CounterPunch / February 12, 2021
The revelation that a left-wing journalist, Nathan J Robinson, has been sacked as a Guardian US columnist for criticising Israel on Twitter – and that he was pressured to keep quiet about it by Guardian editors – should come as no surprise. He is only the latest in a long line of journalists, myself included, who have run foul of the Guardian’s unwritten but tightly policed constraints on what can be said about Israel.
In the tweet below, I have listed a few of the more prominent – and public – examples of journalists who have suffered at the Guardian’s hands over their coverage of Israel. The thread can opened by clicking on the tweet:
The unspoken Guardian rule we broke was to suggest one of the following: that there might be inherent contradictions between Israel’s claim to be a democracy and its self-definition in exclusivist, chauvinist, ethnic terms; or that Israel’s self-declared status as a militaristic, ethnic, rather than civic, state might be connected to its continuing abuses and crimes against Palestinians; or that, because Israel wishes to conceal its ugly, anachronistic ethnic project, it and its defenders might act in bad faith; or that the US might be actively complicit in this ethnically inspired, colonial project to dispossess Palestinians.
Paradoxically, the Guardian is widely seen as the “mainstream” English-language publication most critical of Israel. It has long shored up its reputation with the left by publishing seemingly forthright, uncompromising material on Israeli-Palestinian issues.
Part of that is a historic credit it earnt. There was a time, long ago, when the Guardian’s pages were, for example, the only place in the mainstream to host – if rarely – the late, great Palestinian intellectual Edward Said. The paper even once allowed its former South Africa correspondent, who had transferred to Israel, to compare in detail the two countries’ systems of apartheid. It caused a furore – much of it instigated by the Israeli embassy in London – that made the paper even more shy of taking on the Israel lobby.
That is reflected in the perverse fact that today Israeli human rights groups are far more courageous in speaking plainly about Israel than the Guardian. When B’Tselem recently published a report stating that Israel operated an apartheid system oppressing Palestinians not just in the occupied territories but in the whole area under its rule – including inside Israel where officials falsely claim 1.8 million Palestinian citizens have equal rights with Jewish citizens – the paper published a mealy-mouthed editorial whose equivocations contrasted starkly with B’Tselem’s passionate and clear critique of a racist system of separate rights.
Even then, the Guardian would never have conceded what it reluctantly did in the editorial had B’Tselem not forced its hand.
Low bar on Israel
The other reason why the Guardian looks so good on Israel and Palestine is that the rest of the corporate media is far, far worse. The bar is so low that the Guardian has to do very little to impress. Its unwavering support for Israel – and we will get to the reasons for that in a moment – only becomes clear when someone prominent steps forward to speak as clearly about what’s really wrong with Israel as B’Tselem recently did.
That invisible line on Israel was crossed by Jeremy Corbyn too, of course – one of the many aspects of his socialist-lite platform the corporate Guardian could not abide. That was why the Guardian was only too ready to join – and often lead – the campaign of smears against him and the Labour party under his leadership that conflated trenchant criticism of Israel (anti-Zonism) with antisemitism. One has to be naïve indeed to believe that the Guardian’s treatment of Corbyn – its simplistic regurgitation of the Board of Deputies’ talking points – was done in good faith.
In fact, the Guardian’s relations with Israel and Zionism date back to the founding editor of the modern paper, C P Scott. A staunch Zionist, Scott was critically important in liaising between the British government and the Zionist movement in the drafting of the 1917 Balfour Declaration – the colonial document that effectively committed Britain to dispossessing the native Palestinians, who weren’t even named in it, of their homeland.
The Guardian acted effectively as midwife both to the self-declared Jewish state of Israel and to the Nakba – the mass programme of ethnic cleansing – that was necessarily required to create a Jewish state on the Palestinians’ homeland. And, as documented in the book Disenchantment, the Guardian has indulged Israel ever since, much as a parent would a wayward child. It can be critical, even sharply sometimes, but it is resolutely protective of Israel’s image and the interests Israel has defined for itself as a Jewish state.
And for that reason, the Guardian historically developed close ties to the liberal Jewish community in the UK, much of it in London and Manchester. Many liberal Jewish journalists found the paper a natural home and an ideological fit in contrast to the rest of the UK’s corporate media, which was highly conservative and often openly antisemitic. A culture of critical but unerring support for Israel was always the Guardian’s default position.
But to understand why Robinson became the latest victim of the Guardian’s tough policing of speech around Israel, we need to dig a little deeper.
Robinson is also editor of a small, independent, socialist magazine called Current Affairs. As such, the issues he highlights invariably break with the US corporate media’s craven coverage on a wide range of issues.
His sarcastic, but pointed tweet criticising the billions of dollars the US is sending to Israel so it can buy more weapons to kill Palestinians – and during a pandemic in which Americans are being denied the full promised $2,000 checks – was treated by the Israel lobby, as most criticism of Israel is nowadays, as evidence of “antisemitism”. This was the same kind of antisemitism that Corbyn, Ken Loach and many others on the socialist left have been accused of indulging.
The tweet, which Robinson deleted under Guardian pressure, was only antisemitic if you choose to see it that way – which, of course, is exactly how Israel’s apologists would like you to see it.
Understandably, the nearer critics get to the nub of what is wrong with a self-declared Jewish state ruling over Palestinians, or with the US blank cheque for that Jewish state, the more this lobby goes into overdrive.
An email to Robinson from US editor John Mulholland, who I worked under for a time when he was editing the Observer, the Guardian’s Sunday sister paper, included a line below the main body of text complaining about Robinson’s tweet:
“Saying that the only Jewish state controls the most powerful country in the world is clearly antisemitic. The myth of ‘Jewish power’ informs murderous hatred. Delete this and apologise.”
It is unclear who this instruction came from – an influential reader, Mulholland himself or someone even more senior in the Guardian hierarchy. It matters little. Mulholland is the very embodiment of what the Japanese call a “salaryman”. He has scaled the greasy pole effortlessly by absorbing and loyally enforcing the corporate values of the Guardian business model.
Silencing socialist critiques
But the problem with the Guardian’s interpretation of Robinson’s tweet is that there is precisely nothing in the tweet to indicate that this was its meaning. It is pure projection. Robinson’s tweet critiqued a relationship in which the US indisputably pours huge sums of military aid into Israel – money desperately needed at the moment by US citizens hit financially by the pandemic. That “aid” is going to a state described by its own human rights groups as an apartheid regime and one that may soon be investigated by the International Criminal Court for war crimes. That should not even count as an opinion. It is a fact.
It is the Guardian’s own antisemitic interpretation of the tweet that suggests this is because Israel “controls” the US. More likely, Robinson believes that the US sends the aid because Israel serves the west’s ugly colonial interests in the Middle East. Israel “earns” that aid – money for armaments – from the US by acting as its regional colonial “heavy”. (And, let’s note, Egypt originally earned its similarly generous US aid for ending its state of hostilities with Israel in 1979 by signing a peace agreement.)
The deeper question in assessing the Guardian’s sacking of Robinson – as well as its campaign to smear Corbyn – is this: what line do we as the left cross when we critique Israel? Is the Guardian really protecting Israel from an antisemitic tweet, as Mulholland appears to believe? Or is it policing leftwing speech that highlights the continuing imperialist, colonial nature of our western societies and their economic models of exploitation, domestic and foreign, on which corporate media like the Guardian depend?
What we have here, disguised as a defence of Jews, is a gradual outlawing of socialist critiques of western states and their crimes. This is happening as those critiques gain ever greater visibility and purchase, assisted by social media and its brief democratisation (for good and bad) of public discourse.
Socialists like Robinson, Corbyn and Loach have a worldview. It is their way of analysing societies and geopolitics that makes sense of how state power operates, and how elites maintain and expand their control of resources to the detriment of others and the planet. Socialism demands change. It requires the reordering of society to ensure much more equal relations between individuals and states to end pervasive poverty and suffering.
We cannot therefore believe both that the US is an imperial, colonial power sponsoring Arab dictators, religious extremism and war crimes in the Middle East to control access to the region’s oil reserves – and also believe that Israel, which assists some of those dictators and attacks others, cultivates its own forms of religious extremism, commits its own war crimes, and is heavily subsidised by the US, has nothing to do with any of that.
Socialists see Israel as integral to how western states, especially the sole global military superpower headquartered in Washington, continue to project their power into the Middle East. They see Israel as a proxy for a western colonial project that never went away. Thinking that doesn’t make socialists antisemitic. It makes them consistent, it means their worldview makes sense of all those seemingly disparate events going on around the globe – disparate only because that is the way corporate media presents its narratives to prevent readers from joining up the dots.
Passive media consumption
This kind of analysis may well look antisemitic to those – liberals and conservatives – who have no worldview, no values beyond the dog-eat-dog, social Darwinism our western societies have cultivated in them through years of passive media consumption. Robinson’s tweet doubtless looked antisemitic to Mulholland, to Guardian editor Kath Viner, to senior columnist Jonathan Freedland, the paper’s resident antisemitism witchfinder general. But that is because none of them are socialists.
They can read Robinson’s tweet only through the limited perspective of their own entrenched liberalism. If they were socialists, they would never have been allowed anywhere near the senior editorial positions they hold at the Guardian. And the tiny number of Guardian journalists who claim to be leftwing working under them – figures like Owen Jones and George Monbiot – have learnt where the invisible trip-wires are that they must avoid not to lose their employment and their platforms. Which is why you will not see any solidarity from Guardian staff either over Robinson’s mistreatment or over the threat his sacking poses to the speech rights of the left.
This has long been the beauty of the “free” press model for the corporate media. It has allowed journalists to say anything they want so long as the corporate media decides whether they are given a platform from which to say it. And the corporate media has only given a platform to those journalists who have demonstrated that they can be trusted not to stray too far from what is today’s neoliberal orthodoxy at home and neoconservative orthodoxy abroad.
Illusion of freedom
Socialism has begun to revive – if often only as a growing disillusionment with late-stage, planet-destroying capitalism – because for the first time there have been large platforms from which socialists can speak. Paradoxically, those new platforms, like Twitter, have been corporate-run too.
Our plutocratic governments, run in the interests of a corporate elite, and the media, owned by a corporate elite, are battling hard to end that right. They would prefer to maintain the illusion of western freedom. And so they have been trying to silence socialists in ways that make it look like they have the public’s consent. They are recruiting us to silence ourselves. They are, as ever, manufacturing consent for our expulsion from the public square.
We must fight back. We need to understand that old corporate media like the Guardian are not an ally to the left, they are the enemy. And that the new social media platforms to which we have briefly been given access will soon be snatched away from us unless we fight tooth and nail to keep them.
The battle itself is our weapon. Because if we allow ourselves to be swept from the public square without a struggle, if our story is written for us, not by us, none of the onlookers – the wider public – will ever grasp what was really at stake. They will remain blissfully unaware not only of what socialism might have achieved, but certain that we are all far better off now that those “antisemites” will never again be allowed a voice.
Jonathan Cook won 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)