OPINION: Rowson’s cartoon should be a teachable moment

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OPINION: Rowson’s cartoon should be a teachable moment

The fact that wealth and power are intrinsically connected to a Jewish depiction speaks to where we are as a society today, writes Robert Singer

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

Martin Rowson’s cartoon of outgoing BBC chairman Richard Sharp in The Guardian last week should be a teachable moment. The fact that it was retracted with an apology is a welcome first step, but surely should not be the only one.

If we take Rowson at his word that he did not have Sharp’s Jewishness in mind when creating the cartoon, then it speaks to a greater challenge.

WJC former CEO Robert Singer speaking at the International Conference on Antisemitism in Rome on January 29, 2018.
Credit: Shahar Azran

For centuries, Jews have suffered tropes about an obsession with money and wealth, power and control.

Whether it was Rembrandt’s Judas Returning Thirty Pieces of Silver, painted in 1629, Shakespeare’s Shylock and Dickens’s Fagin, Jews have been falsely accused of these tropes across Western civilisation in general and British culture specifically.

As someone very familiar with British society, I know that most don’t share these views and that British Jews are an integral part of British society in every aspect: culture, science, education, academia, research, and many other fields.

Nonetheless, these canards permeate many current depictions of Jews, consciously or unconsciously.

A recent example was in Al Smith’s naming of the main character Hershel Fink in his play Rare Earth Mettle. Even though there was nothing in the play to denote Fink’s Jewishness, the fact that the writer decided an unsympathetic billionaire required a Jewish-sounding name demonstrated an unconscious bias which is becoming increasingly prevalent.

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

I am not accusing Smith or Rowson of Jew-hatred, but the fact that wealth and power are intrinsically connected to a Jewish depiction speaks to where we are as a society today.

In addition, that Rowson’s cartoon could have passed through several layers of editorial oversight, and is not The Guardian’s first foray into anti-Semitic depiction, means that deeper introspection is required across the board.

Unfortunately, this type of cultural bias towards Jews is not new and formed the basis for millennia of prejudice, oppression, expulsion and massacre during the Jewish Diaspora.

Leaders, whether decision-makers or opinion-shapers, throughout history understood the need to create these tropes to rally against the Jew and Jewish collectivity.

The starkest examples of course come from recent history, during the Holocaust, when major propaganda resources and efforts were exerted to make the Jew a despicable and hated figure, worthy of annihilation en masse.

Those who work for The Guardian, as a publication that prides itself on fighting prejudice and hate, should be hypersensitive to allowing antisemitism to seep into its work

Of course, the current situation is not like the Holocaust, but Jews are still being disproportionately targeted. The tropes and myths about the Jews overwhelmingly pivot on some form of this notion of Jewish power, wealth and control.

Whether for white supremacists, radical Islamists or an increasing number of conspiracy theorists, enhanced since Covid-19, Jews overwhelmingly play a vital role in their machinations as the group or community pulling the strings contributing towards their discontent and actively preventing them from achieving their aims.

These tropes still cost Jewish lives on the streets of the UK, Europe or the USA.

That is why there is a great need to understand these tropes, their history and ramifications, in order to become more sensitive to them, and ensure they stay out of the public discourse.

Those who work for The Guardian, as a publication that prides itself on fighting prejudice and hate, should be hypersensitive to allowing antisemitism to seep into its work, consciously or subconsciously.

There is an important movement that seeks to inculcate racial sensitivity training into journalism and reporting, and that is to be welcomed. However, this rarely includes Jews and Jewish issues.

This episode surrounding Rowson’s cartoon shows that more than ever it is about time they were.

  • The author is chairman of the Center for Jewish Impact and formerly CEO of the World Jewish Congress.
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