But so what?’ It was ‘not only right that the Danish Mohammed cartoons were free to be published; after the campaign to have them banned and the associated threats, it became imperative that they were published as widely as possible.’  For, ‘If free speech means anything, it surely includes the ability to question, and to mock, the belief that Mohammed rewards jihadists.’

But if it is right to offend ‘a large number of Muslims’, which it is, why is it wrong to offend Jews? And if free speech must, quite rightly, include ‘the ability to question, and to mock, the belief that Mohammed rewards jihadists’, why should it not also include the ability to question and to mock Benjamin Netanyahu’s policies towards Palestinians?

It is true that Pollard did not deny the right of the Sunday Times to have published the cartoon, merely insisting that it was wrong to have exercised that right. But why not make the same distinction with respect to the Danish cartoons? Why was it a ‘misjudgment’ to print the Scarfe cartoon but an ‘imperative’ to publish the Muhammad caricatures?

Muhammed farve. tegning : KW

Scarfe’s cartoon is no more unacceptable than were the Danish cartoons. Indeed in many ways Danish cartoons could be seen as more objectionable. Scarfe’s caricature was grotesque and offensive but it was merely an attack on Netanyahu’s policies. Many of the Danish cartoons, on the other hand, such as the most controversial caricature depicting Muhammad wearing a turban in the form of a bomb, could more easily be read as an attack on Muslims as a group.

The distinction that Pollard raises between the right to free speech and the wisdom of exercising that right is important.  It is also slippery. Too often these days that distinction is used not to defend the right to publish even obnoxious material, but to try to close down debate while still proclaiming the virtues of free speech. ‘I believe in free speech but…’ has become an all too familiar argument.

Too much of the debate about free speech is shot through with double standards. Many of those who defended the publication of the Danish cartoons have been outraged by Scarfe’s cartoon. Equally many of those who insist that the Sunday Times was right to publish Scarfe objected to Jyllands-Posten publishing the Muhammad caricatures. Such double standards can only feed the rhetoric of the reactionaries and increase the pressure for even greater censorship of ‘offensive’ work. Ironically, Pollard himself has pointed this out. When, four years ago, the Dutch authorities sought to prosecute the Arab European League for publishing a cartoon that denied the Holocaust, Pollard described the prosecution as  ‘unjustified, stupid and deeply counter-productive’:

The Dutch chairman of the AEL says that the organisation deliberately published the cartoon on its website to highlight a double standard in freedom of speech rules in which anti-Muslim cartoons are permitted but anti-Jewish cartoons are banned. And one has to say that the Dutch authorities’ decision shows that he is right.

What was true then is also true now.


  1. JeremyR

    Our view of freedom of speech is itself “slippery”: we draw the line of acceptability between causing offence (ok if needed) and inciting hatred, even if short of violence (not ok). Both of them cause human suffering, but we deem the degree of suffering for one of them (offence) to be a price worth paying. That feels right to me, but it’s hardly rock solid.

    We should perhaps also be tolerant of the fact that it’s simply human for someone who feels personally attacked to feel differently about the boundaries of freedom of speech for her/his attacker than they would in a case where they had no emotional involvement. But – provided incitement is not involved – empathy for their pain should not extend to erosion of freedom of speech.

    • The idea that to give offence is to cause ‘suffering’ is to stretch the notion of suffering almost to breaking point. The giving of offence, it seems to me, is both inevitable and important. Inevitable, because in a plural society where different beliefs are deeply held, there will always be something you say that somebody else will find offensive. That’s almost what it means to live in a diverse society. And important because every time you challenge the way things are you will inevitably cause offence. Or to put it another way: ‘You can’t say that!’ is all too often the response of those in power to having their power challenged. To accept that certain things cannot be said because they cause offence is to accept that certain forms of power cannot be challenged. That’s why free speech is so important. That doesn’t mean that one should seek gratuitously to give offence, or that the giving of offence is a good in itself. But we certainly should not worry that an argument we make, or a belief that we hold, others might find offensive. That’s life.

      • JeremyR

        I completely agree. I’m not saying that free speech should be disallowed for fear of causing offence, merely that there’s a responsibility to think about the offence likely to be caused while exercising it, as we have a responsibility to avoid gratuitously hurting people (which is, in my view, though you’re free to disagree, a form of suffering, albeit a mild one). In many cases, it is essential to exercise free speech regardless of the offence and hurt caused.

        I think it was Arnold Wesker who said there were three forms of blasphemy:
        Gratuitous – done with the intention of causing offence.
        Accidental – causing offence without the intention to do so (the Sunday Times case?)
        Unavoidable – using freedom of speech to communicate an important point, such as expressing your own beliefs, despite knowing that someone is going to be offended by it.

  2. Daweed Yemini

    I disagree. How about waiting a day before publishing a cartoon depicting the leader of the Jewish state as a monster?

    • MojoJojo

      Netenyahu has been authorising air strikes on Palestine, and illegal settlement building on the West Bank, and everything else, for years. It’s not like he woke up after the last election and said “New policy, let’s make a land grab”

      The wall depicted in the cartoon wasn’t built overnight

      • Why not airstrike those who air striking you with 10,000 rockets for 8 continuous years?
        Why it is illegal for Jews to live in their homeland?
        Let me remind all that not Netanyahu built the “wall” (which more than 90% of it is a fence) by Ariel Sharon. Anti-Semites always have to lie in order to have their say. Although we have to admit that the “wall” keeps Israel from unstopped suicidal attacks of Islamist extreme terrorists. Now the Jews surrender themselves with the “wall” but from power and choice. Europe of the 40’s put the Jews into “walls” in order to exterminate all of them, because those Jews were weak enough, without their own national state to give them refuge and defend them.

    • I think the timing was perfect, you cannot act with impunity now just because of history. Using the words “leader of the Jewish state” is below the belt, he is the leader of Israel, there are not just Jews living in Israel.

      Gerald Scarfe is well known for his scathing and bloody cartoons, this one is just another well depicted political comment on a world leader, nothing more.

      Plus I have a right (as does everyone) to offend and others have the right to offend me too.

      Just to say also, I was meant to say: “good to see reason still alive.” in my first post…whoops!

    • JeremyR

      I’m inclined to agree with you (although the Sunday Times would have to wait a week, rather than a day).
      As the editor has said, it was a mistake. Once more the cock-up theory of history is demonstrated: it seems that the editorial team failed to put together the coincidence of the Israeli elections and Holocaust Memorial Day, coupled with the use of imagery intended as political satire but open to being read as referring to the Blood Libel (sadly still alive and well in the Middle East).

      No one has a right not to be offended. But we all, especially the media, have a responsibility to think carefully before causing offence. So I’d defend their right to publish the cartoon, while criticising their decision to do so, especially on that day.

      Exactly the same considerations apply to the Danish cartoons of course. Unlike the Sunday Times, they were published in the clear knowledge that they would cause offence. But the publisher presumably decided that linking Islam with terrorism in this way was more important than avoiding the hurt and offence caused to Muslims who were not supporters of terrorism.

      What is remarkable is the contrast in the reactions: in one case, threats of murder and violence, and in the other use of the communications and protest tools available in a civilised society.

  3. someone


    What happens if he IS a monster?

    Not saying that he is, just posing the question.

    Why should there be some section of the world which is immune to criticism?

  4. Floyd Coslin

    Daweed, first of all given that the Sunday Times is published on a Sunday (the clue is in the name), then this is the only day that it could be published on. Also Scarfe himself has said that he had no idea nor indeed any sort of control as to when they would publish the cartoon.

  5. Alan Armstrong

    The cartoon encapsulates the policies of Israel towards Palestine that have been in place for years. Illegal settlements have been built and Palestinians forcibly kicked out of their homes, a dividing wall constructed which divides families and is the embodiment of the apartheid-like attitude of Israeli’s towards Palestinians. I applaud Scarfe for high-lighting the disgraceful behaviour of the Israeli Govt., and congratulate the Sunday Times for publishing it.

  6. warboar

    To be anti-Zionist and anti-genocide is NOT the same as being antisemitic. At all. Ever.

    The government of Israel is committing acts of genocide against the Palestinian people, driving them off their land and forbidding them from ever returning home, failing to cooperate with the UN’s investigative efforts, and goading members of the Arab League into a war of attrition. The Israeli state refuses to compromise — unless that “compromise” comes in the form of appeasement. It doesn’t want peace.

    Sounds a lot like shit that happened in Europe that lead up to the founding of Israel in 1948.

    People are afraid to criticize Netanyahu and the Israeli government because of the religion they sponsor. At the fear of appearing antisemitic, many cow and indirectly condone the genocidal and terrorist acts committed by the Israeli state — a state which justifies its existence and abominable human rights violations on a bunch of outmoded drivel from the Old Testament.

    Genocide and terrorism are unforgivable, unjustifiable acts, no matter the religion of the people committing such acts. The government of Israel and Netanyahu need to be held accountable for their war crimes. Did we learn NOTHING from the atrocities of WWII, have we learned NOTHING from the outcome of Nuremburg trials? I thought we said “never again”? Well, good morning, Starshine, it has been happening again and again for decades now, under our very noses, with around $3.075 billion in American aid (if is anything to go by).

    • This is the kind rhetoric that makes it almost impossible these days to have a rational debate about Israel or Palestine. However objectionable we might find Israeli actions, to suggest that they amount to genocide, or to compare, as you seem to do, the actions of Israel to that of the Nazis, is absurd. Not just that, but it’s the kind of absurdity that leads people to cross the line from anti-Zionism to anti-semitism.

      • warboar

        It is the fallacy of false cause, the trope of the “slippery slope,” to insinuate that being against the terrorist, genocidal actions of a state justified by a Fundamentalist POLITICAL ideology (Zionism) equals, or will directly lead to, the hatred of Jews and Judaism. That’s like hating all Christians and Christianity because of Hitler (who was in fact Christian), or Atheists and Atheism because of Stalin. THAT is absurd.

        It is not absurd to call it genocide. The definition of genocide as determined by the United Nations may be read in full here: , and what the Israeli government is doing absolutely qualifies ( The UN Human Rights Commission as of 2008 affirmed that Israel was/is in violation of almost all 149 articles of the Fourth Geneva Convention, according to the Baltimore Chronicle ( The Israeli government’s actions are beyond simply being “objectionable.”

        Likewise, it is excruciatingly obvious that Israel and its (dwindling) allies cry “antisemitism” in order to avoid being held accountable for human rights violations. Honestly, it’s about time that Netanyahu and the Israeli government are receiving the criticism they deserve, and their atrocities increasingly pushed into the public eye. I applaud Scarfe for speaking up and speaking freely.

        To add, the Israeli *people* generally do not support war with Palestine, any more than the average American citizen desires more, much less continued, war in the Middle and Near East. This isn’t about the average Israeli citizen, or the average Jew. This is about the government of Israel and the brutal warmongers that lead it.

        While I find the formation of Israel in 1948 to be a regrettable mistake, it’s here now, and it doesn’t make sense to “do away” with it, any more than “doing away” with Palestine will solve anything. Netanyahu and his administration need to be imprisoned and replaced by non-maniacs who will genuinely make strides to achieve peace in that region (it’d also be nice if the American government ceased to send aid to Israel and fund its military projects, and used that money on the American infrastructure). Unfortunately, it’s far easier said than done.

      • warboar

        More on the working definitions of genocide and its punishment:

        Also, the definition of Semite/Semitic — it’s not a term exclusive to practitioners of the Jewish religion. Arabs are a Semitic group, and the Palestinians are a Semitic group. So “lol” at the Israeli government crying “antisemitism” when they’re killing other Semites.

      • You clearly read what I write with as little care as you employ in your characterization of Israel. I did not say that being against the actions of the state of Israel, or being anti-Zionist, amounts to, or will directly lead to, the hatred of Jews. What I said was that absurd characterizations of Israel as a genocidal state, or ludicorous comparisons of Israeli actions with those of the Nazis, ‘leads people to cross the line from anti-Zionism to anti-semitism’. And, yes, to suggest that it is Israeli policy to physically eliminate the Palestinian people, in the way that Nazis sought to eliminate the Jews, or Turks slaughtered the Armenians, is grotesque. It is the kind of distorted view of history that, if not rooted in anti-semitism, can act as a bridge between anti-Zionism and anti-semitism.

  7. The faux outrage around the Scarfe/Netanyahu cartoon is of course ridiculous (thousands of Guardian readers now believe ‘the Jews’ feast on children’s blood!!! yer right), and the Israel lobby does infinite more harm to the Jewish peoples than a silly cartoon but the, so called, *Danish cartoons* present a very different problem.

    For starters it is plainly wrong to gratuitously insult other people’s faith, not that I think it should be criminalised of course, just like other idiotic actions (like voting for Boris Johnston or supporting Chelsea) criminalisation is not the answer. But once people start rioting, threatening to kill, and actually killing, claiming the cartoons as justification for such acts, It does then become absolutely necessary to defend the right to publish, and that can only be done if someone does actually publish the wretched cartoons.

  8. Excellent post, Kenan.

    As for the outrage of the Board of Deputies of British Jews (who describe themselves on their Twitter profile as “the elected representative organisation of the UK Jewish community to government, media and other faith groups”), they couldn’t even bring themselves to condemn “metzitzah b’peh” (mohel sucking a baby boy’s circumcised penis) when I challenged them on that.


    Hardly the high priests of morality.

  9. JeremyR

    The two cases are not analogous: the Melbourne Age one really is grossly offensive, using the image of Auschwitz to compare Israeli policy to the extermination policies of the Nazis, and was clearly intended to be offensive to Jewish people, and to a lot of others too. The Sunday Times one is about a politician – Netanyahu – and the impact of his policies on Palestinians. While many Jewish people apparently found it offensive, especially because of unwitting references to the Blood Libel, that was not its intention. By the editor’s own admissions, it was a mistake.

    But the comparison is interesting as it illustrates the point that freedom of expression – a key feature of a free and civilised society – carries with it the responsibility to consider offence. The Melbourne Age editor had every right to publish the cartoon, but she/he (rightly in my view) presumably felt it was an unnecessarily hurtful/offensive way to make the (legitimate) point. That’s a reasonable decision. We all self-censor when dealing with other people – it’s often unkind not to. But it becomes dangerous where a real public-interest story or legitimate argument is stifled for fear of the repercussions.

  10. dom

    I heard this on the radio from a jewish commentator… “I hear a person in the street saying that the jews are killing Palestinians , this person has no idea how anti Semitic that statement is.”
    The commentator is complaining that we conflate Zionism with Judaism, and that is offensive to jews.
    But here we have an example of an anti zionist cartoon. There are no generic racial stereotypes in the image, just details specific to the war between Israel and Palestine… and it is condemned for being anti Semitic.
    Surely if we follow the first argument, it is anti Semitic to call this cartoon anti Semitic.

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