The Israeli Embassy in London has accused a British newspaper of perpetuating the blood libel against Jews after it ran a cartoon that depicted Prime Minister Ariel Sharon eating a baby.
The cartoon in the Independent newspaper showed Sharon crouched in the ruins of a village, biting the head off a baby as helicopters circle overhead broadcasting the message “Vote Sharon.”
“What’s wrong…. You never seen a politician kissing babies before?” Sharon asks in the drawing.
The embassy filed its complaint via celebrated lawyer Anthony Julius, who successfully defended scholar Deborah Lipstadt when Holocaust denier David Irving sued her for libel in a highly publicized case in London in 2000.
“The complaint concerns neither politics nor art. It is instead about anti-Semitism,” Julius argued. “The cartoon associates Prime Minister Sharon, a Jew, with a particularly dreadful crime allegedly committed by Jews — indeed, habitually and exclusively by Jews. It associates him with the blood libel.”
Describing it as “a gruesome, appalling image,” Julius says the cartoon “has an implicit politics, one which supposes Israelis to be murderous brutes, and Palestinians, martyred innocents.”
The cartoon has provoked protests ever since it was published on Jan. 27, which was Holocaust Memorial Day in Britain and other European nations — and the day before Israel’s general election.
About 30 complaints about it have come in to the Press Complaints Commission, a commission spokeswoman said.
The Board of Deputies, the umbrella organization representing most British Jews, was among the first to lodge a protest with the commission.
“Such a caricature goes way beyond acceptable political commentary,” said the board’s director general, Neville Nagler.
“Jews all over the world are facing the increasing threat of anti-Semitism. To see such a blatantly anti-Semitic caricature in a mainstream British newspaper is a matter of grave concern,” he said.
The commission has not yet responded to the board’s complaint, a board spokeswoman said.
But it has already rejected two complaints on the grounds that they did not come from Sharon himself, the object of the cartoon, the commission spokeswoman told JTA.
“The cartoon made reference to a named individual, but as he has not complained, the commission cannot take up a third-party complaint,” she said.
The commission has asked the Israeli Embassy whether it is acting on behalf of Sharon.
The embassy’s complaint charges that not only Sharon, but also the Israeli army and electorate, are the targets of attack.
The Independent rejects the charge that the cartoon is anti-Semitic .
Its editor-in-chief, Simon Kelner — who is Jewish — declined to speak to JTA.
But he told London’s Jewish Chronicle newspaper: “I am Jewish myself, so I would be sensitive to anything anti-Semitic. This was a very powerful cartoon and it is clearly anti-Sharon. However, that is very different [from] being anti-Semitic.”
The cartoonist, Dave Brown, also rejected the charge of prejudice.
“Not only did I have no intention of being anti-Semitic; I had no desire to make anti-Israel comment. At a time when the Israeli Labor Party was offering the choice of a settlement, I sought only to target a man and a party I consider to be actively working against peace,” Brown wrote.
Norman Lebrecht, a former Jewish Chronicle columnist and now assistant editor of the Evening Standard newspaper, also dismissed the allegation that the cartoon was anti-Semitic.
He told JTA it was important to consider the image in the context of what he called the Independent’s “stridently anti-Zionist, though not anti-Semitic, line.”
“I thought the cartoon was unpleasant and unimaginative, but not overtly anti-Semitic,” he said.
“Taken out of context, the cartoon might appear more offensive than it does in its intended placement and purpose. On the pages of the Independent, it supports an editorial line which, however much it may annoy the Israeli Embassy, does not make the cartoon, or the newspaper, anti-Semitic,” he said.
But Winston Pickett of the London think tank the Institute for Jewish Policy Research said the cartoon could not be separated from a broader context — the history of the blood libel — no matter what the artist or editor intended.
“In the framing of this particular cartoon, there are anti-Semitic stereotypes: the eating of children,” he told JTA.
“I have no problem with criticizing Sharon — that’s open territory — but to bring in these motifs that are so clearly reminiscent of the blood libel, a medieval world-view, makes it dangerous,” he said.
“There are red flags that should go off in your head: You don’t put Jews eating babies. You wouldn’t put a black Sambo on your front lawn,” said Pickett, who writes about the cartoon in the forthcoming book “A New Anti-Semitism? Debating Judeophobia in 21st-Century Britain.”
Pickett said the image was reminiscent of cartoons that appear in Arab newspapers: “I was able to locate a cartoon in Al-Quds that has the same image — Sharon eating babies out of a bowl with a spoon and blood running down his face.
“I am not accusing the [Independent’s] editor or the artist of being professional anti-Semites, but these themes are dangerous,” he said.
Cartoonist Steve Greenberg, who has won the past two American Jewish Press Association awards for cartooning, is also concerned that the image could cause problems.
“The cartoon, while technically well drawn and very powerful, is shrill, rather excessive and could very well stir up some anti-Semitism on a visceral level,” he told JTA by e-mail from California.
“I can see how the cartoonist uses the image and the ‘baby kissing’ twist to strong effect, but by ignoring the historic context of ‘blood-libel’ anti-Semitic cartoons, he wittingly or unwittingly perpetuates a dismal area of cartooning that plays to the worst instincts in some people.”
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.