Guardian Editor’s Hypocrisy on Anti-semitism

I have been a critic of Jonathan Freedland before, but he – and the BBC – sank to a new low last week on the BBC’s Question Time.

Question Time is a current affairs show that allows an invited audience to ask pre-agreed questions on topical issues to a panel of public figures. The panel is dominated by politicians from the main political parties, but a token radical is occasionally allowed to appear. Last week it was Respect MP George Galloway.

Galloway has complained about the BBC and Freedland’s behaviour, accusing the broadcaster of setting him up. He has written a scathing piece about his experience here.

The incident occurred after a member of the audience went off script during a question about a rise in anti-semitic attacks last year – the episode begins at 39.15 minutes into the video below.

(Note that the figures showing a rise in attacks were compiled by the Community Security Trust, a Zionist organisation that has a record of dubious political activity. See, for example, here and here. Although its report makes great play of more than 1,000 recorded “attacks”, very few of them – 84 to be precise – involved a physical assault. The great majority were classified as “harassment”, a broad category that could include remarks against Israel).

The questioner then added a defamatory statement suggesting that Galloway had helped to stoke anti-semitism in the UK.

As Galloway has pointed out, the BBC effectively conspired in the questioner’s efforts to set him up. Question Time is not a live programme and the audience member could have been required to restate the question, without the defamatory addendum.

Orwellian paradox

Freedland, the Guardian’s executive editor, was allowed to respond first. He is also the newspaper’s resident anti-semitism obsessive and, in a moment of paradox that Orwell himself might have appreciated, recently won the Orwell Prize.

Even given Freedland’s distinguished track record of opportunism on the issue of anti-semitism, one might have assumed that, as a member of the liberal media elite, he would have preferred to distance himself from the questioner’s defamatory statement. But not a bit of it. Freedland jumped in to add his support to the attack on Galloway. Ugly, but maybe not surprising.

That aside, Freedland also managed in a couple of minutes to demonstrate that he is a hypocrite of the first order.

First, he got very upset – rightly – about people who conflate Jews and Israel by blaming Jews for Israel’s actions. But Freedland, of course, was only criticising non-Jews for doing this. He had not a word to say about a group of people who conflate Israel and Jews more than the worst anti-semites – that is, the leaders of Israel, not least the current prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu.

Netanyahu and his government have thrown their weight behind a Basic Law to define Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people. Not of Israeli Jews, but of Jews everywhere. That, by the way, is not a controversial position in Israel. It is the aim of the Law of Return, Israel’s foundational law that treats every Jew in the world as either a citizen or a citizen-in-waiting of the Jewish state.

The view that every Jew is immutably tied to Israel was also expressed by most of Israel’s parties, including the centrist ones, following the attacks in Paris last month that left 17 dead, including four Jews. Netanyahu’s call to French Jews to leave France because they know “in their hearts that they have only one country” is seen as common wisdom in Israel.

So if Freedland is really worried about this conflation, why does he make such an issue of the small number of non-Jews who blur the distinction while ignoring the fact that the overwhelming majority of Israeli Jews and their leaders do the same? Is the conflation by this latter group not equally – if not far more – dangerous?

Hate figure

Second, Freedland accused Galloway of indulging in dangerous rhetoric that inflamed passions and endangered Jews as a result. He produced no evidence to support such an accusation apart from Galloway’s statements about Israel – thereby, of course, conflating Jews and Israel himself.

While Galloway’s hate speech is far from proven, we do have evidence that Freedland has indulged in precisely this kind of incitement – because we heard him do so on Question Time last week.

By agreeing with the questioner, he conferred credibility on a statement that was intended to turn Galloway into an even greater hate figure than he already is to large sections of British society, including much of the Jewish community. One got a sense of the lynch-mob mentality among at least a section of the Jewish community from the efforts of those represented in the Question Time audience to shout Galloway down.

Fears for Galloway’s safety are hardly an idle concern. As he himself pointed out, he has recently been assaulted on three separate occasions by Israel’s supporters. So he is already in great danger, which was only exacerbated by the inciteful and irresponsible comment that Freedland supported on Question Time. And maybe no surprise, Galloway’s car was attacked by members of the audience as he tried to leave the Question Time studio. (Notice how the attack is played down in this report in the Daily Mail.)

Freedland’s hypocrisy is all the worse because he holds an influential, and undeserved, position in the media as a “voice of reason”. In a non-Orwellian world, Freedland’s behaviour on Question Time would be grounds for stripping him of the Orwell Prize.

Racism ‘arms race’

A couple of further points. All of the panelists, including Galloway, went to great lengths to express concern about attacks on Jews. However, it was entirely predictable that none of them except Galloway noted that Muslims were, in fact, the group most in danger of hate speech and physical attacks in the UK.

When Galloway did so, the other panelists accused him of engaging in an “arms race”, adding that there was nothing to be gained from trying to show who was harmed more by racism. This was also a point Freedland made while defending himself against Galloway’s post-show complaint.

Such a response is disingenuous in the extreme. Freedland and the other panelists were the ones who tried to  turn this issue into an “arms race” by prioritising one group’s suffering over another’s. If they were genuinely concerned about the safety of minorities in Britain and preventing the rise of a new wave of European fascism, they would be highlighting the rise of anti-Muslim feeling at least as much as they do anti-Jewish feeling.

But in truth they do the exact opposite. The “arms race” comment was meant to shut down any debate about race-hatred towards Muslims. In fact, it is very much part of that hate speech, making the expression of concern about the safety of Muslims seem marginal or like special pleading.

Maligning Muslims

And finally, for those who doubt the vulnerability of the Muslim community, and the casual ease with which Muslims are denigrated and maligned, one need only consider the case of Cathy Newman, a Channel 4 News presenter.

She claimed on Twitter that she had been “ushered out” of a mosque in London when she attended a “Visit My Mosque Day”. Officials at the mosque have received death threats as a result of her tweet.

Only later, when CCTV footage from the mosque was broadcast, did it become clear that she had lied. She had left the building entirely of her own accord after she turned up at the wrong mosque. A man inside, presumably confused about what she wanted, can be seen in the video pointing out of the mosque, apparently trying to help her with directions to a nearby church.

In other words, Newman not only lied – she was not “ushered out” – but did so in a way that was likely to incite hatred towards a vulnerable minority.

What have been the consequences for Newman? So far, precisely zero. She subsequently presented Channel 4 News. Channel 4 has not issued an apology. She does not appear to be facing any disciplinary action. Nor does it seem to be adversely affecting her career. Coverage of the incident in the media has been low-key, mostly in the vein of an “unfortunate mix-up”.

Can anyone imagine that this would be quite the same non-event had she lied about being “ushered out” of a synagogue, leading to death threats against officials there? Or is pointing that out indulging in an “arms race”?

Jonathan Cook, based in Nazareth, Israel is a winner of the Martha Gellhorn Special Prize for Journalism. His latest books are Israel and the Clash of Civilisations: Iraq, Iran and the Plan to Remake the Middle East (Pluto Press) and Disappearing Palestine: Israel's Experiments in Human Despair (Zed Books). Read other articles by Jonathan, or visit Jonathan's website.