The Guardian’s Readers’ Editor On Anti-Semitism

Chris Elliott

Deborah Orr’s smarmy column on the Gilad Shalit deal continues to raise enough of a stink that even Chris Elliott, The Guardian’s Readers’ Editor, finally weighs in on the piece’s anti-Semitism.

Three times in the last nine months I have upheld complaints against language within articles that I agreed could be read as antisemitic. The words were replaced and the articles footnoted to reflect the fact. These included references to Israel/US “global domination” and the term “slavish” to describe the US relationship with Israel; and, in an article on a lost tribe of Mallorcan Jews, what I regarded as a gratuitous reference to “the island’s wealthier families”.

Two weeks ago a columnist used the term “the chosen” in an item on the release of Gilad Shalit, which brought more than 40 complaints to the Guardian, and an apology from the columnist the following week. “Chosenness”, in Jewish theology, tends to refer to the sense in which Jews are “burdened” by religious responsibilities; it has never meant that the Jews are better than anyone else. Historically it has been antisemites, not Jews, who have read “chosen” as code for Jewish supremacism.

Elliott won’t bluntly say there’s evidence of anti-Semitism. But upholding three complaints about a professional writer’s anti-Semitic wording within a nine-month period has to raise concerns about the newsroom’s groupthink.

After all, journalists and columnists are paid to express facts and opinions in articulate, thoughtful and entertaining ways. Layers upon layers of editors are paid to catch — among other things — troubling nuances in the language, whether inadvertent or deliberate.

By the way, HonestReporting was CCed or BCCed on 500 emails to the paper. That’s a lot more than “more than 40.” We are sending Elliott those emails.

Then there’s the issue of anti-Semitic reader comments posted in the paper’s Comment is Free section — a matter which CiF Watch is constantly raising red flags over. Elliott writes:

An important feature of the Guardian online is that the comment threads are post-moderated: a team of moderators check almost half a million comments a month posted on the site for language that breaches the community guidelines across a whole range of issues – not just antisemitism. They are experienced in spotting the kind of language long associated with antisemitic tropes such as Jews having too much power and control, or being clannish and secretive, or the role of Jews in finance and the media.

Newspapers have to be aware that some examples involve coded references. They need to ask themselves, for example, if the word Zionist is being used as a synonym for Jew.

I have been careful to say that these examples may be read as antisemitic because I don’t believe their appearance in the Guardian was the result of deliberate acts of antisemitism: they were inadvertent. But that does not lessen the injury to some readers or to our reputation. The Guardian should not be oppressed by criticism – some of the language used by our critics is abusive and intimidatory – or retreat into self-censorship. But reporters, writers and editors must be more vigilant to ensure our voice in the debate is not diminished because our reputation has been tarnished.

I agree that post-moderating is difficult. But when you bill your forum as Comment is Free, you have to take responsibility for making sure it doesn’t become Comments in Freefall.

As I see it, The Guardian’s core readers share the newsroom’s groupthink, and the paper hasn’t earned my respect. I can only presume that Elliott’s last sentence is a subtle criticism of Orr and the editors for not being careful enough. I’d respect Elliott more if his personal assessment of Orr’s column was more straightforward.

Not all criticism of Israel is based on anti-Semitism. But the constant criticism coming from The Guardian — in the news, opinions and reader comments — is so obsessive, I have to ask: Does this constitute anti-Semitism too?