Guardian runs pieces criticizing left-wing anti-Semitism but fails to note its own role

March 20, 2016

Bertolt Brecht, who warned against complacency after Hitler’s death, is quoted today in The Guardian’s sister paper The Observer: “Do not rejoice in his defeat, you men. For though the world has stood up and stopped the bastard, the bitch that bore him is in heat again.”


Earlier this month, British Labour MP Lucianna Berger (a friend of mine and a founding subscriber to this email list) revealed some of the anti-Semitic abuse she has received on twitter, much of it from Labour members and supporters. Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn has spoken up in her defense, but has failed to condemn other instances of anti-Semitism.


[Notes below by Tom Gross]

This weekend The Guardian and its Sunday sister paper The Observer (which shares a website, offices and some staff with The Guardian) carry two pieces about anti-Semitism on the British left.

Yesterday leading Guardian columnist Jonathan Freedland wrote a piece titled:

Labour and the left have an anti-Semitism problem

Today Observer columnist Nick Cohen wrote a piece titled:

Why I’m becoming a Jew and why you should, too

Both pieces are attached below. They are being much discussed on social media, and were discussed this morning on the BBC’s main morning news show.

For readers of these Middle East dispatches who don’t know, The Guardian is the most influential left-wing paper in Britain and is also the paper of choice for many staff at BBC news, the world’s biggest and possibly most influential news broadcaster.

Many of the online comments by Guardian readers under both these articles are so anti-Semitic that they have been removed by The Guardian administrator.

What is disappointing about both these articles (and I have raised this in person with the authors in the past and with the editor of The Guardian) is their failure to discuss whether the British media, in particular the false reporting and slurs about Israel in the very newspapers in which they write, have helped to fuel this anti-Semitism.



As I noted in this article of mine in 2011:

“The Guardian has a decades’ long policy of greatly exaggerating any wrongdoing by Israel while ignoring, downplaying or even romanticizing attacks on her.

While The Guardian has run highly provocative and unfair headlines such as “Netanyahu turns to Nazi language,” (July 10, 2009) or “Israel simply has no right to exist” (Jan. 3, 2001) and while its writers have used very insulting terms such as “proto-fascist” (Feb. 12, 2009) to describe the Israeli cabinet, the paper takes a very different approach to those who have murdered Israelis.

It ran a front page article, for instance, describing Yasser Arafat (known to many as the “father of international airline terrorism”) as “cuddly” and “erotic,” adding that “the stubble on his cheeks was silky not prickly. It smelt of Johnson’s Baby Powder” (Nov. 12, 2004).

Hamas master terrorist Nizar Rayan, who directed suicide bombers (including his own son) to murder and injure dozens of Israeli civilians, and who described Jews as a “cursed people” whom Allah changed into “apes and pigs,” was portrayed in The Guardian as someone who was “highly regarded” and “considered a hero” (Jan. 3, 2009).

The paper’s deputy editor [and now editor in chief] Katharine Viner, wrote in The Guardian about Palestinian terrorist Leila Khaled, who hijacked and then blew up TWA Flight 840:

“The gun held in fragile hands, the shiny hair wrapped in a keffiah, the delicate Audrey Hepburn face refusing to meet your eye.”

I don’t think the families of Khaled’s many victims would have compared her to Audrey Hepburn.

It is no good publishing blatantly untrue headlines replete with historic anti-Semitic motifs (such as “Israel admits harvesting Palestinian organs”) even when the paper later changed the headline online, citing “a serious editing error.” (“Corrections and Clarifications,” The Guardian, Dec. 22, 2009.)”



As for The Observer, it has, among other things, published as its “Poem of the Week,” a poem by Oxford academic Tom Paulin talking of the “Zionist SS”, as I noted in this essay which described an occasion on which I showed the previous editor of The Guardian, Alan Rusbridger, and his then features editor, Ian Katz, round Jerusalem and Palestinian-controlled Bethlehem.

(Katz is now editor of the BBC’s influential Newsnight program, and Rusbridger, who retired as editor of The Guardian last year, is now head of an Oxford college. His successor Katherine Viner is author of the controversial play My Name is Rachel Corrie, which I discussed in The Forgotten Rachels.)


(As I have mentioned before when carrying pieces by Nick Cohen on this list, for example, here in 2005, Nick is not Jewish although his paternal grandfather was: Poem praising killing of Jews included in new UK national children’s poetry book.)



Last week, The New York Times carried the following letter citing something my father John Gross had written, which may be of relevance to Cohen’s article:

To the Editor:

Whether conversion was a matter of survival, as it was for so many Jews in 14th- and 15th-century Spain; or a bid for economic and social mobility, as was the case for

David Ricardo, Benjamin Disraeli, Felix Mendelssohn and Gustav Mahler, to name just a few; or motivated by real belief, as it was for Jean-Marie (born Aaron) Lustiger, Archbishop of Paris from 1981 to 2005, who proudly described himself as a Jew, these converts were, in the end, viewed as suspect by many of their adopted faith.

John Gross, a former editor of The Times Literary Supplement and book critic for The New York Times, understood the predicament: “To be Jewish is to belong to a club from which no one is allowed to resign.”

Ira Sohn
New York



The Israeli Foreign Ministry has asked Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to condemn his party’s director of digital communications, Irem Atkas, after she posted a tweet yesterday following the suicide bomb attack on tourists on a culinary trip to Istanbul, wishing for the death of the wounded Israeli tourists.

Three Israelis were killed in the blast and a dozen injured. Some of the injured are fighting for their lives.

“I hope all the wounded Israelis in the attack will die,” she wrote.

36 people were wounded, most of them tourists from Israel, Ireland, Germany, Iceland, and Iran.

Turkey is a member of NATO and, following yesterday’s agreement over refugees and migrants with the European Union, has just taken a step closer to joining the EU.

-- Tom Gross


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Why I’m becoming a Jew and why you should, too
By Nick Cohen
We will learn the essential lesson that antisemitism is not about Jews, but power
The Observer
March 20, 2016

It took me 40 years to become a Jew. When I was a child, I wasn’t a Jew and not only because I never went to a synagogue. My father’s family had abandoned their religion so he wasn’t Jewish. More to the point, my mother and my grandmother weren’t Jewish either, so according to orthodox Judaism’s principles of matrilineal descent, it was impossible for me to be a Jew.

All I had was the “Cohen” name. I once asked my parents why they had not changed it. After saying, quite rightly, that you should never seek to appease racists, they confessed to thinking that antisemitism was over by the 1960s. After Hitler, humanity would surely see where the world’s most insane hatred led and resolve to put it to one side.

Bertolt Brecht said: “Do not rejoice in his defeat, you men. For though the world has stood up and stopped the bastard, the bitch that bore him is in heat again.”

My parents did not believe Brecht, at least not in the 1960s. Nor did I for a while. I was and remain an atheist who knows that communalist and identity politics crush individuality. I had no wish to join a tribe, let alone a religious one.

Still there was no escaping the “Cohen”. When I first responded to the antisemitism that has spread so far from the extreme left into the mainstream that it now threatens to poison the Labour party, I am ashamed to say I considered two disgraceful replies.

I might, I thought, not stop at opposing the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, and pledging support to leftwing Israelis and Palestinians who wanted a just and peaceful settlement for both peoples, but go on to behave like a grotesque from a Howard Jacobson satire. I would reassure fanatics that their “anti-Zionism” (that is, their call for the total destruction of the world’s only Jewish state) was not remotely racist.

Fortunately for my self-respect, I never sank that low. Whenever I hear Jews announce their hatred of Israel’s very existence, I suspect that underneath their loud bombast lies a quiet plea to the Islamists and neo-Nazis who might harm them: “I’m not like the others. Don’t pick on me.”

Unfortunately, I assured anyone who asked (and some who did not) that, despite appearances to the contrary, I wasn’t Jewish. And that was as dishonourable. I sounded like a black man trying to pass as white or a German arguing with the Gestapo that there was a mistake in the paperwork.

I stopped and accepted that racism changes your perception of the world and yourself. You become what your enemies say you are. And unless I wanted to shame myself, I had to become a Jew. A rather odd Jew, no doubt: a militant atheist who had to phone a friend to ask what on earth “mazel tov” meant. But a Jew nonetheless.

As one of the finest liberal ambitions is to find the sympathy to imagine the lives of others, you should become a Jew too. Declare that you have converted to Judaism or rediscovered your Jewish “heritage” and see the reaction. It’s not just that, if you are middle class and fortunate, you might experience racism for the first time, which in itself would be a “learning experience” worth having. You might also learn the essential lesson that antisemitism is not about Jews. Like rape, it’s about power.

Whether the antisemitic conspiracy theory is deployed by German Nazis or Arab dictators, French anti-Dreyfusards or Saudi clerics, the argument is always the same. Democracy, an independent judiciary, equal human rights, freedom of speech and publication – all these “supposed” freedoms – are nothing but swindles that hide the machinations of the secret Jewish rulers of the world.

Describe the fantasy the Tsarist and Nazi empires developed that bluntly and it is impossible to understand how the Labour party is in danger of becoming as tainted as Ukip by the racists it attracts.

But consider how many leftwing activists, institutions or academics would agree with a politer version.

Western governments are the main source of the ills of the world. The “Israel lobby” controls western foreign policy. Israel itself is the “root cause” of all the terrors of the Middle East, from the Iraq war to Islamic State. Polite racism turns the Jews, once again, into demons with the supernatural power to manipulate and destroy nations. Or as the Swedish foreign minister, Margot Wallström, who sees herself as a feminist rather than a racial conspiracist, explained recently, Islamist attacks in Paris were the fault of Israeli occupiers in the West Bank.

Or consider the otherwise bizarre indulgence of ultra-right religious extremists by people who otherwise describe themselves as liberals and leftists. The belief that Jews fuel radical Islam allows them to overlook superstition and the tyrannical denial of equal rights. They’re against Israel and that’s all that matters.

I could describe at vitriolic length how disgusted leftwing Jewish friends are that Labour members chose Jeremy Corbyn, despite his support for an Anglican cleric who linked to extremist sites that blamed Jews for 9/11, and his defence of an Islamist who recycled the libel that Jews dined on the blood of Christian children from the bottom of a medieval dung heap.

But even if a chastened Labour expels this or that antisemite or disciplines the Jew-baiters at the Oxford University Labour club, I do not see how its leaders can challenge the conspiratorial world-view they shared for decades. They would be renouncing everything they once believed in.

As someone who warned in the 00s about the growing darkness on the left, I am pessimistic about the chances of change. If you keep shouting “fire” and the fire brigade never comes, you tend to assume the house will burn to the ground. But perhaps familiarity breeds contempt and I am not the best judge.

If Labour MPs and members want the party to break with a past that has led to leftists allying with religious reactionaries who deny universal human rights and hate every value the centre-left professes to hold, they will have to learn to treat all racisms equally.

They will need to make a brief acquaintance with European history and understand that the left has no guaranteed immunity from fascistic ideology. They will have to see antisemitism for what it is and understand why it always leads to despotism and despair. Like me, in short, and if only briefly, they will have to become Jews themselves.



Labour and the left have an antisemitism problem
Under Jeremy Corbyn the party has attracted many activists with views hostile to Jews. Its leaders must see why this matters
By Jonathan Freedland
The Guardian
Saturday 19 March 2016

As the Conservative party divides its time between running the country and tearing itself apart over Europe, Labour has been consumed with a rather different problem. In the past two weeks, it has had to expel two activists for overt racism. That follows the creation of an inquiry into the Labour club at Oxford University, after the co-chair resigned saying the club was riddled with racism. The racism in question is hatred of Jews.

I suspect many in Labour and on the wider left dearly wish three things to be true of this problem. That these are just a few bad apples in an otherwise pristine barrel; that these incidents aren’t actually about racism at all but concern only opposition to Israel; and that none of this reflects negatively on Jeremy Corbyn.

Start with the bad apples. The cases of Gerry Downing and Vicki Kirby certainly look pretty rotten. The former said it was time to wrestle with the “Jewish Question”, the latter hailed Hitler as a “Zionist God” and tweeted a line about Jews having “big noses”, complete with a “lol”.

It’d be so much easier if these were just two rogue cases. But when Alex Chalmers quit his post at Oxford’s Labour club, he said he’d concluded that many had “some kind of problem with Jews”. He cited the case of one club member who organised a group to shout “filthy Zionist” at a Jewish student whenever they saw her. Former Labour MP Tom Harris wrote this week that the party “does indeed have a problem with Jews”. And there is, of course, the word of Jews themselves. They have been warning of this phenomenon for years, lamenting that parts of the left were succumbing to views of Jews drenched in prejudice.

But this is the brick wall Jews keep running into: the belief that what Jews are complaining about is not antisemitism at all, but criticism of Israel. Jews hear this often. They’re told the problem arises from their own unpleasant habit of identifying any and all criticism of Israel as anti-Jewish racism. Some go further, alleging that Jews’ real purpose in raising the subject of antisemitism is to stifle criticism of Israel.

You can see the appeal of such an argument to those who use it. It means all accusations of antisemitism can be dismissed as mere Israel-boosting propaganda. But Downing and Kirby make that harder. Their explicit targets were Jews.

What of those who attack not Jews, but only Zionists? Defined narrowly, that can of course be legitimate. If one wants to criticise the historical movement that sought to re-establish Jewish self-determination in Palestine, Zionism is the right word.

But Zionism, as commonly used in angry left rhetoric, is rarely that historically precise. It has blended with another meaning, used as a codeword that bridges from Israel to the wider Jewish world, hinting at the age-old, antisemitic notion of a shadowy, global power, operating behind the scenes. For clarity’s sake, if you want to attack the Israeli government, the 50-year occupation or hawkish ultra-nationalism, then use those terms: they carry much less baggage.

To state the obvious, criticism of Israel and Zionism is not necessarily anti-Jewish: that’s why there are so many Jewish critics of Israel, inside and outside the country. But it doesn’t take a professor of logic to know that just because x is not always y, it does not follow that x can never be y. Of course opposition to Israel is not always antisemitic. But that does not mean that it is never and can never be antisemitic. As Downing and Kirby have helpfully illustrated.

I hope that, as a result, many on the left will pause next time Jews raise the alarm about antisemitism. I hope they’ll remember that, while most anti-Israel activists are acting in good faith, some are motivated more darkly, while others carelessly express their opposition to Israel in language or imagery that has a melancholy history.

There’s a deeper reason to pause. Many good people on the left want to make things neat and simple by saying that Israel and Zionism have nothing to do with Jews or Judaism. That they can deplore the former even while they protect and show solidarity with the latter. But it’s not quite as easy as that.

While many Jews – especially in conversations with each other – condemn Israeli government policy going back many years, they do identify strongly with Israel and its people. A recent survey found that 93% of British Jews said Israel formed some part of their identity. Through ties of family or history, they are bound up with it. When Jews pray they face east – towards Jerusalem. And they have done that for 2,000 years.

It’s inconvenient, I know, but that needs to be remembered by those who insist that there’s no connection between Israel and Jews, that it’s perfectly possible to loathe everything about Israel – the world’s only Jewish country – without showing any hostility to Jews.

Jews themselves usually don’t see it, or experience it, that way. That doesn’t mean no one should ever criticise Israel, for fear of treading on Jewish sensitivities. Of course it doesn’t. But it does mean that many Jews worry when they see a part of the left whose hatred of Israel is so intense, unmatched by the animus directed at any other state.

They wonder why the same degree of passion – the same willingness to take to the streets, to tweet night and day – is not stirred by, say, Russia, whose bombing of Syria killed at least 1,700 civilians; or the Assad regime itself, which has taken hundreds of thousands of Arab lives. They ask themselves, what exactly is it about the world’s only Jewish country that convinces its loudest opponents it represents a malignancy greater than any other on the planet?

Which brings us to Jeremy Corbyn. No one accuses him of being an antisemite. But many Jews do worry that his past instinct, when faced with potential allies whom he deemed sound on Palestine, was to overlook whatever nastiness they might have uttered about Jews, even when that extended to Holocaust denial or the blood libel – the medieval calumny that Jews baked bread using the blood of gentile children. (To be specific: Corbyn was a long-time backer of a pro-Palestinian group founded by Paul Eisen, attending its 2013 event even after Eisen had outed himself as a Holocaust denier years earlier. Similarly, Corbyn praised Islamist leader Sheikh Raed Salah even though, as a British court confirmed, Salah had deployed the blood libel.)

Thanks to Corbyn, the Labour party is expanding, attracting many leftists who would previously have rejected it or been rejected by it. Among those are people with hostile views of Jews. Two of them have been kicked out, but only after they had first been readmitted and once their cases attracted unwelcome external scrutiny.

The question for Labour now is whether any of this matters. To those at the top, maybe it doesn’t. But it feels like a painful loss to a small community that once looked to Labour as its natural home – and which is fast reaching the glum conclusion that Labour has become a cold house for Jews.

All notes and summaries copyright © Tom Gross. All rights reserved.