Wednesday, January 30, 2013 

Do we have to go through this again?

There really isn't much to add to the entire furore over Gerald Scarfe's cartoon in the last issue of the Sunday Times.  No, it clearly isn't antisemitic, unless you think as the Israeli ambassador and the Board of Deputies of British Jews apparently do that you can't portray an Israeli politician and blood in the same image for fear of invoking the blood libel.  It doesn't matter that there is nothing in the cartoon that even begins to highlight the fact that Benjamin Netanyahu is Jewish, or any suggestion that those encased in the wall are anything other than Palestinian, the majority of whom are Muslim rather Christian, it simply seems to have been down to how the cartoon was published on Holocaust Memorial Day that it's been so taken against.

At least when Steve Bell's cartoon of Netanyahu was accused of being antisemitic the only action taken was that the reader's editor suggested cartoonists shouldn't "use the of language of antisemitic stereotypes".  Considering the breadth of antisemitic literature and the hundreds of years of pogroms and prejudices, you can fairly easily find yourself completely unintentionally echoing old stereotypes, as Bell did by showing Netanyahu using Tony Blair and William Hague as puppets, or as Scarfe has now done through daring to suggest that Netanyahu might have some blood on his hands.  For the Sunday Times to essentially accept that it should never have ran the cartoon, purely because of the use of blood and because it was insensitively published on HMD, although Scarfe apparently hadn't realised that was the case, is utterly pathetic.

It's obvious though that this is both Murdoch's doing and the paper's new editor Martin Ivens having to follow where his master leads.  The paper at first rightly defended the cartoon as legitimate comment and as being typical of Scarfe's body of work, but this seems to increasingly mean nothing when it comes to the way some want to shut down debate.  On Newsnight last night Hugo Rifkind took issue with Steve Bell's bringing up of how Scarfe had also recently depicted Bashar Assad as drinking from a cup marked as containing children's blood, as though Assad and Netanyahu were comparable.  Clearly they aren't in the sense of democratic legitimacy. or the brutal methods they've employed, yet the point surely is, as always, that we expect more from those who receive massive amounts of Western aid and make great play of their being the only democracy in the Middle East, however out of date that claim now is.

To suggest there's been an awful lot of cant involved in this latest outbreak of accusations all but goes without saying.  Yes, it is indeed the case that there is a very fine line between antisemitism, anti-Zionism and vehement criticism of Israel, and it's also true that the apparent rise in recorded incidents of antisemitism is very worrying and has to be tackled.  The left does have a case to answer here, as that line has been breached in the past, and antisemitism when it comes to criticism of Israel has at times been tolerated when it would never be otherwise.  This said, it's also apparent there's an stark element of racism within Israeli society which goes under reported: in the past few months there's been reports of Ethiopian women being forcibly given birth control injections before being allowed in to the country, of fans of a football club campaigning against the signing of Muslim players, and most pertinently, Israeli politicians using disgusting language about African migrants.

This makes it all the more difficult to take when Daniel Taub effectively tries to halt an unpleasant but not unwarranted critique of his prime minister by crying racism.  People will always take offence and are perfectly entitled to, but when it's actual state actors that are attempting to close down legitimate debate it really is about time we sorted out this nonsense once and for all. 

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Monday, November 26, 2012 

Sensitivity, anti-Semitism and Steve Bell.



Back in 2002, the New Statesman was quite rightly criticised after it ran the above front cover.  Picturing a Star of David pinning down the very centre of the union flag, while asking whether there was a "kosher conspiracy" involving lobbying from advocates of Israel, it invoked the most classic of anti-Semitic tropes whether that was the intention or not.  Editor at the time Peter Wilby apologised, and ran an editorial admitting that he personally had gotten it badly wrong.


10 years on, the readers' editor at the Graun has been moved to comment on the above Steve Bell cartoon, ran the day after the assassination of Ahmed al-Jabari.  Mainly responding to a couple of letters to the paper from Mark Gardner of the Community Support Trust as well as online criticism, Chris Elliot concludes his piece by saying that in his view, journalists should "not use the language – including the visual language – of antisemitic stereotypes".  It is undoubtedly the case that Jews have in the past been caricatured as powerful puppet masters, although more usually as pulling strings rather than wielding politicians as glove puppets.

If the cartoon does then echo an anti-Semitic stereotype, however unconsciously, does that by definition make it anti-Semitic?  In this instance I would suggest it does not.  Bell states, and Elliot recognises that he has often depicted politicians as either puppets or subservient to others (Tony Blair was at times a poodle to George Bush's chimp), and Bell argues that on this occasion his intention was no different.  Bell says the whole point of the cartoon is Benjamin Netanyahu's cynicism and his manipulation of the situation leading up to the launching of Operation Pillar of Defence, with Blair and William Hague unwilling to criticise his actions despite this being a repeat of the tactics of past Israeli leaders as elections approach.

It's an argument I myself have made, and while I can see why the depiction of Blair and Hague as glove puppets will be seen by some as either lazy or offensive, taken as a whole the cartoon is clearly not anti-Semitic.  As Bell says, the entire cartoon is a take on a photograph of Netanyahu giving a statement to the media, where the backdrop was Israeli flags and there was a menorah on the lectern.  As often as there is a fine line between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism, and it's one where the left at times accepts prejudice it would never tolerate elsewhere, the cartoon isn't even the former; it's an attack on a politician and how he presents himself, not a country or a racial group.  It does not, even obliquely, imply that Jews as a whole are "omnipotent conspirators" as the Jewish Chronicle quoted Jeremy Brier as saying, even if it can be argued it does fall into the stereotype of depicting a Jew as a puppeteer.

The irony will not be lost on some that the Graun is the paper most associated, rightly or wrongly, with political correctness, and has on occasion ran some utterly loopy pieces on perceived bigotry.  In this case it seems to have to a certain degree reaped what it has sown, while also falling victim to those groups that do treat any criticism of Israel as anti-Semitic.  While there is nothing wrong with going to great lengths in a bid to be sensitive, what should not be silenced is legitimate criticism of politicians of any race, colour or creed for fear that a stereotype might be touched upon, regardless of the medium through which it is made.

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Tuesday, May 17, 2011 

The depressing adventures of Melanie Phillips, pt 94.

Those with long memories for the rhetorical ticks of prominent political columnists might recall that Melanie Phillips had taken to referring to criticism of both herself and Israel as "verbal pogroms", as though by daring to take a different view to hers you were essentially perpetuating violence against her.

A Google search suggests that while Mel has cut back on her usage of that specific term, she's still as certain as ever that a concerted campaign of violence against Jewish people in this country, seemingly one which could be sponsored even by this government, is just around the corner. From a recent post on a incident at the School for Oriental and African Studies:

The pre-pogrom atmosphere in the UK against Israel and its supporters turned into outright thuggery at the weekend.

Yes, although you might not have personally noticed it, the atmosphere in this country is now so poisonous against Israel and its supporters that we're at the stage immediately prior to an widespread outburst of racially motivated murder and vandalism. It's one thing to be fearful that under certain circumstances such an atmosphere could arise; it's quite another to actively suggest it's already been reached. What a frightening, angry and incredibly sad place the inside of Phillips' mind must be.

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Tuesday, June 12, 2007 

Boycotting and bullying.

The decision by the president of DePaul university to deny Norman Finkelstein his application for continued tenure highlights the yawning chasm between campus politics on both sides of the Atlantic. A little less than two weeks ago the University and College Union passed a motion by 158 to 99 for a "a comprehensive and consistent boycott" of all Israeli academic institutions, in solidarity with a call made by Palestinian trade unions for such measures. In one country, the anti-occupation argument wins, while on the other the accusations of antisemitism against those who are critical of Israeli government policy appear to have prevailed.

The background to Finkelstein being put out of a job is part of the wider argument, increasingly conducted outside Israel itself, about the differences between antisemitism and anti-Zionist expansion, about the rights of the Palestinians to resist and organise in the face of both a 40-year occupation and how the peace process can be moved on from outside. Finkelstein, a widely acknowledged brilliant analytical academic, the son of Holocaust survivors, has long been a thorn in the side of unapologetic pro-Israelis, most notoriously writing an attack on what he calls the "Holocaust industry", which he regards as both exploiting the shame and guilt felt about the failure to stop the Holocaust into treating Israel with kid gloves, ignoring its own abundant abuses of human rights and failure to make peace with the Palestinians.

Finkelstein's undoing appears to have been taking on Alan Dershowitz, an equally vehement defender of Israel to Finkelstein's ardent criticism. You might know Dershowitz more for one of his other ideas: proposing, despite his own opposition to torture, that authorities could gain a warrant which would allow them to engage a "suspect" with non-lethal forms of interrogation in a "ticking bomb" scenario. He more recently toured studios in effect defending rendition, making much the same argument, slightly altered by saying that since torture was already evidently taking place, that there should be set guidelines on what is and what is not allowed. Another similarly enlightened argument he made was that Israel should declare a unilateral ceasefire in responding to Palestinian terrorism, and that if militants didn't similarly declare an end to operations, that a village or town identified as being an operations base for the militants would be given a ultimatum, after which all the houses and buildings in the village would be destroyed. Even by the Israeli standards of inflicting collective punishment on the Palestinians, such a measure is terrifying in its base inhumanity.

Ignoring the more tedious elements of Finkelstein and Dershowitz's conflict, Dershowitz was one of the first to write to DePaul university calling for Finkelstein's request for further tenure to be denied. While Finkelstein's methods of responding and arguing are by his own admission polemical, and he strays occasionally into ad hominem attacks, with him making mistakes in his claims against Dershowitz's book The Case for Israel, there are few who regard him, as Dershowitz does, as an anti-Semite or a bigot. Ignoring perhaps the usual suspects who support and defend him in Noam Chomsky and Alexander Cockburn, highly respected historian of the Holocaust Raul Hilberg and Avi Shlaim, formerly of Haifa university, both went on Democracy Now! to support his continued tenure.

The whole dispute perhaps tells us more about how academia is being increasingly divided and ruled in Europe and America than it does about anything else. The biggest difference is how almost all political opinion in America is amazingly pro-Israeli, especially considering the relatively small Jewish population, which in any case overwhelming votes Democrat. Various reasons for this, differing between a highly successful Israeli lobby, itself the subject of high controversy involving Alan Dershowitz last year after a highly notable paper attempted to show how the Israeli lobby and US foreign policy intertwined, neo-con ideology which itself is highly caught up in the Likudist outlook on the Middle East, the support of Christian far-righters, for their own various selfish reasons, and just general sympathy for a people which without the intervention of the Americans may well have been close to being wiped out, all play a part, as does the continued concern about the intentions of Iran, at least now that Saddam Hussein has been removed from the equation. The "war on terror" has also thrown the two nations together in something of a common cause, despite the obvious differences between the various motives behind the attacks which both have suffered.

The movement towards boycotting Israel in Europe suggest that the opposite is true here, but this is almost certainly not the case. Prior to the removal of Conrad Black, the Telegraph was one of the strongest defenders of Israel policy in all areas, and while perhaps slightly less strident now that it's under the Barclay brothers, it remains mostly the same. It's not just the Melanie Philips' of this world that are shrill in their speaking out on Israel's behalf, but other organisations like Independent Jewish Voices, which while critical would by no means support a boycott of academia. The attempts to portray some of this legitimate criticism, as Deborah Lipstadt has, as soft-core denial, or even as Philips did, as Jews somehow being for Genocide, often shows just what those who are critical of the occupation have to face for speaking out. This is partly down to the defenders of Israel both using hyperbole and over-selling themselves at the same time, and while pro-Palestinians do fall into this trap as well, there is no other debate which so often descends purely into mud-slinging, with accusations of bigotry, self-hatred and racism never being far from surfacing.

As is so often the case, the middle road again seems to be the best course. I've never seen it adequately or lucidly explained exactly what an academic boycott of Israel is meant to achieve: it seems, despite the no doubt honourable intentions of the Palestinian trade unions and universities in calling for one, that it's meant to more send a far too easily misconstrued message to the world, with predictable results in backlash terms. It smacks all too much of intellectual circle-jerking, doing nothing to help the Palestinians on the ground while the great debate swirls round and round. The only boycott that really matters at the moment is the one which continues to cause economic devastation in the occupied territories, and which has more than a hand in the descent in Gaza into all-out civil war. That is the one which needs lifting, but it seems to have been almost forgotten. Finkelstein should be at DePaul, while universities ought to petitioning the government and the EU to lift the reckless and irresponsible boycotting of Hamas which is only penalising the people who had the audacity to use their democratic vote.

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