Arab cartoons that use antisemitic images are evidence of the damage done by festering hostilities, writes Ian Black
With a Star of David symbol emblazoned on his back, an Israeli soldier with bloodied hands bayonets a Christ-like figure in his mother’s lap in a classic “pieta” setting; Auschwitz concentration camp is recast as the besieged Gaza Strip; repulsive, hook-nosed Jews are portrayed as snakes or vampires; Ariel Sharon wears a swastika symbol or embraces Adolf Hitler – these are just some of the images to have appeared in Arab cartoons in recent years.
It is hardly news that the conflict in the Middle East is corrosive and hateful, but it is still shocking to see just how bad things can look in some of the works currently on critical display at London’s Political Cartoon gallery.
The author Joel Kotek, whose book accompanies the exhibition, argues that the background to what is happening today is centuries of Christian, European anti-Semitism, when the Jew was reviled as Christ-killer, usurer and leech.
All this was at a time, long before the birth of modern Zionism at the end of the 19th century, when Jews lived in Muslim lands as a tolerated religious minority. And the dreadful culmination of the Nazi Holocaust, of course, was the prelude to the establishment of Israel — and the Palestinian “nakba” or catastrophe — in 1948.
Sixty years on, it is disturbing that so many of these images – adapted to fit contemporary events – are still in circulation Even with peace treaties between Israel and two of its neighbours, Egypt and Jordan, [ which produced no results] and a change of Arab mood and policy that now accepts that Israel is a permanent fixture in the Middle East, the failure to resolve the Palestinian issue is a terrible open wound.
This is treacherous territory. Israelis and Jews are sometimes too quick to dismiss criticism of Israel, by Arabs and others, as anti-semitism. Arabs accuse Jews of “exploiting” the Holocaust to “cover up” crimes against the Palestinians.
The British Jewish philosopher Brian Klug has written helpfully on this point: “Critics often single Israel out unfairly, or defame the state, or criminalise it, and so on. All of which undoubtedly is biased. But is it necessarily anti-Semitic? No, it is not. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a tragic and bitter struggle. The issues are complex, passions inflamed, and the suffering in both populations is great. In such circumstances, there is bias on both sides.
“Then when is this bias anti-Semitic? Seen through the eyes of an anti-semite, Jews are essentially alien, powerful, cohesive, cunning, parasitic, and so on. Opposition to Israel or its government is anti-semitic when it employs some variation or other of this fantasy – just as criticism of Arabs is racist when it is based on the stock figure of the Arab as cunning, lying and degenerate, or as a hateful terrorist who attaches no value to human life.”
As Klug suggests, and some cartoons demonstrate, the lines between anti-Zionism, legitimate criticism of Israel and anti-semitism can become easily blurred when the subject is as emotive as the suffering of Palestinians and is blamed on US bias towards an overwhelmingly powerful Israel. In recent years, the war in Iraq, neocon thinking about the Middle East and jihadi discourse about “crusader-Zionist” conspiracies have made matters much worse.
It is striking that some of the nastiest of these images come from Egypt, where hostility to Israel remains strong despite three decades of formal peace.
In 2001, a cartoon in the state-owned al-Ahram, the most famous newspaper in the Arab world, depicted exultant Israelis toasting peace with Palestinian blood — a recurrent theme with an ancient and blatantly racist echo.
A year later, Bahrain’s Akhbar al-Khalij printed another classic anti-semitic stereotype — a bearded Orthodox Jew teaching George Bush, drawn as a parrot, to repeat the words: “I hate Arabs.”
Perhaps the most offensive cartoon in Kotek’s book is from the Kuwaiti paper al-Rai al-Aam in 1988: it shows a skullcap-wearing Jew baking a live Arab in an oven that looks like a concentration camp crematorium.
But Arabs are not alone: some European and American cartoonists use similar images, with the Brazilian Carlos Latuff drawing, without inhibition, on judeophobic stereotypes in the service of the anti-globalisation movement.
Cartoons from Iran are a recent addition to this grim gallery, and often feature Holocaust denial and the equation of Zionism with Nazism. The Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has attracted enormous controversy by questioning whether the Holocaust took place and organising a competition of cartoons on the subject in response to the Danish cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad.
Klug’s advice to the Muslim and Arab worlds is worth repeating: “Every time you draw on anti-semitism, you fuel the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – by reinforcing the anger and fear that many Jews, inside and outside Israel, understandably feel.” [ Why isn’t this piece of advice directed at Israelis and Jews equally?]
Too much significance can be attached to mere cartoons. As Kotek points out, they are by their nature exaggerated, exasperating and never neutral. But peddling racial and religious prejudice is dangerous and wrong.
The conflict between Israel and the Palestinians does have a religious dimension, but it is fundamentally a political one and can only be resolved by political means: negotiations based on mutual recognition and compromise. These cartoons are yet another reminder of how urgent that task is.
Cartoons and Extremism: Israel and the Jews in Arab and Western Media, Joel Kotek. www.vmbooks.com. The Political Cartoon gallery, at 32 Store Street, London WC1E 7BS, is open from 9.30am to 5.30pm from Monday to Friday and 11.30am to 5.30pm on Saturday. Phone 0207 5801114.