August 14, 2003
British Writer Snubs Pro-Israel Letters
A British newspaper columnist who admits that he ignores pro-Israel letters to the editor if the writer has a Jewish name will not be punished, the country's media watchdog has decided.
Richard Ingrams, a columnist for the Observer newspaper, made the remark last month in a column criticizing Barbara Amiel, a journalist and the wife of Jerusalem Post proprietor Conrad Black.
"I have developed a habit when confronted by letters to the editor in support of the Israeli government to look at the signature to see if the writer has a Jewish name. If so, I tend not to read it," Ingrams wrote in his July 13 column.
The Observer received about 50 letters and e-mails in response to the column, including one from the Board of Deputies, the umbrella organization that represents most British Jews.
Neville Nagler, the director general of the board, called Ingrams' position "quite unacceptable."
"If a Jewish person chooses to support the Israeli government, this does not make his argument any less legitimate than a non-Jewish person's," Nagler wrote. "It is deeply worrying that a journalist of your paper is so willing to blind himself to one side of this sad conflict."
Another person who complained to the paper about the column pointed out that many Jews are highly critical of Israel.
"Ingrams would thus exclude names such as [Noam Chomsky, Susan Sontag and David Grossman -- all fierce critics of Israeli policy --] from the public debate on Israel, on much the same ethnic principle as Jews were once blackballed from certain gentlemen's clubs," R.J. Chisholm wrote.
The Observer's own journalist employed to investigate reader complaints admitted that the piece was "inflammatory" and "bigoted."
"I agree with a reader who pointed out that Ingrams' piece displayed such a degree of prejudice against Jews that it will be impossible ever again to take seriously anything he writes about Israel," journalist Stephen Pritchard wrote on Aug. 3.
But the Press Complaints Commission, which received two formal complaints about the piece, has decided not to take action against Ingrams.
"It is clear there has been no breach of the code" governing newspapers, commission spokesman Stephen Abell told Jewish Telegraphic Agency.
Complaints were filed on two grounds, he explained: accuracy and discrimination.
The column did not breach the accuracy clause because it was clearly labeled opinion, rather than news, Abell said. And the code's discrimination clause applies only to named individuals, not to groups, he said.
"[Ingrams] wasn't naming individuals, he was making a point about a group," Abell said.
The column might have been offensive, he said, but that is not a violation of newspaper guidelines.
"Matters of taste and offensiveness aren't covered by the code," he said.
Norman Lebrecht, a former columnist for Britain's Jewish Chronicle newspaper, supported the commission's decision.
He called it a matter of courtesy to read one's mail, adding, "If a columnist chooses to be discourteous, that isn't a matter for the Press Complaints Commission."
"There is no anti-Semitism" in Ingrams' refusal to read mail from Jews in support of Israel, he told JTA.
The reaction to the column stemmed from anxiety in the Jewish community, Lebrecht said.
"There is an awful lot of nervousness in the community at the moment, [and the complaints] are a manifestation of that," he said.
In May, the Press Complaints Commission rejected a complaint that a cartoon depicting Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon eating a baby was anti-Semitic. The commission said it based its decision on the grounds that the cartoon criticized Sharon's policies, not his religion.