Cartoons as expressions of the artists’ inner life and their role in the spreading of antisemitism
Cartoons of any sort provide an excellent route for the concise transmission of ideas. Intelligent cartoons can deflate the pomposity of politicians and others and convey alternative messages in ways that criticising them verbally or in writing cannot. They are particularly important in terms of the emotional responses they evoke.
How cartoons work
The visual image appeals to the emotions as well as the intellect quickly and immediately in a way in which the written word alone cannot. In the early days of Christianity, for example, large amounts of money was spent on creating a beautiful environment for prayer, on murals and stained glass windows which depicted biblical scenes and lessons about what might befall a person if he sinned. These were invaluable in getting across the message of Christianity to a largely illiterate populace. They were, arguably, the cartoons of the time and served similar but more positive purposes than those of cartoons today.
In more modern times, with the growing awareness of the role of psychological processes, cartoon and other imagery was employed to influence mass perception. Visual imagery can be applied to advertising to sway public opinion in favour of or against phenomena. The following is an extract from a 1982 paper by John R Rossiter from Columbia University about the applications of visual imagery to advertising. It does not require a massive leap to recognise the power of visual imagery when used in this way to peddle political ideas:
“.. High imagery visuals are those that themselves arouse other mental images (i.e., a mental picture, a sound, or a sensory experience) quickly and easily. Imagery value is in turn related to stimulus concreteness (both definitions here are taken from Toglia and Battig, 1978). Concrete pictures, like concrete words, refer to objects, persons, places or things that can be seen, heard, felt, smelt, or tasted; as contrasted with abstract referents that cannot be experienced by the senses….”
Various schools of psychotherapy (notably cognitive behavioural and analytical) recognise the power of visual imagery in the bringing about behaviour and other change. Hackman, Bennet-Levy and Holmes, in the Oxford Guide to Imagery in Cognitive Therapy review a number of studies including one in 1997 by Dadds et al which concluded that imagery can enhance or diminish the strength of classically conditioned responses. This is particularly relevant to the subject matter of this article – the role of cartoons in the promotion and maintenance of hatreds.
This article will suggest that some modern cartoons either actively promote antisemitism or do so apparently unconsciously and, where a pattern can be discerned, reflect the splitting off from awareness and projection of the unconscious aspects of the cartoonists’ attitudes in this case towards Jews, into what is drawn, which the cartoonist may well deny when confronted by it. Alternatively, as I suggest below, the cartoon’s focus may evidence displacement4
Antisemitic cartoons are pernicious in that they provoke and feed into negative feelings and, as Dadd et al argue, may reinforce such attitudes as antisemitism concealed under the threadbare cloak of anti-Zionism by psychological conditioning, because their message may already have salience/emotional or psychological significance for the viewer of them.
For when we perceive these cartoons we make our own meanings from them, which are projections of our own fears about what they represent, in the context of what we have experienced before from similar cartoons, or in terms of our world view. Arguably the cartoonists themselves project their own prejudices in turn into what they draw. This is demonstrably so in Steve Bell’s cartoons in The Guardian in the UK.
The Guardian is conspicuously and virulently anti-Israel which it regularly demonises and delegitimises. It often invites Islamists who support anti-Israel terror to write for its blog, “Comment is Free” and, during Cast Lead, ran an obituary for Nizar Rayyan, an infamous Hamas functionary and recruiter of suicide terrorists who even though he knew his apartment block was targeted by the IDF and he was given the chance to leave, refused and refused also to allow his wives and children to leave. All were killed.
The Guardian’s anti-Israel animus, in line with its over identification with Palestinian “victimhood” and one-sided accounts of the Middle East conflict, often shades into antisemitism, particularly on “Comment is Free” where comments below the line which try to set the record straight are often deleted, whereas antisemitic comments are allowed to remain. Arab governments and Muslim spokesmen do not care to distinguish between “Israeli”, “Zionist” or “Jew” and use the descriptors interchangeably and equally hatefully. The Guardian has allowed this to shape the discourse in its pages too and in its cartoons. I would argue that it is also shaping a wider public discourse and desensitising that public to the growing prevalence of antisemitism in the UK.
As I have written, Steve Bell’s cartoons for The Guardian may be thought to be prime examples of his projection of his own Jew-hatred (which he vehemently denies and argues is anti-Zionism) onto his drawing. Also some of Bell’s subliminal imagery is arguably akin to that used by the Nazis.
For example, the above was published on 21 November 2012. In it we see Netanyahu as a puppet master, controlling UK Foreign Secretary William Hague and Tony Blair. It is a blatant reworking of the antisemitic trope of Jewish control. Behind Netanyahu are rockets painted to resemble the Israeli flag. This is a shameless inversion of reality – at that time southern Israel was under almost constant rocket attack from the Hamas in Gaza.
Was Bell aping the Nazi theme of Jewish control pervasive throughout the Arab/Muslim Middle East? It would appear so given the following:
The above, by cartoonist Jihad ‘Awartani, was featured in Al-Watan, a leading newspaper in Saudi Arabia, which published the cartoon on 11 October 2008 during the U.S. presidential elections between Barack Obama and John McCain. Note how the Jew is depicted as controlling both candidates as glove puppet, the implication being that the Jews control American politics.
Harry’s Place, a UK left wing blog, notes Bell’s plagiarism. One has to wonder why he plagiarised that cartoon in particular if it had no salience for him.
Bell’s imagery is, as I have argued, patently derived from the Nazi-type antisemitic cartoons which are widespread across the Middle East and is almost certainly a projection of his own antisemitism, although he somewhat disingenuously argues that he is anti-Israel. His anti-Israel cartoons are so dark and blood-soaked that it is difficult not to believe that he is motivated by the same sort of Jew-hatred as cartoonists in the Arab world, whether he is conscious of it or not, and as I have suggested, his cartoons may be projections of his inner mental state. However, that he has also mastered the art of the subliminal message so beloved of the Nazi propaganda machine in its grooming of the German people to hate Jews, (see http://tinyurl.com/b9h7mva) , indicates at least some conscious awareness of what he is doing, as I suggest in my final paragraph below.
Most recently more evidence of the increasing acceptability of anti-Israel/anti-Jewish imagery in cartoons shocked when The Sunday Times, also in the UK, published a cartoon by Gerald Scarfe which echoed the blood libels so beloved of the Muslim Middle East, and on Holocaust Memorial Day itself no less:
The resulting furore was not confined to the UK, although the Board of Deputies there made a formal complaint and the UK Chief Rabbi a formal statement about the pain this had caused to Jews throughout the world.
For our purposes, note the red cement which could represent blood, given the content of this cartoon, as well as the trowel dripping with blood-like cement. The imagery has more in common with the Arab world’s and Steve Bell’s antisemitic imagery than can possibly be excusable or coincidental. It takes little imagination, but may well hold great salience for an Israel-hater, that the wall represents the security barrier which, although it has saved Muslim lives as well as Jewish, is crushing the man at the bottom. That Scarfe denies the true offensiveness of it by apologising that it was published on Holocaust Memorial Day rather than for composing it at all, as well as his apparent lack of awareness of the offence it has caused, almost beggars belief, and as shocking was the length of time it took The Sunday Times to issue a formal apology for the offence it caused.
I write “almost beggars belief” and I mean just that. BBC Radio 4’s “Today” programme on 29th January featured a discussion between Steve Bell and Stephen Pollard, Editor of the Jewish Chronicle, about Scarfe’s cartoon. It is not surprising that the BBC (hardly neutral in its own reporting of the Middle East conflict) called on Steve Bell to defend Scarfe. This turned into a very “free and frank discussion” in which Steve Bell insisted that his own cartoon (about Netanyahu’s glove puppets) was not about “the Jew” as some manipulating evil genius but that it was about Netanyahu. He then went on to describe that cartoon in detail without any apparent awareness of its commonalities in terms of the message it sent with the one published in Al-Watan (see above). Bell deflected when Pollard asked him whether he had ever seen cartoons in Middle Eastern newspapers and, when Bell was asked by the interviewer when he ever censored himself in the question of taste, said that he thought about what he drew before he drew it.
However, he has patently never thought about the impact of what he draws, and his reference on the “Today” programme, to Israel being guilty of ethnic cleansing showed that he is very much The Guardian’s man.
By his own admission, therefore, the subject matter of Bell’s cartoons is available to his consciousness beforehand. That being the case, it is probable that he actually sets out to offend by displacing (rather than projecting) his own hatred of Jews onto Israel, which he perceives to be a more acceptable target. The Jew-hatred is evident because of his too-ready use of the pictorial tropes of Islamic and Nazi antisemitism in his cartoons. It is unclear, however, whether he is in denial about this, or whether he is conscious of what is taking place.
 Toglia, M. P., and Battig, W. F. (1978), Handbook of Semantic Word Norms. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates
 Dadds, M. R., Bovbjerg, D. H., Redd, W. H. & Cutmore, T. R. H. (1997) Imagery in human classical conditioning. Psychol. Bull. 122, 89–103. (doi:10.1037/0033-2909. 122.1.89)
 A process whereby negative emotions which are threatening to the ego are “split off” from conscious awareness but perceived in another person, ie “projected” onto him/her