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Monday, November 26, 2012 

Sensitivity, anti-Semitism and Steve Bell.



Back in 2002, the New Statesman was quite rightly criticised after it ran the above front cover.  Picturing a Star of David pinning down the very centre of the union flag, while asking whether there was a "kosher conspiracy" involving lobbying from advocates of Israel, it invoked the most classic of anti-Semitic tropes whether that was the intention or not.  Editor at the time Peter Wilby apologised, and ran an editorial admitting that he personally had gotten it badly wrong.


10 years on, the readers' editor at the Graun has been moved to comment on the above Steve Bell cartoon, ran the day after the assassination of Ahmed al-Jabari.  Mainly responding to a couple of letters to the paper from Mark Gardner of the Community Support Trust as well as online criticism, Chris Elliot concludes his piece by saying that in his view, journalists should "not use the language – including the visual language – of antisemitic stereotypes".  It is undoubtedly the case that Jews have in the past been caricatured as powerful puppet masters, although more usually as pulling strings rather than wielding politicians as glove puppets.

If the cartoon does then echo an anti-Semitic stereotype, however unconsciously, does that by definition make it anti-Semitic?  In this instance I would suggest it does not.  Bell states, and Elliot recognises that he has often depicted politicians as either puppets or subservient to others (Tony Blair was at times a poodle to George Bush's chimp), and Bell argues that on this occasion his intention was no different.  Bell says the whole point of the cartoon is Benjamin Netanyahu's cynicism and his manipulation of the situation leading up to the launching of Operation Pillar of Defence, with Blair and William Hague unwilling to criticise his actions despite this being a repeat of the tactics of past Israeli leaders as elections approach.

It's an argument I myself have made, and while I can see why the depiction of Blair and Hague as glove puppets will be seen by some as either lazy or offensive, taken as a whole the cartoon is clearly not anti-Semitic.  As Bell says, the entire cartoon is a take on a photograph of Netanyahu giving a statement to the media, where the backdrop was Israeli flags and there was a menorah on the lectern.  As often as there is a fine line between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism, and it's one where the left at times accepts prejudice it would never tolerate elsewhere, the cartoon isn't even the former; it's an attack on a politician and how he presents himself, not a country or a racial group.  It does not, even obliquely, imply that Jews as a whole are "omnipotent conspirators" as the Jewish Chronicle quoted Jeremy Brier as saying, even if it can be argued it does fall into the stereotype of depicting a Jew as a puppeteer.

The irony will not be lost on some that the Graun is the paper most associated, rightly or wrongly, with political correctness, and has on occasion ran some utterly loopy pieces on perceived bigotry.  In this case it seems to have to a certain degree reaped what it has sown, while also falling victim to those groups that do treat any criticism of Israel as anti-Semitic.  While there is nothing wrong with going to great lengths in a bid to be sensitive, what should not be silenced is legitimate criticism of politicians of any race, colour or creed for fear that a stereotype might be touched upon, regardless of the medium through which it is made.

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