Guardian’s Steve Bell demonises Zionists, smears Rabbi Sacks and exonerates Corbyn

In smearing Israel, Jonathan Sacks and - by association - most British Jews, Steve Bell has attempted to grant Jeremy Corbyn and his cult-like band of acolytes the ultimate political get-out-of-jail-free card the times - lifetime moral impunity for expressions of anti-Jewish racism.

The first thing you need to know about a recent cartoon by the Guardian’s Steve Bell (Donald Trump fires Jeremy Corbyn for rejecting his moral authority, Sept. 6) is that, despite the title, and likeness of the US president, Trump is partly a stand-in for another personality, former British Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks.

A clue to this graphic trick is found in the first frame, where Bell references Trump’s former role as host of the US television show, The Apprentice, but changes the network from NBC to BBC Radio 4, and the name of the show to ‘Apprentice Morality in the 21st Century’.  This is a clear allusion to a new five-part show on BBC Radio 4 called “Morality in the 21st Century” hosted by Rabbi Sacks.  Bell also added Sacks’ title, Lord, to Trump’s name.

Though the cartoon isn’t about Trump per se, Bell, aware of the criticism Sacks was subjected to for advising Trump’s Vice President, Mike Pence, on the links between Jews and Israel in advance of his Knesset speech in January, does appear to be implying some sort of political overlap between the President and the former Chief Rabbi.

Specifically, as the second frame makes clear, Bell is going after Sacks for his recent characterization of Jeremy Corbyn as a dangerous anti-Semite, and taking aim at the IHRA Working Definition of Antisemitism grudgingly adopted by Labour, which defines as antisemitic the charge that ‘Israel is a racist endeavor’.

Frame 2

Bell’s depiction of Trump/Sacks describing Zionism as the “Death to Arabs in our homeland movement” is likely a reference to a claim made by Corbyn supporter Eddie Dempsey on Sky News that Sacks was a “right-wing extremist” who attends the Jerusalem Day march through the Old City where some chant “death to the Arabs” and “the al-Aqsa Mosque is going to be burned down”. 

First, Dempsey’s characterization of the annual march was lifted practically verbatim from a column by Haaretz’s Bradley Burston in 2016 criticising the Jerusalem Day festivities.  Moreover, as we demonstrated in a twitter exchange with Dempsey on Aug. 30, Sacks did NOT in fact attend the 2017 march, as Dempsey and others on Twitter had claimed. 

So, Bell’s second frame appears to be based on a lie.

Yet, Bell seems to reinforce the false claim that Rabbi Sacks participated in the march – where chants of “death to the Arabs” and “al-Aqsa Mosque is going to be burned down” were heard – in the fuse sticking out of Trump’s/Sacks’ hat.

Depiction of Trump/Sacks in frame 2

This likely is designed to evoke the 2006 cartoon controversy, in which deadly riots erupted throughout the world following the publication of Danish cartoons depicting Muhammad.  Among the 12 cartoons published at Jyllands-Posten was the one below showing Muhammad wearing a turban shaped bomb with its fuse smoldering – a commentary on the violence committed in the name of Islam by extremists.

Depiction of Muhammad at the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten, 2006

By evoking this cartoon, the message is conveyed that Sacks’ brand of Zionism – and, specifically, the march (that, once again, he didn’t in fact attend) during the Jerusalem Day parade – is more incendiary and extreme than any associations or views connected to Jeremy Corbyn.

The third frame, where Trump/Sacks is seen accusing Corbyn of posing an “existential threat to law-abiding Klansmen everywhere” serves two purposes. 

Frame 3

First, it mocks a Jewish Chronicle editorial in July which warned that a Corbyn-led government would pose “an existential threat to Jewish life” in the UK.  It’s also hard not to read it as suggesting some sort of ideological overlap between Zionism and white supremacy – which would actually be the second time in a month the Guardian cartoonist has made this odious and intellectually unserious comparison

Here’s Bell’s Aug. 15 cartoon, accusing critics of Jeremy Corbyn of moral hypocrisy, by tying the Israeli prime minister – and, arguably, Zionism as such – to apartheid, the alt-right and white supremacism.  Note the Klansman wrapped in an American flag on the left.

Steve Bell cartoon, Aug. 15

The final frame has Trump/Sacks firing Corbyn for failing to yield to his “morl [sic] authority”.

Frame 4

Bell, who has previously used his Guardian platform to mock claims of antisemitism, and used imagery evoking a toxic antisemitic trope, is not engaged in a fact-based defense of Jeremy Corbyn.  He’s attempting to turn accusations made by Corbyn’s ‘Zionist’ accusers around by suggesting that Zionists – and not Corbyn, with his decades-long support for terrorists and anti-Semites, and his supporters – are the true extremists. 

Indeed, Bell’s latest cartoon gets to the heart of the battle within Labour over the IHRA Antisemitism Definition: the question of whether anti-Zionism, the belief that Zionism is inherently racist and that Israel, therefore, has no right to exist and shouldn’t exist, is a morally acceptable position. 

However, it isn’t merely about the right of the only Jewish majority state in the world to continue existing.  It’s also about British Jews, and indeed all diaspora Jewish communities.  If Israel is, by nature, “a racist endeavor”, then it necessarily follows that (non-Israeli) Jews – the overwhelming majority of whom are Zionists and see Israel, in some form or another, as an inalienable part of their Jewish identity – are, as Howard Jacobson phrased it , “the very source and fount of racism themselves”. “Once hold Jews to be racist”, he continued, “and Zionism a racist endeavour, then no antisemite can ever be a racist himself”.

In smearing Israel, Jonathan Sacks and – by association – most British Jews, Steve Bell has attempted to grant Jeremy Corbyn and his cult-like band of acolytes the ultimate political get-out-of-jail-free card for the times – lifetime moral impunity for expressions of anti-Jewish racism.

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