Dear Ms Ribbans,
Thank you very much indeed for your e-mail of the 25th. I have allowed a few days to elapse before answering, since I have wanted to collect my thoughts and come back to you in as uncomplicated a fashion as possible.
I was sorely tempted to respond with a lengthy account of why all or most of the war crimes allegations laid against Israel remain just that — allegations — or to show more conclusively that they are severally being refuted with growing vigour and in increasing details. But I’m aware that the evaluation of such evidence does not fall within your duties as Managing Editor. I shall refer to the allegations briefly below, but I don’t want them to be the primary focus of this letter, which is more a reply to yours than an attempt to engage in the specifics of a much broader debate.
I should perhaps say a few words about myself. I’m a former academic in Arabic, Persian and Islamic Studies, the author of several books and dozens of articles and encyclopedia entries on aspects of Islam; I am currently editor-designate of a leading journal on the Middle East, the Middle East Quarterly. I cite this merely to show that I am familiar with this territory.
Perhaps, too, I should add that I consider myself a liberal, a Guardian reader (though often an affronted one), somewhat centre-right nowadays, but a staunch supporter of human rights, women’s rights, gay rights, and the rights of religious minorities. It is precisely from those convictions that my admiration for and my defence of Israel stem. It is not far-right indulgence of Israeli ‘fascism’ or worse that drives me, but a centrist conviction that Israel is more sinned against than sinning. I know no other country in the Middle East that promotes the values I hold dearest: democracy, free speech, freedom of the press, and those rights for women, gays, and religious minorities. If I were to take you by the hand across the Middle East, from Morocco (where I have lived) to Iran (where I have lived as well), and beyond to Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, those virtues would be nowhere evident. You would see no trace of democracy, you would see women oppressed, you would see young gay men dangling from ropes. Hence my deep concern when I see Israel traduced so many times in the Guardian, the very paper that should be holding it up as a flawed but dynamic model for democracy and ethical behaviour in the region.
You suggest that the Guardian does not malign Israel, but simply presents unbiased reporting of the facts. I do not wish to seem rude, but I think you are very wrong. The Guardian has for years been notorious for the vehemence of its anti-Israel views. I have seen with my own eyes any number of Guardian news reports slanted heavily against Israel, and a surfeit of op-eds voicing anti-Israel sentiment, including pieces written by apologists for Hamas and by two of its leaders. Hamas is without denial a virulently anti-Semitic terrorist organization whose very Charter commits it to the destruction of Israel and the fighting of jihad in preference to engaging in peace talks. The number of anti-Israel op-eds over the years has hugely outnumbered those in favour of the Jewish state. Azzam Tamimi alone has written some thirty-one pieces: this is a man who has said he wished he could be a suicide bomber in Israel. We have had large numbers of comment pieces from Ghada Karmi, a proponent of the one-state solution designed to eradicate Israel, and we have had pieces by Faisal Bodi, who famously wrote in the Guardian that Israel had no right to exist. The Guardian has published opinion pieces by two Hamas leaders, Ismail Haniyeh and Khalid Mish’al. Among other things, Mish’al has stated: ‘Before Israel dies, it must be humiliated and degraded. Allah willing, before they die, they will experience humiliation and degradation every day’. He is not a man I would have in my living-room. No decent person would shake his hand. The EU and many countries have declared Hamas to be a terrorist entity: I find it hard to understand why a liberal newspaper would give publicity to the leaders of what is, quite frankly, a fascist organization.
You say that ‘We flatly refute any suggestion that we’re “bent on condemning one side”’. I have already shown the extent to which Guardian opinion pages slant heavily towards a pro-Palestinian, anti-Israel position. Over the years, I have never sensed any warmth in the Guardian towards Israel, and I have been troubled by a string of reports and opinions celebrating the Palestinian ‘resistance’, touching at times on the defence of very real moral depravity, from anti-Semitism to suicide bombing to the launching of thousands of rockets on civilian centres. You suggest that last week’s reports did not condemn one side. Please look at the main webpage archiving your coverage of the war-crimes allegations ( http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/series/gaza-war-crimes-investigation). There is indeed one entry covering allegations against Hamas. However, here is what you will find about Israel (I deal only with this single web page, not with any links): ‘Israeli war crimes allegations: what the law says’; ‘Will Israel be brought to book?’ (by Seumas Milne, not a friend of Israel); ‘Gaza war crimes investigation: Israeli drones’; ‘Evidence of alleged Israeli war crimes’; ‘End this culture of Israeli impunity’; ‘The Israeli attacks’. There are three videos: ‘Cut to pieces: the family drinking tea in a courtyard’; ‘Palestinian brothers: used as human shields in Gaza’; and ‘Under attack: medics died trying to help casualties’. As well as: ‘Gazan war crimes: attacks on medics’; ‘Gazan war crimes investigation: human shields’. There are also links to audio reports.
Surely you will not deny that that constitutes a relentless focus on allegations against one side in the conflict. Over the years, I have waited to see the Guardian investigate in depth the very real evil of Palestinian terrorism, to carry a major report on the years of shelling of Sderot and Ashkelon, or even to publish and invite comment on the anti-Jewish and anti-peace Hamas Charter or the Risala Maftuha of Hizbullah. You may by now be aware that the Israeli embassy in London has spoken out against your coverage of Gaza ( http://www.jpost.com/servlet/Satellite?cid=1237727540196&pagename=JPArticle%2FShowFull), and you may know that the New York Times has already published what amounts to a retraction of their own anti-Israel ‘war crimes’ reports ( http://www.nytimes.com/2009/03/28/world/middleeast/28israel.html?_r=2&hp).
I am also concerned that Guardian editors display a clear fondness for Arab and Palestinian sources than for Jewish or Israeli. On 21 March this year, Arab Media Watch held a dinner for 200 guests. Ian Black, the Guardian’s Middle East editor, was unable to attend, but sent a glowing tribute to the AMW. I would not deny that someone in Mr Black’s position should use AMW, but it’s worth saying that this organization is blatantly pro-Palestinian and anti-Israeli. Their logo and name are shown in the colours of the Palestinian flag. I would have looked for some balance, perhaps with Mr Black’s honouring pro-Israel media organizations like BICOM, Just Journalism, Honest Reporting or MEMRI, but, as far as I’m aware, he has not made even a mild tribute to their work. Back in 2002, there was a rather bitter debate between Brian Whitaker and the founder of MEMRI (the Middle East Media Research Institute), in which Whitaker made wild accusations against the institute. I won’t rehearse those here, but I will say that my many years of using material from MEMRI have convinced me that, although it’s selective, it does supply excellent transcripts and TV recordings for Arabic and Persian media. There really does seem to be an ingrained bias among Guardian journalists that favours the Arab or Palestinian narrative to that of Israel, and makes little pretence to genuine objectivity in any sense.
The thrust of my letter to the editor was, as you know, a hope that contextualization might help balance much of the Guardian’s reporting. Let me repeat this: the media are awash with allegations against Israel that are simply not true. No doubt some Israeli media carry their own distortions, but that is not the point. I am concerned with the context for your reporting, which is the existence of a general anti-Israeli myth that bears close resemblance in many respects to the myths about Jews that have been around for many centuries and show signs at the moment of being revived to potentially deadly effect.
This is particularly true of much of the Islamic media and the far left in Europe and America, but many of these falsehoods have taken hold elsewhere or have come to exert a subtle influence by creating an environment in which it is easy to create report and opinion pieces like those found in the Guardian. Some of these falsehoods are just political slogans: ‘Stop the Holocaust in Gaza’ or ‘Israelis are the new Nazis’ or ‘Israel is an apartheid state’. They are emotive, they have simply no basis in fact, yet vast numbers of people, clearly unable to examine any of them in detail, believe them. Naïve British people actually believe there has been a Holocaust in Gaza and seem unable to do the simple calculations that would show it to be an outrageous lie. This creates a toxic environment, in which it is all too easy to think Israel capable of anything and to believe it would be only natural for Israelis to kill children for sport or to use their blood to make matzos (this last blood libel imagery has been used in university settings in the US). There are also specific crimes laid at Israel’s door. The earliest and most famous is the repeated myth of an Israeli massacre at Deir Yassin during the 1948 conflict, which is at worst contentious in its much-disputed ‘facts’. The ‘massacre’ at Jenin in 2002 is still much quoted, despite the fact that a UN fact-finding mission declared that no such massacre had taken place. More recently, the ‘massacre’ of 40 children in an UNWRA school in Gaza on 6 January this year, was blazed across front pages and TV screens worldwide. Jeremy Paxman accused Israeli troops of deliberately firing in the school. In fact, as the UN later admitted, no Israeli rockets fell in the schoolyard as claimed, but in the street outside, from which Hamas had been firing. Some twelve people, not forty and not schoolchildren, died. Who will remember the true story when the lie has had such currency? Next year we may expect to see banners on the streets of London accusing Israel of ‘Massacre in UNWRA school’. I could cite many more examples, but I think the foregoing make my point: Israel has to fight wars on two fronts, against rockets, bullets, and bombs on the one hand, and against huge propaganda lies that circulate through the Internet and often appear in the media.
Given that context, I considered the Guardian’s rush to judgement over Gaza to be premature. As the days pass, that prematurity becomes more and more apparent. You gave great prominence to allegations that are now being withdrawn, allegations that were based on hearsay in the first place. Even when all the reports have been written and blame apportioned more fairly, I know from long experience that the balance sheet will not be drawn up on your front pages. I do not expect to see a front-page denunciation of Hamas’s numerous war crimes, just as I have never seen much condemnation of them or Hizbullah. I wrote my letter, which remains unpublished, to draw readers’ attention to the fact that allegations against Israel or the IDF have to be taken with many pinches of salt, that caution is needed. Responsible journalism takes account of he Big Lie, and in the case of Israel no balanced newspaper would rush to judgement quite so precipitously as the Guardian has done.
I am not asking you and your colleagues to become advocates of Israel or its policies. I only wish the Guardian could be a deal more fair, that it would run more stories on the positive things that happen in Israel (its treatment of religious minorities, for example, is stunning and unparalleled in the Middle East; its very real lack of racism is exemplary; and its gay rights parades an affront to all ultra-orthodox Jews and every single state in the region). And perhaps we could read more on the negative features of life in the West Bank or Gaza (honour killings of women, murders of homosexuals, the persecution of Christians?). The positive stories are readily available. At the moment, Guardian reporters go to Gaza, interview a few civilians (under the very strict gaze of Hamas minders) and report back that Israel has done this or that terrible thing. But what would you say if you knew that Hamas would have no compunction about killing you and your family if you said anything favourable to Israel? The heavy reliance on Palestinian stringers and interviewees has been skilfully studied in Stephanie Gutmann’s The Other War: Israelis, Palestinians and the Struggle for Media Supremacy (2005), which I strongly recommend. Its cover alone speaks volumes. It shows a Palestinian boy seemingly in the act of throwing a stone. But he is not throwing anything at anyone. He is pretending to throw a stone at Israeli troops. Next to him are perhaps fifty reporters from the world press, photographing him. It is a fake, but it will have been used. I have seen many like this. Did anyone step away from that photo-shoot, pleading that the reporters job is to tell the truth?
Let me leave you with a short and straightforward story from the recent Gaza war:
Col. Roi Elkabets, commander of an armoured brigade, told of occasions when fire was held. His troops saw “a woman, about 60 years old, walking with a white flag and six to eight children behind her, and behind them was a Hamas fighter with his gun. “We did not shoot him.”
I desperately hope to see stories like that in the Guardian in future. Israeli troops are not jack-booted SS soldiers, they are often kindly, helpful, and moral. They operate according to a strict code of ethics. Some do wrong. But soldiers in any army do wrong. The IDF is more moral than most, and Hamas has shown itself to be without any morality at all, as witnessed in this recent conflict, when it dragged members of Fatah out of their hospital beds to shoot them, when it stationed troops inside hospitals, and when it placed rocket launching pads in schools and on civilian buildings.
I hope you will agree with me that the Guardian’s coverage of the Middle East could be improved. Would it make sense were I to suggest that there would be profit in a meeting between yourself with other members of your editorial board and some well-informed people representing the Israeli position, to see if we can sort out some better system, a modus vivendi that would allow you to work more fairly in this area? I don’t mean that we would place the Guardian under any pressure to follow our line of thinking, but simply that it may help formulate your policy if we can explain areas of concern. I can contact all the main players on this side (though I don’t suggest a large meeting). You may continue to believe that the Guardian is quite unbiased, in which case I will have been wasting my breath (or my typing fingers). But no story has one side, and I only ask for a way to persuade you that this conflict too is multifaceted
I look forward to hearing from you again.
And Ribbans didn’t even have the decency to pen a response. Says it all really doesn’t it.