Where next for Jewish media after the collapse of the Jewish Chronicle?
The Jewish Chronicle (JC), and its sister newspaper the Jewish News went into liquidation last week. For the Jewish Chronicle this ends a run of 179 years of continuous publishing. It is the oldest continuous publishing Jewish newspaper in the world and one of the oldest Anglo-Jewish institutions.
Non-Jewish readers will likely be familiar with the roles they played in the 2019 General Election campaign, and the build up to it, amplifying concerns about antisemitism in the Labour Party, with a series of forcefully anti-Labour front pages which among other allegations referred to a Labour government and Jeremy Corbyn as an existential threat to British Jews. The Jewish community has much longer and considerably more complex relationship with the papers, a mixture of emotional attachment and political disenchantment.
Regardless of their editorial politics, the JC and the Jewish News played vital roles within the community. Ethnic community papers bind the community together, providing forums for the sharing of news of relevance to the community. It contained announcements of deaths and marriages, sections on food and cooking and write ups of the scores and games in Jewish Sunday League football. Especially during this time of crisis, Jewish papers could provide updates on new Halakhic (Religious Law) decisions, and vitally important issues to the community, such as whether an Orthodox Passover Seder could be conducted via videoconferencing software. Its archives were until recently available and searchable for free online, making them a vital resource for historians and genealogists of the Jewish community. Particularly for the elderly and disabled who might not be able to reach Synagogue regularly, these communal updates provide a vital way of connecting to the community.
Beyond these important community building tasks, communal newspapers, if managed correctly, can provide vital forums for debating and promoting understanding of important issues to the Jewish community. These issues are many and varied and range from housing to provision of Kosher food, to the relationship with Israel, to antisemitism. The McPherson principle of communities having the right to define their own racism means it is vital that there are communal forums in which racism and discrimination can be discussed. Without a Jewish press, issues of antisemitism, and other issues effecting the community, will only be discussed by those in the community with the greatest proximity to power, with no way of holding those groups and individuals to account.
This means that the JC and the Jewish News play important roles within the community. Even on the community’s far left flank, only a scattering of voices can be found unreservedly celebrating their demise.
What went wrong?
So, with such communal affection for the Jewish Chronicle and the Jewish News, what went wrong? Why has its readership declined by more than 35% in the past 10 years? Partly this is due to its failure to fully adapt to the internet age, still relying on in person subscriptions and delivery. And this is partly down to a consistently hard-right editorial line, which has driven away left-wing and politically liberal Jews. This includes most engaged young Jews, outside of ultra-Orthodox communities, which are also almost unrepresented in the pages of the JC.
This split, between the largest communal newspapers and the engaged communal body, is much deeper than their treatment of Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour. It comes from their regular publishing of racist and far-right articles which has earned them the unflattering nickname, ‘The Jewish Daily Mail’. On April 1, the Jewish News published an article praising the thought of the Jewish Defence League founder and racist terrorist Meir Kahane, who advocated for a legal ban on ‘Arab’-Jewish cultural meetings and Intermarriage. In December 2019, the Jewish Chronicle published an article by former Daily Mail columnist Melanie Phillips arguing that Islamophobia was fictional, which was so egregiously offensive that it was formally censured by the President of the Board of Deputies, an organisation not always known for speaking out against racism within the community. In November, they published an article arguing for a defence of ‘national identity’ against the intersectional and multicultural left.
These are only examples from the past few months. Highlights from the past few years include letters in support of Donald Trump published in the Jewish News or articles alleging antisemitism is a Muslim problem in the JC. In August 2019, the JC were forced to pay damages of £50000 after baselessly alleging Interpal – an organisation giving aid to Palestinians – was connected to terrorism. Throughout the last ten years the Jewish Chronicle and the Jewish News have relentlessly and consistently platformed racist and far-right views far more extreme than those found in the communal mainstream. The editor of the Jewish News, Richard Ferrer has acknowledged this is an editorial policy.
An openly racist editorial policy is actively off-putting to particularly young Jews. Partly, this is a reflection of a broader political trend within the UK and much of Europe of younger generations moving to the left. It also symbolises the collapse of the political settlement which drove the community to the political right during the last decades of the twentieth century, which the Jewish Chronicle thrived upon.
For many Jews of my parents’ and grandparents’ generation, declining antisemitism and economic success on the back of high levels of higher education, led to a movement to the right, as the community became wealthier and the connection with Eastern European socialist movements declined. This is no longer true for Jews of my generation, as higher education is no longer a good guarantee of membership of the affluent professional class. The rise of more far-right movements in the UK, the US, Germany, Poland and Hungary, and heightened awareness of antisemitism in left wing movements, means that political security can no longer be taken for granted either. That many of these far-right movements come with the explicit endorsement of the current Israeli government merely furthers these divides. Meanwhile, particularly in progressive Jewish communities and Jewish youth movements, Rabbis and spiritual leaders have been reinterpreting Jewish practice and belief through the ethos of Tikkun Olam (repairing the world), which naturally lends itself towards more liberal or leftist politics.
These factors mean that many younger, more economically insecure Jews are more likely to see themselves as a part of an intersectional and multicultural liberal/left, rather than being threatened by it, and see Jewish security and liberation as ensured by building an antiracist politics with other minority groups. They will no longer engage with a politics of explicit racism, as embodied by the Jewish Chronicle.
At the moment, there are two competing bids to take over the now liquidated newspapers. One is from the Kessler foundation, the JC’s previous owners. They have acquired new funding from a group of anonymous benefactors with the community, proposing the removal of longtime editor of the Jewish Chronicle, Stephen Pollard, and his replacement by Richard Ferrer, the current editor of the Jewish News. This option would mean considerable job losses at the paper as part of restructuring, and give credence to rumours that the liquidation was a means to restructure the paper and remove staff, while avoiding severance pay. Given the politics of the institution it would seem appropriate that it would die how it lived, screwing over workers.
The other offer for the papers, is a takeover bid fronted by alleged sexual harasser, self-proclaimed philosemite and former Labour MP John Woodcock. It is not clear who is providing the funding for this. This consortium would promise no mass firings, and would keep Stephen Pollard, as editor of both publications, but lose the editorial independence from its owners. Neither option inspires much hope for a sustainable Jewish press, with an anti-racist editorial policy, which is able to speak to the experience of younger, more politically and economically insecure Jews.
The prospects for a progressive Jewish media landscape comes instead from outside the institutions of the big Jewish newspapers, and there is much cause for hope in this regard. In the US, the (politically) liberal Jewish magazine the Forward (originating from the socialist Yiddish daily Vorwarts) is still existing as an online only publication and maintaining a stable readership. This is complemented and challenged by the actively socialist long read specialist Jewish Currents, which is currently expanding rapidly, since a change of editorial direction in 2018, which saw an editorial team for a previously tiny and aging socialist paper replaced by a group entirely under 40. Since then it has brought big name former Haaretz columnist Peter Beinart as a co-editor, and hosted submissions from such luminaires as political theorist Judith Buttler and Bernie Sanders. There has been an explosion of new arts and cultural journals of communal left, such as PROTOCOLS. Similar moves are beginning to happen in the UK, with the founding of new left wing media organisation Vashti, which promises ‘to be a microphone for the Jewish Left’. It has already given platforms to members of Extinction Rebellion Jews, Jewish Solidarity Action (founded from Jews Against Boris) and the Jewish anti-occupation collective Na’amod. It understands the requirements of media organisation in the twenty-first century, hosting a mixture of video and written content and engaging its audience creatively, through events like a reader Zoom call to discuss the popular Jewish Netflix drama Disobedient.
The JC’s financial trouble represents the dying of the old Jewish media, and the old conservative communal consensus. There is still a vital need for a thriving Jewish media, to defend our community against antisemitism, as a place to share communal news and as a site of political mobilisation, discussion and education. But if any such press is to be successful in needs to be founded in the principles of building bridges between Jews and other minorities, rather than do their best to burn them down. The hope for a better and more sustainable Jewish media landscape lies outside the carcasses of the JC and the Jewish News and towards left publications such as Vashti, which can speak to the new heart of the Jewish community.
NB. This article was written prior to the announcement on April 20 that the Jewish News is planning to publish “until further notice”.
Image credit: T & L – Creative Commons