The Guardian of Zionism: The “Liberal” Press and its Missing Contexts

In Britain, the recent publication of Glasgow University Media Group’s book ‘Bad News from Israel’ has again highlighted the depth of ignorance around the Israel-Palestine conflict and the media’s inadequacies in providing vital historical and legal context within its news coverage.

The study found that “TV news says almost nothing about the history or origins of the conflict” and that “the gaps in [the viewers’] knowledge closely paralleled the ‘gaps’ in the news.”

But looking beyond the realm of TV news to media coverage of the conflict as a whole, there is another, arguably more important context that is missing - the ideological context.

It is perhaps of no surprise that the likes of News International’s Times, or the Daily Telegraph with its explicit pro-Israel editorial policy, would be unwilling to address the ideological issues that lie at the heart of the conflict, but what some might find surprising is that this ideological void also exists within the supposedly liberal/centre-left press such as the Guardian and Independent.

The Guardian’s editorial position in particular has come under the spotlight recently with remarks from its comments editor in the UK’s Jewish press, and the publication of a fascinating book by Israeli journalist Daphna Baram entitled ‘Disenchantment: The Guardian and Israel’.

Refuting desperate allegations of anti-Israel bias in the Jewish Chronicle, Guardian comments editor Seumas Milne emphasised that “all staff columnists who write on the Israel-Palestine conflict support the two-state solution”. Presumably - and neither the Guardian comments editor or Middle East editor has been prepared to deny this - these columnists would necessarily oppose the Palestinians’ right to return to their homeland as enshrined in international human rights law. One has to ask, is it really credible for a newspaper that claims to represent the liberal/centre-left not to have even one staff columnist who endorses the universality of Article 13 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights?

Milne went on to reassure Zionist critics that no opinion that was explicitly “rejectionist” of the notion of an exclusivist Jewish state had been printed since January 2001 - an article by journalist Faisal Bodi entitled ‘Israel simply has no right to exist’. Guardian editor, Alan Rusbridger, has said of this article, “I do not think that this is a point of view which should be excluded from the pages of the Guardian. But it is a marginal view, and naturally there is no need to air it often. There is such a view on the left - and of course, the Arab and Muslim world - that Israel shouldn’t exist in its current form. It also had a perfectly respectable history within the British Jewish community.”

Indeed, the existence of a Jewish state as it is currently manifested in Palestine is opposed by many groups for many reasons. Some ultra-orthodox Jews reject the notion of a political State of Israel through arms as blasphemous. Others claim that even Israel’s claimed biblical mandate based on the existence of an “ancient Israel” is ill-founded (see John Rose’s remarkable and ground-breaking book ‘The Myths of Zionism’). Others simply because any state that has to exclude the indigenous population in order to define itself has a future of perpetual conflict.

But despite this view being held by many Jews, Muslims (1.6 million live in the UK), liberals and leftists, and being the only scenario that is in line with both international and human rights law, this “marginal” view is virtually never expressed in the British media - not even the “liberal” Guardian which claims to give a voice to the voiceless.

Baram’s ‘Disenchantment’ traces the historical connections between the newspaper and Zionism, pointing out that it was the newspaper’s celebrated editor CP Scott who introduced Chaim Weizmann to Lord Balfour in 1914 and was instrumental in negotiations with the British government that led to the Balfour Declaration and Britain’s commitment to a Jewish “national home” in Palestine.

It is difficult to overestimate Scott’s contribution to the Zionist movement - as Baram laments, “there is not a single street in Israel named after him.”

Baram correctly states that “after the 1967 war it seemed consensual that almost any questioning of Israel’s existence as a Jewish state was illegitimate. Israel’s insistence that any discussion of the right of return for the Palestinian refugees was a threat to the state’s existence had prevented such a discussion in the international media for many years to come.”

Indeed that is still largely the case, but what she does not mention is who exactly formed this consensus of opinion and on what basis was the notion of the Jewish state’s legitimacy formed, and within what borders?

The only legal grounding that the Jewish state has is General Assembly resolution 181 (based on the Partition Plan) which was passed in breach of the UN’s own Charter, which clearly sets out to sanctify universal human rights and oppose racial discrimination.

Israel exists way beyond the remit (both legally and territorially) offered to it by 181. After all, the ‘Green Line’ of 1949 is only an armistice line after the nascent Jewish state expanded massively through arms. The only liberal solution to the conflict remains in the form of a single democratic state which would protect the human, civil, political and religious rights of all its citizens - allowing Palestinian refugees their right to return to their homeland and allowing Jews to reside and worship from the sea to the river.

Yet this solution is given no time in the Guardian and is often self-servingly characterised by Zionists and its supporters as “rejectionist” or “the destruction of the state of Israel”. In fact, if one views Israel as a democratic state before a Jewish one, then the single-state scenario could accurately be described as the expansion of Israel, whereas the two-state position is “rejectionist” of international humanitarian law.

Baram makes reference to the newspapers’ mission statements such as “promoting public debate” and giving voice to “those who are often excluded or marginalised in public debate”, but when applied to their coverage of the Middle East conflict, these well intentioned statements ring a little hollow. Instead of promoting debate and giving a voice to the voiceless, it has closed down debate about the root cause of the conflict and promotes an apartheid two-state agenda at the cost of the most voiceless and marginalised group, the Palestinian refugees. Far from “promoting debate”, the Guardian has resorted to that most illiberal of media practices - censorship.

It is precisely the untenable and self-contradictory nature of its liberal/pro-Zionist editorial policy that dictates that the paper keep any debate around Zionism off its pages. But this ideological blind-spot also renders the paper incapable of asking any of the big questions about the Jewish state’s future, and consequently the Palestinians’. How is Israel to maintain its Jewish majority with its 20% and growing Arab population? How will the Jewish state ever achieve its raison d’etre of providing security for Jews? Can Israel ever exist within international law? It even results in woefully inadequate news coverage of Israel’s racist land laws.

It is the preposterous editorial paradigm of not questioning the assumption of “Israel’s right to exist” - without ever defining what that “Israel” or “right” is - that renders the mainstream media’s analysis of the conflict disingenuous, and ultimately only helps prolong what it so often terms the “intractable conflict”. Where would we be today if the media had unilaterally decided not to question apartheid South Africa’s “right to exist”?

The central tenet of the anti-Zionist, single-state scenario is that Palestinian refugees should be allowed their right to return to their homeland as enshrined in Article 13 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which would of course upset the demographic agenda that underpins the Jewish state and result in its “destruction”. But far from being a “marginal” position, the right of return for Palestinians has been endorsed by the United Nations general assembly in the form of resolution 194 which has been reaffirmed every single year - bar one - since 1948.

If the media doesn’t address Zionism, it doesn’t address the conflict.

This editorial position is not unique to the Guardian. Indeed, it reflects the coverage right across the mainstream media in Britain. News outlets may vary in their levels of criticism of Israeli policies within the occupied territories and provide different amounts of context, but they will virtually never examine Israel’s founding ideology and the contradictions that Zionism’s exclusivist Jewish state has with the notion of universal human rights that lie at the heart of the Israel-Palestine conflict.

But if the Guardian is to have any credibility as the newspaper of the liberal/centre-left, it must face up to the error of its historical allegiances and dedicate space to the anti-Zionist, single-state advocates that make up a significant part of its constituency.

It simply cannot reconcile its claim to “promote debate” and give a voice to the voiceless whilst not employing one single staff columnist who writes on the Middle East conflict who believes that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights does in fact apply universally.

It is tempting to view the Guardian’s commissioning of Baram’s book as a sort of editorial suicide, where the paper reveals its vulnerable and untenable editorial underbelly and leaves it exposed to attack. Whether this is true, or it is merely an attempt to remind Zionists of their debt to the paper, it is surely the responsibility of all “pro-Palestinian”, human rights, anti-racist and free speech lobby groups to lean against the Guardian’s pseudo-liberal door and give it a mighty shove.

Benjamin Counsell is a member of Al-Awda UK.


Seumas Milne

Benjamin Counsell’s article about the Guardian and Daphna Baram’s book “Disenchantment: The Guardian and Israel” includes mistakes and misrepresentations which in my view clearly go beyond matters of debate and opinion - and I’m sorry he has not taken up the suggestion that he corrects or even clarifies them.

In fact, from what he’s written, it’s hard to believe that he can actually be a regular reader of the Guardian’s comment pages at all. Contrary to what he claims, we have had numerous articles supporting the Palestinian right to return (including by regular columnists) and, far from “censoring” or “closing down debate” over Zionism or the case for a single state solution, we have run a series of pieces on just those subjects. Counsell’s bizarre argument appears to have been constructed from a misunderstanding of a letter I wrote this summer to the Jewish Chronicle to correct another absurd claim - namely that Middle East “rejectionists” were “disproportionately promoted” on the Guardian comment pages.

It’s unfortunate that Counsell didn’t speak to me before writing his critique — not least because I would have been able to tell him, among other things, that of course there are staff columnists who explicitly endorse the Palestinian right to return. I have myself repeatedly done so in my own columns (easily accessible on the Guardian’s website) and I’m a regular staff columnist, as well as being the Guardian’s comment editor. Without having put his demonstrably false allegation (that all staff columnists oppose the Palestinian right to return) to me directly, he was clearly not entitled to claim that I had not been “prepared to deny this”.

And I certainly don’t accept that the right to return necessarily contradicts a two-state solution. In fact, all the main secular Palestinian political organisations and representative institutions, including the PFLP, currently endorse such a position as their central strategic goal: ie a Palestinian state in West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem plus the right of return. And in practice (ie for the forseeable future), so do Hamas and Islamic Jihad. So if Counsell is insisting that anyone who supports a two-state solution thereby rejects the right to return, he must presumably be making the same charge against the entire Palestinian national movement.

My own attitude towards the two state issue is strongly influenced by the positions adopted by the Palestinians’ own organisations: in other words, I don’t believe it is for us to dictate to the Palestinians (or other national liberation movements) what their national strategy, priorities and goals should be. How the right to return is implemented or negotiated around in practice is of course also a matter for the Palestinians themselves.

Counsell — along with the Israeli government — seems to believe that implementing the right to return means that all Palestinian refugees and their descendants would necessarily choose to return to their original town or village, regardless of the wider political and economic arrangements. There is plenty of evidence to suggest that is not the case. But in any event, the key point is that it is Palestinians who must take the decision. There are a multitude of different ways in which such a process might affect the nature of the two states (discriminatory laws cannot be accepted however those states are conceived), but it is misleading and mechanistic simply to add up raw ethnic totals and conclude that refugee rights are incompatible with a two-state solution. It also, incidentally, reflects the line of the Israeli political establishment.

Counsell evidently misunderstood the point about “rejectionism” in my letter to the Jewish Chronicle. The charge I was responding to was certainly unfounded and, as I said, the only piece “explicitly rejecting Israel’s right to exist” (in reality a highly ambiguous and loaded phrase, used mainly by pro-Israel polemicists) was published three years ago.

But that absolutely does not mean, as Counsell wrongly claims I “reassured Zionist critics”, that we have had no articles which reject “an exclusively Jewish state”. In fact, we have had several articles in the last year or so which have done just that: explicitly challenging Zionism as an ideology and practice, floating the idea of a one-state solution in a new form and repeatedly putting refugee rights centre stage (see, for example, pieces by Muhammad Jaradat, Karma Nabulsi, Ghada Karmi, Ahmad Khalidi and Brian Klug, among others).

In my own articles (for example, “Two late for two States?”, 24/1/04, and “Palestine is now part of an arc of Muslim resistance”, 25/3/04), I have explicitly raised the question of whether a two-state solution is still viable. And in relation to debate about the nature of the Israeli state, I have argued: “Those who insist there can be no questioning of the legitimacy of the state in its current form — with discriminatory laws giving a ‘right of return’ to Jews from anywhere in the world, while denying it to Palestinians expelled by force — are scarcely taking a stand against racism, but rather the opposite” (“This slur of anti-semitism is used to defend repression”, 9/5/02).

More importantly, in the past three years, we have given more space to a wider range of Palestinian writers to speak for themselves than ever in the Guardian’s history - and than in any other mass circulation paper in the English language I am aware of (even since the Iraq war, when Iraq comment has inevitably dominated). We have also in the past year had pieces from mainstream British Labour figures and others calling for sanctions against Israel, articles by progressive Israelis — including non- and anti-Zionists — articles on the conflict by Islamists, pieces supporting Arafat’s leadership against the chorus of international denunciation and articles defending the Palestinian resistance. Given the constraints we inevitably work under and the pressure of space, I don’t think that’s a bad record. It’s also one which shows Benjamin Counsell’s claim that the Guardian’s comment pages have “closed down debate” to be ridiculous.

Seumas Milne is comment editor and a columnist for the Guardian.