This is a cross-post by Edwin Bennatan of the Jpost.com blogs
Brazen hardliners and ardent critics: the Israel I have seen
Living here for the past four years, it is hard for me to escape the sense that there is a new climate in Israel, one in which dissent is marginalised and any criticism from abroad robustly shouted down.”
The Observer (sister to The Guardian, London)
December 28, 2009
As he prepares to leave Israel, The Guardian‘s Jerusalem correspondent, Rory McCarthy, has summarized his impressions after a tour of four years in the country. His 1,500-word round-up provides a perfect illustration of the type of frenzied prejudices that fuel one of the more vociferous anti-Israel platforms on Britain’s hard Left.
When McCarthy arrived in Jerusalem, the Guardian‘s attitude towards Israel had already been clarified by his boss, Brian Whitaker, the paper’s Middle East editor. In a telling admission, Whitaker stated that he felt “uneasy” about the fact that the Arabic-language news stories selected for translation by The Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI) either “reflect badly on the character of Arabs” or in some way further “the political agenda of Israel”. It was this sentiment that subsequently characterized McCarthy’s reports from Jerusalem.
As the lead-in to his four-year round-up, McCarthy chose a report about an ugly caricature of former Meretz MK Naomi Chazan, who was depicted with a horn on her forehead. It appeared in a recent right-wing advertisement in several Israeli newspapers. Apparently, Chazan had infuriated right-wing activists by establishing a fund to support the actions of radical left-wing groups who were campaigning against the government and its West Bank and Palestinian policies.
Though repulsive, the Chazan caricature would undoubtedly be considered legitimate in any free society, and was certainly less inciting than the caricature of former prime minister Ariel Sharon eating an Arab baby while blood dripped from his mouth, which appeared in the British press in 2003 and was subsequently selected as the “Cartoon of the Year” by the United Kingdom’s Political Cartoon Society.
McCarthy chose to open with the Chazan caricature for a reason. Even though it was a paid advertisement and not a journalistic offering, he believes that it calls Israel’s democracy into question. He offers the caricature as evidence of his main thrust; that “there is a new climate in Israel, one in which dissent is marginalized and any criticism from abroad robustly shouted down”. Here’s more of his “proof”:
Look at the response in the past week to the extraordinary unravelling of the assassination in Dubai of a Hamas militant. Most voices in Israel have been defiant, with a proud wink and a nod to the much-vaunted secret service, the Mossad, and strikingly little sympathy for those seven, fearful Israeli citizens who had their identities stolen for use by a brazen hit squad.”
Is this McCarthy’s evidence that in Israel, “dissent is marginalized and any criticism from abroad is robustly shouted down”? What has the Dubai affair got to do with the allegation that dissent is being marginalized in Israel? If there was scant criticism in Israel of the Mossad (assuming the Mossad was responsible), might that not be because the overwhelming majority of Israelis actually think the operation was justified? And as for the “seven fearful Israeli citizens who had their identities stolen”, even if this assertion is true, how is that related to the marginalization of dissent in Israel?
Next, McCarthy retells the story of Deputy Foreign Minster Danny Ayalon’s humiliation of the Turkish ambassador (McCarthy trivializes the reason as being “over a television show”, rather than over Turkish sanctioning of televised anti-Semitic stereotypes such as the Jewish state’s fondness for killing little children). Ayalon’s ill-conceived act of diplomacy was heavily criticized in the Israeli press and became a source of embarrassment for the government. Though just how the story could be construed as supporting McCarthy’s thesis is a mystery.
McCarthy then recounts a story about Ayalon’s refusal to meet a delegation of US congressmen – a claim that is less than accurate. This story appears to have originated in relation to a controversial US lobbying organization, J-Street, that very much wanted to “arrange” the meeting for the US congressmen. Ayalon’s office stated that no mediation was necessary for arranging such meetings and that Ayalon would be more than pleased to meet with any official US representative. No one is sure what the unnecessary mediation attempt was all about, but to some it certainly appeared as if J-Street was pursuing a private agenda.
McCarthy goes on to address Netanyahu’s settlement freeze (did he or didn’t he, and if he did, then how much?) and the ever-popular Goldstone Report (Israel committed war crimes, and why didn’t Israel cooperate with Goldstone?). None of this supports his thesis of dissent being marginalized or suppressed in Israel. He then describes some of his encounters with Israeli dissidents (those who are presumably being marginalized):
I have interviewed hundreds of Israelis, from professors to anarchists, generals to refuseniks, settlers to peace activists, Jews and Arabs, and the Israel I have seen is not formed of the one overarching narrative its government would impose. Scratch beneath the surface and there are people asking awkward questions. Sometimes it is just a hint of disagreement.”
A hint of disagreement? Anyone who’s spent four months in Israel, never mind four years, will know that there is massive disagreement in Israel over a multitude of major issues including the expansion of settlements, withdrawal from the West Bank, the return of the Golan to Syria, the future status of east Jerusalem, the separation of church and state, supreme court activism and religious exemptions from military service, to name but a few.
McCarthy concludes his article with the following story:
When I asked one professor last week about the Dubai assassination, he said Israel would be better off making peace with Syria and the Palestinians than killing terrorists. This month, Ehud Barak, Israel’s defense minister and no dove, warned that failing to reach a peace deal risked creating an ‘apartheid’ regime that ruled over millions of stateless, voteless Palestinians.”
Did it actually take Rory McCarthy four years to find an Israeli to tell him that Israel would be better off making peace with Syria and the Palestinians than killing terrorists? Have most of the people McCarthy met been telling him: “You know, Rory, we could have secure peace with the Syrians and the Palestinians tomorrow, but heck, then we’d have to stop killing terrorists”?
As for Barak’s warning, where was McCarthy during the years of the Kadima government? If he was indeed in Israel for four years he must have heard Ehud Olmert, Tzipi Livni, Meir Sheetrit and a host of other Israeli leaders say exactly the same thing: Israel cannot remain a democratic Jewish homeland while continuing to rule over millions of disenfranchised Palestinians. The problem, of course, is that you need two willing sides for a two-state solution.
None of this is to say that Israel is perfect or does not often deserve legitimate, sometimes even harsh, criticism. Normally, any journalist who spends several years in the country, observing it at its zenith and at its nadir, would be worth listening to. But when McCarthy offers a concentrated dosage of raving hostility peppered with such ridiculous quotes as: “It is very easy to portray those who don’t support the party line as enemies of the state, but I think that horribly weakens the state”, any legitimate criticism gets lost in the orgy.
Rory McCarthy could have done better. He could have offered something worth listening to. He could have made a difference before leaving. Just for once, he could have refused to toe his editor’s party line.