Has Ruth Anderson censored Index on Censorship?

The CEO of a leading free expression group has a history of working for the Israel lobby. Now, Index on Censorship has little to say about Israel’s genocide in Gaza.

27 February 2024

Ruth Anderson, formerly Smeeth. (Photo: Nathan Stirk / Getty)

Last month, the lobby group Labour Friends of Israel (LFI) conducted a “solidarity mission” to Israel.

The day after announcing the visit, South Africa presented its case at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague, accusing Israel of a genocide against the people of Gaza.

Over the next 24 hours, 112 Palestinians were murdered in Gaza, taking the death toll to over 23,400.

The LFI delegation was pictured with Israeli president Isaac Herzog, whose incendiary language was singled out by the ICJ as evidence of incitement to genocide.

But also striking was the presence in the delegation of former Labour MP and now member of the House of Lords, Baroness Ruth Anderson. She has since 2020 been the CEO of Index on Censorship, a body in Britain that campaigns for free expression worldwide.

That a group priding itself on free speech has a chief visiting Israel as it commits genocide should arouse bewilderment.

This is especially since Israel is committing a vicious attack on the truth in Gaza: At least 83 journalists have been murdered as the enclave is turned into a graveyard for journalists.

Index’s articles

Israel’s campaign in Gaza has been raging for over four months and the territory has become the most dangerous place in the world to be a journalist. 

Index has published a handful of articles on Gaza. A Declassified review of its outputs indicates a downplaying of the extent of the crisis at the hands of Israel.  

One recent article covered Palestinian journalist Wael al-Dahdouh and the wider plight of journalists in Gaza. It included the harrowing statistic of the number of slain journalists. 

However, the article added the common Israeli army rebuttal that it does not deliberately target journalists. It also included the unfounded claim that many journalists murdered are militant fighters, and failed to mention that killing journalists constitutes a war crime.

Another article from November 2023, written by Index’s editor, focuses on free expression in the “Israel-Hamas conflict” and zeroed in on the atrocities. 

Victims of the Hamas attacks of 7 October, it read, were “murdered” in what the author unambiguously calls a “massacre”. By contrast, Israel’s response caused the “death” of Palestinians.

Declassified could find no mention on Index’s website of the word “genocide” referring to Gaza or coverage of South Africa’s case accusing Israel of genocide.

This is in contrast to its reporting on China. In 2021, for example, Index published an article following the Uyghur Tribunal in London that ruled the Chinese government is guilty of genocide. 

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Contrast to enemy states

Index has consistently thrown light on prisoners held in grim conditions in countries like Belarus, Iran and Saudi Arabia. But Declassified could find no recent mention of the oppression and mistreatment of Palestinians in Israeli prisons. 

This has become a major issue in the current war. An additional 6,000 Palestinians from the West Bank have been detained by Israeli forces since 7 October. 

Palestinian prisoners and detainees arrested in Gaza have been subjected to systematic torture, abuse and humiliation from food and sleep depravation, to electric shocks and rape threats. Many are known to have died from enduring these conditions.

Index has posted more tweets mentioning Russia since 7 October than mentioning Israel or Gaza.

The group runs five campaigns on areas such as China, Belarus and the UK Royals but has not begun a campaign on Israel/Gaza. 

Index has shown it can be categorical in its coverage and pay attention to detail. During the height of Russia’s aggression in Ukraine, in the space of just one week between March and April 2022, three separate articles were published spelling out the predicament of journalists. 

One was a first-hand recounting of a Ukrainian journalist’s treatment at the hands of Russian occupiers while another was an explicit call to end the beatings and abductions of journalists in Ukrainian territories attacked by Russia.

The third was a fierce denunciation of “mobsters in the Kremlin” and their brutal actions towards “brave truth-tellers”. These unambiguous calls stand in contrast to much more nuanced positioning concerning Israel’s brutality in Gaza.

Culture of censorship

Index has paid some attention to the culture of censorship in the post 7 October climate across Europe. But notably missing has been reference to the crackdown culture in the UK, where demonstrations calling for a ceasefire have routinely been branded as violent and antisemitic

An article published in November by Index covered the suppression of free speech amid an “authoritarian turn” in Germany and the attempt to stamp out pro-Palestine activism. 

It noted Germany’s condemnation of the movement to impose sanctions on Israel and questioned attempts to use accusations of antisemitism to delegitimise boycotts and nonviolent methods of economically isolating Israel. 

In Britain, however, the government is operating on the same political wavelength. Earlier this year, deputy prime minister Oliver Dowden pledged to deliver the government’s anti-sanctions bill – which is directed at supporters of sanctions on Israel – at an event at the Jewish Leadership Council. Ruth Anderson was in attendance as a speaker.

In 2022, days after Palestinian journalist Shireen Abu Akleh was murdered by an Israeli sniper, Anderson wrote an article on Index’s site about the matter. Neither Israel nor the Israeli army were mentioned.

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Advocacy

Index’s website describes the CEO as a passionate campaigner and makes reference to her anti-racist history. Anderson’s history indeed encompasses advocacy; overwhelmingly for organisations sympathetic to Israel.

While MP for Stoke on Trent between 2015 and 2019, Anderson was a member of Labour Friends of Israel and was elected as parliamentary chair of the Jewish Labour Movement (JLM) in April 2019. 

JLM’s senior staff have had links to the Israeli embassy. The group recently demanded the suspension of Labour MP Kate Osamor for suggesting Israel’s brutality in Gaza amounts to a genocide. 

The post, an attempt to suppress criticism of Israel and perhaps flying in the face of the purpose of Index on Censorship, was retweeted by Anderson.

Before entering Westminster, Anderson was from 2005-07 the director of public affairs and campaigns at the Britain Israel Communications and Research Centre (BICOM). The group says it aims “to increase understanding of Israel and the Middle East in the UK”.

BICOM

Formed in 2001, BICOM received significant logistical assistance from the highest level of Israel’s interior ministry in its primary years, according to sociologist Keith Kahn-Harris.

Author Hil Aked, in a new book on the Israel Lobby, notes that in 2006, BICOM had achieved unprecedented access to the BBC to brief the corporation’s staff for flagship programmes like Hardtalk and Newsnight.

A leaked email in 2011 revealed how major broadcasters like Sky News opted for a particular “narrative” on Israel after being approached by BICOM.

BICOM works behind the scenes to cultivate elite opinion on Israel. Its former head of the Israel office, Jonathan Cummings, wrote at length about the importance of using delegations of British journalists to Israel to build relationships of influence with the “elite opinion makers” in the UK.

This, he added, would help Israel “create barriers to delegitimization”.

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Funding

BICOM’s first funder was property billionaire Poju Zabludowicz who inherited his wealth from his father who made a fortune manufacturing arms in Israel.

Records show that Zabludowicz’s lucrative real estate company Tamares Real Estates Investments Ltd made a donation of £5,000 in June 2015 to Ruth Anderson, just as she embarked on her political journey.

Zabludowicz is also the beneficiary of investments in the Occupied Palestinian territories, including in an illegal Israeli settlement. By 2010, as a former chairman of BICOM, he had donated over £2m to the organisation in just three years.

Ruth Anderson also previously worked at the Community Security Trust, a charity that protects British Jews from anti-semitism, in the capacity of anti-racism campaigner. 

The organisation’s co-founder, Gerald Ronson, has close links with Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the group has previously been praised by MPs for its efforts in countering the sanctions movement against Israel.

Free speech

Anderson’s history of working for pro-Israel organisations which help shape the discourse on Israel in a favourable way perhaps sits oddly with her current directorship of a group promoting free expression. 

The outfit’s restrained coverage of Israel’s intensifying slaughter of Palestinians should alarm all those who advocate for free speech.

Anderson, who has announced she is stepping down as Index’s CEO later this year, was made an Honorary Captain in the Royal Naval Reserve in 2022.

A 2009 document published by WikiLeaks referred to Anderson, then using her name Smeeth, as a “strictly protect” informant for the US embassy.

Previous Declassified research has shown that between 2016-21, Index received more than £600,000 from the National Endowment Democracy (NED), a “democracy promotion” organisation established in the 1980s and funded by the US Congress. 

According to the New York Times, the NED was established “to do in the open what the Central Intelligence Agency [CIA] has done surreptitiously for decades”. 

Declassified contacted Index on Censorship and inquired about these points, but representatives did not comment.

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