The unbearable lightness of being a Guardian journalist: Israel’s life & death decisions as comic inspiration

The only thing even remotely funny about comedian Mark Thomas’s account of his tour along Israel’s security fence, in My travels: Mark Thomas on walking Israel’s West Bank barrier, Guardian Travel Section, April 23, is his comical historical comparison between the barrier and the Great Wall of China.

Israel’s security barrier, which he casually refers to as a “military folly”, is a source of amusement for Thomas, and, indeed, Thomas’s comedic travel diary prose assumes a sense of emotional detachment consistent with the reports on the region from the Guardian’s “serious” journalists, such as Harriet Sherwood.

The irreverent tone of Thomas’s narrative is best illustrated when he mockingly suggests that Israeli soldiers stationed along the fence’s parameter act to prevent infiltration according to their whims and moods:

“A buffer zone exists on the Palestinian side of the barrier and the degree to which it varies in size, and the rigor with which it is enforced, depends on the mood of the soldiers.”

Of course, the fence, and the soldiers he refers to deployed along its parameter, has led to a 90% reduction in the number of Palestinian terrorist attacks against Israelis.  And, indeed, the decision to construct a security fence in and around the West Bank in order to protect Israelis from suicide bombers was taken during the height of the 2nd Intifada, in March 2002 – a month in which there were 32 separate Palestinian terrorist attacks, including 8 separate suicide bombings, as a result of which 135 innocent Israelis were murdered, and a further 721 were injured.

Thomas’s travels take him to Jenin, where he finds the Freedom Theater, and speaks to director Juliano Mer-Khamis, who he later casually notes “was assassinated…by a Palestinian gunman.”

Yet, remarkably, Thomas somehow not only fails to connect the dots between the threat posed by deadly terrorists on the Palestinian side of the fence who would murder a Jewish peace activist in cold blood with Israel’s decisions to construct the security barrier, but cooly “recommends” the walking tour to his UK readers as a “tourist activity.”

Thomas’s account, like the Guardian’s reporting on Israel more broadly, reminds me of the main character in Anne Tyler’s book, The Accidental Tourist, a writer of travel guides for people who don’t want to travel but must, and who tries desperately not to really interact or engage with the people of the country he’s visiting, nor reflect upon the real differences between his life and theirs – the hopes, fears and dangers which are profoundly different than his own.

As such, Mark Thomas’s walking tour of the fence didn’t include a glimpse into the Jewish lives extinguished before the protection afforded by Israel’s security barrier, the gnawing grief of family and friends who still mourn their loss, as well as hundreds disabled and disfigured by the cruel, callous, and inhumane acts of those who penetrated the state’s porous border.

Nor, of course, did Thomas’s tour include a visit with the hundreds of Israeli men, women, and children whose lives were saved by what he terms a “military folly”.   

No, as there’s nothing even remotely funny about such accounts of Israeli humanity, nothing that his penetrating ironic prowess can dissect, if such a tour existed Thomas would likely not “recommend” it.  

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