Media blind to nature of Chabad horror

The UK press failed to see that the attacks on Jews in Mumbai were racist.


The argument made in some quarters that a distinction can be drawn between anti-Zionism and antisemitism looks threadbare after the attack on the Chabad house in Mumbai. The Jewish centre may have provided a refuge to Israeli travellers passing through India’s commercial centre, but it was an outpost of traditional Judaism — not Israel.

As far as the terrorists are concerned, Jews and Zionists are one and the same. The inherent racism in what happened in Mumbai, where the targets were Westerners and Jews, was largely missed by the British media.

Instead of focusing on the death of men of the cloth killed in the Jewish centre, some of the papers chose to see Israel (and by implication Jews) as the cause of the attacks rather than the victims.
A leader in the FT argued: “Tackling disputes such as Kashmir, or that between Israel and the Palestinians, would help separate tractable grievances from extremist manipulation and provide the legitimacy to crush pan-Islamic jihadism.”

William Dalrymple, writing in The Observer, sought to make much the same point. “If Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians is the most emotive issue for Muslims in the Middle East, then India’s treatment of the people of Kashmir plays a similar role among South-East Asian Muslims,” he opined. If, as Dalrymple argued, Kashmir lies at the heart of the tragic events in India, why did the group make Jews a target?

As it turns out, the attack on the Jewish centre received more than its fair share of coverage both in the broadcast and written media. This was for two reasons. First, there was dramatic footage, beamed around the world (and perhaps to the hostage takers inside), of 17 Indian commandos being dropped on to the roof of Nariman House, which The Times described as “the local headquarters of Jewish group Chabad Lubavitch”. Secondly, there was inspiring human interest. The escape of two-year-old Moshe Holtzber made for heart-warming pictures, with the child cradled in the arms of his grandfather, a bearded and lachrymose Shimon Rozenberg.

Fortunately, the British media, often criticised for sensationalism, showed self-restraint and declined to publish shots of the blood-stained scenes inside the Chabad House.

For much of the UK press, the Jewish centre siege was a small part of the comprehensive coverage. By contrast, the International Herald Tribune gave it headline coverage.

The Paris-based offshoot of The New York Times focused on the Israeli reaction to the tragedy, noting that the centre provided business people and backpackers with a “kosher place to eat; a warm place to visit, put on phylacteries, hear a sermon, or receive a blessing from the rabbi. Rivka Holzberg, who perished with her husband, Gavriel Noach, would cook for ‘dozens’”.

The article claimed that the victims had been found wrapped in prayer shawls, in accordance with Jewish burial tradition, and surmised that one of the hostages had bound the bodies before he was killed. Among the dead was another minister, Rabbi Leibish Teitelbaum, a US citizen now living in Israel.

Ha’aretz focused in its analysis on the increasingly strong, but low-key, relationship between Israel and India, which flourished under the rule of the nationalist BJP party from 1998-2004. In the past decade, India has acquired $8m of arms from Israel and Defence Minister Vijay Singh was a recent visitor to Jerusalem. India, the paper observed, prefers to keep these relations out of sight for fear of alienating Muslim members of the government.

Similar analysis has (so far) been missing from the UK press, where Israel-Palestine is seen as a flashpoint encouraging terrorist acts.

Alex Brummer is the Daily Mail’s City Editor

    Last updated: 11:32am, December 4 2008