The story behind the Guardian’s deleted letter of Jewish support for Chris Williamson
On 8 July, the Guardian published an open letter signed by numerous prominent Jewish figures – including Noam Chomsky and Norman Finkelstein – in defence of MP Chris Williamson. Following a prompt complaint from the Board of Deputies of British Jews (BoD), however, the Guardian removed the letter “pending investigation”.
The Canary spoke with one of the letter’s authors about issues of oversight, the response it provoked, and the importance of the letter’s contents.
The BoD replied to the letter as follows:
We have complained to the @guardian over a letter defending Chris Williamson, which included:
❗️A misrepresentation of @hopenothate
❗️The paper's description of the signatories as "Prominent members of the Jewish community"
Full text: https://t.co/Is6i4YswLN pic.twitter.com/NBvbgnC5kx
— Board of Deputies of British Jews (@BoardofDeputies) July 9, 2019
The BoD rightly highlighted that one of the signatories – ‘Michael Morgan’ – had made past racist and abhorrent remarks.
Anti-racist organisation HOPE not hate (HNH) also responded to one signatory including its name by claiming that:
We have no knowledge of the person listed in this letter, we don’t know on what grounds they think they’re entitled to use our name but they are not. We’ll be contacting the Guardian to insist HNH is removed.
The Canary understands, however, that both the Jewish Labour Movement signatory and the HNH signatory are indeed members of the respective organisations, even if they aren’t representative of those organisations’ official positions.
“An accident and an oversight”
One of the letter’s co-authors, who prefers to remain anonymous, told The Canary that they regret the lack of oversight which led to the errors:
We were clear that the letter was supposed to be signed by only Jewish people. It was made public a couple of days ago, and received 292 signatures shortly after.
We tried to confirm which of the signatories were Jewish by contacting them. If we received no response, we took them off the list.
Michael Morgan replied and told us he was not Jewish, so we took him off the list. His name ended up back on it after transferring the document through different file formats, mistakenly using older files.
The inclusion of Michael Morgan was an accident and an oversight. His views do not reflect ours.
They also explained that, while some of the signatories said they were associated with certain organisations, they may not reflect those organisations’ views.
There are clear problems with some of the signatories to the letter, whose names should not have been included next to those of prominent anti-racist campaigners like Chomsky, Finkelstein, and Medea Benjamin. But the letter was of great importance. Because it sought to challenge the continuously misleading reporting around the suspension of Williamson from the Labour Party:
Chris Williamson did not say that the party had been “too apologetic about antisemitism”, as has been widely misreported. He correctly stated that the Labour party has done more than any other party to combat the scourge of antisemitism and that, therefore, its stance should be less apologetic. Such attacks on Jeremy Corbyn’s supporters aim to undermine not only the Labour party’s leadership but also all pro-Palestinian members.
It continued that:
The mass media have ignored the huge support for Chris both within and beyond the Labour party. Support that includes many Jews. The party needs people like him, with the energy and determination to fight for social justice. As anti-racist Jews, we regard Chris as our ally: he stands as we do with the oppressed rather than the oppressor. It should also be noted that he has a longer record of campaigning against racism and fascism than most of his detractors.
Who are “prominent” Jews?
Speaking to The Canary, the co-author added:
I think the letter itself is important, and also whether the Board of Deputies think the likes of Chomsky etc. are the ‘right kind of Jews’ is neither here nor there.
Of course these Jews are not prominent in the Board of Deputies’ circles, but this is the issue: The Board of Deputies seem to want to define what ‘prominent Jew’ means. And a lot of people who are Jewish and, like me, on the left, find that difficult to accept. Why is our Jewish identity being erased, and why do they get to define who is a Jew?
And, of course, there is a general onslaught against the Labour Party leadership.
It is also concerning that the BoD complained that some signatories “are themselves implicated in allegations of antisemitism”. Because in the context of the current smear campaign, allegations (i.e. claims not yet proven) are increasingly being used as a substitute for proof.
It is noteworthy, moreover, that the Guardian has previously refused to publish letters from Jewish figures critical of its reporting on Labour and antisemitism.
Despite clear errors
The letter’s moderation process could clearly have been better. Yet despite the obvious issues, it remains true that numerous prominent Jewish figures did sign the letter, which is a serious and accurate contribution to the conversation.
Featured image via Mohamed Elmaazi
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