Compare and contrast

JVL Introduction

The language of “tropes” is a slippery one. And if this is true of ideas expressed in words, it is even more true of images. They do not simply speak for themselves, as John Berger showed us, they have to be interpreted.

Other agendas can be crucial in how – and when – people come to see them as problematic.

This was shown graphically (as it were!) in the debate about the Mear One mural (above). Its first appearance in 2012 occasioned mild criticism in the Jewish Chronicle about its antisemitism but no serious concern. Nor was there much upset when it resurfaced in 2015. But when Luciana Berger repurposed it in 2018 at the height of the factional battle against Jeremy Corbyn all hell broke loose and Corbyn was excoriated.

Mike Cushman revisits the image in the context of another image, used to promote the Harry Potter Studio Tour, and contrasts the reactions to them.

He does not to defend the mural but, rather, highlights the selectivity of moral indignation around these two images.

[Apologies from your JVL web editor. We stand corrected. It was of course Luciana Berger who should be named above – and now is! Louise Ellman may be open to criticism, but not for this!]

Mike Cushman writes

The two images above have a lot in common but very different histories and treatment.

The top one is the mural which controversially was used as a key element in the attacks on Jeremy Corbyn for antisemitism. The lower one is a publicity still the Harry Potter Studio Tour over which J.K. Rowling exercised considerable authorial control and it is highly unlikely that she did not approve this image. In between supervising the Potter films Rowling was an enthusiastic participant in the anti-Corbyn campaign, having been a million pound donor to New Labour.

The mural depicts six bankers, all caricatures of real bankers of whom only two are Jewish. The all-seeing pyramid at the top is copied from a US Dollar Bill. It is alleged by some to be a symbol of the illuminati and features in many conspiracy myths but not ones characteristically linked to Jews. Giving the figures’ long noses is a lapse of judgement at best and a reference back to antisemitic caricatures like those much used in Der Sturmer and other Nazi propaganda at worst. The intentions of the artist are not obvious. The noses are not immediately apparent in any small reproduction of the mural and are the only connection between the mural and Jews, unless the commentator is making the antisemitic assumption that all exploitative bankers are Jews. That’s the context of Corbyn’s initial criticism of the painting over of a piece of public art.

The lower image seems to reflect the grasping Jew libel far more acutely. The nose is unmistakeable and the arms round the heaps of gold coins more miserly. Yet there has been little criticism of the image which was used by Warner Brothers to promote their Harry Potter Studio tour. Indeed, the Jewish Chronicle published a column deploring the antisemitic imagery but exonerating Rowling. This is just one example of articles saying “nothing to see here, J.K. didn’t intend to be antisemitic”.  If the Campaign Against Antisemitism or the Board of Deputies or John Mann or Keir Starmer had any criticism, Google didn’t find it. They have not been so tardy over any putative infringement by someone to their left.

This image is so egregious it is difficult to comprehend how neither Rowling, nor any of her team or anyone from Warner Brothers failed to notice the resonances. What we can say with confidence that regardless of Rowling’s culpability, this offence is qualitatively worse than the items which appear in very many of the disciplinary letters issued by the Labour Party in recent months and years.


Comments (20)

  • Paul Smith says:

    Is J. K. Rowling a supporter of Starmer, a donor or even a Labour Party member? If so, we await developments.

  • Doug says:

    Thank you JVL again
    If its the noses then pray which noses are the anti semitic noggins
    Being blissfully ignorant of who is who on this mural, I still can’t tell
    But as a gambler from age 14, I’m willing to bet a pound to a penny if you put that mural in front of people, 99.9% of folk would not know either, even if you mentioned snozzles, they would still not have a Scooby doo
    Begs the question how did we let them get away with the AS Scam when it was this farcical

  • Margaret West says:

    When I first saw the top cartoon – it was in a
    newspaper and cropped so parts were missing. My
    thoughts – it was a poor attempt to represent real people,
    some of whom may come from the Middle East. (I speak
    as an amateur artist who has struggled to portray real people.)
    I had no idea what the rest of the cartoon meant – I could
    only see a table with what looked like a map on it. I had to
    ASK someone why it was antisemitic – I guess the cartoonist
    is not a very good one.

    As for the second – before I read the piece – I thought it
    was a Spitting Image portrayal of Ronald Reagan ! Given
    JK Rowlings age I guess she thought it too? I had never
    heard of the Harry Potter tour or seen the promotion pictured.

  • Dave says:

    It was Luciana Berger who revived the mural against Corbyn.

    This long article for those who haven’t seen it discusses the art and political contexts of the mural and has an amusing passage on noses. His main point is that the mural was opposed for its anti-capitalist message and antisemitism was a pretext (now where have we heard that before).

    My own view is that this has become apparent after the mural was removed as it caused little fuss at the time and on balance was rightly removed by the council as there were genuine objections, but we could do with more hard hitting political street art on the side of the oppressed.
    Paradoxically its message has become far more powerful by not being there owing to Berger and co, so we should thank them for that.

    As for JK Rowling, words fail me.

  • Les Hartop says:

    Interesting look back at this issue.

    I have similar views, but a couple of other thoughts…

    Regarding the Mear One characters, I did look closely at them when I first saw the mural, because the one on the left struck me as possibly crudely depicting a Jewish person. Of the others I decided that none looked like they were definitely meant to be Jewish. The character on the far right I decided looked possibly middle-eastern but more likely Turkish (pretty random I know), and the third from the left I estimated to be more likely just an American capitalist of some sort.

    With only one in six being ‘dodgey’ I decided it was probably unintentional but with a small question mark, and the thought that I would have painted it differently (if I could paint and had the inclination to paint anything similar).

    I wasn’t familiar with the shining pyramid and eye images, but thought they may be masonic or related to Da Vinci code type organisations, which as far as I know are not specifically Jewish (more likely to be exclusively non-Jewish).

    However, I was always immediately uncomfortable with JKRowling’s goblins, which I first remember in the Gringots Bank scene in one of the earlier films. They made me cringe because all or nearly all of the officious bank clerks had big noses like classic Jewish stereotypes.

    But, I think intention is key, and I would not assume any antisemitic intent by Rowling. Its much more probable that she was just immersed in the world of goblins and elves and suchlike, and this is how goblins who live in mountains have always been depicted, with no implication of Jewishness.

    These characters of Rowling’s, like Mear One’s characters, are caricatures, and 90+% of caricatures will include extra large noses, ears, foreheads and other features.

    The fashion today is for ‘the left’ to tear itself apart by assuming the worst.

    Intentions are key, and whilst sometimes they are clear, these days intentions are also often hastily misinterpreted.

  • Naomi Wayne says:

    The comparison with the Harry Potter image is fascinating – not something I have seen at all before. However, I think the mural issue is more complex. I don’t know what the artist’s intent was when he painted it, though his mural makes me very uncomfortable, but I do recall that the mural artist SUBSEQUENTLY posted some very nasty antisemitic comments, and I dont think this mural should be defended to the slightest degree

    However, what makes the Mike Cushman’s point important is that the mural only started being claimed as an important antisemitic representation after Corbyn commented on the free speech issue, some years after the mural had been painted. And Corbyn only did that because the artist sent out an appeal claiming that painting over his mural was an interference in free speech.

    As for why we never managed to get this message out – well it wasnt for lack of trying – but the mainstream media didnt want to take account of any challenges to their story of Corbyn antisemitism.

  • Catherine Hutchinson says:

    As the antisemitism furore has grown around us I’ve often wondered why the goblins from Harry Potter were not referenced as an overt, but perhaps Blairite-sanctioned, example of a trope in use. The gushing defence of Rowling in the JC is astonishing: ‘I do not, I cannot believe that JK Rowling is an antisemite. Gringotts aside, neither her books nor her public face would suggest it was so. All I can think is that these images are now so deep in the collective subconscious that even in this era of apparent ‘wokeness’, they can sit squarely in the public domain’. So Rowling is only not antisemitic if you take Gringotts out of the Potterverse, which has not happened. And the ‘deep subconscious’ antisemitism of which Corbyn was accused over his pronunciation of ‘Epstein’ is here used precisely to absolve Rowling. Revealing.

  • The mural, dragged up 6 years after it was erased, was clearly kept in reserve by Luciana Berger, who was a former Director of the Labour Friends of israel, as something in reserve to attack Corbyn with. It isn’t obviously anti-Semitic and neither are the noses the traditional hooked noses. The banker on the far right I thought resembled Alf Garnett for those who remember Till death do us part!

    The anti-Semitic imagery of the gnomes who act as bankers for the magic world is far more obvious but of course it was never mentioned Just like Boris Johnson’s overt antisemitism in his novel 72 Virgins about Jewish media moguls fixing elections wasn’t mentioned. In contrast to the failure of Corbyn in his introduction to John Hobson’s imperialism to comment on the few lines which were antisemitic.

    Over the latter the Board of Deputies demanded an explanation. See
    Jewish leaders demand explanation over Corbyn book foreword

    The reason is of course simple The whole ‘antisemitism’ campaign was nothing to do with antisemitism but Israel/Zionism. Of course a few antisemites were uncovered. I think 2 holocaust deniers were but that wasn’t the reason for this massive campaign.

    The Labour Party will undoubtedly have a few paedophiles but does anyone say it is a problem peculiar to the LP? Of course not but it would be possible to conduct a witchhunt accusing people of child abuse, uncover a few and then proclaim that the LP is riddled with them.

    Unfortunately too many on the left fell for what was a cleverly planned strategem and began saying that, well, it’s not as bad as is made out. It is only 0.0x% of Labour members who have been accused which entirely missed the point

  • Dave Bradney says:

    “The intentions of the artist are not obvious”

    … as they should be in all good art!

  • Cath Jones says:

    I have to say, having googled the individuals who are depicted in the murals, they do actually resemble these depictions reasonably well. Mear one has made all of the images heavier set but at least a few of them did in truth have larger than average noses. Nothing wrong with that.

  • Graham says:

    The six characters depicted are not all bankers. One is supposed to be occultist Alastair Crowley.

  • Charlotte Peters Rock says:

    Old men develop big noses – and ears – where in youth neither might have been remarked upon. My husband – now deceased – had always had a big nose, his nickname being Nobby. It grew more prominent with age. He wasn’t Jewish and had no Jewish background. The capitalist picture, with the slaves under the table, is remarkably accurate – about Capitalism – and d men! Where any individual is involved in Capitalism, their race or creed doesn’t absolve them from it. (and nor should their gender absolve them)

  • William Johnston says:

    A personal footnote on noses.

    My mother was Jewish, and I have a fairly large, potentially middle-eastern, Schnozz; my eldest brother’s is even larger.

    The strange thing is, however, that my mother’s family all had rather neat little noses. It is my father’s family – quintessentially blond, blue-eyed and Anglo-Celtic – from whom I derive my big nose.

    Odd things, stereotypes!

  • Trish O'Hara says:

    Livingstone and Corbyns only sin was being socialists and anti semitism was thrust upon them at the risk of causing all sorts of long term damage that is likely to result into semitism by others. Horrific use of human beings. Ken taught me all I know of antidiscriminatory practise way back. And Corbyn actions for 40 years speak for themselves. The vile people who attacked these two are disgusting

  • Tony says:

    Thank you very much for this article.

  • Nick Pile says:

    There were, of course, those on the right of the Labour Party who tried to give the “Mear One” debacle further impetus. Such a one was the former “Blair Babe” Siobhain McDonagh. To quote the anodyne “Labour List”, in interview with John Humphrys, she delivered the following pearl of rather shaky wisdom:
    ” Asked by John Humphrys whether she believed the Labour Party was taking antisemitism “properly seriously”, McDonagh replied: “I’m not sure that some people in the Labour Party can.

    “Because it’s very much part of their politics, of hard left politics, to be against capitalists and to see Jewish people as the financiers of capital. Ergo you are anti-Jewish people. ”

    Well, that told us, didn’t it?

  • Alan Brooke says:

    What utter rubbish. The image is clearly that of a Goblin :

  • Dr Paul says:

    Were I an artist, I would be very careful to ensure that any caricature I produced of bankers and financiers was free of any trace of anti-Semitic imagery. Therefore I would eschew any of the classic anti-Jewish stereotypes, and especially old blokes with big hooters greedily running their hands through piles of money.

    I and some left-wing pals discussed the Stepney mural when it first came into the public eye, and each one of us felt that the imagery was redolent of classic ‘Jewish financier’ caricatures such as those promoted in Der Stürmer back in Nazi days. Unlike Corbyn, we had a newspaper containing a big reproduction of the mural, so we could easily see the details and judge from that.

    Whilst we’re on the subject, how many of us remember that Labour Party poster some 20 years back, which had two prominent Jewish Tory leaders — Michael Howard and Oliver Letwin, if I recall correctly — portrayed as flying pigs? There was some disquiet about it in some circles, but absolutely nothing like the hoo-ha over say, Corbyn’s pronunciation of the name ‘Epstein’ (which is how I’d pronounce it too). But then, Labour had a right-wing leader at the time, and there wasn’t the mania concerned with tarring the entire left with the brush of anti-Semitism.

  • Ray McHale says:

    Reference to JK Rowling supervising the Harry potter films while attacking Corbyn perhaps miss the mark, as the last film was released in 2011.

  • Iain says:

    I looked carefully at that mural (Freedom for Humanity) and concluded that you would probably have to have an anti-Semitic perception of Jews if you felt it was somehow intended as a criticism of Jews rather than the Global finance industry forcing most of humanity in to poverty; particularly after the Artist Mear One identified the historical subjects he drew in a cartoony style based on pictures from the Web snd explained the context.
    He recreated the work as a print with slight differences in about 2014 as “False Profits” which he has sold since then without any accusations of Antisemitism.
    Yet Corbyn was accused of Antisemitism when he was basically concerned about censorship and all he saw was a thumbnail on facebook.

    Somehow Rowling gets a free pass when she uses anti-Semitic style imagery similar to that used by Nazis on the grounds that she isn’t anti-Semitic.
    It’s also worth pointing out that “The floor of Gringotts, the bank where the goblins work, contains Star of David patterns” in the film.

    Rather blatant double standards going on here.

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