Telegraph book review legitimizes appalling anti-Israel propaganda

Even by the low standards we're accustomed to in our continuous monitoring of the British media's coverage of Israel, the uncritical review of Ben Ehrenreich book, The way to the spring: life and death in Palestine, which appeared in the Aug. 6 print edition of The Telegraph is appalling. Similar to the Economist review of the same book that we posted about last month, the Telegraph reviewer's shows extraordinary credulousness in the face of Ehrenreich's Pallywood tale featuring the Tamimis of the West Bank town of Nabi Saleh.

Even by the low standards we’re accustomed to in our continuous monitoring of the British media’s coverage of Israel, the uncritical review of Ben Ehrenreich book, The way to the spring: life and death in Palestine, which appeared in the Aug. 6 print edition of The Telegraph, is appalling.

Similar to the Economist’s review of the same book that we posted about last month,  the Telegraph reviewer shows extraordinary credulousness in the face of Ehrenreich’s Pallywood tale featuring the Tamimis of the West Bank town of Nabi Saleh.

The Telegraph review begins thusly, treating as serious journalism Ehrenreich’s risible propaganda:

Ben Ehrenreich describes the Israeli occupation of the West Bank as “a giant humiliation machine, a complex and sophisticated mechanism for the production of human despair”. It is “not just the settlements and the soldiers in their hilltop bases”, the American journalist writes, “but the checkpoints, the travel restrictions, the permits, the walls and fences, the courts and the prisons, the stranglehold on the economy, the home demolitions, land appropriations, expropriation of natural resources, the entire vast mechanism of uncertainty, dispossession and humiliation that for four decades has sustained Israeli rule by curtailing the possibilities, and frequently the duration, of Palestinian lives”.

Devoid of even the bare minimum of nuance, context or critical scrutiny, Telegraph readers would read these passages and no doubt conjure images of a cruel and sadistic Israeli goliath orchestrating a totalitarian nightmare for inhabitants of the Palestinian territories – a narrative which could have been written by the Propaganda Ministry of the Palestinian Authority.

The Telegraph review continues:

It takes chutzpah to write about this interminable conflict. Now, when most Westerners have lost all interest, it feels even bolder. But The Way to the Spring stands out. Between 2011 and 2014, Ehrenreich spent many months in the West Bank. The result is an intensely human, intimate book about the resilience of ordinary Palestinians who cannot count even on the corrupt, crony-infested “regent regime” that is the Palestinian Authority to help them fight Israeli repression. “My concern is with what keeps people going when everything appears to be lost,” Ehrenreich writes. His reportage is rendered all the more powerful by its understated language.

The suggestion that it takes “chutzpah” to write about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is laughable, as the impunity enjoyed by the media, the UN and international NGOs which engage in such obsessive focus on the conflict demonstrates.

The review continues:

In 2008, in the village of Nabi Saleh, the relentlessly expanding Jewish settlement of Halamish commandeered the spring on which the villagers depended. Ever since, the villagers have staged weekly protest marches to the spring, but are invariably repelled by rubber bullets, tear gas and a “skunk truck” water cannon, which fires a foul-smelling liquid that sticks to hair and clothes for days. The villagers’ only weapons are stones, and the videos of Israeli brutality that they post on the internet. They are regularly injured, arrested and occasionally killed. But they refuse to give up.

As our colleague Tamar Sternthal has explained, Nabi Saleh is “where photographers gather most Fridays to ‘document’ Palestinian residents and international activists staging clashes with Israeli soldiers” and where activists place their children in danger to score propaganda points. Nabi Saleh’s most popular Pallywood child star, Ahed Tamimi (dubbed “Shirley Temper), revived her recurring role as the symbol of Palestinian “resistance” last year when she attacked an Israeli soldier who was detaining a rock-thrower.

Tellingly, Ehrenreich is the same writer who (in a 2013 New York Times Magazine cover story) romanticized the culture of terrorism in the Tamimis’ ‘little Palestinian village’ and whitewashed the horrific crime of its most infamous resident, a woman named Ahlam Tamimi, one of the main terrorists responsible for the deadly Sbarro bombing in 2001.

The Telegraph then uncritically quotes a Palestinian featured in Ehrenreich’s book:

“The spring is the face of the occupation. The occupation is illegal, and we have the right to struggle against it,” one explained. “To be silent is to accept the situation, and we don’t accept the situation.”

However, as we’ve noted recently regarding a British publication which made the same claim, though the settlements are considered illegal by much of the international community, there is no consensus under international law that the occupation itself is “illegal.”

The Telegraph continues with its morally binary tale of Israeli oppression and Palestinian victimhood.

After the Israelis banned all new building in the village of Umm al-Kheir, one man spent 12 nights covertly digging a latrine by hand. Three times the villagers rebuilt a communal bread oven that Israeli soldiers destroyed because its smoke allegedly damaged the health of nearby Jewish settlers. The real reason, Ehrenreich suggests, was the smoke “smelled of other people, others whom the settlers could not understand and did not wish to, and who refused – consistently and with a wilfulness that must have been infuriating – to just die or go away”.

First, as even the anti-Israel NGO Muftah notes, Palestinian construction in Umm al-Kheir – located in Area C, under full Israeli control – is rare, but it has not been “banned”.  Additionally, the Telegraph repeats Ehrenreich’s fanciful story – representing the unverified claims of pro-Palestinian activists sites – of a communal bread oven closed down because “its smoke…damaged the health of settlers”.  Ehrenreich not only contextualizes the tale as a metaphor of Israeli tolerance towards the other, but suggests that settlers would be perfectly happy if the community of Palestinians were simply to “die”.

The Telegraph’s review of Ehrenreich’s book attempts to contrast the malevolent settler with the life-affirming, turn-the-other-cheek Palestinians:

Hani Mohammad Abdyullah Amer refused to move when the Israelis built an 8m wall along the West Bank’s border to thwart suicide bombers. The Israelis simply ringed his home with concrete. Undaunted, Amer painted a mural on it and planted fruit trees and a vegetable garden inside his little enclave. “Instead of seeing the wall, I try to see the garden,” Amer explained. “There are different types of victories. There are military victories where people destroy and conquer, but there is also the sweeter victory, where people try to create death and you create life out of that.”

The effort to turn Palestinians into peace activists is rich in the light of polls continually showing Palestinian support for armed resistance against Israelis on both sides of the 1949 armistice lines, and a Palestinian government which continually sanctifies the act of killing Jews.

The review finally, albeit briefly, points out the one-sided nature of Ehrenreich’s work:

By his admission Ehrenreich does “not aspire to objectivity”. There is scant mention of Palestinian terrorism. The few Jewish settlers he speaks to are all zealots and fanatics. One declares: “If someone throws rocks at me, I’ll throw rocks at him. We’re not a religion that gives the second cheek to anyone.” Another becomes entangled in razor wire when he scales the roof of a Palestinian’s home to remove a flag. “This roof is mine,” he cries, as the owner watches him wriggle. “The whole country is mine.”

But, after this journalistic throat clearing, the review ends with more of the same:

Ehrenreich speaks to a solitary Israeli soldier who tells how he befriended a Palestinian boy. That night he was ordered to raid some Palestinian houses, and found himself facing the same boy in his bedroom. The boy was stark naked and wetting himself from fear.

From then on, the soldier said, “I didn’t stop doing the things I did, I just stopped thinking.”

On the face of it, Ehrenreich’s book is deeply pessimistic. More than 350,000 Jews have now settled in the West Bank, and no Israeli politician would dare remove them, he contends. The Palestinian Authority has been co-opted by the Israelis. The Palestinian people are powerless in the face of Israel’s military might. Decades of peace talks have served merely to keep “potential foreign critics distracted while the bulldozers and the army went about their daily tasks”.

A responsible journalist would have reminded readers that thousands of settlers were removed from Gaza for the sake of peace, and that Israeli peace offers which would have uprooted thousands more were rebuffed by the PA on several occasions.

The review ends:

But the Palestinians he describes are not broken. They still laugh and love, dance and sing. When Mohammad Assaf won Arab Idol, Ramallah erupted. “It was as if the occupation had ended, as if the checkpoints and prisons had suddenly evaporated, as if all the beloved dead had risen and returned… A Palestinian, for once, had won.” Ehrenreich concludes, not entirely convincingly: “I am optimistic because even… with no reason to hope, people continue to resist. I cannot think of many other reasons to be proud of being human, but that one is enough.”

But, of course, when they’re not “laughing, loving, dancing and singing”, many of them stab, shoot or ram their cars into Jewish civilians – or at least express support for those who do. 

Ehrenreich, in his extraordinarily facile snapshot of life in the West Bank, not only erases the context of continuous Palestinian terror, endemic antisemitism and rejectionism, but presents Israelis – a state which, for him, represents something akin to cartoonish evil – as the only actor in the saga.  Palestinians are infantilized, denied agency and in fact don’t really exist in any meaningful way beyond the question of what is done to them.

Whilst Ehrenreich is free to engage in such liberal racism, and trade in such toxic calumnies about Israeli ‘villainy’, you’d certainly hope that editors of a putatively serious newspaper would apply their well-honed skepticism to such spurious claims and call it out as the intellectually unserious agitprop that it is.

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