CST Blog

Jews, puppets and the Guardian

16 November 2012

In November last year Chris Elliott, the Guardian Readers' Editor, wrote an important article warning Guardian journalists of the need to avoid  publishing "material that either lapses into language resonant of antisemitism or is, by its nature, antisemitic." He explained that"antisemitism can be subtle as well as obvious" and gave as examples:

... references to Israel/US "global domination" and the term "slavish" to describe the US relationship with Israel

...antisemitic tropes such as Jews having too much power and control, or being clannish and secretive, or the role of Jews in finance and the media.

Newspapers have to be aware that some examples involve coded references. They need to ask themselves, for example, if the word Zionist is being used as a synonym for Jew.

Into this category of "subtle" antisemitism that describes Jews or Zionists as "having too much power and control", falls Steve Bell's cartoon in today's Guardian which portrays William Hague and Tony Blair as puppets of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

What is striking about Steve Bell's cartoon is that he seems to have reached for the 'puppeteer' trope to explain that fact that William Hague's statement on the conflict was presumably not critical enough of Israel for his liking, as if this is the most plausible explanation for Hague's view.

The antisemitic trope of Jews as puppeteers, controlling the politicians of ostensibly much more powerful nations, should be familiar to the Guardian: Jonathan Freedland wrote about it in their pages in 2011, when he described it as "an image with long-established service in the cause of antisemitism".

Also last year, Elliott warned against criticism of Israel that is wrapped "in antisemitic language or imagery".

In 2009 a Guardian editorial argued:

The left fought a long and honourable battle for racial equality, but some within its ranks now risk sloppily allowing their horror of Israeli actions to blind them to antisemitism. There is an ill-considered tendency to reach for the language of Nazism in order to excoriate Israel, regardless of its impact on the climate of tolerance.

And in 2003 another Guardianeditorial described antisemitism as "Our dulled nerve" and asked: "Could not the liberal left, which in an earlier era vigilantly sought to protect Jews from prejudice and bigotry, rediscover its old values?"

So there is no lack of knowledge and understanding at the Guardian regarding the dangers of antisemitism, nor about the resonance of this particular antisemitic image; yet, as CST have documented in our Antisemitic Discourse Reports, antisemitic tropes keep appearing in their pages. And as Elliott pointed out, substituting 'Zionist' for 'Jew' does not remove the antisemitic message.

It is particularly important for commentators  to avoid the use of antisemitic language and imagery at times of heightened tension in Israel/Palestine. The impact that conflict in that region can have on the number of antisemitic hate crimes directed at Jews in the UK is well documented, and is something that responsible journalists and newspapers ought to consider.

For any avoidance of doubt, here are some cartoons that clearly show the antisemitic pedigree of the 'puppeteer' image. The first two are from the Nazi era; the last two are of more recent provenance.

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