The New Statesman and anti-Semitism

For our issue dated 14 January, the New Statesman published a cover showing the Star of David standing on a Union Jack, with the words: "A kosher conspiracy?" The cover introduced articles by Dennis Sewell and John Pilger on Britain's pro-Israeli lobby.

Sewell had been commissioned to investigate the belief, common in certain sections of the left, that a pro-Zionist lobby has undue influence over media coverage of the Middle East. Sewell concluded that, while such a lobby undeniably existed, as do lobbies for many other causes, it was relatively ineffective. If anything, he judged, the left-liberal press was biased against Israel.

Pilger is a New Statesman columnist who writes fortnightly. (Some will no doubt seek significance in his absence this week; in fact, he is ill.) Coincidentally, his piece for 14 January also focused on the Middle East. His concern was Tony Blair's "support for the Zionist project and his role as Ariel Sharon's closest ally in Europe".

Within hours of publication, I had received e-mails from Jewish colleagues on other newspapers expressing their disquiet about the cover. The purpose of a magazine cover is to attract attention on the news-stands and sometimes to hint that the contents may be daring and unconventional. It became apparent that this cover had done its work all too well. By the following week, we had a sheaf of hostile letters: many complaining about the cover, some about Pilger's article, some about Sewell's (these included several which argued, in an unbigoted way, that Sewell had understated the Zionist influence).

We printed a selection of these letters in our following issue. One, from David Triesman, general secretary of the Labour Party, concluded: "I have read - agreed and disagreed with - the New Statesman for 40 years. I never thought I would come to regard it as anti-Semitic. I do today." Another, from Professor Stefan Reif of St John's College, Cambridge, said that our cover "was in the best traditions of Nazi Germany's Der Sturmer".

There we thought the matter would rest. To publish, against oneself, accusations of anti-Semitism is, after all, no light matter. But the Jewish press then took up the issue, and so did a number of commentators and columnists in the national press, using our cover as a hook to discuss the extent to which opposition to the policies of the present Israeli government shaded into anti-Semitism.

Then, on 30 January, as we were going to press for last week's issue, four people claiming to represent a group called Action Against Antisemitism (of which I had not previously heard) arrived unannounced at our offices demanding that we print a comprehensive apology. Simultaneously, they issued a press release stating that our offices were "occupied". In fact, they were in no way violent or disruptive and, after an hour-long conversation with our publisher, Spencer Neal, they agreed to leave. But their "occupation" prompted further press coverage, notably an extended and entirely fair news report in the Independent.

The New Statesman cannot respond to or negotiate with a self-appointed group of unknown standing that walks in off the street. Nevertheless, the coverage of this episode has reached the point where we owe our readers, and the Jewish community in general, some statement of our position. So, shoulders braced, deep breath:

We (or, more precisely, I) got it wrong. The cover was not intended to be anti-Semitic; the New Statesman is vigorously opposed to racism in all its forms. But it used images and words in such a way as to create unwittingly the impression that the New Statesman was following an anti-Semitic tradition that sees the Jews as a conspiracy piercing the heart of the nation. I doubt very much that one single person was provoked into hatred of Jews by our cover. But I accept that a few anti-Semites (as some comments on our website, quickly removed, suggested) took aid and comfort when it appeared that their prejudices were shared by a magazine of authority and standing. Moreover, the cover upset very many Jews, who are right to feel that, in the fight against anti-Semitism in particular and racism in general, this magazine ought to be on their side.

The articles by Sewell and Pilger (who had no part in choosing or approving headlines or cover illustrations) are an entirely different matter. Sewell's report was fair and balanced, and many critics (including Jews), in asking me to express regret for the cover, have also asked me to make that clear. Pilger's column was more contentious (or, at any rate, more outside the mainstream media consensus); but it was not anti-Semitic, and Pilger's remarkable record as a reporter who, for example, exposed genocide in Cambodia and East Timor demands that we take seriously anything he writes.

The matter cannot quite be allowed to rest there. Some may say that we could run covers that use symbols and raise questions about the behaviour of, say, Americans, French, Italians, Spanish or Australians ("a garlic conspiracy?" or "a wallaby conspiracy?") and that we would not dream of apologising for them. We on the left, critics may say, treat Jews as a special case, and we do just the same for blacks and Asians. We should not, according to this view, give way to pressures for political correctness.

This argument I reject completely. Americans, French and Australians (white ones at least) have not suffered centuries of continuous oppression, discrimination and murder. Racism against white people is of no consequence because it has no historical resonance. To call somebody a "white bastard" is just not the same as calling somebody a "black bastard", with all its connotations of humiliation and enslavement. Given the distribution of power in our world, discrimination by blacks or Asians against whites will almost always be trivial.

Jews are a different case. They no longer routinely suffer gross or violent discrimination; indeed, in the US and Europe at least, Jews today are probably safer than most minorities. But the Holocaust remains within living memory, as do the language and the iconography used by the Nazis to prepare the way for it. We have a special duty of care not to revive them.

There is one further, troubling matter. Last year, we published a cover that offended many Muslims. Headed "Koran con trick", it reported academic suggestions that the origins of the Koran were not quite as Muslim tradition claims. Should we have apologised for that? The answer, I think, is that to question a body of belief is not the same as to accuse members of a racial group of conspiracy. Even so, I have to admit that I know many fewer Muslims than I know Jews; the latter have an advantage in making their case to me and to other newspaper editors. (Interestingly, the Daily Mail did recently apologise to Muslims for a "blasphemous" representation of the Prophet Mohammad; but then the Daily Mail, unlike the New Statesman, is sold in many small newsagents owned by Asians.) This is not a point about Jews; I am not suggesting that their influence in the media is disproportionate. It is a point about Muslims' lack of power and influence in our society. And in some ways, that takes us back to the whole argument about pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian lobbies.

One final point, therefore, needs to be made. The New Statesman opposes (as do many British Jews, including, as I understand it, those who visited our office last week) the policies of the present Israeli government. We shall continue to highlight those policies and, where appropriate, to discuss the activities of lobbies in Britain and America that support them.

Readers should be assured that we shall not censor ourselves; but we shall try to present our views with greater sensitivity.