Offensive cartoons

A row is currently developing about a cartoon that the Guardian published a couple of days ago on the Lebanon war. The cartoon, by Martin Rowson, shows a fist hitting a child; the fist has Stars of David on, being used rather like knuckle-dusters. (The cartoon is at,,1823933,00.html: there’s a bit more to it than that, but that’s the central image). I don’t think I took in the details of the cartoon when I first saw it: I only started to take notice when there was first an apology by the Guardian and then a complaint by the Israeli ambassador. The ambassador’s complaint is that the cartoon is anti-Semitic (,,1825632,00.html) and an ‘incitement’.

Rowson’s cartoon is nasty, but then Rowson is a nasty cartoonist, which the Guardian seems to specialise in (Steve Bell and Ralph Steadman are others who spring to mind). I don’t think there would have been any loss to the world if the cartoon hadn’t been published. I didn’t understand it as anti-Semitic, but it was certainly viciously anti-Israel, in the way there are also routinely anti-American, anti-Russian etc cartoons. But it’s only a few months since the outcry about the Danish cartoons on Muhammad. There were vast numbers of Western voices then insisting that the right to publish offensive cartoons was the basic foundation of modern liberalism (or words to that effect). I somehow doubt that there will be the same voices raised to defend the Guardian. (Incidentally, I didn’t think the publishing of those cartoons was justified).

Why do so many Westerners apparently hold that it is wrong to publish anti-Jewish cartoons, but not anti-Muslim ones? One possible interpretation of the Rowson cartoon is that Jews as a whole hurt children. The only plausible interpretation of a cartoon of Muhammad with a bomb in his turban (the worst of the Danish cartoons) is that Islam as a whole is intrinsically murderous. Thus the cartoons are equal in their impact or the Islamic one is more offensive (as well as being repeated with variants).

One immediate difference is that the Israeli ambassador has not called for any violence over the cartoons (and as far as I know, nor have any Jewish groups). Yet the argument that ‘you can have your rights, but only if you ask nicely’ isn’t exactly convincing. The final reason why complaints by Jews about hostile cartoons are taken more seriously is the obvious one: we’ve seen where that has led to in the past. The belief that free speech should be unlimited can only be maintained by the blind refusal to admit that there is often a connection between repeatedly saying ‘Jews/Blacks/Muslims/Gypsies/gays are scum who deserve to be killed’ and people actually attacking these groups. Does the fact that there hasn’t yet been mass physical targeting of Muslims (with the exception of former Yugoslavia) mean that it’s OK to demonise them?


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