OPINION: Is the Guardian’s anti-Jewish hate radar permanently switched off?

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OPINION: Is the Guardian’s anti-Jewish hate radar permanently switched off?

In an age that emphasises the power of unconscious bias, it is high time the newspaper's staff educated themselves about the historic ledger of sick anti-Jewish tropes, writes Jeremy Havardi.

Jeremy Havardi is a freelance journalist and author

Last week The Guardian plumbed new depths by publishing a cartoon replete with offensive antisemitic tropes. The cartoon by Martin Rowson focused on Richard Sharp, the BBC chairman who resigned after failing to disclose that he had helped Boris Johnson to obtain a loan weeks before the former prime minister approved him for the role. 

In the cartoon, Sharp is depicted with exaggerated facial features, including a stereotypically enlarged Jewish nose and somewhat sinister grin.

He carries a box emblazoned with the words ‘Gold Sac’ and inside it is a squid, a reference to a nickname used by a journalist to describe Sharp’s former employer Goldman Sachs (‘a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity’), as well as a puppet of Prime Minister Rishi Sunak.

Jeremy Havardi

Behind him is a pig vomiting into a trough. The Guardian subsequently pulled the cartoon and offered an apology to the Jewish community, while Rowson himself described the cartoon as ‘a failure’ which ‘offended the wrong people.’

There were good reasons for this mea culpa. The cartoon contained a number of less than subtle antisemitic motifs. In the warped minds of far-right extremists, Jews have long been portrayed in ominous terms with dark complexions, bulbous noses and lecherous grins. The presence of a Sunak puppet builds on the conspiratorial notion that Jews are puppet masters and wire pullers, manipulating powerful and gullible gentiles for their own ends.

Such conspiratorial fantasies of unrestrained Jewish power have been cemented by an association with the octopus, a creature whose tentacles encircle its hapless victims with unrestrained venom. Goldman Sachs, a bank started by Jews, remains an all too potent symbol of ‘Jewish greed’ in the fervid imaginations of antisemites. In short, Sharp is turned into a repulsive creature whose dark, manipulative and controlling nature spells danger for others.

In a statement, The Guardian said: “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.

Now some may argue, and with good reason, that it is the job of cartoonists to mock, caricature and satirise their victims. They may also point to more innocent explanations of this imagery, arguing that it is not racist to condemn someone for perceived exploitation, that sometimes cartoon images do ‘monster’ their victims and that a pig with its ‘snout in a trough’ is part of modern political parlance.

There are two problems with this line of argument. The first is that all these visual representations are undeniably part of the rich cultural iconography of antisemitism. While any one image, taken in isolation, may seem innocuous, the confluence of visual tropes is somewhat suspicious.

There are many other examples of offensive content which was withdrawn, following an outcry, because it did not meet editorial standards.

They show the extent to which antisemitic ideas remain embedded in our society, ready to burst forth at any moment, especially at a moment of social upheaval.

The second is the paper’s responsibility to show racial sensitivity. There is nothing wrong in drawing an image which exaggerates the features of a black or Asian politician for this, after all, is the cartoonist’s stock in trade. But depicting a member of that minority using racist caricature would be instantly slammed, and rightly so.

Where there is any room for doubt, there would be a demand for circumspection, with editors mindful of how offensive stereotypes underpin and encourage verbal and physical attacks on minorities.

Yet for Jews, there seems to be a glaring double standard.

Time and again, the Guardian’s radar for detecting offensive antisemitic content is switched off, such as in 2012 when it was deemed acceptable for Steve Bell to portray Benjamin Netanyahu on a podium alongside glove puppets that represented then foreign secretary William Hague and Tony Blair. There are many other examples of offensive content which was withdrawn, following an outcry, because it did not meet editorial standards.

None of this is to accuse either Mr. Rowson himself or the Guardian’s editors of being active antisemites. But it is to make the point that all are drawing upon a historic ledger of anti-Jewish tropes and cyphers which, in their totality, convey a deeply sinister view of Jewish power and money.

In an age that emphasises the power of unconscious bias, it is high time for the paper’s staff to educate themselves on this most pressing issue.

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