The UK’s Guardian newspaper came under fire on Friday for publishing a cartoon portraying Labour Party leader Kier Starmer holding up Jeremy Corbyn’s severed head on a golden plate, a day after Corbyn was suspended from the party following his response to a damning government watchdog report that found Labour broke equality laws in its handling of anti-Semitism complaints under his leadership.
The cartoon, by Steve Bell, was criticized for being both anti-Semitic and insensitive, coming the day after a woman was beheaded and two others were killed in an Islamist terror attack in France, and a week after a French teacher was beheaded after showing his class cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad.
The newspaper said it had received several complaints and was looking into them.
“The Steve Bell cartoon published today portrays his observation on the recent events in the Labour Party,” a spokesperson for the Guardian told the Jewish Chronicle. “Some complaints have been received which the readers’ editor is looking into.”
Several social media users who saw the cartoon on Twitter said they had reported it to the platform as an instance of “race hate,” the Daily Mail reported. It also quoted the Labour peer Lord Andrew Adonis saying “Today’s Guardian cartoon by Steve Bell is repellent.”
Bell wrote “After Caravaggio” on the side of the drawing, a reference to its inspiration.
Caravaggio’s painting “Salome with the Head of Saint John the Baptist” is one of the most famous depictions of the event described in the New Testament when Judean King Herod had John the Baptist killed at the request of his stepdaughter Salome.
Pleased at her dancing at a party, a drunken Herod had promised her any reward, up to half his kingdom. But on the advice of her mother, she demanded the head of Jesus’s mentor.
The cartoon was denounced by some critics as an attempt to portray Corbyn as a Christian martyr, with Starmer doing the bidding of the Jews.
“The Guardian is the paper of record for LabourAntisemitism. How better to portray the issue of Corbyn’s expulsion than in a classically Christian antisemitic reworking of the Jewish Salome slaying the pure Christian, John the Baptist? Make no mistake, this is no mere mistake,” wrote one Twitter user, Joanne Bell.
The Guardian is the paper of record for #LabourAntisemitism. How better to portray the issue of Corbyn's expulsion than in a classically Christian antisemitic reworking of the Jewish Salome slaying the pure Christian, John the Baptist? Make no mistake, this is no mere mistake. https://t.co/CsY9SoBUB8
— Joanne Bell (@jobellerina) October 29, 2020
Basically this is the cartoon you draw if you really want to draw Corbyn as Jesus being crucified with Starmer as Pontius Pilate, but you think that's a bit TOO antisemitic to get away with. https://t.co/KyVshbZToe
— Arieh Kovler (@ariehkovler) October 29, 2020
Others, though, defended it in the name of free speech.
Steve Bell has an absolute right to draw that cartoon of Corbyn as John the Baptist.
The Guardian has an absolute right to publish it.
The rest of us have the right to tell them it is monstrous and brings shame on the paper.
That’s free speech. It cuts both ways,
— David Banks (@DBanksy) October 30, 2020
Bell has been accused of using anti-Semitic tropes in several previous cartoons, including one of Prime Minister Netanyahu acting as a puppet master for Brtish politicians. He denied the cartoon was anti-Semitic. Last year, two of his cartoons nixed by the Guardian were raffled off at a fringe event at the Labour Party Conference.
The publication came a day after a devastating investigation released by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) investigation, which found there were “serious failings” by the party’s leadership under Corbyn when it came to anti-Semitism, that its handling of the issue broke the Equalities Act, that Jewish people were harassed, and that Labour had “inadequate processes” for handling complaints.
Corbyn said he didn’t accept all of its findings. He asserted that “the scale of the problem was also dramatically overstated for political reasons by our opponents inside and outside the party, as well as by much of the media.”
Labour promptly said it was suspending Corbyn “in light of his comments made today and his failure to retract them subsequently.”
Moments after Corbyn’s statement was released, Starmer, speaking at a press conference, said those who “pretend [anti-Semitism] is exaggerated or factional are part of the problem.” Starmer said the report marked a “day of shame” for the party.
Corbyn has vowed to fight against his suspension.