Guardian

Guardian letter and an unbecoming headline


This is cross posted by the blog of The CST

The Guardian (24 February 2011) carries a lengthy letter jointly signed by CST, Board of Deputies and Union of Jewish Students. The paper was under no obligation to carry the letter, especially given its length, but regrettably it has been framed on the letters page in a disconcerting manner.

Put simply, the letter was riskily headlined and lumped in with a wholly unrelated letter from the Israeli Embassy. (The entire letter and the Israeli Embassy letter are in full at the foot of this post.)

The CST / BoD / UJS letter was prompted by the Guardian having carried a pathetic quote from an unnamed source relating to Jewish concerns about campus extremism. Our letter began:

Your coverage of the report by Universities UK (Universities must engage and debate with extremists, report says, 19 February) quotes an unnamed“source familiar with the report” as saying: “If someone is saying all Jews should perish, that’s inciting hatred; if someone is fundamentally opposed to Israeli foreign policy, that’s a view.” This seriously misrepresents Jewish concerns. Most cases occur in the huge space that lies between genocidal calls against Jews and opposition to Israeli policy.

Our letter then went on to give recent examples from “the huge space that lies between genocidal calls against Jews and opposition to Israeli policy”.

Nevertheless, the Guardian headlined the letter as:

The space where anti-Zionism becomes anti-Semitism

The Guardian could easily have headlined it as “The space between anti-Zionism and antisemitism”. This would have been more consistent with the letter and no problem whatsoever (although it still would not have validated inclusion with the separate Israeli Embassy letter). However, they chose not to do so, opting for“becomes” rather than “between”.

The alteration is not huge, but it carries an unnecessary risk of misleading Guardian readers into thinking that this carefuly worded letter from us was a case of ill-motivated Jews playing the antisemitism card: which it explicitly is not. Indeed, the whole point of the letter is to show the complexity, porous nature and elasticity of the problem: all of which risks being lost when the letter is headlined in this way.

In this, there is another nagging concern, which is namely that the alteration is not simply accidental (or semantic, or pedantic, or however else you would put it) but that it also indicates institutional attitudes at the newspaper.

The question is made yet more appropriate by reference to an article three days previously, by Guardian Readers’ Editor Chris Elliott on the subject of “Misleading pullquotes”. (i.e. those juicy bits from larger articles that are plucked out from the body of the text to indicate the article’s content and entice the reader.) Chris Elliott explained that the Guardian had run a pullquote from senior Israeli politician, Tzipi Livni, “seemingly proving the case against Israel”, when actually the full quote (run in the Guardian) “is very different from that implied”. He concluded

To suggest that the pullquote represented an example of some institutional animosity towards Israel on the Guardian’s part is nonsense, but in this case it’s a pity that we gave, so unnecessarily, an opportunity for such views to be expressed once again. A salutary lesson for writers of both pullquotes and clarifications.

There will, of course, be those who take this “becomes…between” case as further proof of “institutional animosity” at the Guardian. In the opposite direction, there will be those who take it as further proof that the Guardian’s critics are both paranoid and impossible to ever satisfy. Personally, I feel that this particular instance is firmly in that Scottish legal no-mans land known as “unproven”: but I am struck by the fact that Chris Elliott and I have both used the expression “unnecessary” in describing how easy it would have been for the Guardian to avoid risking offence.

What, however, of the Israeli Embassy letter, that was carried under the CST / BoD / UJS letter, sharing its headline and sharing the same text box on the letters page? (Other batches of letters sharing text boxes on the letters page included those under general headlines such as “We need an election on the cuts” and “Cameron’s message of war and peace”.)

Is it just really straightforward: that the two letters basically belong together, because they are about Jewish and Israeli things – and that’s all there is to it? Nothing more, nothing less. Or, ought more, i.e. something deep and negative, be read into it? Again, it strikes me that both attitudes could easily be taken, but I wish that the question did not even arise; and that it had just been avoided by not sticking the letters together in the first place.

It is impossible in this not to actually cite the Israeli Embassy letter, which criticised a Guardian editorial (ironically from 21 February, the same day as the above “pullquotes” article) on Middle East turmoil that had included the claim

the cockpit of the crisis is Palestine

The Israeli letter replied (in part)

It [crisis in Palestine] is certainly the cockpit for those in Israel, but to extend this flight of fancy acros the world is simply pie in the sky…problems in Libya will certainly not be solved in Jerusalem

Perhaps at a stretch, an extremely long stretch, you could argue that the Guardian headline writer perceived the Israeli Embassy letter to be a diplomatically coded claim that the Guardian’s editorial had been so anti-Zionist as to be antisemitic. (i.e. “Enough already with the Ziocentrism, please stop placing Zion at the centre of your universe, its gone so far as to now be antisemitic.”) But really, the Israeli letter says no such thing. It is careful and precise in its use of language, just as the CST / BoD / UJS letter was: and just as we intend to continue being.

The sooner that the Guardian’s headline and pullquote staff follow suit, the better for all concerned.

Meanwhile, the aforementioned headline and letters, in full:

The space where anti-Zionism becomes antisemitism

Your coverage of the report by Universities UK (Universities must engage and debate with extremists, report says, 19 February) quotes an unnamed “source familiar with the report” as saying: “If someone is saying all Jews should perish, that’s inciting hatred; if someone is fundamentally opposed to Israeli foreign policy, that’s a view.” This seriously misrepresents Jewish concerns. Most cases occur in the huge space that lies between genocidal calls against Jews and opposition to Israeli policy.

For example, a recent speaker was advertised as talking about the “Zionist lobby” in the US, but repeatedly referred to “the Jewish lobby”, affording it conspiratorial power and reach. Week after week, students are subjected to tirades from resident and visiting academics who equate Zionism with racism, apartheid and sometimes even Nazi Germany – this, when most Jewish students are indeed Zionists, in the only real sense of the word, believing in the Jewish right to a state. Sometimes, visiting speakers are permitted to advocate or excuse terrorism, including suicide bombings, so long as Israel and Israeli civilians are to be the target, doubtless leaving their audiences to contemplate as and when such terrorism might be permitted in Britain also.

Universities UK claim that this is about freedom of speech, but this is at best disingenuous. Put simply, if a speaker is in line with prevailing political orthodoxy, then they will be afforded the benefit of doubt and be permitted to speak. If a speaker contradicts that orthodoxy, then they will often be run off the campus. Ultimately, it is mob rule, as the Universities UK report itself demonstrates with its final sentence, “permission [for meetings] may be withdrawn if adequate arrangements cannot be made to ensure that good order is maintained”. It is to the credit of the National Union of Students that it deals with these issues respectfully and consistently. If only their elders could do likewise, then campus would be a more inviting place for all students, including those who have the courage to speak out against anti-semitism and anti-Zionism.

Jonathan Arkush Board of Deputies of British Jews, Mark Gardner Community Security Trust, Carly McKenzie Union of Jewish Students

• Nations containing 187 million people, who have been under autocratic rule for 177 years combined, angrily take to the streets in areas thousands of miles from Tel Aviv. Yet apparently, “the cockpit of the crisis is Palestine” (Editorial, 21 February). It is certainly the cockpit for those in Israel, but to extend this flight of fancy across the world is simply pie in the sky. The situation with our Palestinian neighbours can only be solved at the negotiating table – not on the streets of Tunisia, while the problems in Libya will certainly not be solved in Jerusalem.

Amir Ofek

Embassy of Israel

4 replies »

  1. I don’t know why people bother writing to the Guardian – I wouldn’t want any of my words appearing in the shit rag.

  2. Are we talking about the same Chris Elliott who went on record with “facts are tricky things?”

    If so, then why on earth should he be taken at all seriously? After all the Groan is hardly the bastion of disinterested and honest reporting is it?

  3. Repeated from elsewhere on this blog and without apology, and dedicated to Chris Elliott and the Guardian lie mongers:

    (With apologies Eric Idle and “Always look on the bright side of life”)

    Always look on the dark side of the news
    Ignore the facts, it doesn’t matter whose;

    You’re selling them a pup, so when you make it up
    They’ll still greet the silly nonsense with a smile;
    When the news is what you make it, doesn’t matter if you fake it
    It’ll settle into mush after a while, so….

    Always lie with a smile on your face
    Even when that lie is an utter disgrace;

    Writing about Jews will always make the news
    Lies and calumnies will quickly manifest,
    When you’re scraping at rock bottom
    Mention Israel and you’ve got ‘em
    Crank that up, the devil takes the rest and..

    Always lie with a smile on your face
    Always lie with a smile on your face

  4. In this, there is another nagging concern, which is namely that the alteration is not simply accidental (or semantic, or pedantic, or however else you would put it) but that it also indicates institutional attitudes at the newspaper.

    Gasp.

    Surely you are not referring to The Guardian which is ‘fair and balanced’.

    Georgina and Matt said so.