But Where Are the Angels Now?

Avi Shlaim

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,
“Disenchantment: 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 underdog.

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 1967.

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.

Baram’s conclusion 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 Jewish Chronicle.