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The three myths of Israel

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There are three attributes for which Israel is frequently praised. First, that it is the Middle East’s only democracy. Second, that it is a nation built up from nothing to miraculously become one of the world’s most advanced nations, and third, that as a tiny, solitary state it punches far above its weight in its never-ending battle for survival.

Problem is, none of these are entirely true. Not that anyone who had watched last Monday’s (August 21) episode of Q&A would be any the wiser, when all three of these mythological praises of Israel were sung by two of the panel’s guests.What’s worse, with the possible exception of the first, none of these assertions were challenged by the other members of the panel. This is indicative of the wider mainstream media’s consistent failure to provide accurate contextual information vital to a true understanding of this most acrimonious of conflicts.

Visiting American conservative blogger, Daniel Pipes, was the first panellist to sing Israel’s democratic praises, claiming the Jewish State provided a strong role model for the Arab Spring. Here he was briefly challenged by author Hanifa Deen, who, despite calling Pipe’s viewpoint a fantasy, wasn’t able to go into any detail as to how Israel fails in its claim to be a true liberal democracy. Deen could have pointed out the segregation that, amongst other things, deems certain roads for “Jews only” and forbids the Palestinian spouses of Israelis from gaining Israeli citizenship.Then there is the fact that unlike actual liberal democracies, Israel does not even have a constitution.

Whilst Israel’s democratic status is arguable, it is the other two myths are perhaps the most damaging and long-running. As part of my master’s degree I recently researched how the Israel-Palestine conflict was reported in the US media. There have been many such studies before mine, and they continuously turn up the same results: that the media exhibits a strong, pro-Israel bias.

According to media researchers from the famed Glasgow Media Group (GMG),  the media plays a key role in extending the conflict by not providing two crucial historical facts. The first takes us back to Israel’s formation in 1948. Far from being built from ‘nothing’ as former liberal Senator Nick Minchin claimed on Q&A, Israel was founded on land that had been continually occupied for many hundreds of years by indigenous Arabs. Tens of thousands of these occupants were displaced, some forced from their homes, others fleeing the impending violence, but all taking their keys with them. Many of these displaced families still hold onto these keys, desperately clinging to the hope they will make their way home again. The keys, which have come to symbolise the Right of Return of the Palestinian refugees, even get passed down from generation to generation.

The GMG reports that this information; that the Palestinian refugees exist, and that the United Nations has consistently upheld their Right of Return by the United Nations for 63 years, is largely missing from the common media narrative. Without this vital piece of information, it is not surprising that media audiences believe it when commentators such as Minchin insist that Israel appeared, as if by magic.

The second factor missing from the media’s narrative of the conflict is the reality of Israel’s military occupation. On Q&A, Pipes and Minchin sought to blame “the Palestinians” for all the violence in Israel/Palestine. To do to so they drew on the common narrative that Israel is locked in an existential battle for its very survival, and as such, its actions are purely retaliatory.

This too is a myth. Both Pipes and Minchin, conveniently overlooked the fact that Israel continues to occupy, in a manner deemed illegal by international law, the West Bank of the Jordan River and East Jerusalem, territory it first captured in 1967. The West Bank also happens to be where so many of the original refugees had fled to in 1948. Furthermore, Israel continues to build and expand residential settlements in these territories, again in defiance of international law. Not only does Israel divert water to these settlements, it also confiscates Palestinian farms to allow for this expansion, with some Palestinian farmers suffering the humiliation of working as farmhands on land that has been in their family for generations. The Jewish settlements are linked to each other and to Israel proper by an intricate system of roads forbidden to Palestinians who are literally cut off from one another, further diminishing the hopes of a continuous Palestinian state.

Without this information the public accepts the so-called “Washington Consensus” that is forwarded by the media: that both sides are to blame in their own way (Palestinians by being aggressive, Israel through disproportionate response); that the US is not a direct party to the conflict; and that it is up to both sides to reach a solution.This approach has merit only if one fails to consider the billions of dollars in aid the US supplies Israel and the diplomatic cover it provides in the UN. Israel is in absolutely no danger of being “wiped off the map”. It has nuclear weapons (the only Middle Eastern country to do so), the fourth strongest military in the world, and the unrelenting support of the world’s only superpower.  If anything, it is the Palestinians hope for a homeland that is being scrubbed away.

These three persistent myths, all of which were presented on Q&A, ignore the basic motivations of the conflict’s participants: Palestinians seek to overthrow Israel’s 44-year military occupation, whilst Israel aims to maintain it. The media’s failure to highlight this simple fact is clearly to Israel’s favour and the Palestinians detriment, as Israel has far more to gain from continuing the conflict and the Palestinians from ending it.

Written by Ruby

August 30, 2011 at 4:28 am

Egypt, Israel and Omelas

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There is a short story, The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas, by American science fiction author Ursula K. Le Guin that tells a faintly familiar tale.

Omelas is a Utopia. A warm, prosperous city of festivals, ringing with the sound of music and the laughter of children. The citizens are joyous. Negative emotions like guilt do not exist.

But Omelas harbours a dark secret, one on which its entire existence is predicated; the music, laughter, art and architecture all depend on one abominable thing. That a child, feeble-minded and with a body of festering sores, be kept locked up in a dark basement forever. To release the child, in fact to even speak one kind word would immediately destroy the city and it would never be able to rebuild.

The inhabitants know about the child. Upon being informed of its existence, many demand to see it whilst others, “are content just to know it’s there.” But they all accept that in order for them to thrive, the child must suffer.

I was recently introduced to this story by a journalist and blogger, Yuval Ben-Ami, who seeing in Omelas his own home of Israel, writes:

“Even as a teenager I knew that there were people whose lives were controlled by my nation’s army, and who didn’t even get running water in their houses. I knew that there were people imprisoned for years without fair trials. I knew…Israel was an Omelas, prosperous and happy while keeping children in a basement.”

But now, the revolution underway in Egypt has revealed an even greater extent of suffering. The intensity of the uprising has taken everyone by surprise, not least the Egyptians who protested with the exhilaration of those who have finally found their voice after years of being gagged, and whose exhilaration has just turned to dismay as pro-Mubarak supporters strike back.

The world watches on, not entirely sure what to make of it. Early reports out of the United States spoke of ‘chaos’ and ‘disorder,’ prompting New York based Egyptian columnist Mona Eltahawy to implore the media stop referring to it as such and call it what it is instead: an uprising, a revolt, an revolution. “Egyptians want to fix Egypt, they don’t want to destroy Egypt,” she told CNN.

Whilst some developments have been decidedly ugly, it was clearly a peaceful uprising until pro-Mubarak supporters struck back, opening fire and beating pro-democracy demonstrators. This has prompted calls from US President Barack Obama and British PM David Cameron for a peaceful and immediate transition.

However, this wasn’t the west’s initial reaction. US vice-President Biden, who stressed Mubarak’s status as a US ally as well as his “normalizing relationship…with Israel” declared that he would “not refer to (Mubarak) as a dictator,” best sums up America’s first response.

Clearly, the media, as they so often do, took their cues from the official, government perspective. So why was the west, and America, in particular so afraid of this revolution? So unwillingly to accept that after decades of despotic regimes the ‘Arab Street’ had finally had enough?

Could it be that, like the fictional city of Omelas, the status of Israel, as ‘the only democracy in the Middle East’ depends upon the misery and suffering of Arabs?

In the early days of the protests, Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported that the Israeli government had sent messages to its allies, including the United States, to support Mubarak. To prioritise stability over the possibility of an Egyptian democracy.

For decades America, has been propping up the authoritarian regimes of the Middle East, whilst simultaneously portraying itself as a champion for worldwide democracy. Israel was deemed worthy of support, its survival imperative because it was a democracy. But what we weren’t told was that in order for Israelis to enjoy their democracy, millions of Arabs must be denied theirs.

Incredibly, Arabs have been blamed for the lack of democracy that was forced on them. For years, given a false choice of secular authoritarianism or religious fundamentalism, the world had come to believe that Arabs and democracy just don’t mix, because of course, “they hate us for our freedom.”

But this revolution has given us insight into the breathtaking hypocrisy that has underlined America’s relationship with the Middle East. As Ben-Ami writes, “Is this Jewish state such a fragile fantasy, that an entire region of the world must be kept imprisoned in order for it to thrive?”

Since the uprising began on Jan 25, Al Jazeera has reported a 2000 percent increase in hits to its English language website. Most tellingly, 60 percent of these hits are coming from the United States. Americans, disheartened by the coverage of their own media, and concerned by their government’s military and financial support for a dictator who denied his citizens the very rights Americans claim to be exporting to the world, are turning to the Middle East itself for answers.

In Omelas, not everyone was willing to accept the suffering of the child. They were “the ones who walk away.” No one knew where they were going, but once they knew the truth, they could no longer live in Omelas.

We don’t know what lies ahead for Egypt. But now that we all know the truth, its not enough for some of us to merely walk away.

It’s time to let the child out of the basement.

Written by Ruby

February 8, 2011 at 2:38 am