Cartoonist Serge Chapleau PHOTO BY DAVE SIDAWAY/MONTREAL GAZETTE

Antisemitic La Presse cartoon highlights double standard of political satire

Flirting with even the most vile blood libels against Jews is given a free pass, while telling the truth about radical Islam is shunned

On March 20, La Presse published a cartoon, drawn by their longtime cartoonist Serge Chapleau, which depicted Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as a repulsive vampire — big nose, bald head, pointed ears and sharp claws — standing on the deck of a ship, poised to suck the lifeblood out of Palestinians in Gaza. The gore-dripping caption reads, “Nosfenyahou: En Route Vers Rafah.”

“Nosfenyahu” conflates Netanyahu’s name with “Nosferatu,” the Romanian word for “vampire,” and the title of a 1922 German silent horror film with deeply antisemitic overtones. In the film, the vampire releases a box of plague-bearing rats into a pleasant German village as he plots to suck his realtor’s blood. The film’s imagery was later appropriated by the Nazis, who commonly likened Jews to vampires.

 

Whether or not Chapleau is himself antisemitic is moot. Chapleau later claimed that people were overthinking the cartoon and that it was “not antisemitic,” but his willingness to exploit antisemitic imagery for shock value should cast shade on his choice to double down on his innocence under pressure.

Not that the cartoon lacked defenders.

In a statement, members of the Association of Canadian Cartoonists declared that, “Chapleau’s rendering of Netanyahu as Nosferatu is not an attack on Israelis or Jewish people globally, but rather a very strong statement on a controversial leader during a major conflict.

“The task of the cartoonist is to always punch up and counter abuses of power, regardless of the nation or background of the subject.”

Regardless? Hmm. My straightforward search for “La Presse, cartoons critical of Hamas, images” failed to turn up anything. (Maybe a more sophisticated search is in order, but I am a techno-peasant. Just to be sure, I searched for “Quebec Muslims criticize La Presse cartoon of Hamas.” Nothing.)

Retired rabbi and Drew University emeritus professor of Jewish studies Allan Nadler posted a robust defence of La Presse and Chapleau on the Times of Israel blog, in which he posited that the cartoonist “was evidently unaware of the long and hateful history of accusations of bloodsucking” associated with antisemitism.


Such a defence damns with faint praise. For a cartoonist of Chapleau’s professional longevity and stature, ignorance of common antisemitic stereotypes is no compliment.

La Presse issued an apology, because it knew the cartoon had crossed a line. It wasn’t a critique of a political policy; it wasn’t a critique of the allegedly disproportionate collateral damage in a war of retaliation for an attempted genocide; and it certainly wasn’t a critique of Israel’s democratically elected political leader.

It was a blood libel against Jews, pure and simple. The salient fact about vampires, of course, is that these particular monsters can only survive by drinking the blood of innocents. In the context of the current toxic environment for Jews, of course the cartoon was going to provoke outrage in the Jewish community.

Which begs the question: what were Chapleau’s editors thinking in letting this cartoon pass in the first place? It’s not as if the question of satirical limits in a mainstream newspaper has never been considered before.

The shock of 9/11 brought Islamism home to the United States and Canada in a visceral way that years of intermittent Islamist terrorism in Europe had failed to achieve. Political leaders immediately took a soft line on the “religion of peace,” insisting that violent jihadism was a gross aberration from true Islam. Critics who associated Islamism with Islam ran the risk of being called racists — or worse.


Trepidation levels were elevated in 2005, when the so-called Danish cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad were published. There’s no need to recapitulate the train of intimidation, violence and media self-censorship that followed.

Anxiety trebled again in 2015, following the retaliatory massacre by Islamist terrorists at the office of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, whose coverage of Islamist ideology and activity continued to adhere to a more libertarian line of satire.

Both La Presse and the Montreal Gazette, and their star cartoonists, have previously ruminated about the limits of cartooning freedom where Muslim sensibilities are concerned.

In November 1997, Islamic jihadists, financed by Osama bin Laden and armed with firearms and machetes, systematically massacred 58 tourists — including children — and four Egyptian nationals in Luxor, Egypt.

These murdered tourists can rightly be described as completely innocent victims who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. The terrorists left leaflets at the scene, claiming the attack was a gesture of protest for the imprisonment of their spiritual leader, Omar Abdel-Rahman, by the United States, and calling for his release.


In response, Terry Mosher, the Montreal Gazette’s long-time cartoonist, published a mordant cartoon featuring a teeth-baring German Shepherd in an Arab head covering, snarling directly into the viewer’s face. The words at the top read, “In the name of Islamic extremism,” with a balloon quote attached to Mosher’s signature saying, “with our apologies to dogs everywhere.”

It certainly punched up, as the Association of Canadian Cartoonists recommends. And it’s fair comment. Like dangerous dogs, such as pit bulls, Islamist terror attacks are “sudden, random, unprovoked and violent.” And yet it caused an unprecedented uproar — and not only among Muslims. The word “Islamophobia” was not yet current, so detractors called it racist.

The Islamism-as-vicious-dog cartoon is therefore not easy to find in a normal search, but it does appear on screen (at minute 43:44) in a 2003 National Film Board documentary about Mosher and his La Presse counterpart, Serge Chapleau, called “Nothing Sacred.”

The allusion to Mosher’s most controversial cartoon arises in the course of a discussion between the cartoonists, with input from their publishers, about the limits of satirical pictorial commentary on local and world events.


All agreed that there are indeed limits, and the dog cartoon was central to that segment. As an explanation for its pointedness, Mosher recollected that as a father, he was particularly enraged by a report that the Islamists had — “gleefully, apparently” — beheaded a child. “Hell, we have to have the freedom to criticize this stuff,” he said, but added, “Of course there are degrees, aren’t there?”

His editor, Brian Kappler, said the cartoon made him “nervous.” He said it’s good to push the envelope, but there has to be “somebody in the organization above us … to say, these are the broader goals we have to adhere to.”

Chapleau was sympathetic to Mosher’s instinct. He observed that, “We (cartoonists) have a very great liberty,” then added, “but if you go that step too far …” He then shrugged, as if it were obvious that going that “step too far” included the dog cartoon.

It’s clear that double standards are at work here. We know why: because cartoons that flirt with even the most vile of blood libels against Jews are not going to result in firebombed offices, whereas a cartoon that accurately portrays the characteristics of Islamist terror, as we have seen elsewhere, can result in the deaths of the cartoonists who draw them.

It’s easy to “punch up” and “express a very strong statement” when your target, Jews, demonstrate their outrage with words. It’s easy to cloak your fear of reprisal as a “step too far” when Islamism is the target.