Congratulations to Harold Zwier for getting national coverage in the Fairfax stable on 30 Nov 2012. Sanity over hysteria.
Update: Leunig’s own response on 11 Dec 2012 to the controversy which resulted from his cartoon
First they came for the communists, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a communist.
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a Jew.
Then they came for me, and there was no one left to speak for me.
There are variations to the poem and it seems it was first used in speeches Niemoller gave in 1946. In Leunig’s cartoon there are four frames to match the four stanzas of the original poem. There is an almost universal view in the leadership of the Victorian Jewish community that Leunig’s cartoon is anti-Semitic. The media release from the B’nai B’rith Anti-Defamation Commission quoted chairman Dr Dvir Abramovich presenting the following arguments to support that claim.
”’First they came …’ introduces a celebrated statement attributed to German pastor Martin Niemoller about the apathy of German intellectuals following the Nazi rise to power and their gradual elimination of certain groups. ‘They’ of course referred to the Nazis. In Leunig’s cartoon, however, it is the Israelis who are the Nazis.
”And Leunig’s second anti-Semitic theme? That anyone who supports the Palestinians will immediately be besieged by the all-powerful Jewish lobby, similarly jackbooted, treading on all who oppose them, closing doors in their faces, spiteful, hateful and bitter. In Leunig’s black-and-white world, Palestinian/Arab/Muslim lobby groups are muzzled and The Age would never dare to publish an article (or cartoon) critical of Israel.”
My reaction to the cartoon was very different. The power of a cartoon is in the many ways in which it can be interpreted. Once the cartoon is in the public domain it lives its own life – as indeed does Niemoller’s poem. My comments should therefore be understood to reflect a personal view.
That Leunig comes to his cartoon with the perspective of a Palestinian supporter merely sets the scene. The baseline of the cartoon is that Palestinians are always the victims. We know this isn’t a universal truth, but the cartoon isn’t a balanced dissertation on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – it’s a cartoon. It uses exaggeration to tell us something.
The parody of Niemoller’s language is playful: ”First they came for the Palestinians … Then they came for more … ” And in this respect Leunig can be criticised – or maybe he is being self-critical. Is he being too playful about the plight of the Palestinians in complaining overtly about silence as a form of tacit acceptance and covertly that publicly criticising Israeli treatment of Palestinians will be met with anger – from ”the all-powerful Jewish lobby”, to quote Dr Abramovich?
However the cartoon is also clever, because the reaction of the Jewish community as articulated in the Anti-Defamation Commission media release is in fact encapsulated within the cartoon. As Leunig said, ”bitterness and spiteful condemnations would follow”, duly obliged by Dr Abramovich in his comments.
And so the Jewish community has been wedged. A more thoughtful response might have been to silently reflect on the sometimes appalling and disgraceful level of the debate about the conflict – and not just from one side. However, the genuinely held perception of anti-Semitism mandated a public response.
The Jewish community is a wonderful community, but sometimes I wish it was a little less weighed down by its collective memory and a little more informed by it. Sigh.
Perhaps, in the end, we might ask whether the cartoon is really about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, or in fact about the conflict between the Jewish community and Leunig. It’s all a question of perception and interpretation – the power of the cartoon.
Harold Zwier is on the executive of the Australian Jewish Democratic Society.