Aug 5, 2014

The dangerous essentialism of anti-Semitic and Islamophobic cartoons

In Australia, there should be no place for reactionary essentialism while we debate politics and ideas, says Overland editor Jeff Sparrow.

Jeff Sparrow

Writer, editor, broadcaster, and an Honorary Fellow at Victoria University.

What do the cartoons by Glen Le Lievre and Bill Leak tell us about racism and the Gaza conflict? Most obviously, that bigotry against both Jews and Muslims exists in Australia and has almost certainly been exacerbated by the crisis in Gaza. But there's more to it. It’s worth thinking through the reactions to the images. The Sydney Morning Herald was widely -- and correctly -- condemned for the Le Lievre cartoon, both in Australia and overseas. Much of the commentary also focused (in my view, incorrectly) on the Mike Carlton opinion piece that the drawing illustrated. The Australian Jewish News argued that, by referencing the Holocaust, Carlton too had essentialised his argument, just as Le Lievre had with the image. "This column was no longer about a country," the AJN argued. "This was about a people and a race." In its eventual apology for the cartoon, the SMH applied the same argument. "The Herald now appreciates that, in using the Star of David and the kippah in the cartoon, the newspaper invoked an inappropriate element of religion, rather than nationhood, and made a serious error of judgment." Indeed it did. But there’s two points to make here. First, that essentialism -- the attribution of unchanging traits to an entire people -- is just as wrong when it happens to Muslims as to Jews. And yet in reference to Islam, it generally passes without comment. Here’s an example from a few years ago.

The image accompanying a Paul Kelly article entitled "Islam should accept a secular state" shows an Aussie bloke (cork hat, prawn on the barbie) confronted by an array of snarling bearded men and veiled women, who seem about to leap at him from the bushes. One carries a sign reading "Jihad", accompanied by some squiggles presumably intended to represent Arabic (hey, it’s all just jibber jabber, isn’t it?). There’s a simple test for such cases. If you replace "Muslim" with "Jew", how would the image (and for that matter, the article) read then? We wouldn’t accept articles opining about "Jewish immigration" or suggesting that "Jewish culture" has a problem with violence -- and nor should we accept a similar essentialism when it comes to Muslims. The Australian's decision to stand by Leak (who has some form with racialised cartoons) is disappointing but not surprising. But let’s return to the Le Lievre image. The AJN is quite correct to insist that those who want a non-racialised discussion about Israel-Palestine need to refuse the conflation between Israel and Judaism: Israel is a nation, and Zionism is a political philosophy -- supported by some Jews and opposed by others. But in a recent piece for The Jewish Daily Forward, Sigal Samuel has noted how, in other contexts, mainstream defenders of Israel themselves confuse that distinction:
"You can’t insist that every Jew is intrinsically part of the Israeli state and that Jews are also intrinsically separate from, and therefore not responsible for, the actions of the Israeli state. You can’t support or attend a birthright trip, the basic premise of which -- just look at the name -- is that a Jew has only to be born to win the "right" to romp all over Israel, and then act all surprised when these things are conflated. You can’t applaud Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu when he goes around calling himself 'the leader of the Jewish people', and then get all huffy when Arabic-speakers use a single word to denote 'Zionists' and 'Israelis' and 'Jews'."
Samuel’s point is simple. When discussing Gaza -- or indeed, community relations in Australia -- we need to debate politics and ideas, rather than accepting claims (which, we might note, are made by some Islamist organisations as well) about the unchanging identity of entire peoples or faiths. The AJN piece notes a resurgence of anti-Semitism in Europe, which is indeed a disturbing trend. But let’s not forget that European Islamophobia has also reached a fever pitch. Which is not really so surprising; the two kinds of hatred possess a shared history and rely on similar tropes, so much so that many far-Right groups have transitioned from one to the other -- or, indeed, uphold them both at the same time. Essentialism is always reactionary -- and, at times like this, it’s particularly dangerous.

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17 thoughts on “The dangerous essentialism of anti-Semitic and Islamophobic cartoons

  1. John64

    Along the same lines:

    “The Jewish communities in Judea, Samaria and Gaza are the realization of Zionist values. Settlement of the land is a clear expression of the unassailable right of the Jewish people to the Land of Israel and constitutes an important asset in the defense of the vital interests of the State of Israel. The Likud will continue to strengthen and develop these communities and will prevent their uprooting.”

    That’s from the Likud Party’s Platform under the Chapter on “Peace and Security”. (Source:

    It goes on and talks about how Likud will not accept “a Palestinian Arab state west of the Jordan river.”

    So if you’re against that, are you anti-Likud? Anti-Israel? Or Anti-the Jewish people?

  2. mark argy

    When did Judaism become a race?

  3. MarilynJS

    I think it was outrageous that the stupid Herald caved into the big mouthed whiners like Vic and the Jewish board of deputies over a cartoon that was in fact factual. They Jews of Israel were sitting on the hill in their skull caps and their bloody flag is the star of David so what was wrong with the cartoon?

    Spooner on the other hand had two cartoons outrageous and just plain cruel and racist.

    One had Hamas supposedly stopping refugees entering the tunnels and being the evil doers, the stated aim of Bibi is to destroy the tunnels. Spooners cartoon was actually advocating genocide.

    The second was just as dreadful but the AGE hasn’t taken them down or apologised to the Palestinians here.

  4. Kevin Herbert

    Well argued Jeff Sparrow.

  5. Hiroya Sugita

    I’m not sure about Bill Leak’s racist streak. One thing I’m sure is that he is a News Ltd employee and thus his cartoons are in line with his editors/employers.

  6. AR

    I was extremely disappointed that the SMH disavowed the cartoon accompanying Carlton’s article – I thought that both were accurate and pertinent.

  7. Glen

    So if Le Lievre had omitted the star and the cap, the cartoon would have been unobjectionable? I suspect the squeals may have been just as loud. It was the content of those photos that was grossly objectionable here, and Mr Sparrow — and AJN — don’t appear to have noticed.

  8. Andrew McIntosh

    That Lobbecke cartoon doesn’t make me sympathetic to either side portrayed.

  9. david hare

    The SMH was wrong to back down over these standover tactic. The worst thing about the backdown is it also implies some sort of censure to Carlton’s completely objective article. It seems to me that since 1976 if not earlier the first line reaction of Zionists to any criticism of Israel – the state – is consciously mired in terms of “anti-Semitism” and supposed Religious bigotry. Apart from being an egregious slur as a tactic, this ignores the realities of who and how many people are identified as semitic, including many Arabs and Mediterranean people. But it seems as though this appropriation of the term Semitic” by Zionists is merely part of an armory of attack responses, no matter how apt the comment or comparison.

    It’s a disgrace Carlton and Lievre were duped by Fairfax over this.

    And Carlton also made the fatal mistake of mentioning the Holocaust. Again any use of this term no matter how contextualized is inevitably a red rag, especially to the Likud supporters. Apart form being an egregious slur and atctic, it ignores the realities of who and how many people are identified as semitic, including many Arabs. But it seems as though this appropriation of the term Semitic” by Zionists is aprt of an armory of attck which extends to the mass indiscriminate murder of civilians. You can’t have it both ways, in the end. And this is where responses from intelligent and morally honest Jewish commentators is most necessary

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