Harriet Sherwood and the political hysteria of the Guardian Left

I clearly remember an argument I had with a friend in 1999, after Rudy Giuliani, then mayor of New York City, threatened to cut off city funding to New York’s Brooklyn Museum of Art (which received $7 million a year from NYC’s taxpayers) over an exhibit, titled “Sensation,” which included a depiction of the Virgin Mary stained with elephant dung.

My friend not only argued that Giuliani was wrong in threatening to cut off funding to the museum which chose to display an exhibit so blatantly offensive to Christians, but that he was guilty of “censorship.”

Of course, as I tried in vain to convince my friend, while reasonable people could of course disagree with the wisdom of the mayor’s decision, the mere decision by a government authority to cut funding didn’t amount to censorship – as, even if the museum was forced to close the exhibit due to lack of funds, the “artist” was still free to display “Sensation” without fear that he would be arrested or his art confiscated.

Similarly, one of the more telling aspects of the row over recent criticism, by NGO Monitor and others, of New Israel Fund’s decision to provide grants to NGOs engaged in campaigns of delegitimization against Israel, was that NIF’s critics were engaging in “McCarthyism”  – which almost comically conflates serious, substantive criticism with the reckless, unsubstantiated, career-ending accusations of disloyalty which characterized the McCarthy era.

And, just a couple of weeks ago, an article I posted as my Facebook status update, which was highly critical of Noam Chomsky along with my own cheeky reflection that folks who may have once admired the “Linguist” may wish to consider unburdening their bookshelves of his volumes, elicited one comment by a friend to the effect of, “what about free speech?” – as if my recommendation that friends reconsider their respect for the totalitarian defending MIT academic was inconsistent with the spirit of free expression and the liberties afforded Americans by the First Amendment.

Harriet Sherwood’s piece in the Guardian (Israel’s ban on boycotts faces legal challenge from civil rights groups), as with Carlo Strenger’s CiF piece, which framed as “totalitarian” recent Israel legislation allowing for civil penalties against BDS activists, employs the kind of extreme, unrestrained rhetoric to characterize the bill which has become one of the defining rhetorical tricks of the anti-Israel Guardian Left.

In a straight news story, Sherwood not only fails to provide even a modicum of balance – as there isn’t even a perfunctory quote from one of the bill’s supporters to balance criticism from NGOs and others – but inserts the most hyperbolic characterizations which veers beyond the significance of the law itself to impute, to Israeli society, the very worst political mores, including one accusation that “Fascism at its worst is raging [in Israel].”

While the latter accusation was leveled by Ben Caspit, from the Israeli paper, Maariv, it would seem that the job of a journalist – or anyone, for that matter, commenting on political issues operating under the premise of serious thought – is to weed out such hyperbole, and to separate emotionally charged invectives from intellectually serious historical comparisons.  

As such, it is baffling how anyone who truly understands what the word fascism denotes can sincerely level such a charge.

While the wisdom of allowing for monetary rewards to Israeli companies or organizations injured by boycott activities is indeed debatable, the freedom of expression in Israel is not under assault.  As anti-hate speech laws in Europe testify to, placing narrow, and reasonable, restrictions on speech is not generally considered an assault on the broader liberty. 

In the world of anti-Israel journalism squatters legally evicted from land they don’t own aren’t merely individuals to which we should empathize, they are victims of Israeli “ethnic cleansing.  The bigoted comments of some rabbis aren’t merely offensive views to be condemned, they indicate a “rising tide of religious fascism” which undermines the “very soul of Judaism”.  Israel’s security fence isn’t simply a defensive measure by a state to protect its civilians from terrorist attacks which also has some unfortunate consequences for some Palestinians, it’s part of a systemic “apartheid” regime imposed by a callous, morally illegitimate state.

Agree or disagree with Israel’s new anti-BDS law, but the fact that Israel and her supporters even have to defend the state from charges that it’s descending into fascism or totalitarianism is further proof of the unseriousness and, often, pure malice, which increasing defines Israel’s critics.   

14 replies »

  1. What a beautifully well written article you have produced. This is a shining example of brilliant, level-headed and clear rhetoric. The quality of articles written by CIF Watch never fails to impress me. I’m so thankful that CIF Watch outputs their criticisms in such a classy, and untouchable way.

    It’s almost too easy to defend Israel by anyone with their head screwed on straight. But by doing it with such short-and-sweet, clever, and understated pieces, CIF Watch has raised the bar of pro-Israeli rhetoric to its highest levels in my opinion. And L-rd knows, I read them ALL!

    Some of these pieces — like this one — are so precisely written, that they approach a level of poetry. It makes reading them a pure pleasure! CIF Watch is a diamond in the rough.

    • Talking of freedom of speech,those who have been to one of these meetings of the Left or of the pro Palestinians and tried to get a word in, would either be shouted down tossed out or it could get even worse………..

      No one does hypocrisy better than these Leftists………

  2. The increasing use of emotive and guilt evoking language to describe even a minutiae of misdemeanours by the state of Israel (c’mon it’s at a war for its life) or its people, interspersed with lies and innuendoes is the trick well applied by the islamists, their friends at the Guardian and the left.

    Yeah, many of us are well aware of this.

  3. While the wisdom of allowing for monetary rewards to Israeli companies or organizations injured by boycott activities is indeed debatable, the freedom of expression in Israel is not under assault. As anti-hate speech laws in Europe testify to, placing narrow, and reasonable, restrictions on speech is not generally considered an assault on the broader liberty.

    That’s the point that you insist on missing, Adam. There is a de-facto limitation of freedom of expression when the person who sues does not have to prove damages because the fear of inevitable financial loss effectively limits the freedom without formally stating so. This is different from other legal situations where the person who sues can win the case but is awarded only nominal compensation if damage cannot be proven.

    This is comparable to the “libel tourism” situation in Britain today, e.g. the Simon Singh case. There have been several excellent articles on CiF discussing this issue and they are very pertinent to the Boycott Law in this respect.

    You also ignore the discriminatory nature of the law. For example, settlers can organise a boycott of companies whose owners are affiliated with left-wing organisations; if these people then sue the settlers they will have to prove damages. Why should different rules apply to different groups simply because of political affiliation?

    So in effect, this law allows one side in a political argument to muzzle the other side (and don’t forget that the other side is completely legal). Can you give examples where that is allowed in any other western democracy ?

    • MTC, how is the stipulation that “the person who sues does not have to prove damages” differ from EU (and Israeli) anti-incitement/anti-hate speech laws in which violence or discrimination doesn’t need to actually occur for the person under investigation to be found guilty of incitement? I’m no lawyer, but would you agree this is an apt analogy? Isn’t intent often the legal standards in such laws proscribing certain kinds of speech?

      • As I understand it, the Boycott Law allows a private party to sue the person who organizes a boycott. This is different from the EU law you mention which is a criminal offence (i.e. prosecuted by the state). The parallel would be a libel suit which is always between two private parties. However in libel cases, the injured party often wins but only gets token compensation because he cannot prove damages. This is not the case in the Boycott Law where no proof of damage is required !

        Furthermore, the EU law covers incitement by all groups aimed at anyone. The anti-boycott law only deals with boycotts of the right organised by the left; an identical boycott of the left organised by the right will not subject to the same conditions.

        The equivalent would be an anti-incitement law that prohibits Jews from inciting violence against Muslims but allows Muslims to incite violence against Jews.

        The Knesset has the right to pass legislation that limits the citizens right to organize boycotts, but such legislation has to deal with all boycotts in general – not just the currently unpopular ones.

        The proposed inquiry into foreign funding of left-wing NGOs will be discussed soon. I support an inquiry and legislation to regulate this funding and make it transparent. But similar to the anti-boycott law, the Knesset will apparently only deal with the left-wing NGOs while allowing everyone else to continue merrily as before.

        Will you support this anti-democratic legislation too just because Sherwood condemns it ??

        • Thanks for the info. Just to be clear, it is possible to oppose both the bill and hyperbolic characterizations of the implications of the bill. Also, the JPost is reporting today that the Israeli Supreme Court will likely overturn the bill, which would underscore my point: Israel’s democratic mechanisms are working just fine. There are checks and balances which all properly functioning democratic nations require. And, as far as the Transparency bills, yes, of course all groups should be investigated and their funding revealed, not just left wing ones.

          • True, but now the same gang of Knesset members is threatening to introduce legislation that will give the Knesset the veto power over Supreme Court nominations. This is another step in the relentless campaign to undermine the “democratic mechanisms” and the “checks and balances”. So there are currently two different legislative campaigns underway:
            1. laws such as the anti-boycott law specifically aimed at limiting the rights of the Israeli left, Arabs citizens, etc.
            2. laws to neutralize the power of the Supreme Court so that it cannot block such legislation.

            The anti-boycott law has to be examined in the context of this campaign, not as an isolated item of legislation.

            • In the US (of A) according to its constitution, the president nominates judges, both houses of Congress must concur. So the selection of federal judges is a highly political process. Furthermore, the houses of Congress can determine which laws the courts (including the Supreme Court) can not consider. In Israel, a committee of judges, lawyers, and Knesset members (and some others) “elect” the judges. To allow the Knesset a veto over this process seems a great deal less political than the process in the US and simply adds a check against the court choosing its own members.

              You express no angst about the US process. MCP you really are full of it, aren’t you?

              • The USA has a constitution, you moron. Israel doesn’t.

                The current system in Israel was decided upon by a broad committee that discussed the problem and hear a wide range of opinions during a long period and reached a consensus among all parties. Those who now want to change the method want to ram it through the Knesset in a few days, you moron.

                If the system in the US is so political, why should Israel emulate it, you moron ?

                If you want a check against the court choosing its own members you could simply have one less judge on the committee, you moron.

                If you had bothered to read my comments, you would have realized that I was discussing an entirely different issue, i.e. reforms to the supreme court solely for the aim of enabling discriminatory legislation against the opposition.

                You moron.

                • MTC:

                  You have a reading comprehension problem as well.
                  We’re talking process here. I did not advocate Israel select the US process. The point was that you are so narrowly focused (ignorant? badly educated? biased?) that you do not contextualize the process of selecting judges by considering the processes in other countries.

                  I did not advocate that Israel should emulate the US process. The process in Israel after the law would still be far less political that almost any other western country.

                  Israel is still a democracy and if the Knesset oversteps bounds, elections will change things. Laws can be changed. So why are you hyperventilating over the governance of a country to which you are neither a citizen nor a fan of. Try hyperventilating about your own instead.

                  Finally, name calling does you no good. It neither elevates you or your arguments nor does it intimidate me. It does make you seem to be a puerile jerk the likes of which I have not seen since my schoolyard days.

  4. In a straight news story, Sherwood not only fails to provide even a modicum of balance …

    Sherwood is incapable of writing a straight news story. She is a cheap propaganda merchant, whose articles reflect her hostility to Israel, and a disgrace to her profession.

  5. Continued ….

    Agree or disagree with Israel’s new anti-BDS law, but the fact that Israel and her supporters even have to defend the state from charges that it’s descending into fascism or totalitarianism is further proof of the unseriousness and, often, pure malice, which increasing defines Israel’s critics.

    But that is the point, Adam. If you bothered to listen to the serious criticism of this law in Israel you would know that it centers around this very point – its discriminatory nature, which I outlined in my previous comment. You also ignore the context in which the law was presented: not as an isolated piece of legislation, but rather as one of a series intended to muzzle the opposition.

    This is a bad, discriminatory and detrimental law, regardless of whether Sherwood writes an article about it. Your automatic defense of the law just because Sherwood condemns it contributes nothing to the debate.