Scarfe’s cartoon may have been unpleasant, but was it really anti-Semitic? (Independent)

What is anti-Semitic is always unpleasant, but what is unpleasant is not always anti-Semitic. That was my take on Gerald Scarfe’s now infamous cartoon, depicting the Israeli Prime Minister wielding a bloodied knife over a wall dripping with blood and crushing presumably Palestinian victims between the cracks.

The image, published in the Sunday Times, would have put me off my breakfast, had I been reading the paper over breakfast. As political cartoons go, it’s not much for subtlety; the clear message is that the Israeli leader is an obstacle to peace and responsible for vast amounts of Palestinian bloodshed.

Now I’m no cheerleader for Netanyahu. In my view his continued support for settlement construction is obstructive and worrying, and my hope is that he will form a more moderate and peace-seeking coalition going forward. But you don’t need to be a Phd student of the history of the Middle East and the ongoing conflict between Israel and its Palestinian neighbours to know that the situation is just a little more complex than Mr Scarfe’s cartoon would have us believe.

If nothing else, the imagery of the cartoon – a wall cemented by Palestinian blood – is profoundly offensive, given that Israel’s controversial security wall (or fence, as much of it actually is) was built not to keep Palestinians as victims but to stem the tide of suicide bombers intent on causing mass bloodshed in Israel.

But antisemitic? Much of the commentary and discussion about the cartoon has been over its supposed association with the ancient blood libel against Jews; whereby Jews were accused of killing Christians to use their blood for religious rituals at festivals. Perhaps the most famous example of a blood libel occurred in thirteenth century Lincoln, when 18 Jews were hanged after being falsely accused of the murder of a local boy. So it’s not exactly baffling that a depiction of flowing blood, next to cartoons of innocent people being attacked by the leader of the Jewish state, might raise eyebrows among anyone with a basic awareness of history.

Still, plenty of historic bloodshed has had nothing to do with Jews, and cartoonists like Scarfe are known for pushing the boundaries of taste. Scarfe’s drawing, while undeniably unpleasant – and hardly a nuanced depiction of the political reality (where is Hamas in this picture?) – is not to my mind antisemitic.

The problem is the timing; publishing a cartoon castigating the Israeli Prime Minister on the one day the world has set aside to remember the Holocaust and its six million Jewish victims hardly screams of sensitivity. Scarfe may well not have known when the cartoon would appear, as he has claimed, but the editor could not have been blind to the date – after all, the paper’s explanation of the inclusion points to a feature criticising Holocaust-denier David Irving in the magazine of the same issue.

The point is that the Holocaust still means something. It is not just another news story, one tragedy among many, destined to become nothing more than tomorrow’s fish and chip wrapping.

The Holocaust signifies humanity at its worst. It is not just a word, not just a useful comparison. It is millions of men, women and children shorn of all dignity, starved, denigrated and slaughtered. It is the brutal and systematic murder of millions, the persecution of an entire people for no reason other than their religion.

And it is still in living memory for a good proportion of the population. For many of those objecting to the cartoon today, it is the tragedy of those ancestors they never met, the grandparents and relatives who were gassed at Birkenau or lined up for slaughter at Auschwitz, the friends and loved ones who did not make it out alive.

And the day, the one day of the year, on which we recognise that and pledge for it never to be repeated is not just a convenient news hook, something for cartoonists or ignorant MPs to use as a peg for a point about the political situation in Israel or anything else.

When we allow a day of memorial for the victims of genocide to become a political tool, something has gone wrong. I do not believe the Sunday Times is in any way antisemitic, or that Gerald Scarfe is. But the cartoon is still deeply, deeply unpleasant.

To see the original and read the comments, click here.


Yair Lapid is the kind of pro-peace politician the Middle East is crying out for (Independent)

I joked earlier that Yair Lapid is, essentially, the main character of Aaron Sorkin’s as-yet unwritten series about Israeli politics. By which I did not mean that he would inevitably find the key to the stalemate in the Middle East – as President Bartlet so memorably managed in The West Wing – but that he is attractive, charming, media savvy and media friendly (he is, of course, a former journalist), and that above all, he comes across as largely sincere in his beliefs.

As West Wing fans will know, Sorkin’s politicians tend to be the heroes, championing the right and good. If Lapid comes anywhere close to this, that surely is good news for Israel and for all those who want to see it thrive and build a peaceful, stable future with its neighbours.

On Tuesday Lapid’s Yesh Atid party claimed 19 seats, more than expected and enough to make it the second biggest player. In the run-up to the Israeli election, when Lapid’s chances of winning a substantial number of seats seemed dim, especially against the trajectory of the right-wing, uncompromisingly pro-settlement Naftali Bennet and his Jewish Home party, one of the questions was whether this untested politician could walk the walk quite as well as he could talk the talk.

Lapid is a smooth, modern politician in the Obama mould, able to make rousing speeches and engage with the everyday voter and their concerns. He is corruption-free, comes across as affable, and is well-known to voters by way of a regularly broadcast slot. And like Barack Obama, his perspective has been shaped by his personal story; he too published a memoir, Memories After My Death, telling the tale of his Hungarian immigrant father’s journey.

Israel, in common with most electorates that invest disproportionate faith in the abilities of one individual to transform the political landscape, has been disappointed before. It is not entirely surprising that after various well-intentioned dreamers ultimately failed to bring about real change, many Israelis turned instead to more pragmatic, expedient politicians like Ariel Sharon and Benjamin Netanyahu.

Yet Lapid, with his commitment to working with both the most staunchly religious and the most ardently secular, and his desire to work not just for a two-state solution but for domestic progress, belongs in that first category. His victory speech – “I hope to change things for the better. For 30 years, this country has been about left versus right. Now we want to change things on the inside: national service, education, housing, a middle class that cannot finish the month” – could have been written by Sorkin, or spoken by Obama.

He is an idealist – a clever, politically attuned one for sure, but he is not a career politician (although in true Israeli style, he is the son of one). Enjoying success and stability as a journalist, he did not have to enter the muddy waters of Israeli politics.

He has not been particularly vocal in terms of foreign policy – although he vowed last year not to join any government opposed to diplomatic negotiations on the peace process – but the consensus is that he is pro-peace, and the suggestion is that he is at least aware of international opinion and how Israel can damage itself with settlements or stubbornness.

That is not to say he is only a naïve dreamer; he is aware there is no perfect solution – “we’re not looking for a happy marriage with the Palestinians, but for a divorce agreement we can live with” – but appears at least to believe an imperfect one is possible.

Perhaps Lapid is no different from the scores of other ambitious and self-serving politicians who have gone before him, flying in on an “outsider” tagline only to become as “insider” as the rest. Perhaps – and as yet it is unclear whether he will enter the coalition or become the main opposition player – all the hopes and aspirations shared on the campaign trail, from drafting the strictly Orthodox into army service to building a fairer economy, will disintegrate once the messy business of governing gets in the way.

Only time will tell. But, after months of scaremongering about a sharp rightward turn for Israel, it can only be positive that a moderate centrist who still believes in all that “hopey changey” stuff has emerged as kingmaker. For a country founded on the dreams of figures like Theodor Herzl, Rav Kook and David Ben Gurion, Lapid’s rise can only be a good thing for Israel and for the wider region.

To see the original and read the comments, click here.

My two weeks in writing

I started last week with an interview with up-and-coming band Haim, just named the BBC’s Sound of 2013 and set for stardom. The singers – three sisters – revealed their love of Streisand and told of how reporters often mispronounced their surname.

In more serious news, I did a special report on the efforts to stem sex trafficking in Israel, which have been a resounding success. Labour MP Frank Field and former Conservative MP Anthony Stee urged Britain to adopt many of the strategies that have been used so effectively there. This week I also commissioned a follow-up comment piece on what still needs to be done to challenge other forms of trafficking in Israel.

I reported on Labour pinpointing its key battleground constitencies for 2015, wrote about a controversial ban on non-Jewish names on the grave of an Orthodox man in Leeds, and spoke to Holocaust survivors ahead of the airing of a documentary by filmmaker Daisy Asquith. And, taking a look at the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, I heard about a woman who has been donating free sheitels – wigs for Orthodox women used for modesty purposes – to those who lost almost everything.

This week I also reported on a fabulously gothic Victorian drama – the story of the only policeman ever to have been killed in his office, bludegoned to death by a suspect being questioned for stealing a roll of carpet – and the move to honour him with a plaque. I also recorded ElAl’s decision to add a large number of flights out of Luton, and wrote about a push to encourage more Jewish teachers to engage with unions.

My three weeks in writing

What with Christmas and new year, I’ve been very lax at updating this. But the past few weeks haven’t been entirely quiet, and the stories that I’ve worked on have included the PCC’s ruling on the Guardian cartoon about Gaza, and the death of the man believed to be the last surviving Briton to have fought Franco. I also delved into the fascinating world of medieval astrology and found out about astrolabes – devices use to study the cosmos – and the work being done to learn more about them.

I contributed a feature on a programme bringing teenagers from around Europe together to learn leadership skills, after meeting the group for an event at the House of Commons, and, staying with parliament, investigated how many Early Day Motions were instigated on the subject of Israel in the last year. The result: 21, at a cost of £6,000 to the taxpayer.

I indulged my inner West Wing fan by writing about Josh Malina’s unusual fundraising method, and covered the news that Francesca Segal’s novel The Innocents – which I reviewed last year, as you can read here – had won its category for the Costa Prize.

With the new year came the Honours List, which we trawled through in order to speak to as many recipients as we could find. Without fail, each one said something along the lines of not deserving it, but being delighted – humility that perhaps shows why they have reached the list in the first place. I also covered the remarkable project carried out by an artistic teenager, who sketched a drawing a day based on current events for the whole of 2012.

Meanwhile in comment, I wrote on how we must not lose sight of what Israel represents and what it should be striving for, and was delighted to feature academic Tony Klug on the essay page with a piece on the two-state solutions and intransigence among leaders.

Having interviewed him last year, my piece on stage and film legend Jack Garfein went in. He was a fascinating subject to interview and I thoroughly enjoyed my times speaking to him.