How a north London web-designer began a campaign that deluged the Guardian with emails
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Thursday February 22, 2001
Why would the Guardian provide moral and medical justification for the multiple murder of innocent Israeli civilians?
It’s a pretty bizarre question, but we found ourselves being asked it over and over again this week. Emails clicked in to the letters page by the hundred, all making the same weirdly alliterative points. This followed publication of a Guardian article trying to understand the motivations of the Palestinian bus driver who ploughed into a queue this month, killing eight Israelis.
The mysteriously similar emails – from all over the world – started coming in, too, to our foreign editor; to our website; and to the personal email address of our Middle East correspondent, Suzanne Goldenberg.
They were inconvenient, and also sometimes a bit scary in their violent tone – “The bloody Guardian… Have you killed a Jew today?… Are you anti-Jewish?… Unrelenting Guardian anti-Israel bias… Why would the Guardian provide moral and medical justification etc…?’
This global blitzing was tending to crowd out genuine expressions of opinion from our readers. Our suspicions aroused, we tried to discover what was going on. It wasn’t straightforward. But eventually we discovered the trick. A website calling itself HonestReporting.com was set up in London last autumn.
It has recruited 12,000 subscribers to its database, it claims, all dedicated to fighting anti-Israel “bias” in the media. The aim was to recruit a total of 25,000.
Every time someone writes something they don’t like, details of the offending article are circulated round the world, together with a handy form of protesting words, ready to be lightly embroidered and electronically dispatched at the push of a button.
“This is what you should do,” they tell their members “Forward it on to the news company concerned at the email address provided. If you can, please change the subject of the email to ‘complaint’ or something similar.”
Their first success, HonestReporting boasted, was with the London Evening Standard. Its columnist Brian Sewell wrote last autumn calling on Israel to “become a multicultural society” and cease exploiting the Holocaust to justify unacceptable behaviour.
“The next day, [we] sent out a letter to subscribers.” Standard articles recorded “a wave of complaints… hundreds of Jewish readers have written in”. Then “after more pressure” there followed a pro-Israel article by Simon Sebag-Montefiore. “This is an example of what we can do.”
And now it was the Guardian’s turn to get the email treatment. A long electronic bulletin went out headed: “The Guardian: a mainstream British newspaper consistently blames Israel for everything.”
It complained that a Steve Bell cartoon showing Sharon’s bloody handprints on the Wailing Wall “encroaches on brash anti-semitism”. It complained that a Muslim, Faisal Bodi, had written questioning Israel’s right to statehood; and complained that the Guardian had said Sharon had killed the peace process. “No blame is assigned to Arafat.” And there too, was our old alliterative friend: “Why would the Guardian provide moral and medical justification…?”
Who was behind this internet harassment? The website gave no address. It had been registered last October under a London name and phone number that seemed not to exist. Eventually, it transpired that it had been set up by a 27-year-old Jewish web-designer from north London called Jonathan. “Don’t give my full name,” he asked. “Someone was killed in Stamford Hill [the Jewish district] the other day.” He and his friends came up with the idea by themselves: “We were just brainstorming.”
But the operation was now being funded and run from the US by an organisation concerned with media fairness, Media Watch International.
And who were they? “We’re pretty new,” says their director, Sharon Tzur, speaking from Manhattan. “It’s a group of concerned Jewish business people in New York.”
Yet a bit more inquiry reveals that this is not quite the whole story either. For this week’s bulletin denouncing the Guardian was in fact composed in Israel by a man named Shraga Simmons.
And when he is not working for HonestReporting, Mr Simmons is to be found employed at another organisation altogether – Aish HaTora. This is an international group promoting orthodox Judaism. “I do some work for Aish,” Mr Simmons says, from Israel. And Jonathan, the web-designer who started it all in London, also concedes: “I go to the odd class at Aish.”
Aish verge on the colourful in their antics. Founded by Rabbi Noah Weinberg, who complains that “20,000 kids a year” are being lost to Judaism by marrying out, Aish invented speed-dating – eight-minute sessions in cafes to help New Yorkers find compatible Jewish partners. They’re widely regarded as rightwing extremists. And they’re certainly not people entitled to harass the media into what they would call “objectivity”.
In the US and Britain, there is a campaign to smear anybody who tries to describe the plight of the Palestinian people. It is an attempt to intimidate and silence – and to a large degree, it works….
There was little attempt to dispute the facts I offered. Instead, some of the most high profile “pro-Israel” writers and media monitoring groups – including Honest Reporting and Camera – said I am an anti-Jewish bigot akin to Joseph Goebbels and Mahmoud Ahmadinejadh, while Melanie Phillips even linked the stabbing of two Jewish people in North London to articles like mine. Vast numbers of e-mails came flooding in calling for me to be sacked.