Though UK Media Watch (UKMW) monitors all major British media outlets, this blog (originally called ‘CiF Watch‘) previously was devoted to combating false claims about Israel and antisemitism exclusively at the Guardian, the media group most associated with anti-Israel bias. Indeed, our transition to UKMW was prompted by the general consensus that, partly due to our efforts, the Guardian’s malign obsession with Israel had somewhat abated, and their legitimization of antisemitic tropes (above and below the line) had at least diminished.
The latter improvement in editorial decisions, regarding rhetoric and imagery about Jews and Judaism historically associated with antisemitism, occurred both as the result of our relentless naming and shaming of Guardian contributors who expressed such Judeophobic views, and at least two important decisions by the paper’s readers’ editor which had the effect of institutionally delegitimizing these narratives.
The readers’ editor we’re referring to is Chris Elliott, who just stepped down after more than five years in the position.
Before moving forward, we should note that we will never know if Elliott’s stance against antisemitism was born of necessity (the belief that the paper’s reputation was being ‘tarnished’ by the unfair accusation of antisemitism) or principle – though it may be fair to say that both may have played a part.
Regardless of the motivation, Elliott’s column in 2011 (On Averting Accusations of Antisemitism), written, we believe, in some measure due to the negative publicity generated by our work and to address frequent complaints from British Jews, represented a small but recognizable turning point in their coverage.
As Elliott noted, the column itself reflected decisions he had made in response to a myriad of complaints alleging antisemitism – including one particularly egregious example involving a pejorative use of the term “chosen people” by journalist Deborah Orr.
Here’s an excerpt from Elliott’s column:
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. “Chosenness”, in Jewish theology, tends to refer to the sense in which Jews are “burdened” by religious responsibilities; it has never meant that the Jews are better than anyone else. Historically it has been antisemites, not Jews, who have read “chosen” as code for Jewish supremacism.
More broadly, he addressed “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”, and cautioned contributors to beware of the word Zionist being used as a synonym for Jew. (This is an especially relevant observation in the context of the ongoing row over antisemitism in the Labour Party.)
Another important column was written by Elliott in 2012, following a cartoon published by the Guardian’s Steve Bell during Israel’s 8 day war against Hamas. We argued at the time that the cartoon evoked the antisemitic canard of Jewish control over non-Jewish British politicians, and was indistinguishable from the extreme antisemitic imagery routinely published in the Arab media.
Here’s the cartoon:
Elliott addressed the complaints the following week, and largely agreed with our conclusions:
The image of Jews having a disproportionate influence over the US and British governments has often been replicated by anti-Jewish cartoonists in the Middle East since the end of the second world war.
Though Elliott defended Bell from charges that he was intentionally using antisemitic imagery, he nonetheless concluded by firmly siding with critics in the Jewish community.
However, using the image of a puppeteer when drawing a Jewish politician inevitably echoes past antisemitic usage of such imagery, no matter the intent.
The Holocaust and its causes are still within living memory. While journalists and cartoonists should be free to express an opinion that Netanyahu is opportunistic and manipulative, in my view they should not use the language – including the visual language – of antisemitic stereotypes.
Though the majority of our complaints to the Guardian center around inaccurate or misleading claims about Israel (per the accuracy clause of the Editors’ Code), not antisemitism as such, these two columns by Elliott set a standard that we leveraged when we felt the paper published problematic material pertaining to Jews.
For instance, in 2014, we complained to Elliott about an op-ed that we believed explicitly justified antisemitism. Elliott agreed with our analysis, and decided to delete an entire paragraph from the op-ed which contained the toxic dual loyalty canard. In the addendum noting the correction, editors explained that the dual loyalty reference was “inconsistent with editorial standards”.
This tweet the following year by another Guardian cartoonist (Martin Rowson), complaining that he’s been “browbeaten” into avoiding Israel, would suggest that Elliott’s criticism of Bell’s cartoon (and the work of this blog) clearly had an impact.
Though the Guardian hasn’t always fairly applied the broad standards outlined in Elliott’s columns on what constitutes anti-Jewish racism, his recognition of antisemitism as a “specific phenomenon” with a unique history and recognizable rhetorical and visual patterns was a welcome contrast to those commentators who denounce antisemitism in the abstract while failing to identify its most recent anti-Zionist mutations.
Though we often disagreed with Chris Elliott over what constituted a violation of the Editors’ Code in the context of their coverage of Israel, his commitment to basic journalistic ethics was never in doubt.
Given the dangerous resurgence of antisemitism in the UK and across Europe, we can only hope that Elliott’s replacement at the Guardian will at the very least continue in his tradition of taking the concerns of British Jews seriously.