Anti-Semitism is yesterday’s news. Blood libels are nothing to tweet home about. But Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu dressed in a sleeveless white undershirt is worth a double-take.
The cartoon appeared in the UK based Sunday Times. It depicts Israel’s prime minister building a wall, using Palestinian blood as mortar. The image is adorned with the clever caption: “Israeli Elections – Will Cementing Peace Continue?”
If the graphic commentary wasn’t disconcerting then its timing was. The cartoon was distributed on January 27, 2013 – International Holocaust Memorial Day.
Cartoonist Gerald Scarfe “very much regrets” the timing. As the Sunday Times spokesperson explained, the image was “aimed squarely at Mr. Netanyahu and his policies, not at Israel, let alone at Jewish people”.
Scarfe’s political commentary can be seen in its subtle detail more than through its graphic excess. It’s not the conventional images of Palestinian victimization, nor the anticipated gruff look on Netanyahu’s deep set face, fixed above a hunched over frame, that catch the viewer’s curious eye. More than anything else, the “wife-beater” that hugs a perceived heavy-set-build reveals the cartoonist’s carefully crafted message.
The proverbial wife-beater t-shirt epitomizes the casual, self-absorbed, channel-flipping, beer-guzzling, thoughtless male specimen, prevalent in many current societies. The sleeveless tank top is associated with a low-class lifestyle, coupled with the prejudiced notion that socio-economic simplicity lends itself to an abusive personality – hence the “wife-beater” nickname for the undergarment.
Prime Minister Netanyahu has been seen in many forms of dress over the course of his extensive political career. Suits and ties are most common, an occasional pair of khakis at an informal program similarly familiar, and vintage pictures of his IDF days in army uniform well documented. But search as you may, you will not find wife-beaters in his public wardrobe.
Though he does not believe that Prime Minister Netanyahu actually wears wife-beaters, Gerald Scarfe wants his audience to imagine that he does. He wants to paint a picture of an unintentionally malicious Benjamin Netanyahu, whose actions stem not from calculated policy but from careless and sloppy conduct. After all, if Netanyahu doesn’t take care of himself, how can he be trusted to take care of anyone else?
Indirect mass-media-communicated exchanges between President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu shortly before Israel’s national elections set the stage. Obama was quoted saying Netanyahu “doesn’t know what Israel’s best interests are.” Netanyahu responded: “Only the Israeli people will determine who best represents the State of Israel’s vital interests”.
What the spoken word hopes to define the freestyle caricature seeks to suggest. Scarfe was taking Obama’s analysis one step further. He and the Sunday Times saw the polls, and understood that on January 22, a majority of Israelis would choose Netanyahu as their leader. But now, after elections and before a coalition is formed, they launched – as they stated – a direct attack on Netanyahu, his policies and his personal character.
One of the many lessons to be learned on International Holocaust Memorial Day is that Prime Minister Netanyahu is 100% correct: Israel does not have to explain to the international community who it chooses as its leaders, and why they make those decisions. But the nuanced subtleties of a provocative cartoon pose a new information-age challenge to an Israel that voted for security and self-preservation. Can a bloody British sketch with a catchy English title make its way from Europe to Israel? And if so, can it cause Israelis to second guess their leaders, and themselves?
I don’t know. Good question.