Leunig, your provocative use of Nazi analogies is so tiresome
THERE is a classic joke that tells of two elderly Jews sitting in a Berlin park during the 1930s. Isaac is reading the virulently anti-Jewish Nazi weekly, Der Sturmer, laughing to himself. ''Isaac!'' his Yiddish newspaper-reading friend Simon exclaims. ''How can you read that trash?''
''I used to read the Yiddish press, but all it talked about was Jews getting beaten, expelled from their homes and having their businesses burnt down,'' Isaac responds. ''It made me feel miserable. But here in Der Sturmer I read that Jews are powerful and in control of the world, and it makes me feel great.''
I immediately thought of this wonderful piece of self-deprecating humour upon seeing Michael Leunig's cartoon commentary on the latest Israeli-Palestinian violence on November 21, and his vigorous literary defence published on this page on Tuesday.
Via the words of Martin Niemoller's poem, ''then they came for'', Leunig essentially equated the state of Israel with Nazi Germany, a pictorial theme which, courtesy of his 2002 effort, War Brings Peace (comparing Auschwitz 1942 with Israel-Palestine six decades later), landed the cartoonist in hot water.
As an admirer of his whimsical meditations on the human condition, I am tentatively prepared to give Leunig the benefit of the doubt as regards accusations of anti-Semitism. Yet, in the manner of the Der Sturmer joke, depicting a genocidal Israeli Goliath pitted against a Palestinian David is laughably obscene.
One would have thought that ''Nazi Israel'' might have eradicated its enemy after 64 years. During the systemic and cold-blooded extermination that was the Holocaust, the world's Jewish population fell from 18 million to 12 million.
By contrast, since the founding of Israel in 1948, the Palestinian population in Gaza, the West Bank and Green Line Israel has grown from 1.2 million to some 5 million. As genocidal mass-murderers go, Jews make pretty good comedians.
Criticising Israel of course need not be anti-Semitic. Goodness knows Benjamin Netanyahu's regime is a legitimate target - one thinks here of settlement building well outside Green Line borders and utter failure to promote a two-state solution.
But criticisms can be made without resorting to Nazi comparisons. Such analogies are intellectually lazy, deliberately cruel and counter-productive attempts to simplify a complex political situation. Often they are anti-Semitic.
In Leunig's account of Israel's ''excessively homicidal'' actions, nothing is said of the massive barriers to peace on the Palestinian side: nihilistic demands for the full return of 1948 refugees to Green Line Israel, or the violent, racist behaviour of Hamas, Gaza's religious fundamentalist rulers.
Leunig is also arguably guilty of infantilising the Palestinians. The Palestinians have always exercised agency. They chose to violently oppose the 1947 UN resolution creating both Arab and Jewish states in Palestine, and badly lost the war that followed, resulting in what they call the ''Nakba'', or Catastrophe.
They also freely chose to launch a violent intifada in September 2000, destroying peace negotiations that would have probably resulted in an independent Palestinian state, and to this day pepper Israeli towns with rocket fire. When Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal this week declared Israel's existence illegitimate, he, too, exercised agency.
It is true, as Harold Zwier pointed out in these pages two weeks ago, that a cartoon can be interpreted in multiple ways. Yet I fail to see how Leunig's Israel-Nazi analogy contributes anything to promoting a peaceful resolution to the conflict.
Perhaps the most odious aspect of such comparisons is what Man Booker Prize-winning British author Howard Jacobson calls the ''you of all people'' slur. Nazi accusations ''doubly damn'' Jews - to the Holocaust itself and what he calls 'the moral wasteland of having found no humanising redemption in its horror''.
In that context, Leunig's pictorial silence on other equally complex national/ethnic/religious rivalries - I cannot recall his meditations on the subject of Indonesian control of West Papua and formerly East Timor, or Northern Ireland, Rwanda, Darfur, Syria, and Tibet - will be interpreted in a particular manner.
Having spent a decade studying left-wing cartooning, I know that great artists can draw silly things. For instance, fin de siecle cartoonists such as The Bulletin's Livingston Hopkins and Worker's Montagu Scott were wonderfully creative social critics. Yet their work was also shockingly racist: Asians, Pacific Islanders and Jews were routinely demonised.
Leunig may mean well but his provocative use of Nazi analogies has become tiresome. In any case, the Israel-Palestine conflict is not about him or the sort of cartoons he draws or his critics. It's about the innate right of both peoples to live in peace.
In 2004, Leunig told an interviewer: ''I have sometimes done cartoons that are hurtful to people, immature, spiteful stuff. Some are so self-indulgent and some have just failed. I look back and sometimes cringe.'' Michael, this is one of those occasions.
Nick Dyrenfurth is the author or editor of several books on Australian labour and political history and was a contributor to Drawing the Line: Using Cartoons as Historical Evidence.