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'I am not surprised that readers were hurt and angered'

Guardian readers’ editor criticizes Corbyn cartoon some called anti-Semitic

Steve Bell’s reference to painting of Judean princess receiving head of John the Baptist deemed ‘highly provocative and open to just the kind of interpretations made’

Illustrative: A cartoon published in the Guardian, portraying UK Labour Party leader Kier Starmer holding up former party leader Jeremy Corbyn's severed head on a golden plate.
Illustrative: A cartoon published in the Guardian, portraying UK Labour Party leader Kier Starmer holding up former party leader Jeremy Corbyn's severed head on a golden plate.

The global readers’ editor of the UK’s Guardian newspaper has criticized a cartoon the publication ran two weeks ago, after receiving multiple complaints charging it was anti-Semitic.

The paper came under fire for publishing a cartoon portraying Labour Party leader Keir Starmer holding up his predecessor 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.

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 Herod’s 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.

Salome with the Head of John the Baptist — Caravaggio (Wikimedia commons)

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.

Writing in the Guardian on Thursday, global readers’ editor Elisabeth Ribbans said the paper had received 32 complaints complaining of anti-Semitic imagery in the cartoon. About half of them also said its timing was 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.

Ribbans rejected the claim that cartoonist Steve Bell intended to cause offence, or that he was anti-Semitic, but conceded that the cartoon was offensive and criticized the artist for his choice of subject matter.

“I do not believe Bell to be anti-Semitic or that he intended his Starmer to embody any noxious myth about Jews,” she wrote, but, she continued, “using a Jewish biblical figure who conspired against a saint was highly provocative and open to just the kind of interpretations made.”

“I am not surprised that readers were hurt and angered; in fact, it is hard to see how reaching for Christian imagery when addressing anti-Semitism would turn out well,” Ribbans said.

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 British politicians. He denied that cartoon was anti-Semitic. Last year, two of his cartoons nixed by the Guardian as possibly anti-Semitic were raffled off at a fringe event at the Labour Party Conference.

The cartoon of Starmer and Corbyn was published 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.

Jeremy Corbyn, left, sits waiting to speak next to Keir Starmer during their election campaign event on Brexit in Harlow, England, November 5, 2019. (AP Photo/Matt Dunham)

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 his suspension.

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