Heads in the sand can't work

By Norman Lebrecht, January 20, 2011

Last Saturday, the Guardian devoted a two-page spread to Linda Grant and her new novel, We Had It So Good, which is drawing the kind of praise most writers don't see before their obits. Grant has been involved with the paper for much of her adult life and the article was generally affectionate - until the interviewer hit upon her late-onset love for Israel, at which point the narrative went into an extraordinary contortion to explain that she was still a good person, really.

The Guardian's hostility to Zionism is a given, one of the harsh facts of media life. Along with other centre-left media, it holds Israel unilaterally responsible for every regional misery from hunger in Gaza to Iranian intransigence. Some might say it's not worth reading a newspaper of such doctrinaire rigidity, let alone arguing with it, but that to my view is an equally myopic response, one that ignores a vast and diverse readership.

The editor of the Jewish Chronicle took up the issue last week in a Philippic against Jewish Book Week, which is staging a conversation between two critics of Israeli policy, Gideon Levy and Johann Hari, in an event supported by the London Review of Books, a resolutely anti-Israel publication. "The only debate between Hari and Levy will be over who can attack Israel the most," wrote Stephen Pollard, suggesting that the long association between the JC and JBW might need to be reassessed.

Stephen called the LRB "der Stürmer-lite for intellectuals" and set it beyond the pale of a Jewish, bookish conversation. That strikes me as short-sighted. Not talking to adversaries is an admission of weakness, the quickest way to lose an argument. For three decades, while Arab states refused to talk to Israel, Israel could no wrong in the world's eyes. Once Egypt opened dialogue and the Palestinians came to the table, Israel has been consistently wrong-footed, and sometimes in the wrong. It may not like Hamas, but at some point it must meet them.

Nearer home, the Chief Rabbi's ban on United Synagogue rabbis attending the religiously diverse Limmud has been a spectacular own-goal. Limmud has gone from strength to strength and the US has lost much authority in the Orthodox sector.

It makes no sense to turn our backs on anti-Israel media bias

At Limmud some years back, I watched Robert Fisk - by far the most antagonistic of Middle East reporters - face a roomful of furious Jews for an hour. Fisk emerged unharmed and the Jews uncorrupted. There was respect for his courage and, on Fisk's part, surprise at the shades of opinion.

It is perfectly sensible for Jewish Book Week to link up with the London Review of Books, whose editor Mary Kay-Wilmers, is avowedly Jewish albeit anti-Zionist. If the LRB is as inflexible as the Guardian in its Middle Eastern fixities, all the more reason to bring it into conversation within a communal framework. It makes no sense to turn our backs on anti-Israel bias in mainstream media. It's there. Deal with it. Ideally, on our own turf, as JBW has done.

Norman Lebrecht is a former assistant editor of the (former) Evening Standard

Last updated: 10:44am, January 20 2011