Column JN Nov 17 2020
Last week a story floated around which has almost become overlooked in the tsunami of news we have been dealing with recently — including the remarkable Equalities and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) report into Labour antisemitism.
Readers will recall that one of the immediate consequences of the EHRC report was Labour’s suspension of its previous leader, Jeremy Corbyn. This was in response to his complaints about the EHRC report, that while he acknowledged there was antisemitism within the party, he still maintained that the level of it had been “dramatically overstated” for political purposes.
The day following Corbyn’s suspension, at the direction of Labour’s general secretary, David Evans, a cartoon appeared in the Guardian from its long-time freelance cartoonist, Steve Bell. It showed the new Labour leader, Sir Keir Starmer, holding a plate on which Corbyn’s decapitated head rested. There was an immediate, and appalled, response from many people, including Jews, not least because the publication of the cartoon coincided with horrific knife attacks in France in which real people, and not cartoons, were indeed beheaded.
So far, so unpleasant. But the story which then emerged — in Private Eye — was really disturbing. Private Eye claimed that senior staff at the Guardian had been worried about the cartoon and had shown it to a number of Jewish staff, to see whether they found it offensive. And, allegedly, these Jewish staffers thought it was OK, giving the Guardian an effective go-ahead to publish.
I was very curious as to whether the Private Eye story was true, and asked a number of the better-known Jewish journalists at the paper if it was correct. There was a resounding silence.
I should have waited: because this week, Elisabeth Ribbans, the Guardian and Observer’s global readers’ editor, devoted her entire column to considering complaints about the cartoon. And, guess what? Not only did she confirm the Private Eye story, that “there was considerable discussion, including with some Jewish colleagues and experts”, before publication, but that she had asked Bell himself whether the cartoon was antisemitic and he “strenuously rejected claims that the work was antisemitic”. So that’s all right, then.
Ribbans admitted, however, that the timing of publication was “insensitive” given what was taking place in France, and added that the content could be seen as “highly provocative”.
Who is at fault here? An outraged Hadley Freeman, one of the best-known Guardian writers, not known for being backward when it comes to denouncing antisemitism, took to social media on Friday to attack those who are spotlighting Guardian Jewish staffers.
She wrote: “I don’t know who the ‘Jewish colleagues’ consulted about the cartoon are, and I don’t care. It’s not the sole responsibility of Jews to guard against these things, and blaming them for the cartoon is like blaming someone for bruises on their face”.
She misses the point, though. While it is certainly not the “sole responsibility of Jews to guard against these things”, the fact that they were asked at all, effectively to give the Guardian clearance, is disgraceful. “Oh, it’s fine, we asked some Jews and they said it was okay.”
It’s not the first time Steve Bell’s cartoons have elicited the wrath of the Jewish community and at least one — featuring Netanyahu — was spiked before publication. While it is the job of political cartoonists to be provocative, surely it can’t be the job of the senior editors at the Guardian to turn Jewish staffers into compliant “house Jews”?
Don’t all rush at once to speak, guys.