The Guardian has always had a strong commitment to reporting on the Middle East. That means a lot of news reporting, as well as comment and analysis, on the Israel-Palestine situation. It is one of the world’s most contested conflicts, in which thousands of people have died or have been displaced. As a newspaper the Guardian has been critical of all sides, but it is seen as being especially critical of the Israeli government and its actions. And that has led to complaints that the Guardian, in print or online, is carrying material that either lapses into language resonant of antisemitism or is, by its nature, antisemitic.
It also leads to the much more rare allegation of Islamophobia. In this column I intend to address the former rather than the latter, because recently there has been a preponderance of such complaints.
This is not a fresh concern. It is a particularly sensitive issue for a core of the Guardian’s Jewish readers because CP Scott held strong Zionist sympathies, as did WP Crozier, who came after him as editor. In the Guardian’s archives is a letter of thanks from the first president of Israel, Chaim Weizmann, thanking Scott for his help in securing the Balfour declaration, the 1917 statement by the British government approving the creation of a Jewish national home in Palestine.
A shift in attitudes came after the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, as Daphna Baram outlines in her book Disenchantment: The Guardian and Israel, published in 2004. So, it’s not new. But there has been an increase in complaints of antisemitism within the last few months.
As the web has widened the debate, so it has also enabled more opportunities for articles and comments to be questioned. Individuals and organisations monitoring the Guardian’s coverage examine the language in articles – and the comments posted underneath them online – as closely as the facts.
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. “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.
One reader wrote of the column: “The despicable antisemitic tone of this rant is beyond reason or decency.”
An important feature of the Guardian online is that the comment threads are post-moderated: a team of moderators check almost half a million comments a month posted on the site for language that breaches the community guidelines across a whole range of issues – not just antisemitism. They are experienced in 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. The Guardian should not be oppressed by criticism – some of the language used by our critics is abusive and intimidatory – or retreat into self-censorship. But reporters, writers and editors must be more vigilant to ensure our voice in the debate is not diminished because our reputation has been tarnished.
This column was originally published in The Guardian on Nov. 6, 2011.