The Sunday Times and the Scarfe cartoon

The day after acting Sunday Times editor Martin Ivens was obliged to apologise to the Jewish community for the offence caused by Gerald Scarfe’s anti-Netanyahu cartoon, there was generally a lot more heat than light shed on the subject.

A Scarfe cartoon is never pleasant, and this seemed designed to provoke a reaction. But in my view, one commentator got it right. The Jewish Chronicle’s comment editor Jennifer Lipman wrote a superb column for the Independent’s website which gives real balance and insight on the issue.

“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,” she writes. Later on, she comes to the nub of the issue; I will quote the concluding paragraphs in full, as they are precise, and moving.

“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.”

Ivens was wrong to publish the cartoon on Holocaust Memorial Day, and right to apologise for that.