The Charlie Hebdo affair is the gift that keeps on giving if you want to understand the contours of power in the West today. There are many past incidents which, although trifling at the time, now take on a whole new importance when seen through the lens of Charlie Hebdo — this solid gold BBC radio debate is one of them.
On Holocaust Memorial Day 2013 the Sunday Times ran a Gerald Scarfe cartoon which showed a bloodthirsty Binyamin Netanyaju cementing up a wall with the bodies of dead Palestinians. It was a gory, tasteless work which was par for the course for the artist and which would seem to fall well within the lampoonists terms of engagement as claimed by the post-modern supporters of #JeSuisCharlie — i.e. nothing is sacred and no-one is beyond satire.
Except, as Gerald Scarfe was to discover, it turned out that some things are very much untouchable and unsayable. For the organised Jewish community reacted with predictable well-orchestrated incandescent rage and, equally predictably, the fearless News International caved in, withdrew the cartoon and responded with a fulsome apology from Rupert Murdoch himself.
Despite Murdoch’s apology, the affair soon escalated. The Board of Jewish Deputies complained to the press regulator; the UK Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks said it had “caused immense pain to the Jewish community in the UK and around the world”. The Israeli ambassador was outraged. The Speaker of the House in Tel Aviv called on his Jewish counterpart in the House of Commons to take action. Even Tony Blair waded in. The Sunday Times set up immediate meetings to placate the Jewish community. Eventually Gerald Scarfe apologised for the “timing” of the cartoon. As a demonstration of national and international community power and a warning to others, it was impressive.
Remember, all this happened the year before Operation Preventive Edge and the slaughter of more than 2000 Palestinians in Israeli bombardments. In the BBC radio debate the argument for a cartoonist’s free speech is made by that staunch man of the left, Guardian cartoonist Steve Bell, while his opponent is the pugnacious editor of the Jewish Chronicle , Stephen Pollard.
Summarised, Pollard’s position seems to be that free speech is absolute, except that one must be aware of the consequences — in this case, offending the Jewish community and then dealing with threats of losing one’s job, etc. What that comes down to is that any any images of Israelis spilling the blood of Palestinians is off-limits because for Jews this dredges up memories of accusations that Jews ritually sacrificed non-Jewish children during the Middle Ages. This of course neatly de-legitimises any mention of the deaths of children in the Gaza massacres. The same logic would apply to any critical depiction of the culture of the Holocaust.
The “blood sacrifice” angle, which must have baffled many listeners, gave Pollard a peg to hang his argument on. He took particular exception to the illustration of blood dripping off Netanyahu’s trowel. He makes the assertion that the cartoon amounts repeating the “blood libel” that non-Jewish children are ritually sacrificed by the Jews. He also asserted that such criticisms are illegitimate and should not be published on Holocaust Memorial Day, a self-serving argument if ever there was one.
Bell’s response is half-hearted and uninformed. “The problem with this argument is that extraneous emotions like blood libel are drawn in,” he says feebly. Bell said the cartoon was anti-Netanyahu rather than anti-Jewish. Pollard was having none of it. “I defy anyone not to see that this cartoon is about Benjamin Netanyahu glorifying in the blood of Palestinians.”
So the pattern of complete intolerance to criticism of Israel, even in cartoon fashion, was there two years ago. But now thanks to the Charlie Hebdo affair, we have a prism through which to view it clearly. The Jews as an elite group will react to a cartoon they find offensive by demanding apologies and doing their best to get the culprit fired. In any case, they have raised the costs of printing any cartoon that even mentions that Israelis have shed the blood of Palestinians. Cartoonists like Scarfe and Bell will certainly think twice before they produce a similar cartoon.
Muslims, as a non-elite group, have no other option than to react to such cartoons with murder. The same can be said about Muslim reaction to politicians who oppose Muslim immigration. Which is why Geert Wilders is under protective guard at all times.
But in either case, the bottom line is to control public discourse related to their ethnic group.