The Voice's racist Israeli jail claim is 'blood libel'

By Keren David, July 30, 2009
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Dispute: The July 20 front page

Dispute: The July 20 front page

Israel’s ambassador to the UK has accused Britain’s leading black newspaper of printing a story “in the spirit of a blood libel”, while the paper’s own source for the article has slammed its coverage as “sensationalised and inaccurate”.

The Voice newspaper’s front page headline in its July 20 edition read: “Hundreds of black people being held in Israeli jails”, a claim based on the “astonishing” story of film-maker Ishmahil Blagrove, detained by the Israeli navy while on board a ship taking aid to the people of Gaza.

He was, like others on the aid ship, held in what The Voice describes as “Ramla High Security Prison”, although it was actually Givon Prison, a low security jail in Ramle, Israel.

The report calls the Israeli government racist and makes strong allegations about mistreatment of prisoners — particularly black prisoners — in Israel’s jails. Ambassador Ron Prosor said: “The Voice should be a responsible, articulate voice for black Britons.

“Instead, on this occasion it has chosen to be the voice of slander, disinformation and lies. There is much to unite black Britons and the Jewish people. This article, however, is less in the spirit of being blood brothers and more in the spirit of a blood libel.”

The full-page interview by reporter Janelle Oswald quoted Mr Blagrove, from Notting Hill, as saying: “The first day I was there I witnessed 500 Africans scooped from the streets of Tel Aviv thrown into prison… the prison population there was 90 per cent black.

“Without insulting the memory of those that survived the Nazi concentration camps, the prison we were kept in can only be described in that manor.” (Our italics.)

The Voice’s report accused the prison authorities of cramming 14 people into a 7sq ft cell.
The interview quoted Mr Blagrove as saying: “We were constantly being barked at and threatened with physical abuse. If they disobey, prisoners are stripped naked and put inside a hole with no lights or heating. We were seen as sub-human.”

He also apparently claimed immigrant prisoners had told him they were being refused leave to transfer back to their own countries. He condemned the Israeli government as “racist”.

The report was, however, undermined by an angry letter from Mr Blagrove himself, printed on page 22 of the following week’s issue under the headline: “I want to clarify some points.” He corrected ten facts in the report, including the dimensions of the cell which was actually 7m by 4m.

“We were never threatened with physical abuse. Disobedient prisoners were put in a small cell with the lights on 24hrs and monitored by CCTV.”

He also pointed out: “I did not witness 500 Africans scooped off the streets… It would be ridiculous for me to suggest that the Israeli prison population is 90 per cent black. This reference was made in regard to the prison block where I was held.

“I am very annoyed about it. Many of the things attributed to me never took place. Actually, we were treated very well. The naval officers on the boat were a little heavy-handed, but that was to be expected.

“We had good conversations with the guards. All we want is justice for the people of Gaza. If it was Jews sitting in Gaza needing help, I would still be on that boat trying to help them.”

But he stood by his comment about a concentration camp, saying it referred to cramming 14 people into a small cell. “It’s a stark contrast to make, but it was the comparison that sprung to mind, although lacking the gas chambers and torture, obviously.”

The report attracted many critical comments on The Voice’s website, including one from Lisa Richlen who works for Israeli human rights NGO, the Hotline for Migrant Workers, which visits non-Israelis detained in prison. She condemned the report as factually inaccurate and sensationalist. She added: “Our clients prefer Israeli prisons to sleeping in public parks in Cairo.”

Steve Pope, editor of The Voice, said he “regretted the inaccuracies”, which he said had arisen from “misunderstandings” between the reporter and Mr Blagrove. He added: “I’m not sure it fundamentally changes the thrust of the story.”

Mr Pope said that the reporter had not maliciously fabricated quotes, had a tape recording of the interview and disputed some of Mr Blagrove’s complaints. He said: “It’s going a bit too far to accuse us of an anti-Jewish campaign. We were just trying to tell one man’s story.”

He added: “The nature of journalism is to make things sensational.”

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    Last updated: 1:43pm, July 31 2009

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