Context always matters when reporting on antisemitism | Paul Chadwick

In reporting on hate speech, it might be necessary to reproduce what has caused offence, but only after careful consideration
• Paul Chadwick is the Guardian’s readers’ editor

“The starting point for any investigation of antisemitism should not be: ‘Why does this obviously irrational belief appeal to other people?’ but ‘Why does antisemitism appeal to me?’ ”

George Orwell posed the question in his essay, Antisemitism in Britain, published by the Contemporary Jewish Record in 1945 and republished seven weeks ago with his related Notes on Nationalism (Penguin Modern: 07). Orwell uses “nationalism” expansively to include not just loyalty to country or government but also “such movements and tendencies as communism, political Catholicism, Zionism, antisemitism, Trotskyism and pacifism”.

Dated in some ways, in others both essays still chime. For example: “… the nationalist is often somewhat uninterested in what happens in the real world. What he wants is to feel that his own unit is getting the better of some other unit, and he can more easily do this by scoring off an adversary than by examining the facts to see whether they support him.” And: “A known fact may be so unbearable that it is pushed aside and not allowed to enter into logical processes, or on the other hand it may enter into every calculation and yet never be admitted as a fact, even in one’s own mind.”

Another eruption of controversy about antisemitism in the UK Labour party has brought complaints to the readers’ editor’s office. Some accuse the Guardian and Observer of unfairly treating the Labour party and/or its leader Jeremy Corbyn; others are concerned about references to the Jewish community, or to Israel.

I examined 15 days of Guardian and Observer coverage from 23 March, when it emerged that Corbyn had spoken out in 2012 in favour of a mural in which, I believe, any person of his age and experience in UK public life ought to have recognised antisemitic imagery.

Day by day, the developing news story was clearly conveyed: Corbyn pressured by his own MPs; Jewish community groups convene protest in Parliament Square; a Jewish community group holding different views hosts Corbyn at its Seder for Passover; a related resignation in Labour’s governance structures; Lord Sugar’s tweeted joke goes wrong; Momentum, the key Corbyn support base, says antisemitism in Labour is more widespread than thought and should not be dismissed as a rightwing smear; and Corbyn and the protesting Jewish community leaders agree to meet.

Readers could consider opinions that to varying degrees criticised Corbyn (Hadley Freeman, Matthew d’Ancona, Helen Lewis), supported him (Owen Jones, Rachel Shabi, Jewdas, his Seder hosts), and contextualised (Jonathan Freedland, Michael Segalov, Philip Spencer).

Readers’ letters, for and against Corbyn, were published over several days. Editorials in the Guardian and Observer challenged Corbyn to lead more forcefully a fight against antisemitism.

My assessment is that the editors’ judgment has been sound so far. They are dealing with an intensely felt issue that is entangled in two others: Corbyn’s leadership of Labour, and the Israel-Palestine issue.

The controversy continues. Meanwhile, some observations. In reporting and commenting on hate speech, it will at times be necessary for journalists to reproduce the language or images that cause offence or distress. Context matters always, and warnings can help. The UK parliamentary committee that reported on antisemitism in 2016 acted similarly. Defining antisemitism is challenging. The same committee proposed a long definition that the UK government adopted with amendments, as policy not law. The jurist Stephen Sedley has made powerful criticisms of that definition. At core, antisemitism is the hatred of Jewish people because they are Jewish. Factors to consider in assessing whether any given words, images or actions fit that definition include: content, form, user, intent, context, extent/intensity, and the persistence of the user in the face of clear indications that his or her words, images or actions are being understood as an expression of hatred of Jewish people because they are Jewish people.

Individual Jewish people are not responsible for the action or inaction of any government of Israel, and should not be presumed to be in agreement with them simply because the individual is Jewish.

Last word to Orwell: “… something, some psychological vitamin, is lacking in modern civilisation, and as a result we are all more or less subject to this lunacy of believing that whole races or nations are mysteriously good or mysteriously evil. I defy any modern intellectual to look closely and honestly into his own mind without coming upon nationalistic loyalties and hatreds of one kind or another.”

• Paul Chadwick is the Guardian’s readers’ editor

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Paul Chadwick

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