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.