Guardian readers editor criticizes Steve Bell cartoon for evoking antisemitic stereotypes

On Nov. 16, we posted about a political cartoon in the Guardian by Steve Bell, Nov. 15, depicting British foreign minister, and former PM Tony Blair, as puppets being controlled by Israeli PM Netanyahu, in the context of expressions of support for Israel from both British leaders during operation ‘Pillar Of Defense’.

We noted the strong similarities to other cartoons evoking the historical canard that Jews secretly control non-Jewish world leaders, such as this from 2008 in a Saudi paper depicting a sinister Jew controlling both McCain and Obama as puppets.

Among those who complained to Guardian editors about the cartoon by Bell was Mark Gardner of the CST, whose letter appeared in the Guardian on Nov. 16, and read thus:

“The Guardian has, in recent years, editorialised against the use of antisemitic language, publishing strong articles on this subject by Chris Elliott (the readers’ editor), Jonathan Freedland and others. They have rightly noted that such language may well be inadvertent on the part of the user, while retaining its offensive power. Nevertheless, too many Guardian contributors continue to get away with using antisemitic imagery and tropes, the latest example being Steve Bell’s cartoon (16 November) showing Tony Blair and William Hague as puppets of Bibi Netanyahu. This is an unoriginal way of visualising the old antisemitic charge that Jews are all-powerful. (The notion of Jewish power and conspiracy has long distinguished antisemitism from other racisms, which tend to depict their targets as idiots.) The paper’s integrity and reputation is seriously compromised by its continuing failure to get a grip on its own content.”

The cartoonist himself, Steve Bell, defended his cartoon against charges of antisemitism, arguing as follows:

“I can’t be held responsible for whatever cultural precepts and misapprehensions people choose to bring to my cartoon.”

On Sun, Nov. 25, the Guardian’s readers editor, Chris Elliott, addressed the row in a column titled ‘The readers’ editor on… accusations of antisemitism against a political cartoon’.

Here are relevant excerpts from his post:

“Steve Bell is a cartoonist who regularly gives offence. Most Guardian readers would be disappointed if it were otherwise. However, a group of readers and commentators felt that he went beyond acceptable boundaries when he drew a cartoon published on 16 November caricaturing Binyamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister.”

At the time of writing there have been more than 30 complaints, including one from the Community Security Trust (CST), which advises the UK’s Jewish community on security and antisemitism issues.

One complaint to the readers’ editor’s office ran: “Whatever disagreements Bell wishes to express regarding Israel‘s current actions against Hamas rocket fire, this picture uses classic antisemitic iconography that should have no place in your newspaper.

“The echoes of such iconography are obvious: powerful Jews controlling western politicians for their own nefarious purposes.

The cartoon has also been widely attacked in reports in the Jewish Chronicle and on websites that are pro-Israel and aimed at the Jewish community, as well as in the pages of the Times

Bell himself is adamant that the cartoon, based on an agency picture of a Netanyahu press conference, is neither intentionally, nor unintentionally antisemitic.

There are two paths to the argument about the imagery of the cartoon. The first is that it is an incontrovertible fact that, during the 1930s and 1940s, Nazis and their supporters deployed propaganda devices about Jews. One of those images was that of a grotesquely drawn Jew shown as a puppeteer, with exaggerated features, as in the cartoon portraying Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin as puppets of the Jews in a 1942 issue of the Nazi paper Fliegende Blätter.

The image of Jews having a disproportionate influence over the US and British governments has often been replicated by anti-Jewish cartoonists in the Middle East since the end of the second world war.

Secondly, one of the difficulties is that pictorial stereotypes are the stock in trade of a cartoonist, an aspect of caricature that has an entirely legitimate centuries-old tradition. Bell has used the theme of a puppet master on many occasions in the past to represent his view of Presidents Mubarak and Putin, as well as leaders in Iraqi and Afghan politics.

Bell is aware that the image of Jews as puppet masters is an antisemitic theme. However, he does not accept that this should prevent him using that imagery to address the actions of Netanyahu, the man. Bell says: “The problem with this whole debate is that the premises are all wrong. The cartoon isn’t antisemitic. People may proclaim that it is and [that it] stands in some kind of nefarious line: it has been lifted [from the Guardian website] without permission, and run alongside some terrible examples of nasty cartoons from the Nazi period (which clearly are [antisemitic]). That does not make the cartoon antisemitic. Here lies the problem: once people start dignifying this utterly unfair and unreasonable comparison with faux intellectual terms like ‘antisemitic trope’ it blots out the fact that my cartoon lacks the central ‘trope’ of actually being antisemitic. It doesn’t generalise about a race, a religion or a people; it doesn’t try to characterise any such generalisation: it is a very specific cartoon about a very specific politician at a very specific and deadly dangerous moment. It does employ the trope of ‘puppeteer’, but that is a trope, not an antisemitic trope… It uses the Star of David because that’s what is on the flag, and the menorah because that’s what’s on his podium. They both say: ‘State of Israel’, not ‘The Jews’. There is a crucial difference. It is not subtle or coded antisemitism to make this point.”

Elsewhere Bell has said that he can’t be held responsible for “whatever cultural precepts and misapprehensions people choose to bring to my cartoon”. This is a view rejected by one of the complainants: “Like it or not, he works in a cultural context and must be aware that people will bring frames of reference external to his work.” 

I don’t believe that Bell is an antisemite, nor do I think it was his intention to draw an antisemitic cartoon. However, using the image of a puppeteer when drawing a Jewish politician inevitably echoes past antisemitic usage of such imagery, no matter the intent.

The Holocaust and its causes are still within living memory. While journalists and cartoonists should be free to express an opinion that Netanyahu is opportunistic and manipulative, in my view they should not use the language – including the visual language – of antisemitic stereotypes. [emphasis added]

While we would have preferred that the cartoon be taken down, it’s encouraging nonetheless that Elliott warned journalists and cartoonists to avoid language and visual language conveying antisemitic stereotypes.

Finally, here are a few cartoons Bell published previously at the Guardian so you can gain some context on the current row.

Nov. 9, 2011. (The title of the cartoon is “Berlin Wall: Germany marks 20 year anniversary”, and it clearly compares Israel’s security fence, designed to keep terrorists out, with the Berlin Wall which was designed to keep East Berliners from escaping to West Germany.)

Jun 1, 2010” This cartoon by Bell was published at the Guardian in the aftermath of the Mavi Marmara incident and titled “Israeli troops confront flotilla activists”.

Israel, for Bell, is a sinister, controlling and manipulative state, and, as an artist, he certainly doesn’t seem too interested in subtitles or nuance.

Again, quoting Walter Russell Mead about the broader intellectual dynamic which Bell exemplifies:

“Weak minds…are easily seduced by attractive but empty generalizations. The comment attributed to August Bebel that anti-Semitism is the socialism of fools can be extended to many other kinds of cheap and superficial errors that people make. The baffled, frustrated and the bewildered seek a grand, simplifying hypothesis that can bring some kind of ordered explanation to a confusing world.”

We don’t know what’s in Steve Bell’s heart regarding Jews, but it does seem that his “cheap”, “superficial” pictorial characterizations  of Israel arguably suggest a baffled and bewildered political cartoonist trying desperately to bring narrative order to the behavior of a country which frustrates and confuses him.

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