I greatly admire Shami Chakrabarti, the head of Liberty. Britain would have been a much more repressive society without her having taken such strong, consistent and brave stands on justice, freedom of expression and civil and human rights generally over recent years. So when she speaks publicly about prejudice her voice needs to be heard. And I’m sure that she gives careful thought to what she says and has good grounds for the judgements she makes.
Her comments in the Jewish Chronicle on 17 March, quoted by the paper’s political editor Martin Bright in the report of an interview he conducted with her, should therefore be taken very seriously. I was alerted to her views when Martin Bright tweeted: ‘Shami tells it as it is: “Casual antisemitism now so prevalent it turns my stomach”: Shami Chakrabarti in @jewishchron http://bit.ly/hojYGN’. The words in double quote marks above comprise the heading of the piece online. The main title is ‘Interview: Liberty’s Shami Chakrabarti’.
But when I then went to the piece online, I discovered that she makes no such statement. In the third paragraph she says:
‘I have witnessed the prevalence of a casual antisemitism that troubles me and it is probably greater today than it even was at times in my youth’.
Then two paragraphs further on Bright quotes her again:
she had witnessed a worrying trend in recent years, especially on Israel. ‘I do think that sometimes it is because people are eliding, or think it is acceptable to elide, the criticism of Israeli government policy with peoples’ race. And I have heard it done, and it turns my stomach.’
Now it may be that she would agree that the statement ‘Casual antisemitism is so prevalent it turns my stomach’ represents her view, but judging by what she said, or at least by Bright’s recording and reporting of what she said, it was ‘the criticism of Israeli government policy [being elided] with people’s race’ that turns her stomach.
There is no doubt that Chakrabarti takes current antisemitism very seriously, and this is all to the good. But why did Bright or the sub-editor feel it necessary to manufacture a quote by putting together parts of two separate comments? Set against the rest of the interview, it gives the impression that the paper wanted to extract as strong a statement about antisemitism from her words as they possibly could, even if it meant going so far as to distort what she actually said.
Why Martin Bright had to do this, or acquiesce in it if it wasn’t his formulation, seems, on one level, very odd. Shami is unequivocal in her condemnation of antisemitism and clearly very concerned about what she sees as its current manifestations – why hype up her already strong words about the issue? Interestingly, she questions Martin’s assertion about Jewish suspicions of the London School of Economics (she is a member of the LSE Council) because of anti-Israel activism on the LSE campus: ‘If I had any credible evidence that Jewish students were unhappy or feeling oppressed at the LSE, I would be acting on it.’ This comment, which runs counter to received wisdom about the experience of Jewish students on campus, doesn’t get foregrounded, but a manufactured quote does.
Regrettably, this kind of hype is not unusual. Especially not in the Jewish Chronicle and especially not from Martin Bright. A report he wrote last year for the Jewish Chronicle about antisemitism in Scotland caused considerable controversy because of its exaggeration of the problem. I wrote about it for the Guardian‘s Comment is Free blog and my piece was cross-posted to the blog of the Glasgow Jewish Educational Forum, together with some responses I gave to talkback on my piece.
We need to have rational, objective and evidence-based discussion about current antisemitism, how it manifests itself and what to do about it. Manipulating the words of an important contributor like Shami Chakrabarti to such a discussion is counterproductive.