With Head Lowered And Eyes Averted: Israeli Racism And The “Honourable” Robert Peston

Robert Peston is one of the UK’s most high-profile broadcast journalists, renowned for his theatricality and… curious… halting… delivery. As political editor of ITV News he has enormous influence, including 1 million followers on Twitter, just behind the BBC’s political editor, Laura Kuenssberg, with 1.1 million. He also hosts a weekly ITV political discussion show, ‘Peston’. From 2006-2014, Peston was the business editor for BBC News and from 2014-2015 economics editor. Before that, he worked at the Financial Times 1991-2000, becoming the financial editor in charge of business and financial coverage. He then became a contributing editor of the hard-right magazine The Spectator and a weekly columnist for The Daily Telegraph. In 2001, he switched to the Sunday Times, where he wrote a weekly business profile, ‘Peston’s People’. The son of a Lord, Baron Peston of Mile End, he is entitled to use the ‘courtesy’ title, ‘The Honourable’.

Also from a family of high renown, the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg, is the granddaughter of the Scottish high court judge Lord Robertson. His brother, Sir James Wilson Robertson, was the last British Governor-General of Nigeria. Kuenssberg’s sister is a former high commissioner to Mozambique.

How fortunate UK viewers are to have two leading political editors standing so impartially between the ruling class and the hoi polloi.

In November 2019, two weeks before the UK general election, Peston – who, as ITV political editor is, of course, required to be scrupulously neutral, impartial and objective – retweeted a tweet from Britain’s Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis, which read:

The way in which the leadership of the Labour Party has dealt with anti-Jewish racism is incompatible with the British values of which we are so proud’

Peston linked to an article in The Times, ‘What will become of Jews in Britain if Labour forms the next government?’, in which Mirvis wrote that Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn should be ‘considered unfit for office’, adding:

I ask every person to vote with their conscience. Be in no doubt, the very soul of our nation is at stake.

Peston wrote above Mirvis’s tweet on Twitter:

The Chief Rabbi’s intervention in the general election is without precedent. I find it heartbreaking, as a Jew, that the rabbi who by convention is seen as the figurehead of the Jewish community, feels compelled to write this about Labour and its leader.

In fact, Mirvis’s ‘intervention’ was not entirely without precedent. Last July, he wrote:

I am delighted to congratulate Boris Johnson, a longstanding friend and champion of the Jewish community, on becoming the next leader of the Conservative Party and our next Prime Minister.

Remarkably, Peston added of his support for Mirvis’s smearing of Corbyn:

I am not making any kind of political statement here.

Readers can decide for themselves whether the ITV political editor’s support for the assertion that the leader of the opposition should be ‘considered unfit for office’ was a political statement.

By contrast, Laura Kuenssberg did not cite her paternal Jewish grandfather’s escape from Nazi terror as an emotive, personal reason for supporting Mirvis’s attack on Corbyn. But Kuenssberg did strongly promote Mirvis’s baseless smear, tweeting on his criticism an astonishing 23 times in 24 hours with no attempt made to examine Mirvis’s motives and unabashed political bias.

More recently, at a 13 February event, ‘Labour Leader Hustings 2020,’ hosted by the Jewish Labour Movement and Labour Friends of Israel, Labour leadership contenders were grilled by Peston who asked:

I’d quite like all of you to address a question which I think is relevant to… all… of… this. Um, do you regard it as anti-semitic to describe Israel, its policies, or circumstances around its foundation, as racist because of their discriminatory impact? Is that an anti-semitic statement?

Rebecca Long-Bailey, purportedly the left-wing candidate to replace Corbyn, replied: ‘Yes.’ Peston then harangued Bailey, at one point actually shouting. He said:

Jeremy Corbyn presented to the NEC [National Executive Committee, Labour’s governing body] a document, which he wanted the NEC to approve, which would have said that that statement is not anti-semitic. That was a disgrace, wasn’t it?… It was an extraordinary moment. I don’t understand why, since the NEC did in the end approve the document that, at that point, there wasn’t a deeper reckoning…. This was back in 2018 – I don’t understand why there wasn’t a deeper reckoning…. And Jeremy brought to the NEC a compromise statement that most people would have said was straight forwardly anti-semitic.

Remarkably, around the time he was insisting that the leader of the opposition had made a ‘straight forwardly anti-semitic’ statement, Peston announced that he was to give the 2020 Hugh Cudlipp Lecture, which allows high-profile media figures to give their views on the state of the industry. Peston tweeted, apparently without irony:

Some of you may want to come to this. I will be talking about why impartiality in news matters more than ever, but why impartiality is under threat as never before (or at least as within living memory)

‘What Shall We Do With The Arabs?’ ‘Expel them!’

Peston’s view, then, is that describing ‘Israel, its policies, or circumstances around its foundation, as racist’ is a ‘straight forwardly anti-semitic’ statement. Last week, leading US presidential candidate, Bernie Sanders, who is Jewish, said:

To be for the Israeli people and to be for peace in the Middle East does not mean that we have to support right wing racist governments that currently exist in Israel…

This week, Sanders said:

I am very proud of being Jewish. I actually lived in Israel for some months. But what I happen to believe is that, right now, sadly, tragically, in Israel, through [Israeli Prime Minister] Bibi Netanyahu, you have a reactionary racist who is running that country.

I happen to believe that what our foreign policy in the Middle East should be about is absolutely protecting the independence and security of Israel, but you cannot ignore the suffering of the Palestinian people.

In 2017, a report published by the UN Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA) accused Israel of imposing an ‘apartheid regime’ of racial discrimination on the Palestinian people. The report said the ‘strategic fragmentation of the Palestinian people’ was the main method through which Israel imposes apartheid, with Palestinians divided into four groups oppressed through ‘distinct laws, policies and practices’.

In 2018, Israel-based, former Guardian journalist Jonathan Cook noted that, more than a decade earlier, in his book, Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid, former US president Jimmy Carter suggested that Israeli rule over Palestinians in the occupied territories was comparable to apartheid. Cook commented:

The discrimination faced by Palestinians in Israel… is systematic, institutional, structural and extensively codified, satisfying very precisely the definition of apartheid in international law and echoing the key features of South African apartheid.

Earlier this month, Cook added:

The Zionist movement designed Israel to be a racist state – one that privileged Jewish immigrants to Palestine over the native Palestinian population. And if that wasn’t clear from its founding as an ethnic nationalist “Jewish state” on the Palestinians’ homeland, it was made explicit two years ago when those founding principles were set out in a Basic Law.

That law defines Israel as the “nation-state of the Jewish people” – that is, all Jews around the world, rather than the people who live in its territory, including a fifth of the population who are Palestinian by heritage.

When the state of Israel was established in 1948, huge numbers of Palestinians were massacred and forced from their land. In his book, The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine, Israeli historian Ilan Pappé described how more than half of Palestine’s native population, close to 800,000 people, were uprooted, with 531 villages destroyed. This was conducted by the military forces of what was to become Israel in an operation called ‘Plan Dalet’. The aim was to ethnically cleanse a large part of Palestine of hostile ‘Arab elements’. Palestinians were massacred in places like Deir Yassin, Ayn Al-Zaytun, Tantura and elsewhere. Survivors were forced to live as refugees in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, on the West Bank of the Jordan River, and the Gaza Strip.

Pappé noted that leading Zionist figures talked openly of ethnic cleansing. Yossef Weitz wrote in 1940: ‘it is our right to transfer the Arabs’ and ‘The Arabs should go!’1

John Pilger cited the Israeli historian Benny Morris, who described how David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, was asked by one of his generals: ‘What shall we do with the Arabs?’ The prime minister, wrote Morris, ‘made a dismissive, energetic gesture with his hand’. ‘Expel them!’

Pilger commented:

Seventy years later, this crime is suppressed in the intellectual and political culture of the West. Or it is debatable, or merely controversial.

Israeli historian, Avi Shlaim, wrote of Plan Dalet:

The novelty and audacity of the plan lay in the orders to capture Arab villages and cities, something [Jewish forces] had never attempted before … Palestinian society disintegrated under the impact of the Jewish military offensive that got underway in April, and the exodus of the Palestinians was set in motion … by ordering the capture of Arab cities and the destruction of villages, it both permitted and justified the forcible expulsion of Arab civilians.

Noam Chomsky has commented:

Traditionally over the years, Israel has sought to crush any resistance to its programs of takeover of the parts of Palestine it regards as valuable, while eliminating any hope for the indigenous population to have a decent existence enjoying national rights.

Moreover:

The key feature of the occupation has always been humiliation: they [the Palestinians] must not be allowed to raise their heads. The basic principle, often openly expressed, is that the “Araboushim” – a term that belongs with “nigger” or “kike” – must understand who rules this land and who walks in it with head lowered and eyes averted.

Pappé commented in an interview for the website In these Times:

Zionism is the last remaining active settler-colonialist movement or project. Settler colonialism is, in a nutshell, a project of replacement and displacement, settlement and expulsion. Since this is the project, that you take over someone’s homeland and you’re not satisfied until you feel you’ve taken enough of the land and you’ve gotten rid of enough of the native people, as long as you feel that this is an incomplete project, you will continue with the project.

Therefore such a project is based on dehumanization and elimination. It cannot be liberal. It cannot be socialist. It cannot be anything universal because it is an ideology that wants to help one group of people to get rid of another group of people. In most of the universal values, we’re trying to offer guidance of how human beings should live together rather than instead of each other.

Robert Peston may argue that it is ‘straight forwardly anti-semitic’ to describe ‘Israel, its policies, or circumstances around its foundation, as racist because of their discriminatory impact’. Could one not equally argue that it is straight forwardly racist to whitewash the obvious truth of the brutal ethnic cleansing of Palestinians in this way? Chomsky summed it up:

So there are two national groups which claim national self-determination. One group is the indigenous population, or what’s left of it – a lot of it’s been expelled or driven out or fled. The other group is the Jewish settlers who came in, originally from Europe, later from other parts of the Middle East and some other places. So there are two groups, the indigenous population and the immigrants and their descendants. Both claim the right of national self-determination. Here we have to make a crucial decision: are we racists or aren’t we? If we’re not racists, then the indigenous population has the same rights of self-determination as the settlers who replaced them. Some might claim more, but let’s say at least as much right. Hence if we are not racist, we will try to press for a solution which accords them – we’ll say they are human beings with equal rights, therefore they both merit the claim to national self-determination…

But, as Chomsky noted, ‘the United States and national discussion takes a strictly racist view of this. The Palestinians are not human, they do not deserve the rights that we accord automatically to the settlers who displaced them. That’s the basis of articulate American discussion: pure, unadulterated racism’.

The same, of course, is largely true of UK discussion.

Are Peston’s comments compatible with his role as ITV political editor? Who can believe, after hearing and reading his comments, that Peston is willing or able to report impartially on the Israeli occupation of Palestine, or indeed on claims of anti-semitism within the Labour Party? Who can believe Peston would have retained his job, if if he had shown a fraction of the same bias towards the Palestinian cause?

Peston need not worry; principled concern with media impartiality is increasingly being replaced by the unprinciple that might makes right. Thus, widespread concerns about the bias of Laura Kuenssberg have vanished from sight since the election in December. Why? For the simple reason that the side she favoured, and that favours her, won.

Meanwhile, the anti-semitism smear campaign continues to bear fruit. In the hustings event described above, the prospective Labour leaders were all asked: ‘What’s your number one priority were you Labour leader?’ The answers:

Rebecca Long-Bailey: ‘tackling anti-semitism’

Keir Starmer: ‘dealing with anti-semitism’

Lisa Nandy: ‘tackling anti-semitism’

Emily Thornberry: ‘uniting party’

In an age of climate collapse, insect armageddon, a disappearing Amazon rainforest, and numerous other genuine crises, these wretched capitulations to propaganda indicate that the threat of democracy that somehow sneaked past Labour Party and media gatekeepers in 2015 has been safely snuffed out. For now.

  1. Pappé, The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine, OneWorld, Oxford, 2006, p.23. []
Media Lens is a UK-based media watchdog group headed by David Edwards and David Cromwell. The second Media Lens book, Newspeak: In the 21st Century by David Edwards and David Cromwell, was published in 2009 by Pluto Press. Read other articles by Media Lens, or visit Media Lens's website.