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.

Categories: Guardian

16 replies »

  1. Israel’s ‘behaviour’ isn’t difficult to comprehend, given the stated aims in the Hamas charter and the publicly stated aims of many Arab countries of their desire to ‘annihilate’ Israel and ‘kill every Jew’. No one has the right to be that ignorant. To blame his readers -“I can’t be held responsible for whatever cultural precepts and misapprehensions people choose to bring to my cartoon” – is cowardly and dishonest. So the ‘cultural precepts’ are known to his readers but Bell is innocent and ignorant of them? The problem with people like Bell is that they have no real ammunition against Israel and so resort to working in the gutter. Disgusting. And Jewish lives are lost because of this.

  2. I was about to give Bell the benefit of the doubt – until I saw that last cartoon. Call me crazy, but I’m looking at barbed wire, death and concentration camps.

    “Cultural precepts and misapprehensions”??

    • Reading Gyongyosi’s speech in the Hungarian papers makes it perfectly clear that he’s saying exactly what Bell and his Guardian employers. And I have serious doubts that they are the least disturbed by the fact that they are in the same bandwagon with the neo-Nazis.

  3. I’m with Winnie on this. Bell’s defense of his cartoon is almost as immoral as the cartoon itself. He uses a tired old antisemitic piece of paranoia and then pretends not to know what it is or where it came from!

  4. And now, for something completely different:

    After the web attack at Israel one week ago by presumably Anonymous, another try. Iranian?

    The last ten, twelve years the web has been awashed with antisemitic websites, cartoons, blogs etc. set up by Arabs, Iranians, Islamic organisation, Russian, East European, Swiss, Austrian, …left extremists and right extremists. And the nerds on their keyboards take that propaganda for real and act accordingly.

    It is time to pull the plug off their Second Life. Maybe then they get real.

  5. There was an excellent analysis of why this cartoon was not valid political satire by a commenter on another blog- namely that any factual basis for Netanyahu being the puppet master of Blair and Hague is completely absent: there is nothing of that nature in current political discourse anywhere except on the rabid antisemite fringes of the political spectrum. It made no political sense. So what was left was a lazy use of old imagery from the hoard in the antisemite’s attic.

  6. Amie, exactly, and notice that Bell doesn’t try to explain how it is that this particular Jew, Netenyahu, controls British foreign policy. It is bigotry so visceral that it doesn’t even factor as an ideological positon that he needs to qualify. It is indeed an image that taps into the deep seam of hatred that has formed Europe’s cultural traditions and identity, and Bell is a true son of those ‘progressive’ values.

  7. Chris Elliott has form of the most egregious kind, which encapsulates the depths to which the Guardian and journalism (since it seems to be the norm for so much of MSM) has sunk. It’s some sort of collective delusion

    From CiFWatch article by Medusa:

    “..For this is what the readers’ editor has to say about facts. Note how, in true Guardianspeak fashion, he tries to wriggle off the hook of the Guardian’s responsibility to provide us with honest reportage based on proper context, empirically-based evidence, and facts. Remind yourself that a fact is either objectively and provably true or, if it cannot be proven, then its status as a fact is questionable and it becomes supposition or opinion and should not be purveyed as a fact. Finally, ask yourself whether Chris Elliott would know a fact if he met one:

    “.. The work of the readers’ editor is often less about establishing whether a particular fact is wrong than trying to be fair and transparent about how the Guardian has come to a decision, for instance, to identify an individual, use a particular photograph or quote someone making an offensive remark. Facts are tricky things too. One person’s fact is another person’s opinion and a third person’s grossly biased and unconscionable world view… Where we can agree that something is a matter of fact and that it is wrong we should not repeat it. Too often we do.” (Emphasis mine)

    “This last sentence above is very poorly worded. I hope that Elliott means “Where we can agree that something is a questionable matter of fact….” but given that he seems not to have a good grasp of what a fact is, I cannot be sure…”

    Would YOU buy a used car from this person?

  8. Not been here from a while. Glad to see the revamp, although the silly popularity contest on comments is still here.

    The article in question is trademark mock outrage. The Saudi picture is clearly anti-Semitic, depicting an anonymous sinister Jew controlling Western leaders. The Cartoon depicting Bibi is not anti-Semitic. It depicts Bibi, a man who as previously boasted of his ability to control Western leaders.

    Find some actual anti-Semitism to be outraged about.

  9. So “pictorial stereotypes are the stock in trade of a cartoonist.” Only with respect to Jews of course. Try drawing a long nosed arab sleeping with a young boy (to depict Arafat), or perhaps a a blackface minstrel (to depict Obama) and see where the Guardian comes down on “pictorial stereotypes.”