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Steve Bell, the long-serving satirical cartoonist for The Guardian newspaper, has had his contract terminated after an accusation of antisemitism.
Bell, who has worked for the left-leaning newspaper for 40 years, was informed he was being let goafter internal complaints were made relating to his depiction of the Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the wake of the war between Israel and Hamas.
Bell submitted a cartoon meditating on the war, which featured Netanyahu in the midst of performing surgery on his own stomach. The operation, in which he holds two scalpels while wearing boxing gloves, showed a flesh wound that matches the outline of the Gaza Strip. Netanyahu is depicted as saying: “Residents of Gaza, get out now.”
The cartoon was not published but, according to a statement posted by Bell on X (formerly Twitter), the management at The Guardian believed that the drawing was evoking an antisemitic trope relating to the moneylender Shylock, the Jewish character from William Shakespeare’s 1596 play The Merchant of Venice.
Bell released the image on X alongside the statement: “I filed this cartoon around 11am, possibly my earliest ever. Four hours later, on a train to Liverpool, I received an ominous phone call from the desk with the strangely cryptic message ‘pound of flesh…’ I’m sorry, I don’t understand, I said and received this even more mysterious reply: ‘Jewish bloke; pound of flesh; anti-Semitic trope’. Clearly it was self-evident, anybody could see it…”
Shakespeare’s most quoted line of dialogue for Shylock is: “The pound of flesh, which I demand of him, Is dearly bought; ’tis mine and I will have it. If you deny me, fie upon your law!” The line is delivered in the context of Shylock demanding a pound of flesh, cut from the body of the merchant Antonio, if a loan made to Antonio is not repaid within three months.
In a statement to the BBC, Bell said that The Guardian‘s interpretation “made no sense to me, as there is no reference to that play in my cartoon, which shows Netanyahu, poised to perform a surgical operation on himself while wearing boxing gloves, the catastrophic consequences of which are yet to be seen.
“The image itself 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,” Bell said.
Bell has courted controversy throughout his career. Priti Patel, the former home secretary, criticised Bell in the Houses of Parliament in March 2020 after she was depicted in The Guardian as a horned bull with a ring through her nose. Patel, who has Indian ancestry, accused Bell of racism.
In October 2020, Bell received criticism for depicting Labour leader Keir Starmer holding a plate on which former leader Jeremy Corbyn’s severed head was balanced. The image was published the day after a terror attack in Nice, France, during which a victim was beheaded.
Bell did not respond to a request for comment. A spokesperson for The Guardian said: “The decision has been made not to renew Steve Bell’s contract. Steve Bell’s cartoons have been an important part of The Guardian over the past 40 years—we thank him and wish him all the best.”