But Where Are the Angels Now?
The Jewish Chronicle, 6 August 2004
Avi Shlaim takes issue with the view that the Guardian is no longer fair to Israel
The coverage of Israel in
the liberal British media is a highly controversial subject. The
Guardian is often singled out for its allegedly anti-Zionist, and even
anti-Semitic, bias. As a regular reader of the Guardian for the past 34
years, I would like to take issue with some of the things that Colin
Shindler wrote in his July 16 JC feature, “Has the Guardian
deserted the angels?”
The article focuses on, but does not review, Daphna Baram’s new book,
The Guardian and Israel” (Guardian Books, £17.99). Shindler
uses the book to launch a broadside against the Guardian’s
coverage of Israel.
His article strikes me as
unfair on two counts. First, it does not do justice to Baram’s
excellent book, hardly engaging with it at all. Second, it levels some
baseless charges against the country’s leading liberal paper.
The headline above
Shindler’s article implies that the Guardian used to be on the
side of the angels. The question raised is whether this attitude has
changed in recent years. My own view is that Israel itself has been
changing under the leadership of the most aggressively xenophobic and
right-wing government in its history, and the Guardian’s coverage
reflects this change.
At the same time, there
has been growing public sympathy for the suffering of the Palestinians
and this, too, is reflected in the Guardian’s coverage of the
Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Britain’s admirable tradition of
support for the underdog is no doubt also reflected in the
Guardian’s approach to the conflict. Indeed, in the Middle East,
as in other parts of the world, the paper is the guardian of the
Shindler claims that in
recent years, outside the paper’s regular contributors, the
“rejectionists” have outnumbered the proponents of the
two-state solution to the conflict on the paper’s comment pages.
This is simply not true. Not only the staff of the paper, but also the
great majority of outside contributors, support the two-state solution;
they are critical of Israeli policies that undermine the viability of
such a solution.
Disenchantment with the
hard-line policies of Ariel Sharon’s government does not
necessarily lead to the questioning of the country’s basic
legitimacy. One can fully accept Israel’s legitimacy within the
pre-1967 borders while opposing its colonial project beyond the Green
Line. That is my position, and that is probably the Guardian’s
collective position, if one can talk of a collective position in so
democratic and pluralistic a newspaper.
A second charge levelled
by Shindler against the Guardian is that, since 2000, it has
“played a major role in preaching a politics of
polarisation.” This, too, is unfair. The paper has not preached
polarisation; it found it on the ground.
In its editorials, the
Guardian has preached against violence and has continued to support
every major plan to end the conflict by peaceful means.
Nor has it laid the
responsibility for the current, dismal state of affairs exclusively at
Israel’s door. A good deal of criticism has been directed at the
Palestinian Authority for its failure to end the violence and combat
terror, and for its resistance to reform.
In recent issues, the
Guardian ran several reports that were highly critical of Yasir
Arafat’s corruption and cronyism. Its editorial of July 20 hailed
reform as the only way forward for Palestine.
The most perceptive point
in Shindler’s article concerns the current attitudes and
anxieties of British Jews. He notes that the unease that many of them
feel is not about growing 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.”
It is undoubtedly true
that criticism of the state of Israel can sometimes spill into
anti-Semitism or be used as a cover to attack Jews. The question is:
has the Guardian succumbed to this temptation?
Daphna Baram has explored
this question in a scholarly, dispassionate, and strikingly fair-minded
manner. She herself is an Israeli journalist with extensive experience
as a feature writer and news editor. Her book traces the evolution of
the Guardian’s attitude to the Zionist movement and to the state
of Israel from the late 19th century to the present. What emerges from
her book is a strong tradition of philo-Semitism that translated into
consistent support for Israel until it became an occupying power in
In the last chapter,
Baram addresses the question of whether the Guardian has become an
anti-Semitic paper, as its more extreme critics claim. Her answer to
this question could not be more categorical: it is not.
The question of whether
the Guardian has become anti-Zionist is more interesting but also more
difficult to answer, not least because of the diversity of opinion
within the portals of the paper.
is that the paper is basically pro-Zionist and that this is reflected
in its consistent adherence to the Zionist-Left — from Chaim
Weizmann to Yossi Beilin.
By the same token, the
paper has been highly critical of the hard-liners in general and of
Ariel Sharon in particular. This, in Baram’s opinion, does not
amount to anti-Zionism.
What struck Baram most in
the course of her research is the inordinate time and effort devoted by
the staff of the Guardian to ensure accuracy, balanced reporting, and
fairness to Israel. Given that this is only one issue out of a wide
range of domestic and international issues which the paper has to cover
on a daily basis, this level of thoroughness and responsibility is all
the more impressive.
No less impressive are
the paper’s openness and responsiveness to its readers, above all
its Jewish readers. As I wrote in my Foreword to “Disenchantment:
The Guardian and Israel,” this is a remarkable book about a
remarkable newspaper. I recommend it very warmly to all readers of the