Zealots and Antisemitic Discourse

November 19th, 2012 by Mark Gardner

The mainstream of the Jewish community and anti-racist anti-Israel circles are at odds over perceptions of antisemitism. There is a chasm between the two. This spells danger for Jews, anti-racist unity and universal values. It invites (uniquely negative) exceptions being made for antisemitism and Jewish concerns.

The perception gap is keenly illustrated by today’s Guardian letters page, concerning last week’s Steve Bell cartoon.

(CST Blog featured the cartoon, but it has now been removed at Bell’s request. The rest of CST’s analysis remains, however and is here. Bell’s cartoon is still here on the Guardian website.)

The arguments in the Guardian over Bell’s cartoon are like those concerning institutional antisemitism at the lecturers union, UCU. It is the same stuff we used to hear when Ken Livingstone was Mayor of London. It is the usual story about antisemitic discourse within anti-racist anti-Israel circles. This is how it goes:

1. Anti-racist critic of Israel (often inadvertently) uses antisemitic discourse.

2. Concern is carefully expressed about the above.

3. The carefully worded concern is tossed aside and totally misrepresented. It is falsely alleged that all “criticism” of Israel is being called antisemitic. It is falsely alleged or implied that concerns about antisemitism are lies, concocted to shut down “criticism” of Israel. It is falsely alleged or implied that those concerned about antisemitism are fanatics, or conspirators in a wider enterprise.

4. The chasm widens a bit more.

This particular little episode began on Friday 16 November, when the Guardian ran Steve Bell’s cartoon, depicting Tony Blair and William Hague as Benjamin Netanyahu’s hand puppets. It was denounced in various media, including by non-Jewish commentators, with CST amongst those noting the antisemitic resonance of the imagery.

The following day’s Guardian printed this letter from CST:

The Guardian has, in recent years, editorialised against the use of antisemitic language, publishing strong articles on this subject by Chris Elliott (the readers’ editor), Jonathan Freedland and others. They have rightly noted that such language may well be inadvertent on the part of the user, while retaining its offensive power.

Nevertheless, too many Guardian contributors continue to get away with using antisemitic imagery and tropes, the latest example being Steve Bell’s cartoon (16 November) showing Tony Blair and William Hague as puppets of Bibi Netanyahu. This is an unoriginal way of visualising the old antisemitic charge that Jews are all-powerful. (The notion of Jewish power and conspiracy has long distinguished antisemitism from other racisms, which tend to depict their targets as idiots.)

The paper’s integrity and reputation is seriously compromised by its continuing failure to get a grip on its own content.
Mark Gardner
Community Security Trust

CST’s letter was published underneath another, concerning the current Israel-Hamas conflict. The headline given to the two letters was,We need an Israeli-Palestinian ceasefire – and then peace talks”.

As you can see, CST’s letter specifically concerned the resonance of the puppet imagery with the old antisemitic charge of Jewish power. It did not call anyone an antisemite and acknowledged that such tropes may be used inadvertently.

The Guardian saw fit to publish three letters in response to CST’s concerns. Together, they have the headline, “Steve Bell’s cartoon defended”. To be clear, CST fully expected this kind of response, but it is disappointing to see that the paper willingly published not one, not two, but three letters, bearing such misrepresentations of what CST had actually written.

Worse still, the third letter ends with reference to CST as “zealots”. Given the fact that our letter had concerned the Guardian (yet again) publishing antisemitic language and imagery, the “zealots” conclusion is somewhat ironic.

 The letters included the following:

(1)    “One’s heart sinks as Mark Gardner plays the dog-eared antisemitism card for the fifteen hundredth time…”

(2)    “Mark Gardner can’t be allowed to get away with the old trick of pretending all criticism of the Israeli government is antisemitic…”

(3)    “…the deeply misconceived notion that criticism of particular Israeli governments must, ipso facto, be avoided because it demonstrates prejudice against the Jewish people themselves. Heaven forbid that the Guardian should bow to the wishes of such zealots.”

In the Jewish Chronicle, Steve Bell has answered criticisms of his cartoon. This is how the JC reported it:

Mr Bell said he had chosen to draw the cartoon because “the coverage of Operation Pillar of Defence has been so skewed in favour of the Israeli side, particularly I regret to say on the BBC, that I do personally feel quite a strong need to make the counter argument”.

He said the cartoon was about “the cynical manipulation of a situation by a specific politician” and “NOT about cynical manipulation by ‘the Jews’. I refute completely any charge of antisemitism, since I would never conflate the two.”

Mr Bell added: “I also refute the charge that I am somehow deliberately repeating the antisemitic ‘trope’ of the puppet master. The wilful manipulation is Netanyahu’s not mine.

“I can’t be held responsible for whatever cultural precepts and misapprehensions people choose to bring to my cartoon. My intention, I think, is fairly clear.”

CST accepts that Steve Bell is not an antisemite and this is why our letter specified antisemitic imagery “may well be inadvertent on the part of the user”. Crucially, however, we also stated that such imagery could still retain “its offensive power”. Bell’s cartoon is likelier to have emboldened antisemitism than to have reduced it; and it certainly offended many people who saw it. We voiced our concerns and now, for daring to do so, we have been offended some more in the pages of the paper. Antisemites will enjoy seeing that.

And so it keeps going on…and on…and it will do so until such time as Israel’s anti-racist critics treat mainstream Jewish concerns with the respect they would show to other minority groups. We tried asking Ken Livingstone, we tried asking the university lecturers and we have tried asking the Guardian. It isn’t zealotry, it’s just trying to stand up for decency and our self-respect.

Meanwhile, in today’s Independent, Robert Fisk plucks a related theme out of thin air, but goes that bit further:

…At least Hamas, with their Godzilla rockets, don’t claim anything ‘surgical’ about them. They are meant to murder Israelis – any Israelis, man, woman, child.

As, in truth, are the Israeli attacks on Gaza. But don’t say that or you’ll be an anti-Semitic Nazi…”