By Emanuele Del Rosso
It seems like for a political cartoonist, drawing Benjamin Netanyahu, more than drawing any other far-right leader, means searching for trouble. I learned today that Steve Bell, a long-time contributor of The Guardian, just saw his contract, due for renewal, not being extended after he drew the cartoon you see below.
The cartoon depicts Bibi Netanyahu surgically removing a piece of his belly in the shape of the Gaza Strip, and saying “Residents of Gaza, get out now.” Bell said this cartoon “was inspired by the late, great David Levine's cartoon of President Lyndon Johnson (LBJ) showing off his operation scar, which Levine draws in the shape of a map of Vietnam." You can see the cartoon says “After David Levine.”
At the Guardian, instead, they saw in this cartoon a reference to Shylock, the Jewish villain of Shakespeare’s play The Merchant of Venice. Shylock demands a pound of his flesh from Antonio if a loan to him isn’t repaid within three months.
Bibi the cartoonist “killer” — whoops, I said “killer,” but that’s a metaphor. Don’t fire me for that!
It looks like whoever crosses Bibi’s path with a cartoon, whoever gets in the way of his specific narrative of the State of Israel, which deploys at any given step antisemitism as a defence tool, will pay dearly, for this insolence.
Cartoonist Antonio Antunes knows that well. In 2019, the New York Times decided to discontinue completely its publication of editorial cartoons in the international edition — the national one was already devoid of cartoons — because of another cartoon, by Antunes, on Netanyahu. Again, to some, the cartoon smelled of antisemitism.
Together with Antunes, off went all the other excellent and renowned editorial cartoonists who published with the Times.
Shylock or not Shylock? Antisemitism references, or not?
Whether you see in this grumpy Bibi the face of the evil Jew, or you miss — as I did — this possible reference, which would sit in a tradition of antisemitic illustrations, the point is actually quite another.
The point is that, after 40 years of collaboration – 40 years! –- Bell was abruptly laid off because of the controversy sparked by a cartoon.
It wasn’t the first time this happened – he was accused of antisemitism in 2018, again for a cartoon about Netanyahu, and twice in 2020. But the fact is that this time he was condemned without appeal, and when he tried to explain himself he apparently wasn’t believed. Antunes too, together with all his colleagues, was reserved the same treatment by the NYT.
They were all sacrificed to the altar of the aurea mediocritas.
The “golden middle way” is that doctrine, dear to the Roman poet Horace, that praises a middle way in between opposites, a moderate view on things that rewards restraints over excess. This is a doctrine that fits perfectly the attitude newspapers have nowadays: avoid controversy at all costs.
It is easy to imagine political cartoons constitute a problem for those who follow this doctrine. After all, someone called cartooning the “art of controversy.”
Simply put: “The golden middle way, or the highway.”
Journalists should take responsibility
It seems that cartoonists, often at the front line of controversy, especially when events of such magnitude as a terrorist attack on Israel and a human-rights shattering retaliation on Palestinians unfold, are totally exposed.
Not only do they have to deal with death threats for taking a position — and they have to take a position, since they are editorialists — but the rear guard, while they were drawing, went reading Horace and left them alone.
It is unconscionable that The Guardian decided to refuse to publish Bell’s cartoon to avoid controversy, even deciding to fire Bell frantically, indirectly admitting that yes, the cartoon was antisemitic.
This constitutes a precedent, and it makes it even easier to fire a cartoonist for other newspapers. It sets the tone, it shows contrition towards power — be it the power of a State, an individual or a doctrine. And it doesn’t matter that maybe the idea was not to renew Bell’s contract anyway, This decision came from the fear of controversy over a cartoon critical of Israel and Netanyahu. This is all very sad.
Someone demanded a pound of flesh for this cartoon. And that’s what they got, from The Guardian.