Deborah Orr evidently can’t help herself.
In 2011 the veteran Guardian journalist was forced to apologize after engaging in a gratuitous and ugly smear against Jews as inherently racist by completely distorting the concept of ‘the chosen people’ in a commentary on the Gilad Shalit prisoner release exchange. Here’s the infamous passage:
“At the same time, however, there is something abject in [Hamas's] eagerness to accept a transfer that tacitly acknowledges what so many Zionists believe – that the lives of the chosen are of hugely greater consequence than those of their unfortunate neighbors.”
Her apology – a quite mealy-mouthed one at that – included the following:
Last week, I upset a lot of people by suggesting Zionists saw themselves as “chosen”. My words were badly chosen and poorly used, and I’m sorry for it.
Remarkably, given the paper’s history with sanctioning such Judeophobic narratives, the Guardian’s readers’ editor wrote the following about Orr, two weeks after her column, in a piece titled ‘on averting accusations of antisemitism’:
Two weeks ago a columnist used the term “the chosen” in an item on the release of Gilad Shalit, which brought more than 40 complaints to the Guardian, and an apology from the columnist the following week. “Chosenness”, in Jewish theology, tends to refer to the sense in which Jews are “burdened” by religious responsibilities; it has never meant that the Jews are better than anyone else. Historically it has been antisemites, not Jews, who have read “chosen” as code for Jewish supremacism.
Though Orr has been relatively silent about issues pertaining to Jews and Israel since then, in an essay she penned yesterday, on the Jewish New Year, she managed to again revisit the ugly ‘chosen people’ smear. Though the article was ostensibly about Syria, (‘Russia is holding a lot of the cards in the Syria crisis. We should face that, Sept. 6), she was only able to stay on topic for eleven paragraphs, before pivoting inexplicably to Israel, ending with the following five paragraphs:
This would be a splendid time to try to get Egypt to sign the [chemical weapon] convention as well. And Israel, as yet, has not ratified. One can hardly blame Israel for this when two hostile countries on its borders haven’t even signed. However, one can blame Israel – and also the US – for going ahead with missile testing when the region is in crisis. The excuse given was that the exercise had been long-planned. Oh, dear. Could there be a more powerful declaration of the long-standing partisan interest the west has in the Middle East?
In the Middle East, people insist that all their troubles come back to Israel. It’s certainly true that some of them do. Israel, of course, is another country brought into being in the region largely by outsiders. Also, it was done without the agreement of either the majority of those living on the land at that time, or the neighbours, who have predictably proved to be so determinedly hostile. The creation of Israel has not been what anyone could call an unmitigated success, least of all the refugees whose descendants live until this day in camps, the product of a stalemate that has remained since 1948.
Israel has a right to exist, because it exists and because millions of people need it to continue to exist. But Israel’s creation was in part a response to another refugee crisis, after another terrible war. Just like all other religious groups, Judaism tends not fully to understand that its own sacred beliefs are true only to itself. I believe that the Jews are God’s chosen people no more than I believe that Christ was the son of God, or that Mohammed was God’s final prophet. How can I, when I don’t believe in God? I do believe, however, that the Middle East is the cradle of all three monotheistic religions. That’s a fact.
The idea that Israel is the product of some sort of ancient first-dibs right to a slice of the Middle East? That’s something that Jewish people – and anyone else – have every right to believe. But, in all religious groups there needs to be an understanding that even if a belief forms a crucial part of their own identity or faith, it isn’t a fact to be accepted by others who don’t share that identity or faith. A workable Israeli/Palestinian peace settlement grounded in 21st-century geopolitical fact, and stripped of ancient religious belief, is a necessary part of any wider settlement in the region.
Israeli Jews are no different to other religious, ethnic or nationalist groups in the Middle East in a basic respect: they want a land to call their own, in which they are safe. That’s only human. It’s time for the Middle East and the world to start trying to build on the things that humans have in common with each other, even if progress is difficult and slow. The things that make us different are the things we tend to insist are more important. These, unfortunately, offer no basis for agreement at all – only for continued conflict.
First, the degree to which Orr deviated off-topic is simply staggering – imputing significance to a concept in Judaism (which she egregiously misinterprets) in a piece ostensibly about an Arab on Arab conflict that has nothing to do with Jews. In the face of unimaginable savagery in a Syrian war which has claimed over 100,000 lives, and has included the regime’s use of chemical weapons against innocent civilians, the Guardian journalist looks around the region and can’t help but see Jews.
More importantly, however, she once again shamefully legitimizes the distorted idea of ‘chosenness’ – derived from a passage in the Torah understood as a Jewish requirement to uphold an especially high standard of ethical behavior – as Jews’ belief in something akin to religious supremacy, an idea her readers’ editor dismissed as the propaganda of antisemitic extremists.
The Guardian readers’ editor, in his piece on “averting antisemitism” cited above, concluded thusly:
I have been careful to say that these examples may be read as antisemitic because I don’t believe their appearance in the Guardian was the result of deliberate acts of antisemitism: they were inadvertent.
The Guardian should not be oppressed by criticism – some of the language used by our critics is abusive and intimidatory – or retreat into self-censorship. But reporters, writers and editors must be more vigilant to ensure our voice in the debate is not diminished because our reputation has been tarnished.
Try as they may to “avert” such charges, their journalists and contributors’ obsession with Jews will continue to earn the “liberal” broadsheet the just reputation as one of the leading mainstream media purveyors of antisemitic tropes.