My mate Gerald is known to be a rough and boisterous bloke. When you meet him in the street, he'll shout out his greeting for all around to hear and, as likely as not, give you a hefty slap on the back and a hug that can leave you shaken. Have him over for a meal and he's the proverbial life and soul, full of noisy jokes and colourful anecdotes, laughing and generally filling the air with sound. Gerald's friends enjoy his company, and even people just making his acquaintance mostly do as well.
The occasion on which a few of his friends accompanied him to a piano recital at the Royal Festival Hall, however, I didn't enjoy one bit. I didn't enjoy it because Gerald behaved (let us just say) in character, so causing more than one disturbance during the concert, embarrassing us, and annoying both the pianist and many people in the audience.
End of story. Let's, now, forget about whether Gerald Scarfe - not the same guy at all - has anything whatever against Jews; and let's also forget about whether his recent cartoon was ill-timed for coinciding with Holocaust Memorial Day. Unless there was something wrong with it as a cartoon, there could be no reason to think it was ill-timed. So let's focus instead on whether or not the cartoon was ill-judged.
The point of this post is to explain why one defence of it I've seen here and there won't do. That defence is that Scarfe's cartoons are standardly full of blood and therefore his depiction of a Jewish political leader wantonly spilling the blood of others is nothing special, nothing particularly about Jews. Here's Martin Rowson:
As to Scarfe's cartoon specifically, it seems to me almost identical to every other blood-spattered pictorial lament for man's inhumanity to man he's knocked out over the past 40 years. Except in this case, because of the subject matter and the timing – on Holocaust memorial day – the trademark Scarfean gore could, if you chose, have wider ramifications. And so it has proved.
But this is not just about what one might 'choose', as it were wilfully falling into misunderstanding. A standard form of traditional Judeophobia has been the blood libel, and so a cartoon like this one of Scarfe's invites misunderstanding.
As with the other Gerald I began with, whose loud behaviour was wrong at the piano recital though acceptable and accepted in most other contexts, it doesn't matter that Scarfe's blood-filled cartoons are usually OK. Just so, a cartoonist might have spent her life depicting white politicians as monkeys, but if she drew one of Nelson Mandela or Robert Mugabe in that vein she would be inviting misunderstanding and the charge that her cartoon was racist. Whatever else one might think about Scarfe's depiction of Netanyahu, I'd say it was ill-judged, despite the former's predilections as a cartoonist.