Political cartoonists skewer, amuse and give their take on issues of the day, all at the same time.Their ability to cause mayhem was underlined this week when a New Yorker cover by artist Barry Blitt, depicting Barack and Michelle Obama as Muslim and gun-toting terrorists, roused the ire of the Democratic presidential candidate.
But should cartoons be fair too? When it comes to Israel they rarely are, reinforcing the poor image the Jewish state has in the British media. The more vicious they are the more likely the cartoonist is to be honoured by his peers, as we saw with Dave Brown’s notorious baby-eating image of Ariel Sharon in the Independent in 2003.
The increasing media speculation about a potential conflict between Israel and Iran has had the cartoonists reaching for their pen and ink. In Saturday’s Telegraph, veteran Nicholas Garland showed a knife-wielding Ehud Olmert, replete with star of David on his T-shirt, staring across a street at a dejected President Ahmadinejad, looking in the other direction with his knife down at his side.
The cartoon was both a comment on the current debate about what Israel should do about Iran as well as an echo of the debate in Britain about knife crime. After all, both men are clutching daggers, not the rockets, drones or warplanes which would be the chosen weaponry.
But it is also highly problematic. By arming both with knives it suggests that the two parties to this dispute have moral equivalency. In fact, given that Garland has chosen to have Olmert’s knife raised, it suggests that he is the aggressor.
This comfortably ignores the facts. It is Iran which threatens Israel’s existence. And it is Iran which only last week raised the military stakes in the region by firing dummy missiles into the Persian Gulf. As the Sunday Times reported, Iran’s Shahab-3 ballistic missile has a claimed range of 1,250 miles and could theoretically deliver a one-tonne nuclear warhead over Israel’s cities. Tel Aviv is just 650 miles from western Iran and easily within range.
Iran has also developed up to 1,500 centrifuges, essential ingredients for nuclear weapons, despite the efforts of the Western contact group to prevent a new nuclear power arising. Whereas Iran regularly threatens to nuke its neighbours, Israel has a long standing pledge of no-first-use.
A similar depiction of a shoot-out between Iran and Israel by the artist Peter Schrank appeared in the Independent. It illustrated an article from former UK ambassador to the United Nations Sir John Thomson, predicting “a dangerous tit-for-tat” exchange as negotiations on the nuclear issue stall.
The cartoon shows Olmert pulling a huge gun out of George Bush’s cowboy-style holster. Behind them is an array of fearsome rockets stamped with the Star of David. In contrast, the larger-than-life Iranian leader is seen with a much smaller gun and a couple of missiles heading hopelessly into the sea. It is a case of the Iranian David taking on the Israeli-American Goliath and Olmert already has his hand on the trigger.
Britain has an a history of cruel cartoons dating back to the 18th century and James Gillray’s liking for scatological sketches of royalty and politicians. Cartoons are there to entertain and provide an instant judgment on a situation.
But Jewish communities rightly are sensitive to the way Israel and its leaders are shown. The viciously antisemitic, Nazi imagery of Jews from Der Sturmer remains very much alive in memory and in the Arab media.
One trusts that editors, aware of this sordid background, would exercise restraint and not cross the line by serving up bigotry and prejudice.