London Review of Books looks anti-Israel

By Alex Brummer, September 12, 2008

The LRB dropped a Middle East-related review at the last minute. Why?


The London Review of Books is no stranger to controversy. Two years ago the paper's editor, Mary-Kay Wilmers, found herself at the centre of a firestorm when it published a searing article by the academics John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt claiming that the Israel lobby in the United States holds a disproportionate sway over America's foreign policy.

The original piece had been commissioned by the Atlantic in the US and rejected. It failed to find a home in an American periodical and eventually nestled in the pages of the LRB, before the thesis was transformed into a bestselling book.

Now the LRB, still edited by the independent Wilmers, is alleged to have acted similar way to the Atlantic by rejecting a contentious book review.

The article concerned found a home in the left-leaning Nation magazine in the United States - which may have the same political leanings as the London Review but clearly takes a different view of what is right for publication.

The contribution was written by Bernard Avishai, an expert on the Middle East economies, who has lectured at several major US universities. It was a review of a new biography of King Hussein by the Anglo-Israeli academic Avi Shlaim, who teaches international relations at Oxford.

Avishai says on his blog that the review and the book paint a benign view of Hussein which does not necessarily conform to the stereotype on the left, which saw Hussein as a jumped-up secular potentate who sold out the Palestinians to preserve his own position in the region and collect the aid dollars from the West.

In his review, Avishai, author of the The Hebrew Republic (which argues that Israel's secular democracy and enterprise will be the basis for a regional peace), writes that Hussein was an exemplar of what an Arab leader should be. His review in the Nation states uncontroversially that the king was an advocate of peace and dignified compromise for more than a generation. As importantly, he suggests that Jordan has become "a kind of miracle in the desert, a commercial hub of regional business".

He views Jordan as the place where "many of the real leaders of a future Palestinian state" are building the business and political connections Palestine will need, including both Israeli entrepreneurs and the leaders of Ramallah and East Jerusalem.

This may look a little starry-eyed given the collapse of enterprise in Gaza and the West Bank, post the second intifada.

All seemed to be going well with publication in the LRB. Avishai says a request for biographical material was received the Wednesday before the edition was to go to print. Then, according to Avishai, he received a letter of apology from Wilmers and a cheque with a note saying the piece "does not work - or at least for us".

To add insult to injury, as far as Avishai is concerned, his article was displaced by an article on Gaza by Henry Siegman, a liberal Zionist critic of Israel.

The LRB rejects Avishai's implication that his article was censored because of its content. "We belatedly decided to kill the piece not through any ideological motive, but because we felt the piece didn't merit the space," one of the LRB's editors, Adam Shatz, told the JC. He rebuts the suggestion that there was any connection between the decision to reject Avishai's review and to run the Gaza article.

Editors have an absolute right to reject material which they believe lacks quality. But there is a LRB tendency to print anti-American material and articles less than sympathetic to Israel.

Unfortunately, the Avishai episode may reinforce that view.

Alex Brummer is City Editor of the Daily Mail

Last updated: 1:06pm, September 11 2008