The story behind the Guardian’s deleted letter of Jewish support for Chris Williamson

Chris Williamson
John McEvoy

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.

Complaint

The BoD replied to the letter as follows:

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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.

The letter

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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  • Show Comments
    1. Thank you. Very clear. I have been wondering as all this about Labour anti-semitism has unfolded – where are te articles about Tory anti-semitism? After all it’s everywhere. So there should be items about how it is being challenged in the Tories, the Brexit Party, Libdems, Greens, Plaid Cymru, SNP, TA, Churches, Mosques, the Women’s Institute, RSPCA, AA, RAC, Google, Facebook, Microsoft and all. Because it’s everywhere.
      So why do we only see a big fuss about Labour? Because some people have it in for Labour, are [very] scared of a Labour Government, have control of important media outlets. So we get a big fuss about Labour.

      1. Ai understand it only people, Jew or gentile, accepted by BoJ are relevant and my comment on ANY form of Jewishness.
        Sounds to me that Labour has got the establishment worried that the status quo of the last 40 years may be coming to an end.

    2. For consideration?
      “The most obvious conclusions to draw from the figures are that:

      – 99.9% of Labour members have never been accused of antisemitism
      – a huge proportion of claims about ‘Labour’ behaviour doesn’t involve Labour members at all
      – around a third of complaints that do involve Labour members are so unfounded that they didn’t stand up to the first level of scrutiny
      – Labour’s administration under Jennie Formby has made huge inroads into the issue
      – most of the old cases that took a long time to deal with were accumulated on former general secretary Iain McNicol’s watch

      None of these obvious conclusions are likely to receive a mention in the so-called ‘mainstream media’.”
      https://skwawkbox.org/2019/02/12/labours-antisemitism-data-release-exposes-media-narrative/

    3. The Guardian treatment of the Williamson story is the last straw for me, I have switched my subscription to The Canary – it seems one of the few places were the actual issues are discussed (eg what did Williamson say? does it constitute race-hatred?) rather than just reporting opinions from one side of an argument (eg so-and-so is ‘disgusted by all the antisemitism’). I also found it sinister that any comment on The Guardian website that referenced the Media Reform Coalition research into press bias in covering AS, or the Shai Masot resignation from the Israeli Embassy for being caught claiming he could ‘take down’ pro-palestinian MPs by claiming antisemitism, immediately disappeared without even a ‘this comment was removed’ sign.
      Well done Canary – you are a vital counterpoint to the entire MSM assumption that accusations of AS = guilt. Please keep it up!

      1. There is also the most excellent complimentary web site The Skwawkbox which also helps very much to balance the deluge of Corporate shite that passes for news on the Labour Party.
        It is such alternate sites such as these and more ( Novara Media , Evolve Politics and many others ) that all help provide much needed and missing balance and information to have a informed opinion and make informed decisions , something the RW MSM don’t want you to have or do .

        1. After Chris Williamson was suspended, Ash Sarkar of Novara Media tweeted:

          “Chris Williamson has been had the Labour whip suspended pending investigation, which I think is the right decision. But much more work must be done to proactively confront and dismantle conspiratorial and antisemitic thinking on the left, and it goes much further than expulsions.’ https://twitter.com/AyoCaesar/status/1100804093109518336

          Chris Willaimson’s suspension was lifted on June 26. Ash Sarkar tweeted ‘This outcome is indefensible’. https://twitter.com/AyoCaesar/status/1143922784512421888

          And Aaron Bastani, also of Novara Media, wrote:

          “I think media coverage of the “Labour anti-semitism crisis” is completely disproportionate – primarily because it underplays problem more broadly across society.

          ‘Equally, hearing & reading the things I have in recent days I wouldn’t feel welcome in the party as a Jewish person.”
          https://twitter.com/AaronBastani/status/1100795841915293696

          As David Edwards and David Cromwell of Medialens wrote in their book ‘Propaganda Blitz’:

          “while a demonising propaganda blitz may arise from rightist politics and media, the propaganda coup de grace ending public doubt often comes from the “left-liberal” journalists at the Guardian, the Independent, the BBC and Channel 4; and also from non-corporate journalists who crave acceptance by these media. Again, the logic is clear: if even celebrity progressive journalists – people famous for their principled stands, and colourful socks and ties – join the denunciations, then there must be something to the claims. At this point, it actually becomes difficult to doubt it’. (David Edwards and David Cromwell, ‘Propaganda Blitz’, Pluto Press, 2018, pp.8-9)

          Since those comments, I no longer bother to read Novara Media. They seem to me to be classic examples of non-corporate journalists craving acceptance. To suggest that Chris Williamson did anything other than express the Labour Party’s dedication to fighting anti-semitism whilst protesting against being over apologetic in the face of a cynical smear campaign is scurrilous. What’s the matter with Ash Sarkar? Can’t she read? Is she not capable of doing what I and thousands of others have done – listened carefully to what was said, and understood immediately that Chris was expressing frustration that a commitment to fighting anti-semitism, including the expulsion of people like Jackie Walker, which should never have happened, has gone too far in accommodating false accusations and smears? How come she misread and misheard Williamson in precisely the way those responsible for this smear campaign wanted her to? These people need to be made to explain, in detail, what they found anti-semitic in Williamson’s comments. This would silence and expose them, since they cannot do that without being blatantly dishonest.

          As for Aaron Bastani, I don’t recognise the Labour Party he describes. How is that? What does he see that I don’t, and why is it that what he sees is, once again, exactly what people like Margaret Hodge want him to see? I have no trust in these people.

    4. I’m not a religious fellow but many of these accusers are and the Old Testament is well aware of them.

      Psalm 27:12. Deliver me not over to the will of mine enemies: for false witnesses are risen up against me, and such as breathe out cruelty.

      Psalm 35:11. False witnesses did rise up; they laid to my charge things that I new not. [12] They rewarded me evil for good to the spoiling of my soul.

    5. I remember when the Guardian’s Comment is Free section was one of the liveliest discussion forums on the internet. That began to change after the Snowden affair, when reasonable comments started occasionally disappearing with no explanation from staff and moderation became increasingly heavy-handed from that point forward. When Viner took over the helm from Rusbridger extremely heavy-handed moderation became the norm and soon thereafter they stopped opening the most interesting (read: “controversial”) articles to comments altogether. During the long run up to the American federal election in 2016 the paper took a sharp turn to the right and became the balatant propaganda organ for the neoliberal establishment it is today.

      The vitriol and lunacy on display in the steady stream of articles and editorials smearing Jeremy Corbyn and Labour is absolutely mind boggling but what really shocks me is how many people are taken in by such blatantly over-the-top propaganda. It’s apparently true that with enough repetition even the most outlandish claims and accusations are taken at face value by a significant percentage of the population.

      It’s very disconcerting how easily swayed people are by vindictive nonsense and how quickly the absurd becomes the banal. We are lurching toward a very dystopian near future.

    6. Who makes up the Board Of Directors for British Jews? Are they to be the only official voice ot the Jewish people.
      What happened to the Rabbi’s voice I wonder. I don’t hear any voices from these people as I used to in the news.
      Is this a new Jewish religion begun by a Board Of Directors?

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