The Guardian’s ‘anti-semitism’ incident

Jonathan Cook

Consortium News  /  May 9, 2023

With the row over its cartoon, the newspaper that helped oust Jeremy Corbyn from the Labour Party has briefly found that what you sow, you can reap.

The Guardian found itself last weekend at the centre of an anti-semitism controversy. Its cartoonist Martin Rowson was accused of using anti-Jewish “tropes” as he depicted a Conservative government mired in corruption, including in its ties to the outgoing BBC chairman, Richard Sharp.

There was a certain Schadenfreude in watching The Guardian squirm as it was accused of anti-Semitism  by a wide range of Jewish establishment bodies and its media rivals. After all, it was The Guardian that was the most eager and effective media organization in cheerleading evidence-free claims — promoted by those same Jewish groups — that the Labour Party was “plagued” by anti-Semitism under its previous leader, Jeremy Corbyn.

As a paper supposedly representing the left, the corporate Guardian’s attacks on Corbyn injected unwarranted credibility into smears from the wider, billionaire-owned media that might otherwise have appeared too transparently to have been the establishment’s handiwork. Corbyn was reviled because he was the first politician in living memory to challenge the neoliberal consensus at home, one that keeps a tiny elite enriched, and to reject the West’s endless resource wars against the Global South.

It was the sustained campaign against him – one that largely hinged on conflating anti-Semitism  with trenchant criticism of Israel — that ultimately led to Cobyn’s suspension from the parliamentary Labour Party. He has been replaced by the all-too establishment-friendly Sir Keir Starmer.

The redefinition of “anti-Semitism ” has proved to be the gift that keeps on giving: Corbyn is now banned from running as a Labour candidate in the seat he has represented for 40 years, despite the warm ties he has forged with large segments of the Jewish community there.

With the row over its cartoon, The Guardian has briefly found that what you sow, you can reap. It had to hurriedly take down the image, while Rowson issued a profuse apology.

According to the same Jewish organizations that hounded Corbyn, the paper’s depiction of Sharp — who few knew was Jewish, even among Guardian staff apparently — plays on long-standing anti-Semitic tropes.Sharp’s face is said to be too caricatured, and his grimace too sinister, even though he is made to look far, far less grotesque than (the non-Jewish) former Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

Sharp carries a “carboard box of unemployment” marked with the name Goldman Sachs, the large investment bank where he accumulated so much money he was able to donate more than £400,000 of it to the Tory party.

Johnson repaid the favour by appointing him BBC chairman, even though Sharp had no qualifications for the job. He was finally brought down by further revelations that he had concealed sleazy personal ties to Johnson.

Jewish organizations, however, believe any reference to Sharp’s connection to Goldman Sachs is anti-Semitic because the bank’s name sounds a little too obviously Jewish. Presumably, in their eyes, there should be no visual association between Sharp and money either — despite his enormous riches and that fact’s pertinence to the issue of corruption in public life — because of the historic association made by anti-Semites of Jews with greed and wealth.

Rishi Sunak, Johnson’s successor — and again, more unpleasantly caricatured than Sharp — is in the cardboard box, because he worked for the outgoing BBC chairman at Goldman Sachs. One might assume that the cartoonist intended this to suggest that the wheel of corruption has come full circle.

But Jewish organizations read it differently, as a signifier that Sunak is Sharp’s puppet — another anti-Semitic trope — even though Johnson sits above them both, high up on a mountain of faeces grasping bags of money while turning everything in British public life to shit.

Topping off Rowson’s offence is a toy squid in the cardboard box, a jokey reference to a well-known description of Goldman Sachs by the U.S. leftwing writer Matt Taibbi.

Thirteen years ago, he called the bank “a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money.”

It seems that description now needs reassessing as anti-Semitic too.

Useful Bludgeon

But, of course, though The Guardian has had its feathers ruffled by the incident, it is not going to face any real consequences for its transgression — and certainly none of the kind its columnists insisted Corbyn suffer.

No one, least of all Jewish organizations that police modern public discourse so assiduously, is calling The Guardian “institutionally anti-Semitic” as a result. Nor will its senior editors, such as Editor-in-Chief Katharine Viner, be forced out of their jobs, as Corbyn was from his. Ofcom will not investigate The Guardian and issue a denunciatory report, as the Equalities and Human Rights Commission did into Labour under Corbyn — the commission’s first and only investigation of a mainstream political party.

The Guardian is not like Corbyn. Since Viner took over the helm, it is enthusiastically on board with Britain’s neoliberal establishment, and barely bothers to hide the fact that it is under the security services’ thumb. Its chief function is to rally support on the left for Starmer as the leader of a politically neutered Labour Party, one that now reliably backs Israel as it oppresses the Palestinians and cheerleads NATO’s expansionist wars to surround Russia and China.

The Guardian won’t be targeted. The same figures who demonized Corbyn very much kept the gloves on as they berated the paper over the cartoon.

Dave Rich, head of policy at the Community Security Trust, wrote a commentary in The Guardian (of course) castigating the paper for running the cartoon. However, he was quick to discount any possibility that the paper or Rowson had committed the crime of intentional anti-Semitism. Their sin was more one of carelessness and thoughtlessness.

The aim was not to weaponized anti-Semitism to damage The Guardian, as happened to Corbyn, but to reinforce the limits of public discourse. It was a reminder that there is a price to pay — potentially a catastrophic one — for straying too far into topics the establishment wishes to remain off-limits.

It was a reminder that the charge of anti-Semitism is still a powerful bludgeon, one that can be deployed to intimidate the left when its critiques of key establishment interests gain too much traction. How can we be so sure? Because that same bludgeon is kept safely in the drawer whenever it comes to the right, however overtly anti-Semitic their politics.

The Guardian was quick to offer reassurances it would not repeat its error. While noting that none of his staff knew Sharp was Jewish, opinion page editor Hugh Muir promised readers “there will need to be learning” from the incident.

Viner drove the point home: “The publication of this cartoon highlights failures in our editorial processes, which we are determined to address. We are working on what those changes might be so that we can be sure that something like this won’t happen again.”

What readers can be sure of is that those changes will further enfeeble The Guardian’s already tepid efforts to hold power to account. It is important to understand why.

Imagery Hijacked

What The Guardian cartoon incident reveals is the degree to which official discourse about anti-Semitism has now squarely placed the cart before the horse.

In his Guardian article, Rich gives a clue as to how this works in practice. He starts by making an incisive point:

“It is unlikely that anybody would complain if a Guardian cartoonist drew Boris Johnson as a gorilla. All’s fair in political satire, cartoonists are expected to be scurrilous, and the former prime minister is fair game. But if that same cartoonist drew a black politician in simian form, it would be obviously racist. This is the principle to hold in mind when decoding Martin Rowson’s cartoon of outgoing BBC chair Richard Sharp, who is Jewish.”

Rich observes that the context of racism is critically important, or as he puts it: “Centuries of anti-Jewish caricaturists (and to be clear, I do not accuse Rowson or the Guardian of falling into this category) have generated an extensive library of visual tropes to convey their hatred of, and disgust for, Jews.”

True, but Rich’s analogy is not quite as straightforward as he makes it sound.

We understand that a cartoon depicting a black politician as a monkey is racist, not just because of historical context, but because, by definition, the cartoonist’s visual comparison is entirely gratuitous. There is no reason to link a black politician with a monkey except to suggest that the politician is primitive or subhuman. The cartoonist’s racist meaning and intention are transparent.

But things get more complicated when it comes to the “library of visual tropes” about Jews. And that is because long ago the far-right appropriated the left’s visual lexicon, a lexicon developed by satirists and caricaturists to critique power. The racist right hijacked this imagery to attack Jews —and for obvious reasons.

Two Birds, One Stone

The aim of leftwing cartoonists is to focus popular attention on the corrupt establishment that rules our societies, leaders that leech off public funds and privatize what should be the common wealth, as well as peddling endless wars to steal weaker countries’ resources, while being given cover by a corporate media that acts as the public relations arm of crony capitalism.

Necessarily, the left’s visual lexicon is intensely negative. Its cartoons associate the ruling class with the blood of unnecessary wars, with the foul stink of faeces and putrefaction, and with parasitical and predatory creatures. In fact, all the themes deployed in Rowson’s cartoon.

That has not gone unnoticed by the far-right. The Nazi publication Der Sturmer associated Jews with rats, spiders, vampires and octopuses with their tentacles wrapped around the globe because it wished to suggest the ills of German society, or the world, should be pinned, not on the German establishment, but on identifiable and vulnerable minorities.

That tradition carries on today in the Western mainstream, though almost never in relation to Jews. De-humanising Muslims and Arabs is the acceptable face of modern official racism, expressed by overt British establishment mouthpieces like the Daily Mail. In 2015 it depicted Muslims as rats. Such demonization rarely gets called out. In fact, good liberals regularly defend the right of cartoonists to be racist in relation to Muslims, such as the staple implication that they are terrorists.

The far-right found it could kill two birds with one stone. By appropriating the language of the left, it deflected public animosity away from the proper target — a depraved, parasitic ruling class — and turned it instead towards scapegoat groups: Jews, Roma, Communists. It stripped out the left’s structural, economic critique of power and replaced it with facile finger-pointing at “subversive elements.” Instead of hitting up, the far-right punched down.

The deflection was particularly successful against Jews because some — unlike most Roma or Communists — were visibly successful within the capitalist system.

This is a major reason why an establishment in deep trouble, and its media, are so ready to tolerate far-right street thugs offering simple-minded slogans that blame minorities for society’s ills. It will tolerate a Nigel Farage long before it does a Jeremy Corbyn.

That lesson was all to evident, of course, in Germany as the Weimar Republic collapsed in the immediate period before Hitler seized power. The German aristocracy and business elite colluded with the Nazis precisely because they viewed Hitler to be much less of a threat to their interests than local communist and socialist parties.

Language Police

There is another reason why the establishment’s discourse enthusiastically embraces political confusion about anti-Semitism. The far-right has polluted the well from which the left once drank. It has imbued the imagery and language relied on by the left to mobilize popular sentiment against ruling elites with the taint of anti-Semitism .

Now meaningful critiques of power can be easily and retroactively diagnosed as symptoms of anti-Semitism — because the left’s tools have been stolen from them. The left has been stripped of the populist lexicon with which to attack the ruling class.

This has been particularly obvious in relation to criticism of Israel, now defined as the “New Anti-Semitism.” Cartoonists using visual “tropes” to ascribe malign motivation to foreign powers, whether Official Enemies such as Syria and Russia or Good Guys such as Western states, find themselves certain to come a cropper if they try to do the same with Israel.

Here are examples of two famous cartoonists who immediately found themselves falling foul of the language police when they targeted Israel:

In the case of the leftwing Steve Bell, his repeated efforts to portray Israel in a harshly critical light eventually led to The Guardian quietly ousting him.

The Labour Party under Starmer has only intensified this erosion of the left’s room to critique Israel. Now the use of terms like “Zionism,” the racist political ideology that seeks to justify Israel’s oppression of Palestinians, or “Israeli apartheid,” the outcome of decades of Zionist policy in Israel and Palestine, are cited as evidence of anti-Semitism.

But the rot has spread much further afield. Nowadays, simply using expressions like “the ruling class,” “bankers,” the “establishment” or “a global elite” is likely to get one denounced as an anti-Semite, as though anyone referencing these predatory groups representing global capital must also believe that Jews are a cabal controlling the world.

Critique of Power

A good illustration of this problem is the now-infamous London mural that is so regularly trotted out as evidence of Corbyn’s anti-Semitism. Rich himself refers to it, distinguishing The Guardian’s publication of Rowson’s cartoon from Corbyn’s opposition to the erasure of a piece of street art. The former is treated as unfortunate; the latter as definitive proof of the Labour leader’s supposed covert racism, a racism that apparently justified the U.K.’s three leading Jewish papers claiming that he posed an “existential threat” to Britain’s thriving Jewish community.

One can argue over how successful the mural is, or what the intention behind it was. Those are separate debates worth having. But there are no obvious clues — at least to any casual observer — that the mural is anti-Semitic, except for the fact that the far-right has associated the ideas of greedy bankers with Jews.

The image itself deploys a once-familiar, populist left visual lexicon critiquing capitalism, exploitation and elite power. Workers on their hands and knees support a Monopoly-style board overseen by six real-life banking figures, two of whom were Jewish (Rich falsely implies all six were).

Above them is the “Eye of Providence” — an all-seeing, divine eye within a pyramid — a symbol familiar from the one-dollar bill and one that can be found on churches and Masonic buildings.

Again, one can argue over what the artist meant, but there is reason enough for those viewing the mural, most especially on the left, to interpret it according to familiar leftwing critiques of power. It suggests that there is a class war in which workers are simply pawns in a capital accumulation game being played by an elite that worships Mammon, while claiming its incomparable wealth is divinely ordained.

It is anti-Semitic only if we imagine, like Rich, that Jews comprise most of the greedy bankers.

Pulling Punches

Where does this leave the left? Well, as Rowson just found out, it means it is all but impossible to use the left’s traditional — and most vivid and resonant — imagery to critique the power elite when someone who is Jewish, such as Richard Sharp, is implicated in its crimes.

Punches must be pulled, gloves must be kept on, the caricatures kept to a minimum, implications of greed, predatory behaviour and power removed, even if the targets of the cartoon are greedy, powerful and predatory.

Remember: The Guardian just censored a cartoon that showed a thieving Boris Johnson turning everything he touches to shit, that incriminated Rishi Sunak in this world of sleaze, and reviled a ruling class feeding at the trough like pigs. And the paper did so only because one of the actors in this real-life conspiracy happens, so it turns out, to be Jewish.

Any cartoonist watching what just happened to Rowson will have absorbed the main lesson. It is extremely risky to use the traditional lexicon, visual or otherwise, of the left.

Should Sharp be portrayed differently from other powerful actors just because he is Jewish? And if, as The Guardian says, its opinion-page staff did not know Sharp was Jewish, is the lesson for cartoonists and columnists that it would be wiser to assume anyone in power might be Jewish and avoid language or imagery that that could later cause their outlet harm?

Even more significantly, might the lesson for newspaper editors be that they should impose just such a rule — to tone down political language and imagery criticizing the ruling class — whatever the wishes of cartoonists and columnists to avoid “causing offence?” And how resistant to such pressures might an editor like Viner really be when her paper’s job is to serve as the faux-left, Starmerite-wing of the establishment?

Not very, seems the only plausible response.

Which will prove another triumph for the establishment as the gradual evolution of anti-Semitism as a weapon with which to crush the left continues apace.

The already-narrow space to critique a West hurtling towards self-destruction, risking nuclear Armageddon and environmental collapse, just got a little bit narrower. And we will all be the poorer for it.

Jonathan Cook is an award-winning British journalist. He was based in Nazareth, Israel, for 20 years; he returned to the U.K. in 2021; he is the author of Blood and Religion: The Unmasking of the Jewish State (2006), Israel and the Clash of Civilisations: Iraq, Iran and the Plan to Remake the Middle East (2008) and Disappearing Palestine: Israel’s Experiments in Human Despair (2008)