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How The Guardian continues to exclude Palestinians from its comment pages

November 28, 2016 at 4:16 pm

This time last year, I carried out an informal survey of how The Guardian was covering the issue of Palestine and Israel in its comment pages. The results were not good.

Out of 138 op-eds on the topic published by the newspaper in its ‘Comment is free’ section from October 2013 to November 2015 (including both print and online-only articles, as well as content from The Observer), just 20 were written by Palestinians – 15 per cent of the total.

By contrast, 39 op-eds (28 per cent) were written by Israelis, including six by state officials or diplomats, and four by opposition politicians.

The statistics told a clear story: The Guardian was excluding Palestinians from its comment pages.

It is now time for an update. Once more, I have compiled the database of comment pieces published over the last year (1 December 2015 to 27 November 2016) using three tags – ‘Israel’, ‘Gaza’, and ‘Palestinian Territories’ – that together archive almost all relevant pieces.

I have excluded articles where Israel and/or the Palestinians were mentioned but not the main focus (including pieces related to Australian politics). There were also pieces addressing various aspects of a debate about anti-Zionism and antisemitism, and I will discuss those separately (below).

Over the last year, The Guardian has published just 20 comment pieces specifically relating to Israel and the Palestinians, which, before even considering by whom and about what, marks a sharp reduction in coverage of the topic in general.

Six were by Palestinians: one each by Liverpool-based doctor Salim Hammad, British-based academic Ahmad Samih Khalidi, Israeli MK Yousef Jabareen, singer and Israeli citizen Mira Awad, Palestinian ambassador to the UK Manuel Hassassian, and Palestine Solidarity Campaign director, Ben Jamal.

Another five of the 20 op-eds were authored by Jewish Israelis: journalists Dahlia Scheindlin, Mairav Zonszein, and Anshel Pfeffer, former military official Ami Ayalon, and author David Grossman. Of the other contributors, The Guardian’s Jonathan Freedland and columnist Giles Fraser both wrote twice.

If any ‘narrative’ emerges from these 20 op-eds, it is that Israeli politics is lurching rightwards, Israeli liberals and human rights NGOs are under pressure, and a two-state solution looks increasingly unlikely. All of which contains some truth, of course, but is also deeply inadequate.

The quantity and focus of the comment coverage speaks to a sense of priorities. For example, in the last year, there was just one op-ed each on the following three topics: Israel’s acceleration of home demolitions and displacement; settlements; and Israeli forces’ extrajudicial killings of Palestinians.

By way of comparison, there were three pieces purely on Israel’s rightward drift (by Jonathan Freedland, liberal Zionist activist Hannah Weisfeld, and journalist Mairav Zonszein).

Perhaps the most instructive absence from The Guardian’s comment coverage is the voices of Palestinian activists and human rights defenders on the ground. Strikingly, over the past year The Guardian has not published a single op-ed by a Palestinian in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip.

This seems to be a wider problem for liberal and progressive publications, not limited to The Guardian. Back in May, I reported how the last piece written by a Palestinian in the ‘Middle East’ section of the New Statesman magazine was from July 25, 2014. That’s still the case.

As I mentioned above, a separate but relevant issue is The Guardian comment pages’ coverage of recent debates about antisemitism and the Left, anti-Zionism, and the Labour party.

I counted 15 pieces on the topic over the last year, with the majority repeating – or indeed helping to establish – a narrative that Labour has an antisemitism ‘crisis’. This often involved smearing Palestine solidarity activists, and equating antisemitism and anti-Zionism.

These op-eds included one on 18 February describing “Oxford’s student left” as “institutionally antisemitic”, Howard Jacobson’s claim on 23 October that Zionism never took the form of “conquest…[or] colonial expansionism”, and two pieces by anti-Palestinian writer Nick Cohen.

On 29 April, Jonathan Freedland rehashed his hand-wringing defence of the Nakba, while, on the anniversary of Cable Street, The Guardian gave a platform to the Israeli ambassador to attack “leftwing antisemitism…[that] conceals itself behind the mask of anti-Zionism.”

Compare this to the US and Israel itself, where debate about and explicit opposition to Zionism has appeared in the likes of the Los Angeles Times (suppressing “criticism of Zionism” is “catastrophic censorship”), and Israeli site 972mag (“It’s 2016 — let’s say goodbye to Zionism once and for all”).

In April, The New York Times ran a special ‘Room for Debate’ on Zionism which featured five op-eds – including by Palestinians – where a genuine range of views were expressed – including “Anti-Zionism can and should be anti-racism” and “Zionism justifies discrimination and oppression”.

Over the last year, even Israeli newspaper Haaretz has published op-eds with titles like ‘No, anti-Zionism Isn’t anti-Semitism’ and ‘Liberal Zionists, We Lost the Kids’, a piece on how “Diaspora Jewish teens’ radical dissociation from Israel” is because “they’re ashamed to be associated with Zionism.”

These are not the perspectives, however, that The Guardian’s comment editors apparently think British readers want or need. As shown by the absence of voices from the West Bank and Gaza, or the lack of a Palestinian perspective on critical issues such as Zionism, when it comes to The Guardian’s comment pages, Palestine is just not a story – and when it is, it’s an Israeli one.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.