A Year Later, Complainers Get a Result
They say a lie can get halfway round the world before the truth has got its boots on. It unfortunately also seems to be the case that a story can go on circulating on the Internet, and generating comment, well after the facts have been disputed. And we are not just talking about inexperienced or irresponsible amateurs or "conspiracy" freak websites, but a supposedly reputable newspaper.
The Jewish Chronicle used to style itself "the Organ of British Jewry". Rightly or wrongly, this weekly was widely trusted within the Jewish community in Britain and by anyone else interested in matters of Jewish concern. If its regular readers joked about it occasionally they did so affectionately for the most part. And the 'JC' reporters one met seemed decent and honest enough folk, even if they could not do much about their paper toeing the establishment line.
Things change. Far more Jewish people in Britain today are ready, even consider it their duty, to criticise the behaviour of the Israeli state towards the Palestinian people, as we saw reently when film and theatre director Mike Leigh refused to attend an event in Israel, in protest at the new 'loyalty oath' law which he said was the 'last straw'.
Under editor Stephen Pollard particularly, the Jewish Chronicle seems to be going the other way.
Unable any longer to ignore viewpoints of which it disapproves, it ran a front-page story reporting "Mike Leigh's distaste for Israel is so bad he won't even visit his 90-year old aunt".
(Zionism? To hell with that, says film director, JC North, October 22, 2010).
I suppose it would be too much to expect that this concern over politics interfering with family duties would extend to Palestinians prevented by Israeli restrictions from visiting relatives, even husbands and wives kept apart?
But perhaps after Mike Leigh and his aged aunt, we could read about another Jewish artist, former Israeli paratrooper Dror Feiler, who now lives in Sweden with his wife and children? Dror, who grew up on kibbutz Yad Hanna, was recently prevented from entering Israel, where his mother and other relatives still live, because earlier this year he was one of the volunteers on the Gaza freedom flotilla.
About a year ago, the Jewish Chronicle website carried a story claiming that a Jewish man was subjected to "overpowering racist jeering" when asking a question at a meeting in the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). This referred to a Palestine solidarity conference considering parallels between South African apartheid and Israel occupation and racism today.
The man in question, Zionist Federation co-vice chairman Jonathan Hoffman, had accused one of the speakers, from South Africa, of having a record of antisemitism. According to the JC report, which was originally carried by the BBC, but has continued to run on the JC website for the past year, Hoffman "was told he was "not welcome" after revealing his 'Jewish name'.’
What the JC story did not say was that this was vehemently denied by many of those present, including many Jews, that the panel included veteran anti-Apartheid fighter Ronnie Kasrils, a former member of the ANC government, who is Jewish; nor that Hoffman is well-known for turning up to oppose people and events considered critical of Israel. It was Hoffman, for instance, who organised a demonstration outside the Hackney Empire against the Skies Are Weeping concert for Rachel Corrie, and Hoffman who was more recently photographed waving an Israeli flag alongside supporters of the English Defence League, outside the controversial Ahava products premises in Covent Garden, opposing a boycott.
"No-one jeered at Hoffman for being Jewish," says Mike Cushman, one of the organisers of the SOAS meeting. "It was his history of hostility to Palestinian human rights that made him unwelcome."
Oddly enough, it did not seem to occur to Hoffman himself to complain of mistreatment till after the story had been told. The SOAS story was fed to the BBC by a man called Raheem Kassam, formerly of Conservative Future, and active with Student Rights, which specialises in exposing "Islamic extremism" on campus. Odder still, the video of the meeting showed Hoffman speaking without being shouted down or subjected to any anti-Jewish jeering. It also showed Naomi Wimbourne-Idrissi being applauded by the audience after mentioning that she was Jewish.
The BBC withdrew its story after complaints. But JC editor Stephen Pollard responded dismissively last May when Naomi Wimbourne asked him to withdraw the story.
"We drew his attention to the fact that the BBC Editorial Complaints Unit had acknowledged errors in a BBC Online story that was the source of the JC’s report, but he refused point blank to discuss it," says Naomi. In an email exchange in June, Pollard insisted the JC story was "entirely accurate" and wrote: "I do not propose to enter into a correspondence with you or your contemptible organization." (Naomi is a member of Jews for Justice for Palestinians, and co-founder of Jews for Boycotting Israeli Goods).
The Press Complaints Commission said the JC story had made "serious allegations." It breached the Editor’s Code on accuracy by failing to take care "not to publish inaccurate or misleading information" and by failing to tell readers that its account was strongly contested.
"Only after we involved the PCC did the paper admit to misleading its readers," says Naomi. She found it disappointing that the PCC had fallen short of requiring the JC to admit that its story was plain wrong, not just "contested". But she said it was positive that the Commission had insisted on the statement which now follows the JC’s online story.
I can't help casting my mind back almost thirty years, to the time when the Jewish Socialists' Group, which I had just joined, was accused among other things of "crying wolf", for saying that the Jewish Chronicle, in line with the then policy of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, was playing down or not reporting antisemitic incidents, such as the daubing of swastikas on synagogues.
(The Board's usual explanation for its "no publicity" policy at the time was that it did not want to encourage copy-cat attacks. But the Board's leadership, engaged in negotiations with the Home Office, was anxious that young Jews did not get involved with organisations such as the Anti-Nazi League - or the Jewish Socialssts' Group).
There was one significant exception to the 'softy softly' approach, and that came when some swastikas appeared on Jewish premises in Dundee. This suited a Zionist campaign against Dundee's Labour city council, which had twinned with Nablus on the West Bank, and hoisted the Palestinian flag on the town hall for a visit by Nablus mayor and councillors. The JC naturally had to report how the community was valiantly rallying to resist this outbreak of "antisemitism".
Things have changed, but we saw the other side of this coin this year when JC editor Stephen Pollard came out firmly in defence of Polish right-wing politician Michal Kaminski, saying he could not possibly be an antisemite, as some people had claimed, because he is a supporter of Israel. Kaminski is leader of the group to which the Tories are affiliated in the European Parliament, and he has now been invited to Britain by a rabbi at Mill Hill synagogue, in collaboration with the Conservative Friends of Israel.
Notwithstanding which, Jonathan Hoffman of the Zionist Federation could not resist an allusion to "Polish antisemitism" this week when he organised a demonstration outside the Polish Centre in Hammersmith against a Palestinian concert and drama evening being held there.
Jonathan Hoffman is a joke.
But antisemitism is not a joke.
And it is worrying to think that anyone should be left to depend on the Jewish Chronicle under an editor like Stephen Pollard for their news and information on this serious topic.
(With thanks to J-BIG and BRICUP for press release, and JfJfP for making available)