In reviewing British media reports today on the decision by the Labour Party not to permanently expel Ken Livingstone for his toxic and historically inaccurate claims alleging a “collaboration” between Hitler and Zionism, one thing stood out: There was almost nobody – either in the media or politics – who was willing defend the former London Mayor or the party’s decision to let him off with a temporary suspension. Indeed, those condemning Labour for their failure to employ a “zero tolerance towards antisemitism” included scores of Labour MPs, and even Deputy Labour Leader Tom Watson.
Note that we said “almost” nobody was willing to defend him.
Yesterday, the Guardian published this, by their long-time cartoonist Steve Bell, suggesting that all Livingstone did was mention Hitler too often.
Today the Guardian published another cartoon by Bell, characterising the Labour Party proceedings as a kangaroo court and mocking the allegations of antisemitism against Livingstone.
Bell’s sympathies are also clear in this retweet of Livingstone’s claim that he was being unfairly smeared for ‘standing up for Palestine’.
Let’s be clear. Though the row began with Livingstone’s widely refuted claim that Hitler “was supporting Zionism…before he went mad and ended up killing six million Jews”, and included the even more offensive allegation that the SS trained German Jews, this was not a one-off. Livingstone has a record of evoking Nazis to demonise Israel and abuse British Jews. As David Hirsh reminded us, in 1982, Livingstone, as editor of a Workers Revolutionary Party paper, published a cartoon of Menachem Begin giving a Nazi salute and wearing an SS uniform while standing on Palestinian skulls. In 2005, he accused a Jewish reporter of acting “like a German war criminal”. And, in 2009, Livingstone characterised Gaza as a modern Warsaw Ghetto. Though Livingstone has always maintained that he’s not antisemitic, just anti-Zionist, his 2012 claim that Jews were rich and thus not likely to vote Labour belies that claim.
Of course, those familiar with the Guardian cartoonist wouldn’t be surprised by his sympathy for Livingstone, as he has a history of both ridiculing claims of antisemitism and, at times, drawing upon antisemitic motifs. Let’s recall his most notorious work, in 2012, playing upon the narrative of Jewish (puppet-like) control over non-Jewish British politicians, which was later criticised by the Guardian readers’ editor – but not removed.
Whilst we disagree with those who suggest that hyper criticism of Israel at the Guardian reflects institutional antisemitism, these cartoons by Bell certainly indicate his own lack of seriousness about anti-Jewish racism by employing graphic depictions of Jews historically associated with this prejudice.
It also raises serious questions about Guardian editors’ judgment in publishing cartoons offensive to British Jews and clearly at odds with their mission as a bold, progressive, anti-racist voice which speaks truth to power.