Commentary: Toughen up

BMJ 2009; 338 doi: (Published 25 February 2009) Cite this as: BMJ 2009;338:b524
  1. Jonathan Freedland, columnist
  1. 1Guardian, London N1 9GU

    Most readers of the BMJ will, I’m sure, be stunned by the revelations in Karl Sabbagh’s article (doi:10.1136/bmj.a2066). A deluge of nearly 1000 hostile emails will strike most as the stuff of nightmares. The language of some of those missives—abusive and bigoted—will have seemed truly shocking.

    But for journalists, especially those in the opinion business, there were few shocks in Sabbagh’s essay. They have come to learn that in today’s wired world, wading into any topic of controversy—not just Israel-Palestine—can bring an instant email bombardment. It simply comes with the territory.

    So when I wrote in the Guardian during the US election campaign that the world’s verdict would be harsh if Americans were to reject Barack Obama in favour of John McCain, I received what I estimate were between 3000 and 4000 emails. At one point, they were arriving at the rate of 10 a minute.

    Many of these were just as vicious and ugly as those received by the BMJ in 2004. A random dip into the inbox produces this treasure from Middlesex, North Carolina: “As a proud American I can’t think of a nicer way to say this to you: Go Fuck Yourself.” Equally reflective, this from bioguy777: “I love it! A pansy-ass limey Brit begs the US to do his bidding while his own country slips further towards total Islamic rule. We’re electing McCain, and the rest of the world can piss up a rope if they don’t like it. 1776, BITCH!”

    These messages were coordinated. It turns out that several rightwing US websites had linked to my column, urging their readers to tell this British “tosser” what they thought of him. They did as they were told.

    David Attenborough can tell a similar story: he receives hate mail from creationists, angry that he does not credit the Almighty for the wonder of nature in his TV documentaries. “They tell me to burn in hell and good riddance,” he told the Guardian.1

    And let’s not forget the BBC. The obscene phone calls by comedians Russell Brand and Jonathan Ross brought in 30 000 complaints in late 2008. In 2005, Jerry Springer: the Opera triggered 55 000, organised by Christian activists. In both cases there were demands that those responsible be sacked.

    The harsh reality is that what Sabbagh described as a rare, exceptional event is increasingly common—and clearly not confined to the Israel-Palestine conflict. “These campaigns,” Sabbagh writes, “seem fundamentally different from the normal discourse between readers and the publications they read.” Would that that were so. Sadly, they have become commonplace. Many a battle hardened editor would have a simple word of advice to Sabbagh and the BMJ: grow a thicker skin.

    There is a strong desire to see the pressure from pro-Israel activists as somehow unique. But each of the elements Sabbagh cites—demands for resignations, the enlisting of non-readers of the publication involved—have been present in these other cases. True, Israel-Palestine probably generates more venom than most topics, but that is hardly one-way traffic. In January 2009, anti-Israel activists forced their way into the offices of the pro-Israel lobby group, British Israel Communications and Research Centre (BICOM), damaging computer equipment, cutting phone lines, and throwing documents out of the window.2 True, BICOM is a partisan lobbying organisation, not an independent medical journal like the BMJ. But that episode surely represents a rather more direct attempt at silencing a point of view than sending nasty emails.

    Let me be clear. Those who know my work know that I am no knee-jerk defender of Israel. As it happens, I spent January 2009 denouncing Israel’s military assault on Gaza in both the Guardian and Jewish Chronicle. Moreover, I have little time for HonestReporting, the outfit apparently behind the cyber-fusillade directed against the BMJ: the Guardian has been the target of that organisation too many times for me to find it anything other than an irritant. (Half a dozen real letters from real readers tend to have a greater effect on editors than a mass emailing, no matter how large.)

    Avoiding the flak

    With that experience in mind, perhaps I can offer some tips for those who would like to criticise Israel without generating a wave of complaints. To start with, it is wise to aim for total accuracy. Derek Summerfield’s mistake was to open his piece with a clear error, one that inevitably made his essay appear tendentious. Writing in 2004, he declared that, “The Israeli army, with utter impunity, has killed more unarmed Palestinian civilians since September 2000 than the number of people who died on September 11, 2001.”3 The civilian death toll on 11 September was 3000. When Summerfield was writing, 1508 Palestinian civilians had lost their lives, according to B’tselem, the Israeli human rights group.4 Of course that number is unacceptably high, but it renders wholly false the claim that the Israeli army had “killed more unarmed civilians” than had died on September 11. By defining all slain Palestinians as unarmed civilians, Summerfield had not only defied the facts—compromising the credibility of a scientific journal from which people would expect the highest rigour—but taken from the Palestinians something they see as central to their dignity as a people—namely, their armed resistance to occupation.

    It also helps, when writing in this area, at least to acknowledge that suffering is not the exclusive domain of one side. It would not have weakened Summerfield’s case if he had noted that, in the same period, 641 unarmed Israeli civilians had also died: in 2002, a suicide bomber struck inside Israel—on buses or in restaurants—every fortnight. Yes, the figure is lower than the Palestinian civilian death toll, but Summerfield wrote as if it didn’t exist, as if there were no second intifada raging, as if the Israel army had simply started killing Palestinians randomly and unprovoked.

    Lastly, if you want to avoid a torrent of protest, it is wise to avoid lapsing into language or imagery loaded with historically ugly associations. Michael O’Donnell clearly endured a bruising experience as editor of World Medicine (doi:10.1136/bmj.a2094). (I’ve avoided comment on that episode here, not least because the events in question took place some 27 years ago and we have only the testimony of one side to go on.) But he does not help his case by referring to “sinister outsiders” in his very first sentence. He clearly has pro-Israel lobbyists in mind, but Jews have been described as “sinister outsiders” rather too often in recent centuries to let such a phrase pass easily. The suggestion that runs through both Sabbagh’s and O’Donnell’s papers—that Israel’s supporters, mainly Jews, have organised a stealthy, but powerful plot to pull the strings of the media—has an equally unhappy history. That O’Donnell then calls as a witness Richard Ingrams, a journalist who once boasted in print that he no longer reads letters supporting Israel from anyone with a “Jewish name,” does not improve matters.5

    It is, then, perfectly possible to offer the harshest criticism of Israeli conduct in print. The Independent, the Guardian, the Observer, and the New Statesman do so regularly, suggesting that if the “sinister outsiders” of the Israel lobby are at work, they are not that effective. But if you want to avoid a brimming inbox, it pays to be accurate and to avoid falling prey to hoary ethnic prejudice. You might still get hammered, just as I was over McCain and David Attenborough was over butterflies. But you’ll soon get over it.


    Cite this as: BMJ 2009;338:b524