A recent series of cartoons by the Guardian’s long-time cartoonist Steve Bell has mocked and belittled charges of antisemitism in the Labour Party. As we’ve noted in earlier tweets and posts, the putative object of his scorn is the deputy leader of the party, Tom Watson, who’s been critical of Jeremy Corbyn’s handling of the crisis engulfing the party.
Here’s the first cartoon, published at the Guardian on July 15th.
Bell refers to Watson as “the antisemite finder general”, a likely a reference to “witchfinders” of 17th century England who traveled across the country identifying suspected witches, who were then tortured into confession, and ultimately hanged. The leader of the campaign to rid the land of this ‘satanic’ evil was a man named Matthew Hopkins, who was dubbed the “Witchfinder General”.
So, it appears that Bell is characterising Labour’s antisemitism row as a witch hunt – a dishonest campaign to smear Labour members with false charges of antisemitism. This precise “witch hunt” framing of the crisis, has inspired a fringe group (Labour Against the Witch Hunt) and a film (Witch Hunt).
Here’s the second cartoon, published at the Guardian on July 16th.
Here’s the third cartoon in the series, which, as we noted in a previous post, was published on Bell’s personal website, but not at the Guardian – prompting Bell to accuse editors of over-sensitivity to the “infernal” (tiresome) issue of antisemitism:
Whilst the significance of Netanyahu in the second frame isn’t totally clear at this point, it will become apparent.
Here’s the fourth cartoon, which was also published only at Bell’s site, and not at the Guardian:
Here, Bell evokes the classic antisemitic trope of Jews controlling non-Jewish politicians by depicting Netanyahu as a puppeteer controlling both Donald Trump and Boris Johnson. Recall that, in 2012, Bell used similar imagery, showing Netanyahu as a puppeteer controlling former Prime Minister Tony Blair and foreign secretary William Hague, a cartoon which faced widespread criticism and resulted in a rebuke by the Guardian’s readers’ editor.
You may also recall that, in April of this year, the New York Times international edition published, removed and ultimately apologised for a cartoon which evoked the same antisemitic trope, by depicting Netanyahu as a dog leading a blind kippah-wearing Donald Trump.
Here’s the fifth cartoon of the series, published at the Guardian July 22nd:
These final frames, which show the US president and Israeli prime minister, appear to reinforce Bell’s narrative that charges of antisemitism in the Labour Party since Jeremy Corbyn became leader are unserious, representing merely a cynical effort by those making the claim to smear their political opponents.
In his own pseudo sophisticated way, Bell is echoing the antisemitic rhetoric of those pro-Corbyn fanatics who’ve launched hateful attacks on Jews (including Jewish politicians and public figures) who’ve complained about antisemitism. Ultimately, what Bell is doing is gas-lighting British Jews, dismissing their profound fears about the hatred directed to their community, and lending credibility to bigots who view the entire row as a conspiracy to bring down their beloved leader.
Though we’re glad editors chose not to run the most openly antisemitic cartoons in the series, the fact that Bell, whose visceral contempt for Israel and the values of British Jews is apparent, has been employed by the Guardian for thirty-eight years is an apt symbol of how the once fiercely Zionist and philosemitic institution has, as David Collier phrased it, become “nothing but a poisonous shadow of something that used to resemble a newspaper”.