Language wars

October 29, 2014
Richard Kuper
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har homa

Har homa, built in the 1990s in occupied East Jerusalem

The readers’ editor on… the Guardian’s coverage of Israel/Palestine issues

The use and awareness of language the Guardian deploys when reporting on the Israel/Palestine conflict attracts regular criticism

Chris Elliott, Guardian, 27 October 2014

see also Jonathan Cook, Language that disappears the Palestinians, below.


Chris Elliot, writes:

When we received a complaint from the Israeli embassy on 16 October about the Guardian’s coverage of Israel/Palestine issues, it was the 17th this year and the third in three days. There have also been two allegations of antisemitism in the past fortnight – but only one had a direct connection with Israel/Palestine issues. The other did not and it is important to make the distinction between criticism of Israeli policies and antisemitism. There are many pitfalls for the unwary writing about the Israel/Palestine conflict.

The latest complaint from the embassy, submitted by Yiftah Curiel, press attache, was about what he sees as the disproportionate amount of coverage the Guardian gives to Israel/Palestine issues and Gaza in particular – something of a theme among the Guardian’s critics in this area. He cited several examples of the use of images from Palestine in the daily Guardian Eyewitness middle page spread: on 21 October a child in Gaza, on 18 October a photo of a West Bank protest and on 12 October another Gaza photo.

He queried why something described as “a world of photography online” should concentrate on one part of that world? He also highlighted a double spread on Gaza on 1 October, and the day before another double spread (this time in G2).

He said that the Gaza content, even in terms of square inches of print, far outweighs the space allotted to other no less important events in the Middle East.

I think there are two reasons why the Guardian has a focus of interest on Israel and Palestine: one is historical and the other pragmatic. As I have written before, the Guardian has had an interest in the future of Israel and Palestine for more than 100 years, dating back to the editorship of CP Scott, whose support for Zionism earned him a letter of thanks from Chaim Weizmann, the first president of Israel, thanking Scott for his help in achieving the Balfour declaration.

The second reason reflects the tough reality that there are more photographs coming out of the destruction wrought in Gaza than there from other parts of the world where conflict is taking the lives of men, women and children. Gaining access to Syria, Islamic State and Ukraine is far more difficult – and there are fewer photographs from which to choose, according to picture editors.

While I recognise that it is the role of the press attache to present the views of the embassy to the media and thus represent the Israeli government, I asked Curiel whether such an unprecedented number of complaints was part of a campaign.

He strongly denied this and said that it was “simply an evaluation and response” to the Guardian: “The media discourse on the Israeli/Palestinian issue in recent years has become polarised to an extent that often precludes any possibility for real dialogue. I believe that the media has a clear professional choice to make here: to engage and promote understanding by reflecting the challenges both sides face, or to remain on the (sterile) moral high ground, expressing disdain at the imperfect reality that is the Middle East.”

An essay based on a book extract by Shlomo Sand, an Israeli academic, was the cause of one of the other two complaints, this time from the pressure group CiF Watch, which has made 38 complaints to the Guardian this year. Sand argued that he wanted to “resign” as a Jew. He wrote: “I am often even ashamed of Israel, particularly when I witness evidence of its cruel military colonisation, with its weak and defenceless victims who are not part of the ‘chosen people’.”

The use of the phrase “chosen people” in a pejorative way has occurred in the Guardian before, and three years ago I wrote: “‘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.”

I have not changed my view. In this case its use was part of a book extract and therefore not capable of amendment, but I think we should have given more thought to the offence it might have caused before running it. Sand was unapologetic when an editor put the complaint to him: “I don’t think I should apologise. I put the term in quotation because it is not my own.

“This concept served during hundred of years as a means by which my ancestors continued to stick to their beliefs in face of the more powerful Christian beliefs that oppressed them. It was important to the existence of this minority in the face of the persecution.

“In modern times, many secular nationalists, descendants like me of this religion, continue to believe that they belong to a ‘chosen people’. If the reader doesn’t believe me I invite him to come to visit us in Israel.

“I am sorry, but far too many people in Israel believe and behave as if they have indeed been ‘chosen’.”

The final complaint was about antisemitism, not Israel, from a Guardian reader of 30 years’ standing, who was annoyed – rightly in my opinion – about this headline published on 21 October: “Nigel Farage deal with Polish far-right party ‘raises serious questions’, say Jews”. The story itself made clear that it was the Board of Deputies of British Jews that voiced concern over a deal struck by Ukip with a far-right Polish party whose leader has a history of Holocaust denial and racist and misogynistic comments, but the headline did not.

The reader wrote: “It’s not bad enough that Ukip is being reported on so assiduously and cravenly, that you give so much air time to these blow-hards, but that you allow ‘Jews’ to be bandied about in this way, in this tabloid headline fashion, and it is just reminiscent of antisemitic propaganda of the past. ‘Jews’ – which Jews? I’m of Jewish background, and I can tell you that the the Board of Deputies of British Jews no more speaks for me than you do. It’s the laziest shorthand that lumps people together, and is frankly insulting in its clumsiness. There seems to be a licence at work here… you would not employ a headline that states ‘say Muslims/blacks/lesbians…’ etc.”

I agree, and we changed the headline. When looking at these three complaints I think the important message is that if the Guardian is to continue its strong focus on Israel and Palestine, which it is entirely at liberty to do, we have to put a similar effort into the use and awareness of language that we use to discuss the issues on both sides.

Language that disappears the Palestinians

Jonathan Cook, 28 October 2014

The Guardian has about the best coverage to be found in the mainstream media of the Israel-Palestine conflict – which tells you quite how bad everyone else is.

Today the paper’s readers’ editor, Chris Elliott, ponders complaints about its coverage. Not surprisingly, many of them are from the Israeli embassy, which says it is concerned about the Guardian’s disproportionate interest in Israel-Palestine, implying that this is evidence of anti-semitism.

Actually it is quite the opposite. It is evidence of the Guardian’s historic and current support for the state of Israel, though not the occupation. Elliott alludes to this obliquely as he points out that the paper’s most famous editor, C P Scott, was instrumental in getting the British government to issue the Balfour Declaration. The Guardian’s pride in having helped to create a Jewish state is still palpable at the paper (as I know from my years there), especially among senior Jewish editors who influence much of the conflict’s coverage – yes, that is a reference to Jonathan Freedland, among others.

The Israeli embassy, of course, is trying to browbeat the Guardian to bring it into line with the dire coverage of the rest of the media.

The lesson the readers’ editor draws is:

When looking at these three complaints I think the important message is that if the Guardian is to continue its strong focus on Israel and Palestine, which it is entirely at liberty to do, we have to put a similar effort into the use and awareness of language that we use to discuss the issues on both sides.

And yet, as usual, the article only considers the problematic use of language regarding the Israeli side of the conflict. The reality is that the Guardian, like most western media, is really only interested in the Israel-Palestine conflict because of the Jews, not the Palestinians. There are many reasons for this:

  • historic European guilt about the Holocaust;
  • the central place of the Jews in Biblical stories most westerners were raised on in the still-Christian west;
  • the sense that the Jews are more like us than the “Arabs” – that they are, as Theodor Herzl, the father of Zionism, put it, “a rampart of Europe against Asia, an outpost of civilization as opposed to barbarism”;
  • the fact (mostly unmentionable) that Jews are strongly represented on the staff of western media often in senior positions, but rarely are there any Muslims or Arabs, and that many Jewish staff naturally identify with the plight of relatives in Israel;
  • the continuing appointment to Jerusalem bureaux of partisan Jewish reporters who speak Hebrew but not Arabic; live in west Jerusalem, not East Jerusalem; whose younger children go to Jewish schools, not Arab schools; and whose older children serve in the army.

All of this is so normalised among the western media that the New York Times barely seems concerned that at least three of its senior writers on the conflict have had children serving in the Israeli army: Ethan Bronner, David Brooks and now, we discover, Isabel Kershner. We will know that we have an even-handed media only when we can conceive of a paper recruiting not only a Palestinian reporter (in itself almost impossible, it seems) but a Palestinian reporter with a child who openly supports Hamas (let’s not even try to imagine the possibility of their being allowed to have a child who fights in the resistance!).

As the Guardian’s Elliott inadvertently indicates, sensitivity about language is central to the concerns of papers like the Guardian when it comes to the Jewish side, but not so much when it comes to the Palestinians.

Today Moshe Machover, a London University philosophy professor, sent a letter to the readers’ editor that I reproduce below concerning a recent Guardian article. The Guardian’s report contains the usual insensitivities of language towards the Palestinians, so common-place that they are never noted or questioned. But this is about more than insensitivity. It is about the constant misuse of language in ways that work to Israel’s benefit by shaping how western publics understand the conflict. In fact, it is precisely such language that has enabled Israel to incrementally disappear the Palestinians.

 Dear Readers’ Editor,

In yesterday’s Guardian there was a report by your Jerusalem correspondent Peter Beaumont about what is in fact Israel’s continued illegal colonization of east Jerusalem.

It began:

“The Israeli government is to advance construction plans for 1,000 housing units to be built in parts of Jerusalem that Palestinians demand for their future state.”

The wording “the Palestinians demand” suggest that these parts of Jerusalem do not belong to the Palestinians but to someone else. This false impression is reinforced by what follows:

“The move, revealed by the prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, is the first in what is expected to be a series of announcements this week on new settlement construction work in East Jerusalem and on the occupied West Bank.”

Surely, “work in East Jerusalem and on the occupied West Bank” is wrong as it falsely suggests that East Jerusalem is not occupied but belongs to Israel; it should have been “work in occupied East Jerusalem and West Bank.” I am sure you will wish to correct this misleading wording in your next column.


Moshé Machover

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