Steve Bell on Getting Fired for an “Anti-Semitic” Cartoon

Steve Bell, the legendary, British cartoonist who drew for decades for the Guardian newspaper in London, was abruptly accused by his editor of drawing an anti-Semitic cartoon and was fired. Steve is on our podcast to talk all about the cartoon, all about getting fired, what this means for other cartoonists and what comes next.

We get the whole story from Steve, at a time when more cartoonists who are critical of Israel or Netanyahu are being accused of drawing anti-Semitic cartoons.

We also have two of Israel's top editorial cartoonists to discuss Steve's cartoon.

Uri Fink is a very popular comic book artist and writer along with being an editorial cartoonist. He's published 22 books of his popular Zbeng! comic strip and comic book and is the editor of the Zbeng magazine which has had over a two hundred issues. Uri is the president of the Association of Israeli Cartoonists. The cartoonists in the Israeli Cartoon Association unanimously opposed Steve Bell's firing.

Michel Kichka is an editorial cartoonist for various Israeli TV channels, he draws graphic novels including an impressive one about his father who was a Holocaust survivor, Les Secrets de mon Pere. Michel won the cow at St Just le Martel and a ton of other awards, and he's a professor at the Bezalel Art Academy in Jerusalem.

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[00:00:00]Daryl CagleHi, I'm Daryl Cagle, and this is the CagleCast, today we have a follow up podcast with Steve Bell, the famous and highly revered cartoonist for decades for the Guardian newspaper in England, and he's talking about all the circumstances about how he was fired for an allegedly anti Semitic cartoon. This, podcast was recorded late last year and, I, I apologize that it's been held up for some months because of some permissions issues, but we've got that all squared away, and I, I think it's an important podcast to hear Steve Bell telling his story.

[00:00:32]Daryl CagleIt's a story relates to a lot of other editorial cartoonists now that are facing accusations of anti Semitism in their cartoons. So, as you watch this, keep in mind that it comes from the end of last year before, events in Gaza had grown to be quite as obscene as they are today.

[00:00:48]Daryl CagleHey, watch the podcast. It's important to all us cartoonists. And, thank you so much. Hi everybody, I'm Daryl Cagle, and this is the CagleCast, where we're all about political cartoons. And today we're doing a podcast with, Steve Bell, and, Israeli cartoonists Uri Fink, and, Michel Kitchka. gentlemen, it's great to have you all here. Hey, great,

[00:01:11]Uri Finkgreat to be back.

[00:01:12]Daryl CagleSo, Not long ago we were talking about Steve Bell getting fired from the Guardian newspaper in England, where he had been working for decades. And Uri, Michel, and I, and just about all the cartoonists are huge, Steve Bell fans, and, it was just, very disturbing to the whole, community to see Steve fired. And I look forward to hearing more, um, a little more about Steve. He is the award winning former cartoonist of the Guardian newspaper in England. He's had 29 books published since 1981.

[00:01:42]Daryl Caglehe's one of the greats of our profession and, uh, we just, are delighted to have you here, Steve.

[00:01:47]Steve BellOh, it's a great honor to be here. Thanks so much for inviting me. And. I mean, I, I saw the podcast you did before and I was that, that, I mean, I've been feeling really pretty bleak since this blew up, what happened.

[00:01:59]Steve BellUm, I got the boot. I didn't expect it. cause I'd had always had a very, I thought open relationship with the Guardian where if you had a problem, you discussed it, but that seems to have changed in recent months and years. And, um. They don't talk about anything. Well, they don't talk to me full stop.

[00:02:15]Steve BellThe editorial, I mean, I've been blanked for quite a long time now. and this came as a result of doing what could be considered a controversial cartoon about Netanyahu, who's somebody I've been drawing for a long time, pretty well since he came on the scene. My first one of him was back in about 1994, I think.

[00:02:36]Steve BellMaybe 94. Maybe 95. I think it was before he was prime minister. but he he's always been somebody. I think he's devoted his political life as it were to opposing the Oslo Accords and somehow stopping the two state solution from happening. And he's been very successful at that. And that was the point, I suppose, underlying what I was trying to say in the cartoon, because politically, .

[00:03:00]Steve Bellyou could say that this whole thing has been a disaster for him, but he's, at the moment, he's putting himself forward as a great statesman. He's talking in kind of biblical tones about, you know, how he's going to deal with Hamas, and it's like a personal war between him and Hamas. there's very little consideration about what it's actually going to mean and what the effects are going to be.

[00:03:19]Steve BellSo he can come up with a statement that says... Residents of Gaza. Get out now. And he said that he actually said those words. what does he think? Where are they gonna go? There's nowhere for them to go. It's a small chunk of land. I mean, they could jump in the sea, but then the sea, Israel actually already controls the Gaza Strip.

[00:03:36]Steve BellThis is the absurd thing about it. There's nowhere for them to go. There's nowhere for them to hide. And then they start getting shelled and bombed. You know, whether it's Inventors were a terrible thing that happened on the, on the seventh, the, the terrible events then, you know, it's, it's going to be no, no, no solution to that problem.

[00:03:54]Steve BellAll it is, is, is. Carrying on with the logic of the way it's gone all before.

[00:04:00]Daryl CagleWell, I should say that as this, has, happened and all of the atrocities happened, this dominates the news here in America and, there are pretty... Big, huge, protests everywhere and editors are especially, timid.

[00:04:13]Daryl CagleWe had a cartoonist who, uh, had, uh, issue with the Philadelphia Inquirer where they, uh, well, Ramirez did as well. And, the newspaper apologized for running the cartoon, which, was accused of being anti Semitic. We're seeing more accusations of cartoons being anti Semitic. Uh, you brought up the, Ramirez cartoon.

[00:04:34]Daryl Cagleand, you know, just in natural conversation. Uh, young people here tend to be, more pro Palestinian and their parents tend to be more pro Israel. The, the arguments and the stress about this are, are clear all around the world and are showing up in, cartoons getting, banned and accusations that showed up in your, your firing and I wonder if you could talk a little bit about, the accusation of anti Semitism in your cartoon.

[00:04:59]Steve BellWell, I think you, you, you've, you've hit the nail because it's cautious. It's an excess of caution that people will actually apologize for cartoons they've already published.

[00:05:09]Steve BellNow, I think if they publish a cartoon, surely they should be prepared to stand up for it. They'll stand up for a story, a written story. What is it about cartoons that means somehow that the person doing the cartoon Should be left to hang out to dry. Surely the papers should take some responsibility.

[00:05:24]Steve BellI mean, in my case it didn't happen because I didn't publish it, so fair enough. I mean, I put it out myself because I don't think it is an anti Semitic cartoon. I don't think I'm being entirely deluded about that. What I objected to was having a false construction put on the cartoon of anti Semitism. In other words, the idea of a pound of flesh which somebody has taken from The Merchant of Venice, which contains a, I could say a notorious Jewish character called Shylock, who's a merchant who demands a pound of flesh as a bond in exchange for the loan of money.

[00:05:59]Steve BellNow, there's all kinds of arguments about, you know, whether The Merchant of Venice contains, of course it is, you know, in some ways very anti Semitic. But... The character is also a deeply human character, but my, my cartoon's got nothing to do with the Merchant of Venice. So it's pointless me discussing it because it's not there.

[00:06:16]Steve BellYou know, Netanyahu is not the Merchant of Venice. Netanyahu, I've depicted him as a kind of semi Moribund figure, about to operate on himself on his own midriff. There's a dotted map of Gaza that recognizes the shape of Gaza. And I'm quoting, if you like, a famous David Levine cartoon, which is very well known, especially in America, probably less so over here, but, of LBJ with a map of Vietnam on his tummy, showing off his operations scars.

[00:06:45]Steve BellThat was my reference point. It was a visual reference. I try and avoid literary references, if I can. Firstly, because I'm not very good at them. And secondly, I understand the visual much better, and visual references are much more interesting. But the problem is... I think, newspapers are run by writers.

[00:07:01]Steve BellThey tend to misunderstand images almost on purpose. And this, I think, is a case of that. They've, if you like, they've flown in the face of my expertise to try and tell a story in the way I do. And I have done for many years. And they've dismissed me as being somehow in breach of their editorial standards.

[00:07:19]Steve BellThat's... It's, it's like I've been moderated outta my own paper. You know, moderators, you know, do they, could they control the underlying discu discussion under the line, below the line on a, on a newspaper side? Well, that's what's happened to me. I've not been edited, I've been moderated out. So it's, it's that kind of, sensitivity or oversensitivity.

[00:07:35]Steve BellI say hypersensitivity, they're, they, they are, they're apologizing before they've actually said anything. That's the problem. So, yeah.

[00:07:42]Daryl CagleWell, it's not unusual for. uh, cartoonists to have their cartoons killed or edited, but it's, unusual for a cartoonist to get, so unceremoniously fired, perhaps not unusual, but it only happens once to each cartoonist, and that happened.

[00:07:57]Daryl CagleCoincidentally, with this cartoon being killed, and, the, suggestion of antisemitism with the cartoon, which, you know, ties it into this, sense of hyper, hyper oversensitivity, on this subject. And, that's what we were discussing on our previous podcast and what all the cartoonists discussing regarding your cartoon.

[00:08:15]Daryl CagleDo you think that this was more related to your talking about it on Twitter and they wanted to keep that private?

[00:08:23]Steve BellI think that's the case. I think, I mean, I've always had an open relationship with the guy. I've always been a freelance. In a sense, we have mutual deniability because I'm not I work away. I work in Brighton there in London.

[00:08:35]Steve BellI've always worked at home. What I do, I mean, I've never really been an employee of the Guardian, but I have worked for them all my life, which is most of my working life, which is a strange paradox. But I've been paid per cartoon. Now, that's it's been great. I've had a breeze. I've had a whale of a time working for them, and I've had a great deal of You know, understanding and leeway and I've got stuff through that most people would not get through because they've been quite understanding and they, they generally tended to publish my stuff.

[00:09:02]Steve BellI could say that only, you know, out of 15, 000 odd cartoons I've done for them over these years, only a handful have ever been stopped. I know obviously there have been because, you know, there's all kinds of reasons. There's taste indecency, there's bad language, there's all that kind of stuff. very rarely politically, this is an instance of political censorship, I think.

[00:09:19]Steve BellTo be honest, because I've gone against whatever their editorial line is. That's underlying it. I haven't been anti Semitic. I've actually just gone against what they see as their editorial line. The trouble is I don't really understand or know what their editorial line is. I certainly don't want to know what their editorial standards are.

[00:09:37]Steve BellAnd this is the thing they'll throw at people who write comments below the line. They say, you've breached our editorial standards, therefore... Your comment has been removed. I, that's what's happened to me. Essentially. I've been moderated. so what happens next? Well, I've gotta, I've gotta, you know, I, I, I want to keep working, but having this kind of, stigma attached to me, i.e. The, the hint, the imputation, that my work is antisemitic is very damaging, and I'm not, you know, I'm not likely to find work anywhere else, especially since I'm so closely.

[00:10:06]Steve Bellindentified with one paper, i. e. The Guardian. Though I have worked for other places, not so much newspapers, but I've worked for other magazines and comics and all sorts of stuff. I had a quite varied career in some ways, but I have worked a lot for The Guardian. So I'm in a strange pickle.

[00:10:20]Daryl CagleI don't think that's going to be so unusual as so many other cartoonists are running into this at the same time.

[00:10:25]Daryl CagleMichel, Uri, do you have some questions for Steve?

[00:10:28]Uri FinkI always thought that the Guardian was rather anti Israeli. It's considered to be rather anti, uh, First of all, I, I must say that, you know, uh, when we saw that you were, you were being fired for this cartoon, I mean, I think we all were very surprised because it's not anti semitic, you know, and it's not, it's maybe, maybe they're confusing the ears with the nose because he has big ears, not a big nose.

[00:10:50]Uri FinkI don't know what's, what's, what's anti semitic about it. Really. I have no idea. I'm looking at it. This whole pound of flesh Shakespeare stuff. I don't know. It's so far away.

[00:10:58]Steve BellIt's, it's bullshit. It's, it's nothing to do with it. Yeah. I, well, that, that's, that's my thinking is it's difficult to, but they didn't publish it anyway, so it's, it's, it's kind of academic.

[00:11:09]Steve BellThey're probably the last cartoon I'll ever draw for them. Which is a shame, but, um, you know, it's been good to work for, but yeah.

[00:11:15]Uri FinkI don't think that I, I'm, I'm quite sure you'll find somewhere to publish, uh, I don't know.

[00:11:19]Daryl CagleWell, these days cartoonists are getting, fired right and left because, the newspaper business is sinking.

[00:11:25]Daryl CagleAnd, it's not unusual, for cartoonists to be, fired unceremoniously and, for newspapers to not, comment or for, uh, the ones that work in the building to get escorted out the door by security people. that's just the nature of, how people are getting fired throughout the newsroom these days.

[00:11:45]Daryl CagleI would question maybe they were just looking for an opportunity to do something they already had in mind.

[00:11:51]Uri FinkI'm just curious, Steve, is it the same people you've been working with all the time or there was a change of personal?

[00:11:58]Steve BellIn recent years, it's changed a bit. I think probably the last five years, especially since the present editor took over, who I got on well with to start with.

[00:12:06]Steve BellBut actually, we had another disagreement about a similar cartoon, which was about Gaza again, and that was five years ago. And I think that's probably what, where, that's when the... If you like, the rot started because I had the same thing. It was an imputation of antisemitism placed on the cartoon, which I really did object to strongly.

[00:12:26]Steve BellIt was about a young medic who was shot at the border fence. She was doing her job as a medic. She had a medic kind of tabard on and she was shot. And it was a story, she was called Raja, Raja Nahar, and um, I think, I was very sad, she was a lovely girl, and I, you know, I, my cartoon had the then Prime Minister of Britain, um, Theresa May on one side, and Netanyahu on the other side, they were in front of the fireplace in Downing Street, which is where, and I don't know why they meet in front of a fireplace, they always do, they always have There's never a fire in the fireplace.

[00:13:03]Steve BellI mean, sometimes there's a bunch of flowers. But, um, this happens in America as well, I should say. but in, my fireplace, between the two of them, I put a, a small figure of this, this lovely young medic. And she was, she had sort of flames coming from, but it was quite a reverential portrait of her. So it wasn't, you know, it wasn't, But what I had there was that somebody was saying this, well this is, is reminiscent of the ovens of the holocaust.

[00:13:26]Steve BellOh my god. It's a fireplace. It has nothing to do with the ovens. But once an idea runs, you see, once it just, you know, once that rabbit is running, you can't, you know, you can't shake it off. It's, it's just, and so I had the same disagreement. Again, they didn't publish it. And again, I went sort of semi public and, you know, complained about the decision for which, um, Didn't go down very well, but I was still working.

[00:13:49]Steve BellI worked for them for, you know, I was doing daily cartoons in those days for another couple of three years. then I think I, but I think it's been brewing since then. That's, that's the downhill. So I'm, considered to be someone who is awkward. Not that I'm anti semitic because I'm not, but I'm awkward.

[00:14:05]Steve BellI question their decisions. I'm too old. I've been there too long. I probably earn too much. That's the other problem. , they, they pay, you know, I, my, my, the conditions under which I work are, you know, going back a long way. And they're not, you know, I don't, I, I hold the copyrights, my work, um, any uses they want, they have to pay extra for that kind of stuff.

[00:14:23]Steve BellAnd it's, that's what they, that's another reason I wanna get rid of me. 'cause I'm an old fart so , , um, to factor that into, I'm 72,

[00:14:32]Daryl CagleWe all love you, Steve, Uri's the president of the Israeli Cartoonist Association, and as a group, they, uh, made a statement on your behalf, and, our podcast and the Israeli statement is all about how your cartoon is not anti Semitic, and, how you are very much, beloved and appreciated in the profession.

[00:14:49]Uri FinkYes, don't put it on us, you know. Don't, you know, if you want to fire him, fire him. Not, not on behalf of us Jews, you know.

[00:14:57]Steve BellThank you so much. That means a lot. That really does. That's the best thing.

[00:15:04]Uri FinkJews in Israel. I can speak for cartooning.

[00:15:07]Michel KichkaI'd like to add something, Steve. You know, Uri and I, and some of our colleagues, we drew much more extreme and terrible cartoons on Netanyahu than this one. And none of us was fired, and none of us was accused of antisemitism, okay? This is one thing, one point I want to make clear. But I think there's, today, I mean in our 21st century, there's a big confusion in the world between anti Israeli or anti Zionist, or against the Israel policy, and anti Semitism.

[00:15:38]Michel KichkaAnd in several, let's say, parts of the political class in the right wing and the left wing, this is, Mixed together, there's a confusion about that. this is one point. The other point is that somehow, Bibi Netanyahu is somehow putting himself as the defender, not of Israel, of the Jewish people. So he is somehow, the personalization of the Jewish people, or we would like to be.

[00:16:04]Michel KichkaAnd of Israel the same, and, and he also is a part of this confusion between the two. but anyhow, when I hear that a cartoonist, even a cartoonist I don't know is fired for a cartoon, my reflex is to defend him, first of all. and I think that there's a big misunderstanding of this cartoon. If you are accused of anti Semitism, this is the easiest accusation you can ever do against a cartoon.

[00:16:30]Michel KichkaBecause if you have to prove that you are not, it's very difficult. And, uh, and there's nothing that we saw, all of us, I mean, we are some 40 and some colleagues, and the letter that Uri wrote to defend you was approved by all of us. So, no, there's not one single Jewish Israeli cartoonist who thinks there's one ounce of anti Semitism in your cartoon.

[00:16:56]Michel KichkaThis is just a good political cartoon, and we are very surprised and we are very sorry that you were fired

[00:17:03]Michel Kichkafor it.

[00:17:03]Steve BellThat's, that's, that's fantastic, and I... You know, I could you use that as part of my defense against them, but it's, you know, it's not, not a great deal of hope that because, you know, if if they don't want you, they don't want you.

[00:17:16]Steve BellAnd that's, that's, uh, that's what happens in newspapers. And you, you know, you come and go, but thanks you so much. That's that, that means that a hell of a lot to me. I tell you.

[00:17:25]Michel KichkaAnd you know, it's not the first time it happens because I remember that in 2003, Dave Brown, was awarded for the best cartoon in Great Britain.

[00:17:33]Michel Kichkafor a cartoon of Sharon eating a Palestinian child after a drawing of Goya, if you remember this, okay? That was the second Intifada on Jenin. And, uh, and this cartoon was accused of being anti Semitic. Also for the same reason, because Jew and Israel is a people, a religion, and a country. And it's hard to make...

[00:17:55]Michel KichkaIt's the same when you say Palestinian and Hamas. To me, it's not the same. I can make peace with Palestinians, not with Hamas, if you want to have my point of view. So, the thing, the concepts are not well defined in people's mind, in one hand, and people are not informed, let's say, in a proper way. Because you have the big press in one hand, and you have the internet where you can find everything and anything.

[00:18:20]Michel KichkaSo, so it's very hard to, to make your point as a reader, as, as someone who wants to, to understand what is happening in the world, because it's becoming harder and harder to be, let's say, properly informed today. But there's another point.

[00:18:35]Steve BellWell, that, I mean, that's been such a, uh, you know, as such a great boost to hear that. But I mean, the, main thing is that, you know, I want to see this war. Yeah, finished. I want to see peace. I want to see, I don't care what you call it, whether you call it humanitarian pause or, or whether you call it, you know, anything, just, just to stop because it's, it's hell.

[00:18:57]Steve BellIt must be hell there. It must be hell for you living near it. because obviously,

[00:19:01]Steve Bellwhen you do cartoons about foreign lands, you, it's very easy to, you know, fall into deep ignorance and, um, It's easy to make stupid cartoons about things that are happening internationally because you know We don't understand the niceties of politics in the Middle East in my case Or you know, you don't understand the niceties of the English class system for instance, which we have here we have the royal family and all that , but It's a, it's a really, you know, it's an honor that, that you, you, you, you, you, what you've said about the cartoon and the fact that it's, it's being subject to a false charge and that, that was my point I was trying to make.

[00:19:36]Steve BellIt's very difficult 'cause you're on the defensive. As soon as you get that charge of anti-Semitism 70, you, you, you're having to back off and defend yourself. But you, you can't prove a, a negative. It's, it's too difficult. But anyway, thank you that it's been so, such a boost to hear from you. So thank you.

[00:19:51]Daryl CagleWell, thank you, gentlemen, for being with us today.