Reading The Guardian: Jews, Israel-Palestine and the Origins of Irritation

Reading The Guardian: Jews, Israel-Palestine and the Origins of Irritation

According to the organisation ‘Reporting the World’, there were 4393 mentions of Israel and the Palestinians in the British press from the start of the Al Aqsa Intifada, 29 September 2000 until 20 March 2001. 1 The coverage of the Intifada by The Guardian, in particular, during 2000 and 2001 was the subject of criticism and bewilderment on the part of many Jews in Britain and abroad. Although the paper had projected a pro-Palestinian orientation for many years2 this was not a fundamental deterrent against reading the paper – its liberal Jewish readership had similarly argued that the Palestinians did have a case and a right to national self-determination. They continued to read The Guardian because it projected their broad world outlook despite the paper’s idee fixe on Israel.

The Guardian had been associated with the Zionist cause for almost a century. Harry Sacher  and  its leader writer, Herbert Sidebotham, had both embraced the Zionist cause while working for the Manchester Guardian at the turn of the century. Together with Simon Marks and Israel Sieff, they transformed Manchester and the North of England into a nucleus of Zionist activity. Chaim Weizmann’s appointment to an academic position at the University of Manchester and the introductions provided to him by C.P. Scott, the Manchester Guardian editor, proved crucial to the development of the Zionist movement and the decision to formulate and then implement the Balfour Declaration. Scott’s successors continued such support – especially as a reaction to the persecution and extermination of European Jews.

Under A.P. Wadsworth who edited the Guardian between 1944 and 1956, enthusiasm for Zionism waned and was deemed to be ‘an albatross slung around the Guardian’s neck’.3 Yet Wadsworth encouraged his foreign editor, Alaistair Hetherington to write about the Middle East. Hetherington was fascinated by the emotion, theatre and complexity of the Israel-Palestine struggle. He applauded ‘the sheer drama of the Jewish success in building or rebuilding a homeland…..and at the same time wishing to see reconciliation of Zionist ambition with Arab rights.’ 4 The Guardian thereby projected a balanced approach upto the Six Day War and beyond during Hetherington’s sojourn in the editorial chair between 1956 and 1975.

However, the departure  from this position began on the eve of the Six Day War when the leader writer, Frank Edmead attempted to explain the Arab viewpoint: Non-Zionists may surely ask why if Jews claim the right to return after 2000 years, the Palestinian refugees have no such right after only twenty years. 5 Edmead, a pacifist Quaker, believed that Nasser had been forced into action through Israeli reprisal raids. A parallel was drawn between Ian Smith’s Rhodesia and Israel. Hetherington, however, took a contrary view and felt that Israel had been morally justified in responding in self-defence following attacks upon them.6 Edmead parted company from The Guardian shortly afterwards but his leader which questioned uncritical support for Israel had broken the mould. It was later characterised as ‘a dialectical half-nelson from which no subsequent leader-writer was able to escape’.7 Hetherington’s support for Israel remained steadfast until his retirement in the mid-1970s. Indeed, he refused to carry an advertisement styled as an ‘open letter to the Jews of Israel and the Western World’. He rejected it on the basis that he did not agree with the contention that the government of Israel constituted a ‘dire threat to world peace’.8

After Hetherington’s departure, the line on the Palestinians began to reflect the changing position of the British Left on Israel and in particular its support for Third World liberation movements including the PLO. The new line was clear as The Guardian later commented in its editorial on the fiftieth anniversary of the establishment of the state of Israel.

And in the 1970s, before it was fashionable to do so, we pioneered the argument that there must be justice for the Palestinians9

However, the reporting of the Al Aqsa Intifada seemed to elevate the pro-Palestinian orientation to new levels. Several British Jews expressed the view that there was a sense of advocacy which took precedence over fair reporting – that this was not simply a struggle for justice for the Palestinians but a subtle delegitimisation of the state itself through selectivity of both facts and quotations.10 The complexity of the Israel-Palestine conflict was often simplified into a polarisation between ‘Zionist villains against Palestinian heroes’.11 This, in essence, reflected the general Palestinian position during the Intifada of wishing to reject the Oslo Accords and to return not to 1967 but instead to 1948.

The criticism of many Jewish readers was implicitly recognised by the editor’s willingness to defend such coverage in an article in The Jewish Chronicle.12 The political culture of the 1960s and 1970s was reflected in The Guardian when a new generation was making its mark. The benevolent rule of five generations of the Scott family was drawing to a close. Alastair Hetherington’s radicalism, ‘more in the C.P. Scott mould’ co-existed with ‘this solid phalanx of left-wing leader writers.’ 13

It was the era of the liberation struggles of small peoples such as the Vietnamese in a war against a superpower, the fight against apartheid South Africa and admiration for iconic individuals such as Che Guevara who personified an international struggle against first world privilege and injustice. The Irish struggle, first for civil rights and then for a united Republican Ireland,  was also highly influential. Several of the leader writers were involved in protests about Vietnam and there was a general support for the reunion of the two halves of the island of Ireland.14  The student revolts of 1968, the declaration of UDI in Rhodesia and the invasion of Czechoslovakia all left their mark. Above all, this was a search for a political identity by the post-war generation of the British Left in an era of decolonisation and emerging multi-culturalism. It also symbolised the freedom of theory without boundaries and constraints in contrast to the restrictions of state power as personified by the USSR and their allies.

The New Left of the post-war era differed from the Old Left in that its adherents were essentially of middle class origin and often students. It did not grow out of the ranks of the deprived and the oppressed. It was a movement based more on age than class. In one sense, it can be argued that the Guardian’s support for the SDP15 at the beginning of the 1980s was similarly a  separation from the practices of  the Old Labour and a search for something new. An academic observing the New Left on campus in the United States at the end of the 1960s commented that they had a keen sense of space but a poor sense of time.16 They could identify with events and peoples thousands of miles from home, but insisted that such struggles had to be resolved now. In the context of the Israel-Palestine conflict, this meant a selective understanding and knowledge of history. This observer of the New Left defined their broad perspective in early 1970

A social issue should not be subject to a direct evaluation. It should rather be viewed as a part of a world-wide struggle between two camps which represent for the political activist absolute good and absolute evil, as would God and devil for the religious believer. An issue acquires real meaning only from its relationship to this struggle: does it contribute to the victory of human progress and liberation, or does it serve regression and imperialism? Everything beyond this is a detail 17

In Britain, far left groups such as the Socialist Labour League, the International Marxist Group and the International Socialists attracted considerable numbers of young people who were unable to relate to the social democratic governments of Harold Wilson during the 1960s. It was also a period of distancing from the Communist Party in particular whose members were tainted as fellow travellers in downplaying or turning a blind eye to Stalin’s crimes. It thus meant the reclaiming of Trotsky, Rosa Luxembourg and Gramsci.

The New Left fervently looked to the Third World which often created the distance from their own bourgeois origins. Many who did not subsequently go into full-time politics via the Labour Party became writers, academics and professionals in general. They often held fast to their views and did not have to face the choice of an expedient compromise when confronted with practise rather than theory. Thatcherism in the 1980s was undoubtedly a radicalising experience which forestalled any reconsideration and the political successes of liberation movements in Vietnam, Zimbabwe and South Africa further provided a vindication of the truth of longheld positions.

Many Jews on the Left similarly identified with such causes and principles. However as Jews they carried in addition an understanding of recent Jewish history including two seminal events, the Shoah and the establishment of the State of Israel. This tied them as well to the Old Left, which had led the struggle against fascism and antisemitism. Thus the Guardian’s editorial the day after the United Nations proposed the partition of Mandatory Palestine into two states in December 1947 expressed their view.

It was Britain who created the Palestinian state; it was Britain who, by the Balfour Declaration, encouraged the Jews to found the national home; it is Britain who has ruled the country for 27 years as the Mandatory Power. Nothing has been done in Palestine without our permission and if things have gone wrong (as they have) we must share some of the blame18

The Old Left essentially espoused the two state solution, according to UN Resolution 181 of 29 November 1947. Aneurin Bevan considered resignation from the Atlee government because of  British policy towards a Jewish state.19  Indeed, Bevanites such as Richard Crossman and Maurice Orbach acted as intermediaries between Nasser and Moshe Sharett. The New Left essentially rejected all this by hesitatingly embracing the idea of a democratic secular state which had been the broad position of the PLO in the late 1960s. In Palestinian eyes, this was not interpreted in universalist terms leading to the building of socialism but as an Arab national state in which some Jews would remain as a minority.

The origin of the irritation of left wing Jews with The Guardian  stems from this difference of understanding and interpretation. It is thus not merely a dispute over loaded or shallow journalism but one which posed a fundamentally different ideological outlook on Jews and the Jewish question and a different understanding of history.

The Israel-Palestine conflict was both different to and more complex than other struggles. Israel’s victory during the Six Day War in 1967 turned the clock back thirty years on the question of the dimensions of the State. The Israeli Right argued that the original borders of the British Mandate including the East Bank (Jordan) had been sacrificed through two partitions in 1921 and 1947. The National Religious adhered to one of several Biblical definitions of the borders of Eretz Israel, usually ‘from the River of Egypt to the Euphrates’.20

The acquisition of the West Bank in 1967  thus reopened schisms between left and right, between secular and religious, within Israel – all of which were reflected in the Diaspora. The political culture of the 1960s catalysed the emergence of a Jewish New Left in the Diaspora which identified with Israeli groups such as Siach21 and supported the Palestinian right to national self-determination. At the conference of the World Union of Jewish Students in Arad in 1970, a resolution was carried which recognised this right – ‘it being understood that this right cannot be implemented at the expense of the right of the Israeli nation to live in peace and security within its own state.’ WUJS significantly linked Zionism and Palestinian nationalism Zionism is the national and also, by virtue of its territorialistic aspect, the social liberation and emancipation movement of the Jewish people; it is to be realised in Israel. This goal can only be realised if the national rights of the Palestinian Arabs are considered so that they may be recognised to be a consequence of Zionist ideology’ 22

The Jewish New Left in the Diaspora was by no means ideologically homogeneous. There were many who perceived Zionism as the central answer to the Jewish question, but there were also many others who took a different path. In Britain as in other countries, the Jewish Left was historically divided between those who identified their ‘Jewishness’ in mainly particularist terms and those who understood it in an overtly universalist and often assimilationist way. There were others who followed in the footsteps of Isaac Deutscher who came from orthodox Jewish backgrounds and transcended it by immersing themselves in the Left. There were still others who forged a neo-Bundist approach such as the Jewish Socialist Group. The prime emphasis of such  universalist Jews was the de-Zionisation of Israel which would be carried out by the Israeli working class. This view transcended borders: thus they advocated ‘a united Arab-Israeli front against Zionism, imperialism and Arab reaction.’23

The emerging New Left in Britain was generally unsure how to treat the upsurge of Palestinian nationalism after 1967. The formation of Fatah, Arafat’s take-over of the PLO, the Palestinian espousal of a neo-Maoist strategy all suggested that the Palestinian cause was part of the broad struggle against colonialism and imperialism. While their parents viewed the Jews as a persecuted people with whom they expressed solidarity, for the post-war generation, confronting fascism and antisemitism were not life moulding watersheds. But for the first post-Shoah generation of Jews in the Diaspora, however, this was not a backdrop, but recent if not living history.

The policies of successive Israeli governments since 1967 have no doubt created sympathy for the Palestinians as the underdog. But these views embellished those which had already emerged on the Left in the struggle against colonialism. Much of the material published on the Left at that time testified to a staggering lack of familiarity with Zionist ideology24 and Jewish history per se and occasionally reflected the crudity of the anti-Zionist campaign in the Soviet press.

The intellectual Left through New Left Review first attempted to analyse the Israel-Palestine conflict in an article25 by Fawwuz Trabulsi in September 1969. It significantly remarked in its introduction that although it did not ‘endorse all the theses in the text, we believe that it represents an important contribution to the development of a Marxist analysis of this question and of a revolutionary strategy for Israeli and Arab revolutionaries.’26. This was expounded upon in early 1971 by an article on ‘The Class Nature of Israeli Society’ 27 by members of the Israeli Socialist Organisation (Matzpen). The introduction commented:

There can be few issues that have caused as much bitterness and disagreement on the Left as the nature of the state of Israel. For a long time it attracted the sympathy of many both because of Nazi genocide and because of the social character of the regimes it faced in the Middle East. However, 1956 showed it had an active collusion with Western imperialism, and after 1967 the rise of the Palestinian resistance movement refocused attention on the colonial and exploitative character of the Zionist state. But discussion of Israel has rarely been based on any class analysis of that society, and that confusion outside Israel has been compounded inside the country by the almost unanimous support of the Israeli working class for Zionist policies.28

In addition, a central factor in the adoption of a pro-Palestinian line was the presence of universalist Jews either as founders or as leading members of far Left groups which provided the analysis. It also provided, as a by-product, a bulwark against accusations of antisemitism. Tony Cliff, founder of the forerunner of the Socialist Workers Party29 analysed the situation in the Middle East in late 1967. He concluded that ‘Israel is not a colony suppressed by imperialism, but a colon, settler’s citadel, a launching pad of imperialism.’ Significantly he made no mention of the Palestinians and their national movement. Cliff’s solution was ‘a workers’ and peasants’ revolution aimed at the establishment of a socialist republic with full rights for Jews, Kurds and all national minorities’.As Yigal Gluckstein, he had been a member of Left Poale Zion and Ha’hugim Ha’ marxistim (the Marxist Circles) in the Palestine of the 1930s.30

But the post-1967 Left was divided – in most cases along generational lines. Other luminaries of the Left such as Sartre and Marcuse took contrary views.31 I.F. Stone understood it as a question of ‘right against right’ – a view which often espoused the two state solution of November 1947.32 Israeli anti-Zionists played an important role in guiding the New Left.

Matzpen which had split from the Israeli Communist Party in 1962 gave primacy to the overthrow of Zionism in Israel by Israeli revolutionaries. It significantly recognised the right of both Israelis and Palestinians to national self-determination and denounced both Arab nationalism and Nasserism33. It further argued that all national groups including the Kurds and South Sudanese would have the right to self-determination ‘as a basis for integration without compulsion or repression.’ 34 In addition, the views of the Democratic Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DPFLP) were also circulated. These views promoted a people’s war and a Marxist-Leninist programme which did not recognise the right of national self-determination of the Jews. The DPFLP held discussions with Matzpen in 1969 – and disagreed with them on the issue of  a coexistence between the two peoples since it advocated a specifically Palestinian state.35

Attempts to model the Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC) in Britain on that of the successful one in support of the Vietnamese NLF floundered. A demonstration called to coincide with Israel’s independence day in May 1969 attracted very few people.36 It was thus difficult to stereotype the Israel-Palestine conflict. In a statement issued by International Socialism, the International Marxist Group and Arab Revolution at the first PSC Conference in November 1969, there were complaints that the Zionists threw out ‘red herrings’ such as Arab reaction and antisemitism and that ‘also there remains amongst sections of the Left, residual beliefs that Israel is a beleaguered socialist country.’ 37 Yet these two positions, one an essentially Israeli-Jewish one (Matzpen) which advocated co-operation between Arab and Jewish workers in a binational de-Zionised Israel, the other a Palestinian nationalist one (DPFLP) which proposed the defeat of Israel, the evacuation of the West Bank of all settlers, the right of return of all Palestinian refugees to create a democratic secular Arab state of Palestine, were effectively blurred. The former suggested a certain egalitarianism within a socialist framework, the latter the nationalist righting of an historic wrong in the form of a Greater Palestine. Little attempt was made to note this fundamental distinction because of the profound opposition to Israeli government policies in the 1970s.

When maximalist Israeli policies were promulgated by the Begin and Shamir governments in the 1980s, the blurring effect was accentuated. The lack of symmetry in terms of power between Israelis and Palestinians further relegated the idea of a two state solution to the back burner in that the New Left totally identified with the liberation struggle of the Palestinians. Guardian journalists reflected this development and thereby identified Palestinian nationalism as a progressive force. Little attention was therefore paid to history or the alternative Israeli narrative. This was further enhanced by The Guardian’s appeal to the youth market since the mid-1980s – as a means of distinguishing it from The Independent.

By the commencement of the Al Aqsa Intifada in September 2000, the right of national self-determination of the Jews was perceived to be of secondary concern. This approach was often projected as the ‘liberal’ view in terms of it being a continuation of The Guardian’s historic role. In fact, the approach represented both discontinuity and substitution.

Intellectuals on the Left began to re-evaluate the alliance with Jews and Zionists even before the Six Day War. In 1959, Richard Crossman remarked

Was it that we were all on the lookout in 1939 for appeasement and saw the Arabs as a fascist force to which Jewish liberty was being sacrificed? Partly perhaps. But I suspect that six years of this war have fundamentally changed our emotions. We were pro-Jew emotionally in 1939 as part of ‘anti-fascism’. We were not looking at the actual problems of Palestine, but instinctively standing up for Jews, whenever there was a chance to do so. Now, most of us are not emotionally pro-Jew, but only rationally ‘anti-antisemitic’ which is a very different thing’ 38

Two points arise from Crossman’s insight. Combating antisemitism did not automatically mean philosemitism. As Harold Nicolson confided to his diary, one could dislike Jews but dislike the unfairness practised against them even more. 39 Liberalism did not automatically imply an affinity for Jews and their aspirations.

Secondly, support for Zionism was seen as a consequence of the struggle against Nazism and not in terms of the continuing struggle between two national movements which had existed before the advent of fascism. By 1967, these positions were not part of the New Left’s agenda. This thus removed the obstacles towards criticising Jews and attacking Zionists.

The embourgeoisement and acculturation of Anglo-Jewry, its simultaneous movement to the Right, the diminishing of antisemitism and the development of a multi-cultural society integrating less privileged ethnic groups all assisted in this process. Alain Finkelkraut and Bernard-Henri Levy have suggested that knowledge, understanding and emphasis on the Shoah during recent years has paradoxically allowed Europe to deny an important element in its cultural heritage – anti-Semitism.

By nurturing the memory of the Holocaust, the Jews are also perpetrating two extremes of thinking – absolute evil and absolute justice – and this bi-polarity eases the creation of the opposite: The victims of yesterday become the hangmen of today, as no middle possibility is proposed. Therefore , the more it encourages the memory – the greater Israel’s isolation grows. This is expressed in the demonisation of Israel in the media.40

This distinction between Jews who died in the Shoah and Zionists who live in Israel was not a new one. The former is paid due respect, but the latter emerged during the Al Aqsa Intifada as the ‘Zionist SS’41 or viewing Israelis as the equivalent of the Nazis during the Munich crisis in handing Arafat an impossible ultimatum at Camp David 42. To convert Zionists into Nazis was effectively to de-Judaise Israelis and thereby further disconnect the Holocaust from its Jewish definition. This tendency to semi-universalise the Shoah carried with it – almost by definition – antagonism to Jewish particularism – and by extension opposition to Jewish nationalism. ‘Jewishness’ at least in an intellectual sense can be transferred. Indeed, in embracing a binational state, the Palestinian Edward Said, has refered to himself as ‘the one true follower of Adorno – I’m the last Jewish intellectual.’ 43

All this further reflected the difficulty on the British Left of defining Jews in terms of a multi-cultural, multi-national society. This was in evidence in the criticism voiced about the campaign by Jewish groups to secure compensation for Holocaust survivors.44 Thus if Jews attempted to assert themselves collectively through their organisations in support of Israel, this was perceived as symptomatic of  a pernicious kind of particularism. Such public assertion  was embarrassing in particular to acculturated and assimilated Jews. The separation of Jews and Zionists had to be clear-cut. Thus it was suggested, albeit  humorously, that it was certainly not a good career move for Sacha Baron-Cohen aka Ali G. to publicly admit that he was visiting his grandmother in Israel. 45

The official response by Jewish communal organisations to perceived distorted comment about Israel during the Intifada was patchy. This was to some extent inherent in the minority outlook of British Jewry as compared with the robust attitude of American Jewry who as an indigenous group in an immigrant society regarded it as legitimate to assert its strongly held views. The collapse of BIPAC, the British-Israel Public Affairs Committee, the Israel public relations arm of the Jewish community, shortly before the Al Aqsa Intifada, permitted a fair degree of uncoordinated activity and comment to be aimed at The Guardian particularly in the electronic media.46

This vacuum was filled by supporters of the Israeli Right and opponents of the Barak government in the United States. They had supported the parties in Israel who actually left the Barak government before the Camp David meeting in the summer of 2000. The collapse of that summit and the outbreak of violence brought them to power through the election of Sharon, but it also permitted them to take control of the public relations on behalf of Israel in the Diaspora with their own interpretation of events. Ironically such websites which were both crude and simplistic in their explanations did not publish critical liberal Jewish opinion on the Intifada or indeed arguments by left wing Jews against The Guardian 47  Their campaign was directed in particular against The Guardian’s Jerusalem correspondent who had also been the target of more general criticism. In the spring of 2001, the London Press Club awarded her the Edgar Wallace Trophy for ‘reporting of the highest quality’. Although several judges had been tabloid editors, none had any experience in reporting the Israel-Palestine conflict.

Moreover since the Lebanon war, opinion within the Jewish community in Britain had changed, reflecting the ideological schisms within Israel. There was thus a considerable pluralism of views and certainly not an automatic support for Israeli Government positions. Although such situations always bring forth the unstable and the extremist, the Guardian referred on several occasions to the ‘intolerable pressure’ under which journalists had been placed. Thus ‘a shadowy ultra-orthodox Jewish group’ had organised a campaign of vilification and denigration’ 48 However, no mention or analysis of the right wing ideological background of the campaign or from where it originated was made in The Guardian. The impression given was that this was the work of mainstream Jewish organisations in Britain. This also helped to deflect and divert genuine criticism of The Guardian from the Jewish Left.

The accusation of ‘Jewish pressure’ was also raised in The Guardian by contributors close to Islamic radical circles who often projected an absolutist view of the Israel-Palestine conflict.49 Again there was mention of ‘shadowy Israeli lobbyists in Westminster’.50 Several articles in The Guardian in 2000 attempted to examine domestic Muslim issues through the eyes of the younger and more ethnically nationalist constituency. With a shrinking Jewish community and an expanding Muslim community six times larger, The Guardian was a natural attraction and a sympathetic ear for many Muslim readers. Thus parallels were drawn between disaffected Muslim youth and the Palestinians

In the inner cities, there is much that the average Muslim youngster has in common with the foot soldiers of the Intifada. Jobless, discriminated against, marginalised and devoid of any hope, he too feels a victim to a system that appears to exist only to oppress his people 51

Jemima Khan, as a recent convert to Islam wrote that ‘the (US) media is largely controlled by Jews as is Hollywood and they account for more than half the top policy making jobs in the Clinton administration’ 52 Such comments had repeatedly featured as a claim of Islamic Palestinian groups and their supporters within the Muslim world. But they also fell into the realm of classical anti-Jewish remarks as opposed to the more ambiguous anti-Zionist comment. For example, in 1996, The Guardian published a half-page advertisement by Ayatollah Khamenei of Iran on the occasion of the Hajj which similarly implied ‘Zionist’ control of the US media. 53 Although Jemima Khan later retracted any anti-Jewish motivation,54 an unanswered question was what prompted a ‘progressive’ paper such as The Guardian to publish such remarks.

Such an attitude pushed some Jews to comment that they felt that they were often differentiated from other ethnic groups and treated as ‘fair game for crank provocations’.55 To be labelled as ‘racist’ by Asians and Blacks was taken seriously. To be criticised by Jews for insensitivity, subtle discrimination and lack of understanding often invited disbelief and ridicule. This concatenation of criticism persuaded some to ask aloud whether all this was simply a guise for genteel antisemitism rather than a robust attack on Israeli policies. 56

In commencing with the rhetorical comment that she was ‘generally sceptical of conspiracy stories….but’, Jemima Khan’s article similarly raised the question of a co-ordinated campaign by Jews and Jewish organisations.57 In The Evening Standard, Brian Sewell referred to ‘international Jewry’58 – a phraseology which many Jews believed had been relegated to the past. In late February and early March, an exchange of articles in The Spectator between Conrad Black,59 chairman of Hollinger International Inc. which owned several right wing newspapers and Taki Theodoracopulos60 on the nature of criticism of Israel were published. Black and his wife Barbara Amiel were noted for their close connections to the Likud and their support for right wing policies through the Hollinger-owned Jerusalem Post.61 While the exchange propagated more heat than light, three writers accused Black of using his authority to quash criticism of Israeli policies in his publications, particularly The Spectator and The Daily Telegraph in Britain. Black’s use of accusations of antisemitism was countered by claims of denial. Implicit in the writers’ argument was the opinion that Black’s right to free expression could not be dissociated from the possibility of intimidation of those who were employed by him.

One of the writers, William Dalrymple in an article ‘Bullied into Silence on Israel’ in The Guardian further juxtaposed Black’s ‘right wing brand of Zionism’  with his dismissal of journalists at the Jerusalem Post for ‘an unhealthy enthusiasm for Palestinian rights’.62 The message sent by The Guardian was again that the supporters of Israel were an internationally powerful group allied with and funded by the forces of reaction. Moreover, the projection of Jews as Goliath rather than David helped Guardian journalists to psychologically dismiss protests from both individuals and organisations in terms of ‘resisting pressure’ 63

History has been the first casualty in the megaphone war between Israelis and Palestinians. Although it has partly been reclaimed by the Israeli new historians, the Palestinians and the Arab states have yet to open their archives and confront the black spots in their history. This facility of not confronting the past was often reflected in The Guardian’s reporting of Sharon’s ascendance to political power in Israel. Guardian commentators compared Sharon to Pinochet, Milosovic and Jorg Haider64 because of his military record of killings, adventurism and disobedience of orders. Significantly, few examined Sharon’s political history as a basis of predicting the future.

Thus Sharon’s role in the massacres of Palestinians in the Sabra and Shatilla camps during the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982 was repeatedly mentioned in the Guardian. One journalist questioned the nature of Israel’s judiciary when it attempted to determine responsibility for the atrocity. ‘Israel’s own Kahan commission found Sharon ‘personally’ – but ‘indirectly’ responsible for the massacre, though whether an independent court would be so generous is open to question?65 In contradistinction, another Guardian journalist wrote that ‘an independent inquiry mildly criticised his role in the atrocity and he was forced to give up the defence portfolio’66 An educational resource in the paper commented that ‘he had the power to stop the massacre of Palestinian refugees in neighbouring Lebanon but did nothing.’ 67 Yet another commented that ‘the massacres by the Israelis and their Lebanese allies at the Sabra and Shatilla camps in 1982 are a wound that has never healed.’ 68 The Guardian Middle East editor wrote that Sharon ‘watched passively as right-wing Lebanese militias massacred hundreds of Palestinian refugees.69 Israeli intelligence estimated that 7-800 had been killed, the Palestinian Red Crescent 2000 and The Guardian 2500.70 No Guardian account mentioned that 400,000 Israelis demonstrated against the massacre which was probably Israel’s largest protest. Such references in The Guardian to the Phalangist massacre of Palestinians contradicted the findings of the official Kahan Report71 in 1983 and were at variance with several highly critical accounts of Israeli actions at the time including the much praised investigative journalism of Schiff and Ya’ari.72  In part, The Guardian reporters viewed the massacres through the prism of  Palestinian public relations after 1983 during the megaphone war, but it also indicated a lack of acquaintance with Israeli history. This was not a question of difficulties in ascertaining the truth about a current incident, but being knowledgeable about the conflict and conversant with the facts of an historical event.73

The Guardian greeted the Oslo Accords in 1993, but gave increasing space to specialists such as David Hirst74 and the American-Palestinian academic Edward Said who opposed them. Hirst saw Oslo as an instrument of delegitimisation and a means ‘to deprive the Palestinians of any sense of historic injustice’.75 Said was perhaps the most eloquent spokesman for the Palestinian cause in the liberal and left wing press in Europe. Like Hirst, the memory of 1948 and therefore the right of return was the fundamental demand which defined Said’s stand in the 1990s. As one of the first to propose recognition of Israel and a two state solution in his book A Question of Palestine in 1979, his position in the 1990s was different. In his Guardian articles, the two state solution was implied, but never formally stated, only the idea of coexistence between Israeli and Palestinian peoples on the land of historic Palestine. Palestinian self-determination was often mentioned, but not specifically national self-determination. Jewish national self-determination was never mentioned. During the Hasmonean tunnel crisis in September 1996, Said wrote in The Guardian that ‘the present crisis is a glimmering of the end of the two state solution whose unworkability Oslo perhaps unconsciously embodies…the challenge is to find a way to coexist not as warring Jews, Muslims and Christians, but as equal citizens in the same land.’ 76 In 1998, Said formally espoused a binational state since he believed that the two state solution could no longer be implemented. Just before the outbreak of the Al Aqsa Intifada, he suggested that the Jews should give up sovereignty ‘as a step toward a more generous idea of coexistence’ and accept their status as a minority in a binational state.77

Said’s model for the creation of a binational state is the struggle against apartheid and the emergence of a rainbow South Africa. In 1991, he had resigned from the PNC in protest against the policies of Arafat and the PLO leadership in attending the Madrid Conference – ‘an unseemly rush to discard principles and strategic goals with equal abandon’.78 The Palestinians had ‘ceased being a people determined on liberation; we had accepted the lesser goal of a small degree of independence’.79 As an academic and writer, Said was widely applauded by the liberal intelligentsia in Britain. Part of his appeal was his embrace of areas of universalism within the container of Palestinian nationalism. He presented as an alternative to Zionism ‘the idea of Palestine, a non-exclusivist, secular, democratic, tolerant and generally progressive ideology’80 In 1999, he wrote This substitution of a short-range nationalism for a longer social movement is one of the intended effects of Oslo, in effect, to depoliticise Palestinian society and set it squarely within the main current of American style globalisation, where the market is king, everything else is irrelevant or marginal. Just to have a Palestinian institute of folklore research or a Palestinian university or a Palestinian medical association is therefore not enough, any more than nationalism is enough. Franz Fanon was right when he said to Algerians in 1960 that just to substitute an Algerian policeman for a French one is not the goal of liberation: a change in consciousness is.’ 81

As a product of American academia, Said was also influenced by the political culture of the 1960s and the disdain for fellow travellers of the USSR. In the 1993 Reith Lectures, he viewed any support for Israel from the liberal intelligentsia in the West as ‘an abrogation of intellectual responsibility comparable to the connivance of the Old Left with Stalinist crimes’.82 This further reflected his view that Israelis and Jews were in a state of denial about the past and the present. Said’s literary prowess animated his political writings, but it also distanced him from the difficulties of realpolitik. In the 1980s, he commented that ‘Israel means less to me as a real place than as a force whose imponderable power and purpose  weaves disparity and contradictions into a figure in the carpet.’ 83  Said significantly has been criticised by leading Palestinians for not dealing with the reality on the ground .84 Although Said’s contributions were an example of good passionate writing, The Guardian readership was rarely exposed to any other type of Palestinian intellectual. Said’s fame and presumed liberalism dominated. The failure of Oslo thus became synonymous with the corruption of the Palestinian Authority. Opposition to Oslo and Arafat’s policies became synonymous with intellectual honesty – no compromise on the truth of 1948 and the accompanying right to return according to UN Resolution 194. In opposing a two state solution, Said logically therefore opposed ‘separation’85 and thereby bypassed any suggestion of ‘Land for Peace’ – and looked upon supporters of the Israeli peace movement – in particular academics and writers such as Amos Oz – with a particular disdain. Thus Said dismissed the Abu Mazen-Yossi Beilin agreement as the cornerstone of  a resolution of the conflict.86 In the context of a binational state, the right of return to Israel as well as to the Palestinian state was a logical outcome. In opposing the Hebron Agreement in January 1997, he informed Guardian readers For the Palestinians, peace with such a state is illusory, not least because Israel is still privileged according to a ‘western master-native, highlighting Jewish alienation and redemption’ which excludes the Palestinian experience of dispossession and exile.’87

Such views were echoed in an analysis by the Deputy Foreign Editor of The Guardian.88 It utilised the arguments and material of the Palestinian ‘Right to Return’ campaign and the research of Salman Abu Sitta to suggest that approximately four million Palestinian exiles could be absorbed within the existing boundaries of Israel. Lebanon refugees could mostly return to their homes in Galilee, making little impact on the Jewish community. Gaza refugees could return to almost empty land in the southern part of Israel. In turn, such views were dismissed not only by the mainstream peace camp as a metaphor for the destruction of Israel, but also by new historians such as Benny Morris.89 It did not reflect the views of Palestinian thinkers such as Ziad Abu Zayyad90 and Rashid Khalidi who understood the right of return as ‘a return to national soil’ (in the West Bank) rather than a return to their 1948 homes (in Israel) but more the absolutist views of Edward Said and Hisham Shirabi.91

In conclusion, The Guardian’s coverage of the Israel-Palestine conflict during the Al Aqsa Intifada certainly provided opinion from both Israelis and Palestinians – but only from Palestinian rejectionists of the two state solution and advocates of the absolutist interpretation of the right of return. Jewish criticism of the general reporting was interpreted as a matter of ‘denial’ and not another narrative. In addition to advocating justice for the Palestinian cause, the zeal of this reporting and the determination to stand up to the ‘Jewish lobby’ was also catalysed by a belief that Jews should be ‘rescued’ from their misconceptions. This coverage has served to emphasise that there is a  ideological gulf  between The Guardian’s general direction and its liberal Jewish readership based on an different analysis of both Jewish history and the Israel-Palestine conflict.

Edward Said’s advocacy first of a two state solution and then of a binational state is ironically symbolic of the historic confusion of the Left towards the Jews. The emancipation of the Jews after the French Revolution led to the conclusion that Jews had the freedom to assimilate, to be part of the revolutionary movement, to be part of a domestic nationalist movement, to participate in society, but only in the context of a mono-national state. The hopes unleashed by Mirabeau and Robespierre were diminished by the barriers of ethnic identification and religious labelling which were erected by nineteenth century Europe. Indeed, Theodor Herzl’s desire to assimilate was blocked by literary and other antisemites. There was also a philosophical basis on the Left for antisemitism as characterised by Marx’s Zur Judenfrage and the public and private commentary of luminaries such as Proudhon, Fourier and Bakunin. This, in turn, led to self-deprecation by many Jewish socialists who wished to obliterate their origins. Thus Lassalle comented wryly that ‘there are two classes of men I cannot bear: journalists and Jews – unfortunately I belong to both.’ To this was added Lenin’s condemnation of any form of Jewish nationalism and the Bolsheviks’ early advocacy of assimilationism as a means of solving the Jewish problem. This evolved into state antisemitism in the USSR under Stalin.

Although in Western Europe, there was considerable condemnation by the Left of the persecution of the Jews and respect for their disproportionate particpation in socialist and revolutionary movements, such developments led many Jews to believe in auto-emancipation rather than emancipation through the socio-political movements of the assimilated Left. Zionism evolved as a solution to the problems of Judaism and Jewish identity in Eastern Europe. It evolved in Western Europe as primarily an answer to antisemitism. In Britain, it was historically underdeveloped because of the lower levels of antisemitism, the reformist attitude within British society and the relative ease of assimilation and conversion compared to continental Europe. Jews thus neatly fitted in within the British Left as assimilationists or as invisible members of the Jewish community. The opposition to Zionism and any form of Jewish nationalism by the Soviet Union added to the confusion within the British Left who at the same time had to confront antisemitism in the context of the anti-fascist struggle. Even so, the idealism of a socialist Israel was understood and well received by the British Left in 1948. With the coming of age of the post-war generation, the rise of Palestinian nationalism and Israel’s apparent movement away from its founding ideals, there has been a return on the British Left to earlier more traditional attitudes.

The alliance between British Jews on the Left and the British Left in general during the 1930s and 1940s was thus the exception rather than the rule. The Guardian’s advocacy of Palestinian nationalism has been accompanied by a lack of in-depth knowledge about Israel, Zionism and Jewish history. The publication of a critical but rational editorial only took place after a visit by the editor to Israel and Gaza.92  – nearly eight months after the outbreak of the al Aqsa Intifada. The Guardian often reflected the historic inability of the Left to define and catagorise the Jews – even more so given the emergence of a multi-cultural society in Britain. It also struggled with its original inheritance as propagators of Zionism and as interlocutors of both the Shoah and the rise of the State of Israel for a liberal and left wing readership. Given the multiplicity and complexity of all these diverse historical influences, The Guardian honestly espoused the ideological confusion on the British Left and mirrored it faithfully.


  1. ‘Israel and the Palestinians – Are We getting the Story?’ Reporting the World Seminar, London, 21 March 2001
  2. The Guardian, editorial, 10 August 1982
  3. Pringle, J.M.D., Have Pen, Will Travel, London, 1973, p.36
  4. Hetherington, Alastair, Guardian Years, London, 1981, p.250
  5. The Guardian, 29 May 1967
  6. Hetherington, Alastair, Guardian Years, London, 1981, p.240
  7. Taylor, Geoffrey, Changing Faces; A History of The Guardian 1956-1988, London, 1993, p.112
  8. Taylor, Geoffrey, Changing Faces. Hetherington to Solly Sachs, 22 April 1971, p.169. E.S. ‘Solly’ Sachs was a Communist and Trade Union leader from South Africa who was active during the 1960s and 1970s in attacking Zionist ideology.
  9. The Guardian, 30 April 1998
  10. The Guardian, 17 November 2000
  11. Jonathan Freedland, The Guardian, 18 October 2000
  12. Alan Rusbridger, The Jewish Chronicle, 13 April 2001
  13. Taylor, Geoffrey, Changing Faces, p.80
  14. Ibid. p147
  15. Ibid. p313.
  16. Yochanan Peres The New Left and Israel New Outlook February 1970 vol. 13 no. 2 17. ibid. Peres
  17. The Guardian, 1 December 1947
  18. Foot, Michael, Aneurin Bevan 1945-1960, London 1975, p.653
  19. Genesis 15:18
  20. Smol Israeli Hadash – the Israeli New Left
  21. Resolutions of the 15th Congress of the World Union of Students, New Outlook, Vol. 17, no 7, September-October 1970
  22. Nathan Weinstock Red Mole 1-15 October 1970
  23. ‘Zionism – Religious Fascism’ in Socialist Leader, 10 October 1970
  24. Fawwaz Trabulsi New Left Review, no. 57, September-October 1969, pp53-92
  25. ibid. p2
  26. New Left Review, no 65 January-February pp.-26
  27. Ibid. p1
  28. The Struggle in the Middle East, International Socialism Pamphlet, 1967
  29. Prior to his departure to study in Britain, his views on Zionism were decidedly different. He argued that Jewish immigration did not influence all Arab fellahs equally, but that it did encourage the process of class division and development of capitalist relations in the village. It was not however the source of class differentiation which was the result of other causes. (Lamifneh 20 March 1936). Thirty years later, Cliff argued that Israel’s existence was never in danger during the 1967 war as Britain and America would have intervened militarily.
  30. Marcuse in debate with Rudi Dutschke, July 1967 in Imperialism and the Middle East Conflict: Progressive Views, no. 1
  31. New York Review of Books, 3 August 1967
  32. New Left Review, no. 65, January-February p25
  33. Black Dwarf, 14 June 1969
  34. Al -Tali’a, November 1969, p.100 quoted by Yehoshafat Harkabi in The Left against Zion: Communism, Israel and the Middle East, Wistrich, Robert S., ed., London 1979, p.241
  35. Black Dwarf, 26 November 1969
  36. Middle East for Revolutionary Socialism, no. 1, 1969
  37. Richard Crossman at a lecture given in Rechovot in April 1959, in A Nation Reborn : The Israel of Weizmann, Bevin and Ben-Gurion, London, 1960, p. 69
  38. Nicolson, Harold, Diaries and Letters 1939-1945, Nicolson, Nigel, ed., London, 1967, p.469)
  39. Tom Segev Ha’aretz, 23 February 2001
  40. Tom Paulin, The Observer, 18 February 2001
  41. Brian Sewell, The Evening Standard, 31 October 2000
  42. Interview with Edward Said, Ha’aretz, 18 August 2000
  43. Norman Finkelstein, The Guardian, 12 July 2000
  44. Matthew Norman, The Guardian, 14 March 2001
  45. Matthew Engel received 200 emails after referring to the attempt of the West Bank settlers as gaining lebensraum The Guardian, 28 November and 5 December 2001
  46. David Leigh, The Guardian, 22 February 2001. At a press conference in New York in January, Media Watch International was founded. It was started at the initiative of the Jerusalem Fund of Aish ha’Torah which has attracted many hitherto distant Jewish youth back to Judaism. Those in attendance were MKs Uzi Landau, Natan Sharansky, Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert, former New York Mayor Rudy Gulliani and President of the Presidents Conference, businessman and philanthropist Ronald S. Lauder
  47. Roy Greenslade, Media Guardian, 7 May 2001
  48. Faisal Bodi, The Guardian, 3 January 2001
  49. Faisal Bodi, Media Guardian, 21 May 2001
  50. Faisal Bodi, The Guardian, 24 October 2000
  51. The Guardian, 1 November 2000
  52. The Guardian, 14 May 1996
  53. The Sunday Telegraph, 12 November 2000
  54. The Guardian, Letters, 13 July 2000
  55. Simon Sebag-Montefiore, The Guardian, 28 March 2001
  56. The Guardian, 1 November 2000
  57. Brian Sewell, The Evening Standard, 31 October 2000
  58. Jerusalem Post, 9 March 2001
  59. The Spectator, 24 February 2001
  60. Shindler, Colin, Israel, Likud and the Zionist Dream: Power, Politics and Ideology from Begin to Netanyahu, London, 1995, pp. 232-234. See also Siklos, Richard, Conrad Black: Shades of Black and the World’s Fastest Growing Press Empire, London, 1995, pp 192-210
  61. The Guardian, 16 March 2001
  62. Ewan McGaskill, Reporting the World, seminar 21 March 2001
  63. Seumas Milne, The Guardian, 9 February 2001
  64. Ibid.
  65. Derek Brown, The Guardian, 5 January 2001
  66. The Guardian, First Edition (with Channel Four), 10 October 2000
  67. Victoria Brittain, The Guardian, 26 April 2000
  68. Brian Whitaker and Khaled Dawoud, The Guardian, 7 February 2001
  69. Derek Brown, The Guardian, 5 January 2001
  70. The recommendations of the Kahan Report found that Sharon bore ‘personal responsibility’ and should ‘draw the appropriate personal conclusions arising out of the defects revealed with regard to the manner in which he discharged the duties of his office’. Begin was reminded of his authority under Section 21-A (a) of the Basic Law in which he could remove a Minister from office. The official English translation was published in full by the Jerusalem Post; Jerusalem Post, 9 February 1983
  71. Schiff, Ze’ev, and Ya’ari, Ehud , Israel’s Lebanon War, London 1985
  72. Lack of familiarity with Middle East history reoccurred in the Guardian during the period of the Al Aqsa Intifada. The Temple Mount is ‘thought’ by Jews to be the site of the Second Temple – thereby leaving leeway for doubt – in spite of all archaeological evidence to the contrary. (The Guardian 10 October 2000). The Palestinians would have created a Palestinian State after World War I if the British had allowed them to do so – despite the fact that they considered themselves as part of Southern Syria until 1923 and strove to unite with their northern neighbour. (The Guardian 10 October 2000).
  73. Taylor, Geoffrey, Changing Faces. According to this history of The Guardian by a long time employee, Hirst is ‘an advocate of the Palestinian cause’ p.278
  74. The Guardian, 2 December 1994
  75. The Guardian, 29 September 1996
  76. Ari Shavit Interview with Edward W. Said, Ha’aretz, 18 August 2000
  77. Said, Edward W., The Politics of Dispossession: The Struggle for Palestinian Self-Determination 1969-1994, London, 1994, p. xxxii
  78. Ibid. p. xxiii
  79. Ibid. p. xix
  80. Said, Edward W., The End of the Peace Process; Oslo and After, London, 2000 pp. xviii- xix
  81. Malise Ruthven, The Guardian, 9 July 1994
  82. Said, Edward W., After the Last Sky: Palestinian Lives, London, 1986, p138
  83. Edward W. Said, Al-Hayat, 27 June 1996
  84. Edward W. Said, London Review of Books, vol. 21 no.1, 7 January 1999
  85. Edward W. Said, Al Ahram, 10-16 February 2000
  86. Edward W. Said, The Guardian, 15 February 1997
  87. Victoria Brittain, The Guardian, 26 April 2000
  88. Benny Morris, The Guardian, 16 January 2001
  89. Ziad abu Zayyad. Palestine-Israel Journal, no. 2, Spring 1994
  90. Hisham Shirabi, Al Ahram, 30 November – 6 December 2000
  91. The Guardian, 19 May 2001


Jews, Muslims and Mass Media ed. Tudor Parfitt and Yulia Egorova  (Routledge Curzon 2004)







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