Steve Bell and the anti-semitism | Open the door | Paul Chadwick

Strong feelings, already prepared, broke out when Steve Bell used his comic strip If… for four days (3-6 April) to attack management Work of veteran party member and former mayor of London Ken Livingstone.

Bell depicted a kangaroo court looking for Livingstone “to quote Hitler once too often”. Passed sentence pre-appeal “for an offence which in reality is not a crime”, and, furious, denounced the term “kangaroo court” as “blatantly anti-semitic stereotrope”.

Readers have reacted to Livingstone remarks, the Labour, the management of him, and Bell’s take on it. Excerpts will illustrate: “the old left’s tin ear for anti-semitism”; “the crude use of Jewish pain”; “no other minority has to suffer the call of racism against it that it is so easily dismissed by people who are not of that minority”; “filth … [Bell] what about the person who complains about his Der Stürmer stereotypes … is talking nonsense.”

Some were in favour of Labour or Livingstone or Bell, saw the problem through the prism of the Work, leadership, conflict, and criticism of a Guardian editorial that excoriated both Labour and Livingstone.

I compressed the main charges involving Livingstone/Bell in a series of potential interpretations of his four stripes, considered as a whole, and put them all to Bell. I said that this was a topic of great sensitivity, involving a vast weight of historical suffering, and that it was better to be clear about the intended meaning. The note concluded: “As with all the famous cartoonists, you have a big share of the freedom of the press, and rightly to exercise vigorously, in order to this kind of responsibility follows.”

I asked the Bell of thinking and responding to writing. Here is the result:

You were in defense, Ken Livingstone, against what they consider an unfair Labor party process?

I was. The charge of “bringing the Labour party into disrepute” is a sort of indefinite, a catch-all offence that is capable of almost infinite interpretation. It has not been possible to support an accusation of anti-semitism, as Ken Livingstone was not guilty. He can then be open to the charge of insensitivity, but this does not warrant expulsion from the party. He had already been suspended by the club for more than a year, which automatically cost him the place of Work of the National Executive Committee. He was also the subject of a venomous campaign of vilification in all media, beginning with John Mann, slander and description, the air, of him as a “racist” and “apologetic Nazi”. Mann was initially suspended from the party, at the same time as Livingstone, because its actions could legitimately be seen as bringing the Labour party into disrepute as Livingstone’s words, but Mann, the suspension was soon lifted. This shows a lack of balance.

You were in defense, Ken Livingstone, against a tax that has brought the Labour party into disrepute by saying that Hitler was the support of Zionism before the Holocaust?

I was. He was speaking in defence of the Labour MP Naz Shah against the accusations of anti-semitism that had been brought against her in relation to a joke that he had retweeted some time before becoming a MP. Even if his defense has proved to be particularly ineffective and Naz Shah has since apologised for his misuse of the word “Jews” in a second tweet, I would say that if Ken Livingstone brought no one into disrepute had himself, rather than the Labour party for recklessly the introduction of Hitler and the Nazis in a discussion of Zionism and contemporary antisemitism. At the moment the Labour party is put into disrepute in a very effective way, every day, in almost every possible way, without Ken Livingstone.

You were in defense, Ken Livingstone, against a charge that it was anti-semitic, when he said that Hitler was the support of Zionism before the Holocaust?

I was. Ken Livingstone was speaking in the strict sense of the actions and the activities of the parties of the Zionist movement in the 1930’s that has made the foundation of a Jewish state in the territory of Palestine, its top priority. To the question which aim is not anti-semitism.

You were criticizing the idea that it is antisemitic to suggest that the suffering of the Jews under the Nazis is in any way less deserving of empathy, because the percentage of Jews who have left Germany and the Nazi policies during the 1930s travels in Palestine where the Zionists founded the State of Israel?

This question is difficult to answer, because it confuses two separate issues, so I’ll try to untangle it: you could argue that the suffering of the Jews under the Nazis is in any way less deserving of empathy. If one has done to try and argue that point you would certainly be guilty of anti-semitism. I don’t think, Ken Livingstone, has ever attempted to make any argument, or try to justify with such a reason as “because the percentage of Jews who have left Germany, with the Nazi policies during the 1930s travels in Palestine where the Zionists founded the State of Israel”. I never argued if it had.

You were criticizing the view that this is a misreading of history to suggest that Jews were somehow the beneficiaries, rather than victims of the Nazi policies of the government in the course of 1930, to remove the Jews from Germany?

Certainly it would be a bad reading of history to suggest that the Jews were in some way the beneficiaries of government-Nazi policies during the 1930s. The fact of negotiations between Zionists and the Nazi government at the time, is a separate issue. The attempt to suppress or deflect the discussion problem with spurious accusations of anti-semitism does not serve the cause of historical accuracy.

Are you taking issue with the term “anti-semitic trope”?

I was. As you know, I have a little bit of history with its predecessor, which confirmed a charge against me of using “antisemitic tropes”. I don’t want to go over the whole thing, except to say that a trope needs to be anti-semitic, to be an “anti-semitic trope”, and that my representation of Netanyahu with a glove puppet, William Hague, on the one hand, and Tony Blair, in the other you are not qualified. In the comic, the use of the term “kangaroo court” is clearly not an “anti-semitic trope” (or “stereotrope” as I brutally caricature of the term). I think that the accusation of anti-semitism is, and must be, a very serious one. Accuse someone of using “antisemitic tropes” is a sort of half-baked way of calling them anti-semitic. It devalues and debases the term.

You were consciously anti-semitic, that is, to express hostility and prejudice toward Jews?

No, I’m neither a conscious nor an unconscious anti-semites. I am hostile to the idea of an entire population, held captive for 50 years in a stateless limbo. I have great sympathy for people, no matter what color or creed, who are forced to live in such circumstances. The problem with all the arguments around the issue of Zionism is that, in the current situation in the Middle East, has less to do with race or religion, and much more to do with the earth. It would be foolish to elevate or ennoble the one hand the claim, or on the contrary a side of hate than another.

From the moment that the accusation of anti-semitism is a serious misuse of the term is too often used to stifle the debate around, for example, the BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) movement, one of the few non-violent ways open to the inhabitants of the occupied territories and their supporters to challenge the oppressive actions of successive Israeli governments. In the long run, this cannot help the cause of peace.

Readers can make their own judgments. I accept Bell’s rebuttal-words-an anti-semitism accusation against him, that reasonably arose from his images with the words.

Cartoonists and their public need to be aware of the fundamental role that art played in the past – and can still play – in the spread of virulent concepts of otherness. Some of the “alt-right”, using the new technologies seem to be trying the same thing again, with Jews and Muslims, among other objectives.

The Nazis co-opted cartooning, among other export, for their own purposes. Those who know the history, lived the history, it can be understandably quick to grasp in the contemporary imagination, the repetition of the attitudes which can create a state of mind that can facilitate a disaster.

Perception can mistake the intent, still generate deep feelings, however. Attempts to correct the wrong perception and to forego a malicious intent need to take those feelings into consideration.

To recognize this is not to cede any freedom necessary to debate Israel-Palestine issues from all sides.

But it does require clarity from all the parties, especially on the part of the critics and supporters of Israeli governments, on the part of those who level accusations of anti-semitism, those who seek to refute them, and those who try them in the court of public opinion.