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In turning a satirical mirror on the news, we are used to facing attack, but this was a pompous and hypocritical decision, says cartoonist Martin Rowson

April, it seems, really is the cruellest month for the New York Times. On 25 April, its international edition (formerly the International Herald Tribune) ran a cartoon by the Portuguese cartoonist Antnio Moreira Antunes, previously published in the Lisbon paper Expresso and depicting Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu as a guide dog leading a blind Donald Trump. In the way of cartoons, the Netanyahu dog had a blue Star of David (presumably meant to signify the Israeli flag) dangling from his collar, while Trump wore a yarmulke.

There was an instant outcry condemning the cartoons antisemitic imagery, including in articles and editorials in the New York Times itself. As a result, the paper has decided it will no longer publish any political cartoons in the international edition (the NYT domestic paper dropped cartoons several years ago) and is terminating its contracts with in-house cartoonists Heng and the multi-award winning Patrick Chappatte. In a statement released on Tuesday, the paper announced that it would continue investing in forms of opinion journalism, including visual journalism, that express nuance, complexity and strong voice from a diversity of viewpoints.

This is a gross overcorrection, even though the outcry had some justification. While you can just about get away with claiming the blue Star of David signifies the state of Israel rather than Jewish people in general, the signification of Trumps yarmulke is impossible to argue away: the implication is clearly that the US president has been Judaised by the dirty Israeli dog, both of which are common antisemitic tropes of the type notoriously published in cartoon form in the Nazi newspaper Der Strmer.

A commemorative edition of Charlie Hebdo in January 2016, one year after 12 members of staff were murdered in an attack on its offices. Photograph: Jacques Demarthon/AFP/Getty Images

As the Labour party knows to its cost, antisemitism is the most insidious of racisms and cartoonists in particular need to be increasingly careful when engaged in otherwise wholly justified images belabouring the actions of the Israeli government. This isnt just to avoid online lynch mobs; we also need to nuance our work to make it absolutely clear that were condemning the Israeli governments actions because they are rightwing nationalists (currently bizarrely cosying up to Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbn, a blatant antisemite), and not because theyre Jewish.

But lets get back to cartoons. The New York Times disciplined the unnamed editor responsible and announced that it would no longer be publishing any syndicated cartoons provided by CartoonArts International. But that wasnt enough, and now the NYT cartoons are no more. Just like any other commercial enterprise, the New York Times can do what it likes, and I look forward to seeing some scathingly satirical tie-dyes in the pages of its international edition. But this cuts deeper than an over-reaction to an ill-judged cartoon. Cartoons have been the rude, taunting part of political commentary in countries around the world for centuries, and enhance newspapers globally and across the political spectrum, in countries from the most tolerant liberal democracies to the most vicious totalitarian tyrannies. As we all know, they consequently have the power to shock and offend. That, largely, is what theyre there for, as a kind of dark, sympathetic magic masquerading as a joke.

Thats also why the Turkish cartoonist Musa Kart is in jail, why the Malaysian cartoonist Zunar was facing 43 years imprisonment for sedition until a change of government last year; why five cartoonists were murdered in the offices of Charlie Hebdo in January 2015; why dozens of British cartoonists including William Heath Robinson were on the Gestapo death list. And why, for that matter, when in the late 1950s the London Evening Standard ran a cartoon by its Jewish cartoonist Vicky attacking the death penalty, this so shocked and outraged a GP in Harrow that he wrote to the paper regretting that Vicky and his family had escaped the Nazis.

Malaysian cartoonist Zunar was facing 42 years imprisonment for sedition. Photograph: Manan Vatsyayana/AFP

As Kart said at his trial, cartoonists are like canaries in the coal mine when they come for us, you know the politics is getting toxic. But were not just subject to the shallow vanity of tyrants or the fury of mobs. The greatest threat to cartoonists has always been the very newspapers we parasitise on. When the accountants moved in on the US newspaper industry in the 2000s, the first employees to go were the cartoonists, just like most newspapers that get closed down arent shut by governments but by their proprietors. Nor is it just money. Ive been let go more times than I can count (the worst case was when the Times sacked me to make more room for Julie Burchills column, though in a previous incarnation on the Guardians personal finance pages in the 1980s I was redesigned off the page and replaced with what was charmingly called a creative use of white space).

We are, in short, expendable. Nonetheless, the New York Times decision is particularly irksome in its intoxicating combination of cowardice, pomposity, over-reaction and hypocrisy. As I observed at the beginning of this article, April is the cruellest month for the New York Times, as its much vaunted (and self-promoting) claim to be Americas newspaper of record was dealt an almost fatal blow when it was revealed in April 2003 that its star reporter Jayson Blair was a serial plagiarist who had fabricated many of his stories. Youll note, however, that the paper did not stop using reporters altogether in order to rebuild its reputation. Nor did it issue a statement announcing that it would continue investing in forms of news journalism, including textual journalism, that express nuance, complexity and strong voice from a diversity of viewpoints and then fill its pages with copy from, say, accountants and astrologers. Although after the dumbness of this decision, just give it time.

Martin Rowson is a cartoonist and author

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/jun/12/new-york-times-cartoonists-ban-antisemitism