Guardian editor gets it wrong on Steve Bell and antisemitism

Following the EHRC report on Labour antisemitism, and Corbyn’s suspension from the party after he criticised the report on Facebook, claiming that the scale of the antisemitism problem was “dramatically overstated, the Guardian’s Steve Bell published this cartoon:

Our analysis of the cartoon included the relevant theological and artistic context, noting that it’s clearly an allusion to Italian artist Caravaggio’s portrayal of Salome as she acquires the head of John the Baptist on a platter.  We ultimately argued that the cartoon – at the very least – invites an antisemitic interpretation along the lines of ‘perfidious Jews are responsible for getting Corbyn removed from the party’.

In response to dozens of complains to the Guardian, their Readers’ Editor, Elisabeth Ribbans, published a column addressing the criticism (A cartoon that sparked reader complaints, Nov. 12).  Ribbans’ column noted those aptly arguing that presenting Keir Starmer as Salome with the head of Jeremy Corbyn, or John the Baptist per the allegory, on a golden platter, as delivered by the Jewish King Herod…played upon the very antisemitic tropes that prompted the EHRC’s investigation in the Labour party to begin with”.

Ribbans acknowledged that she was “not surprised that readers were hurt and angered”, that “it is hard to see how reaching for Christian imagery when addressing antisemitism would turn out well” and that “using a Jewish biblical figure who conspired against a saint was highly provocative and open to just the kind of [antisemitic] interpretations made”.

Yet, Ribbans ultimately concluded that she does “not believe Bell to be antisemitic or that he intended his Starmer to embody any noxious myth about Jews”.

First, whether someone “is” antisemitic is not the question.  It’s impossible to peer into a journalist’s soul and determine whether an article, op-ed or cartoon was definitely inspired by anti-Jewish animus.

Antisemitism isn’t an immutable trait that someone either possesses or doesn’t posses. It can more accurately be characterised as a habit of mind or a sensibility concerning how the world works, and how Jews interact with and impact this world – one which employs and is informed by historically anti-Jewish narratives.

As we argued recently concerning the late Indy correspondent Robert Fisk, when a journalist’s body of work includes examples of evoking antisemitic tropes, and breezily dismissing or mocking substantive claims of antisemitism, then we can conclude that they are guilty of perpetuating racist stereotypes against Jews.

Similarly, Bell’s record is clear.

His body of work includes this 1998 cartoon pejoratively referring to Jews as the ‘chosen people’ – and arguably that Judaism as a vengeful religion.

It also includes cartoons that employ the visual language of antisemitism – such as this widely condemned example from 2012, showing Israel’s prime minister exercising puppet-like control over two non-Jewish British politicians – Tony Blair and William Hague.  Not only did the CST characterise the cartoon antisemitic, but even the Guardian’s readers’ editor at the time agreed that it drew upon classic antisemitic tropes of Jewish control over world events.

He also has not only defended Ken Livingstone from “false” charges of antisemitism, but mocked the accusations, which is especially relevant in that the EHRC report found Livingstone guilty of having engaged in antisemitic harassment – one of only two Labour officials (“agents”) named in the report as guilty of racism.

Here’s Bell retweeting Livingstone’s claim that the charges of antisemitism against him were cynical smears, intended to stifle his criticism of Israel.

Nor was that the only time Bell has suggested that the entire Labour antisemitic scandal is nothing but a witch hunt.

Though we suggest you read our analysis of the series of cartoons from 2017 to understand it clearly, in this one cartoon from the series, Bell again appears to evoke Israel’s prime minister as a puppeteer, this time controlling Donald Trump and Boris Johnson.

As our analysis shows, a Bell cartoon from 2018 not only again exonerates Jeremy Corbyn from charges of antisemitism, but appeared to characterise late Rabbi Jonathan Sacks as a racist, and, arguably that Zionism as intrinsically racist – an accusation that is antisemitic according to the IHRA Working Definition.

So, is Steve Bell personally antisemitic?  We’ll never know.

Did he intend “to cause offense” to Jews with his latest cartoon?  We’ll never know.

However, the more important questions are these:

Has Bell been guilty in the past of using the visual language of antisemitism in his cartoons, thus perpetuation racist stereotypes of Jews?  Yes.

Has Bell used his platform at the Guardian to suggest that the entire Labour antisemitism scandal is a cynical smear, by Jews and their allies, against Corbyn and other critics of Israel?   Yes.

Did his latest cartoon have a high probability of being interpreted in an antisemitic way?  Yes.

This is the relevant context by which the Guardian Readers’ Editor should have judged Bell’s canonisation of the ‘saintly’ Jeremy.

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