On August 20th, the Guardian published several letters in response to an article published in the paper which noted questions raised about Jeremy Corbyn and antisemitism (Corbyn faces questions over meeting with alleged extremist, Aug. 19th).
One of the letters was signed by Lydia, Joel and Andrew Samuels of London:
We write as members of a Jewish family, current and former constituents of Jeremy Corbyn. The accusations of antisemitism are, of course, political manipulations (Corbyn faces questions over meeting with alleged extremist, 20 August). Influential sections of the Jewish community, maybe guided by their Israeli contacts, are frightened that a notable critic of Israel’s policies and actions might attain a position of prominence in British politics. There are two background issues to which we would like to draw attention, aside from joining in the increasing number of Jews who say, of Israel’s behaviour, “not in our name”. The first is that the hysterical pressure to desist on anyone who wants to talk to Hamas and Hezbollah has been destructive to the prospects of peace. The second is that the repeated conflation of anti-Zionism and antisemitism is no accident. It is done quite consciously.
Shortly after the letter’s publication, Stephen Pollard, editor of The Jewish Chronicle, complained to the Guardian’s readers’ editor. Here’s part of his email.
“I am sure I do not need to point out to you that this is one of the oldest, most explicit antisemitic memes in existence – the idea that Jews are guided by, and owe their allegiance to, a foreign power (Israel, in the modern world).
“I am, quite obviously, one of those who is accused, since my newspaper has led the way in asking questions of Jeremy Corbyn.
“I should point out that not once have we accused him of antisemitism. Nor have we mentioned the word Israel.
“Not one of the stories we have published has been about Israel; they have all been about antisemitism on the part of his associates.”
A few days later, the Guardian replied to Mr. Pollard and rejected the accusation that the letter was antisemitic. Here’s part of the Guardian’s reply:
“As you know we always take any allegation of antisemitism seriously. You say that the letter openly expresses the idea that Jews owe their allegiance to a foreign power.
“We have contacted the letter writers, who are adamant that they did not say, and neither did they mean, that Jews in Britain ‘owe allegiance’ to Israel and that there was no intention to evoke that trope.
“I do not accept that the wording of this letter evokes, deliberately or otherwise, the antisemitic slur that you see in it.”
Though, in fairness, the Guardian readers’ editor has generally taken complaints about antisemitism, sent by UKMW, quite seriously, their response to Pollard’s concerns is quite troubling. The mere fact that the letter writers allegedly didn’t intend to evoke antisemitic tropes about diaspora Jews’ allegiance to a foreign power is not as important as the question of whether the words used conveyed this toxic narrative to most who read it.
Indeed, we can of course never get into the mind of those who engage in even the most odious antisemitic tropes to tell with any degree of certainty their inner-most thoughts and prejudices. The only standard which matters to those who take antisemitism seriously, and fully understand the long history of such calumnies, is whether the writer employs words or images historically associated with anti-Jewish prejudice.
Indeed, the Guardian’s readers’ editor Chris Elliott wrote the following several years ago (in his article titled ‘On Averting charges of antisemitism‘) about charges of antisemitism leveled against some of their journalists which his office (quite admirably) upheld:
For antisemitism can be subtle as well as obvious. Three times in the last nine months I have upheld complaints against language within articles that I agreed could be read as antisemitic. The words were replaced and the articles footnoted to reflect the fact. These included references to Israel/US “global domination” and the term “slavish” to describe the US relationship with Israel; and, in an article on a lost tribe of Mallorcan Jews, what I regarded as a gratuitous reference to “the island’s wealthier families”.
Two weeks ago a columnist used the term “the chosen” in an item on the release of Gilad Shalit, which brought more than 40 complaints to the Guardian, and an apology from the columnist the following week…”
[Guardian editors] are experienced at spotting the kind of language long associated with antisemitic tropes such as Jews having too much power and control, or being clannish and secretive, or the role of Jews in finance and the media.
Newspapers have to be aware that some examples involve coded references. They need to ask themselves, for example, if the word Zionist is being used as a synonym for Jew.
I have been careful to say that these examples may be read as antisemitic because I don’t believe their appearance in the Guardian was the result of deliberate acts of antisemitism: they were inadvertent. But that does not lessen the injury to some readers or to our reputation.
We couldn’t agree more.