|Alan Rusbridger, editor of the Guardian, believes there has been a concerted attempt to label his paper as a receptacle for liberal anti-Semitism due to its criticism of current Israeli government policies.In Daphna Baram’s incisive new book, “Disenchantment: The Guardian and Israel,” (Guardian Books, £17.99), he is quoted as saying: “And, of course, once they have finished with the Guardian, they’ll move on to the Independent, or the BBC, or whatever.”
The imagery, suggestive of Zionist locusts, is not a pretty one, but the Guardian is clearly unused to being on the receiving end of treatment the media normally reserves for politicians. The relationship between the Guardian — for all its long involvement with Zionism — and the Jewish public has recently hit rock bottom.
Many British Jews who support Ariel Sharon’s government are outraged at the very idea of outsiders instructing Israel how to act. But for those who can make a distinction in reporting and comment, between the unpalatable and the biased, it is not only disastrous Israeli government policy that gives cause for concern, but also the pernicious demonisation, in the media, of the state itself.
Many feel that the Guardian since 2000 has played a major role in preaching a politics of polarisation. Formerly, the progressive argument described a battle between the peace camps in Israel and Palestine against their rejectionists. Now, the conflict is portrayed between an Israel that can do no right and a Palestine that can do no wrong.
Baram, a lawyer who is on the far left of Israeli politics, illuminates these issues and produces a picture of a Guardian much more complex than the anti-Jewish monolith of current communal discourse.
Certainly, different views prevail within its portals. Of the paper’s leading Jewish staff members, Baram depicts Jonathan Freedland as a passionate advocate of Israel and an educator in the use of language that neither detracts nor distorts. Suzanne Goldenberg, the former Israel correspondent, believes, in hindsight, she should have devoted more time to the country’s Israeli politics.
The Israeli embassy’s former London press attaché, D. J. Schneeweiss, had several long conversations with Guardian correspondents. Simon Tisdall commented: “When D. J. was here, we became friends and I respect his opinion.” Yet, for all the respect undoubtedly accorded to D. J., according to Baram he rarely convinced Guardian writers.
Baram explains the growing antagonism towards Israel since 1967 on the part of political commentators, particularly those on the left, in terms of the changing character of the state. But she fails to balance this with the political commentators’ own changing attitudes. The old left, under Aneurin Bevan, which had fought Fascism alongside the Jews, passionately championed Zionism. The new left, distant from the Holocaust and unaware or unconcerned with the moral and other reasons for the rise of Israel, elevated decolonisation to the top of its agenda in the 1960s. The Palestinians fitted more easily alongside the struggles in Vietnam and Southern Africa than did the Israelis.
Zionism became an inconvenient anomaly, Israel an historical accident. And, under Peter Preston, editor between 1975 and 1995, the Guardian slipped its Zionist moorings that had been anchored by C. P. Scott.
The process has continued so that, while the paper’s editorials support a two-state solution, numerous articles in recent years in the comment pages — outside the regular contributors — have suggested that the solution to current exigencies is a return, not to 1967 but to 1948. Writers supporting the mainstream peace camps are glossed over while rejectionists are disproportionately promoted.
When Jews read a plethora of rejectionist articles, they assume that this represents the overall policy of the paper — sophisticated explanations in the name of freedom of expression don’t work when articles appear under headings like: “Israel simply has no right to exist.”
The unease that British Jews currently feel is not about rampant anti-Semitism on the high street, but of a drip-drip delegitimisation of the state of Israel, with the attendant fear that this will be followed by a delegitimisation of the people as a whole.
Naturally, the media have a vital role in this context. And many feel that the commentators who are most strident in their calls for a solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict — something which it would be hard to find a single British Jew not supporting — are taking an increasingly simplistic, one-sided view and that the Guardian is a principal forum for this. The sense of abandonment felt by often liberal-minded diaspora Jews is enhanced by the psychological impact of suicide bombings.
Yet the Guardian’s response to this concern, while encouraging dialogue, is to dismiss even Sharon’s critics as part of the legion of e-mailing automatons carrying out a form of genetic duty.
This is a case of the baby and the bathwater. The Guardian, having been bludgeoned by advocacy groups such as Honest Reporting over the anti-Zionism-equals-anti-Semitism issue, tends to lump together even serious criticism with the orchestrated campaigns.
This is against a background in which, according to the veteran Guardian writer Martin Woollacott, “the European media has already shifted from a line which attempts to save Israel from itself to one that calls out to save the world from Israel.” This ominous proposition suggests that the fantasy days are only just beginning. Ironically, it may be that only Zionist critics of Sharon’s policies — once their observations are picked out from the electronic critical mass — can now save the Guardian from itself.
Jewish Chronicle 16 July 2004