Guardian cartoonist Martin Rowson and antisemitism: a brief history

A cartoon by the Guardian’s Martin Rowson depicting Richard Sharp, who announced his resignation as BBC chair earlier in the week, was removed by editors on Saturday following widespread complaints of antisemitism. In a statement, The Guardian said of the cartoon depicting Sharp, who is Jewish:

“We understand the concerns that have been raised. This cartoon does not meet our editorial standards, and we have decided to remove it from our website. The Guardian apologises to Mr Sharp, to the Jewish community and to anyone offended.”

Rowson, a Jeremy Corbyn supporter who has been a cartoonist at the Guardian for decades, also apologised, saying the illustration was a result of “carelessness and thoughtlessness”, and adding: “Many people are understandably very upset. I genuinely apologise, unconditionally.”

See the cartoon, and a great analysis of it – which managed to include several antisemitic themes, including depicting Sharp with grotesque stereotypical features, themes of money, power, an octopus and a puppeteer – in the tweet thread below by the CST’s Dave Rich, whose recent book on antisemitism we reviewed.

Though you can find all our posts about Rowson’s problematic work relating to Israel and Jews here, we’ll provide a few examples, from the pages of the Guardian and elsewhere, to provide context on the current row.

In a 2008 report released by the Office of the Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Antisemitism, the US State Department denounced as antisemitic a cartoon by Rowson two years earlier depicting Stars of David being used as a knuckle duster on a bloody fist to both punch a young boy and crush U.S. President George Bush.

In 2011, Rowson demonstrated that his views about Jews and antisemitism are similar to that of the disgraced former London Mayor Ken Livingstone, who was found guilty of antisemitic harassment of Jewish people in the EHRC report on antisemitism in the Labour Party.

In an interview at a socialist publication, Rowson wrote that an “outraged sense of victimhood can be a powerful weapon to silence debate” and that “The Israel lobby is particularly masterful in using this to silence criticism of their brutally oppressive colonialism“.  He added that the charge of antisemitism is “the ultimate trump card”, that “no matter how many innocent people the Israeli state kills, any criticism is automatically proof of antisemitism” before adding that “no wonder idiots like Ahmadinejad want to deny the holocaust. They are jealous. They’d love to silence their critics like that“.

In 2013, he accused CAMERA UK (then ‘CiF Watch’) of “browbeating him” into avoiding Israel in his cartoons.

Followers of our site might also recall that this isn’t the first time Rowson depicted a well known Jew with grotesque, stereotypical features, as you can see in this post in 2017 on his illustration of Henry Kissinger.  In our post, we included a side by side comparison between Rowson’s depiction of Kissinger with the infamous Nazi antisemitic caricature published by Julius Streicher’s Der Sturmer, titled ‘The Poisonous Mushroom’:

We should be clear that Steve Bell, Rowson’s colleague at the Guardian, is far more problematic, particularly in his use of antisemitism in his cartoons, and his clear contempt for the Jewish community.  However, while it would be tempting to impute to Rowson ignorance about the myths, libels and caricatures about Jews that have been normalised in the West over centuries, an article he wrote in 2019 criticised the NY Times for publishing a cartoon (later removed) that included what he called “common antisemitic tropes of the type notoriously published in cartoon form in the Nazi newspaper Der Stürmer”.

So, it would seem that the Guardian cartoonist has some familiarity with the visual language of antisemitic stereotypes.

Indeed, in his apology for the cartoon about Sharp (the full text of which you can find here), Rowson admits that the cartoon went “horribly wrong”.  He attributed this in part to “the mad rush to cram as much in as possible in the 5 or so hours available to me to produce the artwork by deadline” and that he realises that some of the imagery could be seen as representing “antisemitic blood libels that have recurred poisonously for millennia“.

So, how to interpret Rowson’s ‘error’?  Well, there was something Rich mentioned in his tweet thread that may help explain it.  He wrote, in contextualising antisemitism with other forms of racism, that “you might draw Boris Johnson as a gorilla and nobody would mind…But if you drew a black politician that way, it would be racist”.  The same principle should apply, he added, to depictions of Jews.

It should. But, it doesn’t.

Whereas you’d be hard pressed to find a cartoonist working for a mainstream media outlet – or, his or her editor – who wouldn’t immediately recognise that kind of depiction of a black politician as racist, the same is in fact not true when it comes to antisemitic imagery.

In other words, the same instinct which motivated Diane Abbott, in her letter in the Observer, to outrageously diminish the significance of antisemitism by likening it to the prejudice faced by “redheads” helps explain why those on the hard left, such as Rowson, fail to see racism against Jews even when it’s staring them in the face – even if, at least on an intellectual level, they understand the history of antisemitic tropes.

This represents an extremely dangerous ideological blind spot which both Rich and David Baddiel have explored at length.

The Guardian’s decision to remove the cartoon was clearly motivated by the widespread backlash to it, not outrage over its racist tropes.  This explains why, to this day, a recent article legitimising a medieval blood libel by Mohammed el-Kurd still has not been amended to clarify that the outlet rejects his antisemitic libel.

The Guardian, as we’ve demonstrated repeatedly over the years, only worries about “averting accusations of antisemitism“, not antisemitism itself.

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  1. says: Sid+Levine

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