Op-ed'Israel today is not the country the Guardian foresaw'

Grotesque cartoons to allegations of genocide: How the UK’s Guardian portrays Israel

The center-left daily with a growing global reach has strayed far from its early pro-Zionism and today accuses Israel of murdering Palestinian journalists, among other charges

Robert Philpot

Robert Philpot is a writer and journalist. He is the former editor of Progress magazine and the author of “Margaret Thatcher: The Honorary Jew.”

A Guardian front page from October 18, 2023 (via X)
A Guardian front page from October 18, 2023 (via X)

LONDON — It took barely two weeks after the devastating October 7 Hamas onslaught in Israel until the Guardian newspaper earned a rebuke from Britain’s leading Jewish communal body.

The decision of the UK’s principal center-left daily — which has a growing global reach — to publish a piece titled “Israel must stop weaponizing the Holocaust” was “unbelievable crass” and marked “a new low for the paper,” said the Board of Deputies of British Jews. Hadley Freeman, a Jewish former columnist for the paper, termed the article by Israeli-American historian Raz Segal “intellectually, historically and morally bankrupt.”

The furor is one of a series of controversies surrounding the strongly pro-Palestinian newspaper’s coverage of Israel’s war against Hamas, after the terror group sent thousands of terrorists into southern Israel, brutally massacring 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and abducting 253 more to the Gaza Strip.

In November, for instance, a Jewish member of staff at the Guardian wrote an anonymous comment article for the Jewish News describing the atmosphere at the paper. It alleged some colleagues “dismiss Jewish pain” and accused the paper of publishing “inflammatory op-eds which will spark more violence.” (The Guardian defended itself against the claims).

In recent weeks, Guardian commentators have accused Israel of murdering Palestinian journalists. Contributors have repeatedly “leveled or legitimized” the charge that the Jewish state is planning or carrying out a genocide in Gaza, says monitoring group CAMERA UK, putting the number of such incidents at 25 since this past December alone.

And it has continued to publish pieces backing the BDS movement. This month, it ran an extended essay by columnist Naomi Klein which concluded with the words: “Enough. It’s time for a boycott.”

But these are just the latest episodes in a long-running saga of antagonism between the Jewish state and the influential house journal of Britain’s liberal intelligentsia.

Jewish Chronicle editor Stephen Pollard (Twitter screenshot)

“For decades now, the Guardian’s reporting has distorted key events, ignored basic facts and behaved as if Israel is some sort of crazed military regime bent on murdering Palestinians out of blood lust,” Stephen Pollard, the Jewish Chronicle’s editor-at-large charged last summer.

Editorials have, for instance, claimed Israel forces at the Gaza border “kill with impunity” and target protesters who are “unarmed and posed no danger to anyone.” Headlines on news stories about terrorist attacks in Israel have drawn criticism from British Jewish community organizations. And pro-Israel groups have highlighted the way in which the paper has run op-eds that feature the antisemitic “Jewish supremacy” charge. Before taking the reins of the paper in 2015, editor Katharine Viner co-wrote the play “My Name Is Rachel Corrie” about the American activist who was killed by a bulldozer operated by the IDF in Gaza in 2003.

The Guardian’s influence is also no longer confined to the UK. With dedicated US, Australia, Europe and international editions, the paper claims to reach millions globally each month.

But its editorial stance hasn’t always been this way. Reflecting wider attitudes on the left, the Guardian was once staunchly Zionist in its sympathies — that is, until, in its eyes, David became Goliath after 1967.

In the beginning

The Guardian’s legendary owner, publisher and long-time editor, C.P. Scott, played a leading role in helping to secure the Balfour Declaration after meeting Chaim Weizmann in November 1914. Weizmann and his “perfectly clear sense of Jewish nationalism” made a strong impression on Scott, an influential voice within the governing Liberal party. The former MP proved crucial in opening doors in Whitehall for Weizmann, arranging meetings with David Lloyd George, the chancellor of the exchequer, who became an admirer and supporter of Weizmann and his ambitions.

CP Scott (Wikipedia/Public Domain)

Scott was also a source of crucial political intelligence. In April 1917, he learned of elements of the secret Sykes-Picot agreement, by which Britain and France planned to carve up the Middle East after the war. The news helped alert Weizmann to the urgency of securing a pledge from the UK government — now led by Lloyd George — that it would support a Jewish homeland. That pledge, given by foreign secretary Arthur Balfour just over six months later, was, Scott wrote in an editorial for the paper, “the fulfilment of an aspiration, the signpost of a destiny.”

As Israeli journalist Daphna Baram has detailed in her book “Disenchantment: The Guardian and Israel,” Scott was far from the only Zionist sympathizer at the Manchester Guardian (as the newspaper, then based in the UK’s third-biggest city, was known at the time). Journalists Harry Sacher, Herbert Sidebotham and future editor William Crozier were all strongly pro-Zionist.

‘What we got wrong’

But when the Guardian celebrated its bicentennial in 2021 it firmly closed the book on its earlier Zionist affinities. In an editorial that set out to identify the paper’s “worst errors of judgment over 200 years,” chief editorial writer Randeep Ramesh listed its initial opposition to universal suffrage, support for imperialism and backing for the Confederacy during the American Civil War. But Ramesh also flagged another “wrong call.” “The Guardian of 1917 supported, celebrated and could even be said to have helped facilitate the Balfour Declaration,” he wrote. “Whatever else can be said, Israel today is not the country the Guardian foresaw or would have wanted.”

The “breathtakingly ill-considered” article was denounced by the Board of Deputies, which accused the paper of appearing “to do everything it can to undermine the legitimacy of the world’s only Jewish state.”

Lord Arthur Balfour and the Balfour Declaration (Wikimedia commons)

‘Full, serious, detailed and engaged’

As the Guardian conceded in 2005, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is “perhaps the most controversial aspect of our editorial coverage” and comes under “closer scrutiny than any other topic.” Interviewed by Baram, the paper’s then-editor Alan Rusbridger deemed it “full, serious, detailed and engaged,” while accepting it sometimes failed to “take sufficient concerns of Israel’s genuine security concerns.” But, he argued, the Guardian’s approach was often the victim of smears that lumped together “our criticism of Israel with actual anti-semitism.”

Nonetheless, a look back over the first two decades of the 21st century reveals just how far the Guardian has fallen out of love with the state it once championed. During this period, the Community Security Trust, an advisory body to UK Jewry, claimed in 2012: “The Guardian reinforced its reputation as being the most subjective and contentious mainstream newspaper on issues of antisemitism in the context of Israel and Zionism. This, despite the paper also warning against antisemitism.”

‘Israel has no right to exist’

While the Guardian claims that it does not seek to question Israel’s right to exist, it has provided space to those who do.

“Israel has no right to exist. I know it’s a hugely unfashionable thing to say and one which, given the current parlous state of the peace process, some will also find irresponsible,” wrote Muslim journalist Faisal Bodi in a 2001 comment piece. A few months later, as suicide bombers struck the country, the paper ran a further article by Bodi. “The martyr-bombers’ message is brutally clear: as long as their people cannot live with dignity and in peace, Israelis should not expect to, either,” he said.

The relentlessly anti-Zionist Milne

Seumas Milne, the Labour party’s Communications Director, gives an interview in 2014. (Screenshot/ used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

As Bodi’s articles indicate, the paper’s comment pages have long stood out for their strongly anti-Israeli line. A Guardian staffer said in a 2018 profile that, under Seumas Milne, the hard-left former comment editor, the opinion section became “incredibly controversial, mainly due to his attitude to Israel.”

“It was surprising how it was tolerated, but he had more knowledge about the Middle East than most, and a relentlessness that no one else matched,” the former colleague said.

Even after he moved from comment editor to associate editor in 2007, Milne’s strongly anti-Zionist voice was a regular feature on the pages. “The Palestinians of Gaza are an occupied people, like those in the West Bank, who have the right to resist, by force if they choose — though not deliberately to target civilians,” he wrote at the height of the 2014 Operation Protective Edge.

In October 2015, Milne left the Guardian to become a top aide to the newly elected Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn. Two months previously, he had strongly defended Corbyn against the charges of antisemitism which would later dominate his leadership. “As each denunciation has failed to dent Corbyn’s lead, they have become more poisonous,” Milne wrote during the leadership campaign. “The latest target is his support for dialogue with Hamas and Hezbollah, combined with an attempt to smear him by association with antisemitism.”

Seumas Milne speaks to an anti-Israel rally during 2014’s Operation Protective Edge. (YouTube)

Warm words for Hamas…

The Guardian itself has repeatedly provided Hamas’s leaders with a platform to defend themselves. Four months before ousting the Palestinian Authority in a bloody coup in June 2007, Hamas chief Khaled Mashaal, who has written for the paper on at least four occasions, promised “a functioning government capable of attending to our people’s needs.” Senior Hamas member Moussa Abu Marzouk promoted the terror group’s claim to be one of the region’s “democratic popular Islamic movements,” while Ismail Haniyeh, then its leader in Gaza, reassured readers of its peaceful intentions. “I would like to reiterate on behalf of my people our sincere desire to live in security and stability, without wars and bloodshed,” he wrote in 2012.

Senior Hamas official Moussa Abu Marzouk, center, attends the funeral of founding commander of the terror group’s military wing Saleh al-Arouri, in Beirut, Lebanon, January 4, 2024. (AP/Hussein Malla)

…and comparisons with apartheid

The case for BDS and accusations that Israel resembles apartheid-era South Africa have also featured prominently on the Guardian’s pages since the mid-2000s. In 2006, for instance, the paper ran a 14,000-word, two-part feature by its Israel correspondent, Chris McGreal, drawing parallels with, and noting the relationship between, the Jewish state and South Africa under apartheid. The piece was described by the British Israel Communications and Research Center as a “thinly-veiled attempt to discredit Israel to a degree that sheds doubt on its legitimacy and right to exist.”

Wagging the dog

Of course, the Guardian also features liberal Zionist voices: writer and broadcaster Jonathan Freedland writes a weekly column which, while highly critical of the Netanyahu government, provides important balance. Likewise, the paper’s highly respected diplomatic editor, Patrick Wintour, strives for fairness, context and objectivity. The Guardian’s editorials have also sometimes warned of the dangers of antisemitism arising from the language and discourse deployed by anti-Israel campaigners.

However, the paper hasn’t always lived up to its professed anti-racist ideals. Alongside The Independent newspaper, the CST chided the Guardian for depicting “a dominant US ‘Zionist’ lobby in America.” Such “common” depictions, it warned, “risks reflecting and encouraging antisemitic Jewish conspiracy allegations.” An op-ed by the Guardian’s former editor, Peter Preston, on US media coverage of the 2008-9 Gaza war, for instance, said: “There was no balance, no fairness and precious little you could call independent thought. Tel Aviv seemed to bark orders: the US media just wagged its tail.”

Hamas members watch as a bus carrying Palestinian prisoners arrives at the Rafah crossing with Egypt in the southern Gaza Strip as part of the deal for the release of hostage Gilad Shalit on October 18, 2011. (Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash 90)

Similarly, antisemitic topes were evident in columnist Deborah Orr’s opinion piece following the deal that freed Gilad Shalit in 2011. There was, she said, “something abject” in Hamas’s “eagerness to accept a transfer that tacitly acknowledges what so many Zionists believe — that the lives of the chosen… are of hugely greater consequence than those of their unfortunate neighbours.” (Orr later apologized for her “badly chosen and poorly used” words, and the paper’s ombudsman addressed the subject of antisemitism).

And, despite the furor over antisemitism in the Labour Party under Corbyn, the paper faced a wave of criticism last year when it ran an editorial that appeared to downplay the issue and defend the former leader. “This is a heartbreaking moment in the history of a newspaper that was once the champion of equal rights and liberal values,” said historian Simon Sebag Montefiore.

Cartoonist Steve Bell in London, January 25, 2006. (AP Photo/Alastair Grant, File)

But it’s not just words that have landed the Guardian in hot water. Last October, the paper sacked its long-time cartoonist Steve Bell after he submitted an image of Benjamin Netanyahu operating on his own stomach and showing a cut in the outline of Gaza. Bell said the drawing was inspired by a Vietnam War-era cartoon of US president Lyndon Johnson. The paper declined to run Bell’s cartoon, which some saw as a reference to the “pound of flesh” demanded by Shylock, Shakespeare’s Jewish stereotype, in “The Merchant of Venice.”

Controversy has repeatedly swirled around other cartoons by Bell, including one that portrayed Netanyahu as a puppeteer pulling the strings of former UK prime minister Tony Blair and then-foreign secretary William Hague.

The Guardian has apologized for running a cartoon by Martin Rowson depicting outgoing BBC director Richard Sharp in what critics say used antisemitic imagery and tropes. (Screenshot/The Guardian, used in accordance with clause 27a of the copyright law)

Bell isn’t the only Guardian cartoonist to face criticism. Jewish groups last year condemned a cartoon by Martin Rowson that depicted the Jewish outgoing chairman of the BBC, Richard Sharp, with “outsized, grotesque features.” (Rowson apologized and the Guardian deleted the image).

Just over 12 years ago, in the midst of a welter of complaints, the Guardian admitted that its “reporters, writers and editors must be more vigilant about the language they use when writing about Jews or Israel.”

That lesson, it seems, still hasn’t been learned.

Robert Philpot is a writer and journalist. He is the former editor of Progress magazine and author of “Margaret Thatcher: The Honorary Jew.”

Correction: Because of an editing error, an earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Ismail Haniyeh masterminded the October 7 atrocities.

Most Popular
read more: