Is criticism of Israel anti-Semitic if it uses the same kinds of images as those long used to attack Jews?
That question will be posed by an exhibition of anti-Semitic art appearing in London early next year that was inspired in part by a three-year-old political cartoon that showed a naked Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon eating a Palestinian baby.
The exhibition, using images from a Jewish doctor's private collection, will be held at a London gallery that was fiercely criticised by Israel and Jewish groups when it gave its top annual award to the Sharon cartoon.
"What's the boundary between legitimate political criticism and racist propaganda? It is difficult to determine. But I think it's a question of using the same language," said Simon Cohen, the doctor who is putting his collection on display.
"People have been picturing Jews killing babies, eating babies for hundreds of years. They should be aware of what the significance of using anti-Semitic images is."
History of anti-Semitic images
Certain themes persist in anti-Semitic imagery and can be found in the Middle Ages, 19th century Europe, Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union and contemporary Arab media.
Cohen has images of Jews portrayed as hairy apes, bloodsucking spiders, and greedy merchants. Infanticide, as depicted in the Sharon cartoon, is a common theme, he says.
His collection includes a 15th century German print that shows Jews taking a child's blood, and another from France about the same time that shows a Jewish serpent with children's legs hanging from its jaws.
He also has a Palestinian cartoon from 2001 of Sharon eating a bowl full of babies with a fork.
Cohen had been thinking for years about mounting an exhibition of his collection to show the public how persistent anti-Semitic images have been over the centuries.
The Sharon cartoon by artist David Brown of The Independent helped persuade him: to Cohen, anyone who failed to see the cartoon as anti-Semitic must be ignorant of the history of such images.
Cartoonists say it is acceptable to target individual politicians, even with strong imagery, as long as they do not malign Jews as a group.
"It doesn't use a stereotype. It's about an individual person, not a race," Brown said of his work, which he says is based on Francisco de Goya's painting of Saturn eating one of his sons.
"Because some people are offended does that automatically mean it's anti-Semitic? No," Brown added.
The artist said he feared some people used the charge of anti-Semitism to intimidate political critics.
"Some people might have been genuinely offended. Other people might have used this to force cartoonists to censor themselves," he said.
When the cartoon appeared in 2003, the Israeli embassy said it repeated the charge of "blood libel", a mediaeval anti-Semitic myth that Jews used non-Jewish children's blood in rituals.
But Britain's Press Complaints Commission ruled the cartoon was not anti-Semitic, and the Independent's editors said any offence was unintentional.
But the furore grew louder when Brown was later given the top prize at the Political Cartoon Society's annual awards.
Israeli newspapers wrote editorials about it, and Natan Sharansky, an Israeli cabinet minister at the time, stopped by the Society's gallery to discuss anti-Semitism in political art.
Tim Benson, who runs the Political Cartoon Society, said the judges -- mostly other cartoonists and cartoon enthusiasts -- had picked Brown's image because of the heated response.
"People recognised it because of the Israeli embassy. They voted for it because it had an impact," said Benson.
"That's the kind of work he does. He tends to use graphic imagery, whether it's Blair or Bush or Sharon or whoever," said Benson, a professional historian who is also Jewish but who says this is irrelevant to his position on the cartoon.
For Cohen, the Political Cartoon Society's gallery seemed the perfect venue to hold his exhibition. He was happy to find that Benson -- who insists there is nothing wrong with Brown's cartoon -- was enthusiastic.
"We disagree completely about everything, but I like working with him," Cohen said.
Cohen said he expects to show the Brown cartoon in the exhibition, although Brown said he had not yet been approached for permission."
After Brown received the award, the Political Cartoon Society's gallery received furious e-mails. One called the gallery "a bunch of Nazi swine" while another dubbed its prize "the Joseph Goebbels award" after the Nazi propagandist.
Several compared Brown's drawing to the cartoons of Der Stuermer, the Nazi propaganda newspaper. Bound volumes of Der Stuermer will appear in Cohen's exhibition.
Brown says the comparison is unfair.
"These people must never have seen those cartoons," he said. "The Stuermer cartoons are littered with stars of David and Hebrew writing, whereas I make a specific point about an individual and his policy," he said.
He deliberately avoided drawing the Israeli flag in his cartoon, since it bears the star of David, a religious symbol.
Benson said the controversy showed the power of cartoons to stoke passions.
"I did this exhibition on the Middle East and the history of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and because it was scrupulously fair, nobody gave a damn about it."