OPINION: Mealy-mouthed reaction to the Guardian cartoon

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OPINION: Mealy-mouthed reaction to the Guardian cartoon

It's not just the cartoonist who's to blame, writes Alex Brummer after Martin Rowson’s antisemitic drawing of Richard Sharp

Alex Brummer is a Jewish News columnist and the City Editor, Daily Mail

Martin Rowson shows Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson cartoons as he poses for a photographer in his studio in London, Monday, Jan. 24, 2022. (AP Photo/Frank Augstein)
Martin Rowson shows Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson cartoons as he poses for a photographer in his studio in London, Monday, Jan. 24, 2022. (AP Photo/Frank Augstein)

The Guardian takes great pride in its independence and moral clarity and devotes much space to alleged wrongdoing of ministers, the City of London and the rest of the media.

Its editor, Katharine Viner, in the paper’s regular call for support from its readership, hails its exposures of “the misdeeds of Cabinet ministers and City grandees”.

Having worked for 26 years at the paper as an economics correspondent, Washington bureau chief, foreign editor, financial editor and associate editor, I have enormous affection for the publication and my former colleagues. But, like much of the Jewish community, I was appalled by Martin Rowson’s viciously antisemitic cartoon marking the departure of Richard Sharp as the BBC’s chairman of governors.

The Guardian, Martin Rowson’s anti semitic cartoon of Richard Sharp.

The depiction of Sharp could easily have come directly from the notorious Nazi propaganda sheet Der Stürmer. The image of a squid-like creature dates back to the 19th century Jew-hater, Coin Harvey. His cartoon of an octopus stretched across the globe with Rothschild at the centre, ‘The English Octopus: It Feeds on Nothing but Gold’, has inspired many imitators. Most famously, it was embraced by Rolling Stone magazine at the height of the financial crisis when Sharp’s former employer, Goldman Sachs, was described as a blood-sucking vampire squid. It is hard to think a cartoonist as well educated as Rowson could have been unaware of such antecedents.

What is most offensive about this incident is the flaccid response of The Guardian, its editor and its staff. Yes, the editor is involved in a dialogue with Board of Deputies president Marie van der Zyl and it is reported the future of the cartoonist could be in the balance. But it is not just the cartoonist at fault. The paper appears to have an editorial staff inured to the idea that it is fine to be critical of Jews and successful business people. Such attitudes allowed an offensive image to slip through normal editorial and monitoring processes.

Alex Brummer

Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised. Just a week earlier, The Guardian’s sister paper, The Observer, which is partly produced by the same body of staff, printed a deeply offensive letter from MP Diane Abbott suggesting antisemitism was a lesser form of racism. It failed to recognise the toxic nature of what was written and didn’t even see it as a news story even though it became a national issue and an embarrassment for Keir Starmer’s Labour Party.

The Rowson cartoon was so offensive to Britain’s Jewish community it was deserving of a full mea culpa and might even have provoked resignations. All it produced was a mealy-mouthed account of the events surrounding publication from The Guardian’s readers’ editor marking the publication’s own homework.

Contrast the reaction of staff to Rowson’s cartoon with that of the paper’s internal debates over gender issues. The paper’s lack of tolerance for those disagreeing with its position on what defines a woman provoked the departure of two of the country’s most distinguished female columnists, Hadley Freeman and Suzanne Moore.

The Guardian might have considered launching an independent probe into its fraught relationship with the Jewish community. It is often forgotten that the paper’s inspiring editor, the great CP Scott, was a promoter of the Zionist cause, which led to the creation of the state of Israel. In modern times, that history often has seemed betrayed.

Blood libel-stained cartoons of the late Ariel Sharon and contentious one-sided reporting from the Middle East have been a feature of the paper’s modern history. Israel is far from perfect. Its politics are divisive, the settlements a disgrace, treatment of the Palestinian minority unsympathetic and its behaviour in the territories that of an oppressor.

None of that justifies The Guardian’s insouciance towards racism aimed at Jews and knee-jerk hostility to anything Israel.

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