OPINION: In sacking Steve Bell the Guardian shows it STILL doesn’t understand antisemitism

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OPINION: In sacking Steve Bell the Guardian shows it STILL doesn’t understand antisemitism

Dr Tim Benson, director of the Political Cartoon Gallery and Britain's foremost authority on political cartoons, on the Guardian dropping its star cartoonist for his latest depiction of Netanyahu.

Steve Bell has been sacked by the Guardian for drawing a cartoon that criticised Benjamin Netanyahu just days after the horrific Hamas slaughter of 1,300 Israeli citizens. The cartoon had the Israeli prime minister attempting to carry out a ‘surgical strike’ on the Gaza Strip using a scalpel while wearing boxing gloves. 

The Guardian panicked and refused to publish it, whereon Bell released it on social media. As a result of that, the paper told him it would no longer require his services. He does have previous on this, having tweeted cartoons the Guardian has refused to publish in the past.

Bell is certainly not a friend of Israel, especially when you take into account his cartoons on the subject and his apparent slavish support for Jeremy Corbyn when Labour leader. However, this cartoon may have been anti-Israeli but it was definitely not antisemitic.

A Guardian staff member had somehow come to the misguided opinion that the imagery was an antisemitic trope: that in Netanyahu using the scalpel on himself he was trying to cut out ‘a pound of flesh’, thus drawing an allusion between Netanyahu and Shylock.

In fact, the cartoon was in reference to a David Levine cartoon from the 1960s which showed President Lyndon Johnson attempting to cut out North Vietnam from his own stomach. Johnson had just undergone surgery and had shown the press his scar. The cartoon made a valid point but the timing of it, and the misreading of the imagery, made it appear quite abhorrent.

Political cartoons by their very nature are full of bias and subjectivity. They can be cruel and unfair but sometimes timing plays more of a part in people’s perception of them than anything else. This was very much the case here.

Most cartoonists know where the boundaries lie but the Guardian for years has allowed Bell far too much self-indulgence

Many have considered Bell’s cartoon as evidence of his antisemitism but it was, in reality, no more critical than those appearing in the Times or the Independent. There were certainly no complaints about any of these.

Another problem with the cartoon was the context behind it.

Other newspapers had previously published cartoons condemning Hamas’s actions, but the Guardian had, prior to this, used a cartoon that drew a false equivalence; in effect, that all sides were suffering as a result of Hamas’s terrorism.

This I found far more distasteful than Bell’s.

There was, therefore, no balance to the Guardian’s approach. Saying that, had Bell not self-published the cartoon on social media, he would still be in a job today.

I believe the blame lies squarely with the Guardian. Bell has been working there for almost 40 years and some conversation should have gone on at the paper that meant a situation like this could not have occurred.

Most cartoonists know where the boundaries lie but the Guardian for years has allowed Bell and Rowson far too much self-indulgence and now they are paying the price.

This laxness also led to Martin Rowson being suspended for a vicious antisemitic cartoon. He initially and incredulously denied it was so but eventually recanted in order to save his job.

Bell is too principled for this to happen so it’s highly unlikely we will see him in action again. It is a shame, because Bell has been the Guardian’s greatest asset.

Unlike any other cartoonist, he managed to get under the skin of a number of prime ministers such as John Major and David Cameron, as well as President George W Bush.

It is indeed a sad and unnecessary epitaph.


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