Indy hatchet job on Israel – charges “unprecedented levels” of racism

An article at the Independent, by their Mid-East correspondent Bel Trew, charged that Israeli racism against Arabs was reaching "unprecedented levels". Yet, the article is full of distortions and half-truths - and devoid of any semblance of balance or objectivity.

An article published on Feb. 3 at the Independent, by their Mid-East correspondent Bel Trew, charged that Israeli racism against Arabs was reaching “unprecedented levels”.

Here’s Trew’s first example of Israeli racism:

For more than a decade in Cairo I have used the same well-worn phrase in Arabic to order a packet of cigarettes. And so, on Wednesday it slipped out, when I was at one of my local newsagents in West Jerusalem, where the usual Palestinian staffers nickname me Egyptian girl due to my heavy Cairo accent. But that day, the man at the till stopped and stared.

“This is Israel, why are you speaking Arabic?” he replied sharply, causing many in the store to turn around. “If you’re in a country you should speak the language – if I was in the UK I would never dream of talking anything but English. Speak Hebrew.”

“I am frequently ordered to speak Hebrew. Two months ago in a cafe, I made my order in Arabic and he wouldn’t serve me until I repeat it in Hebrew,” said Samir al-Sharif, a Palestinian from East Jerusalem who works as TV producer.

Sadly my terse exchange is not an isolated incident. Many Palestinians – whether East-Jerusalemites, West Bank residents or Arab Israelis – told me they are often ordered to speak Hebrew by Israelis or are afraid of speaking Arabic for fear of backlash and even violence.

Over the years there have also been several instances of people from Israel’s Arabic-speaking minorities like the Druze, being physically attacked. In 2015 a serving Israeli Druze soldier was hospitalised because he had been beaten up by Israeli youth after they over heard him speaking Arabic. It marked the second such attack that week.

First, regarding the first two examples, there’s any number of reasons for the negative reaction other than racism. For one, it’s possible the first two Israelis Trew cites were merely surprised that someone would assume their familiarity with Arabic when most Jewish Israelis don’t speak the language fluently. Of course, it’s also possible the cafe employees asked the Arabic speakers to repeat their order in Hebrew for the simple reason that they don’t speak Arabic. Also, even assuming their reaction was based on intolerance, a few such negative reactions to Arabic, in a country of 6.6 million Jews, is hardly evidence of widespread “unprecedented” societal racism.

Moreover, anyone who lives in Israel, or spent a significant amount of time in the country, would know that it’s extremely common to hear Arabic spoken on the street, in stores, hospitals, government offices and other public places.  Again, Trew is taking a few random examples of intolerance – and extremely rare examples of violence – and imputing this behavior to the country as a whole.

She continues:

Racism has soared in Israel over the years, as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has surged and ebbed, fuelled by increasingly right-wing governments peddling anti-Arab and anti-Palestinian agendas.

Yet, the Mid-East correspondent offers no evidence whatsoever to back up her sweeping statement that “racism has soared in Israel over the years”.

She continues:

Early indicators of more extreme examples of the exploitation of existing divisions can be found in campaign videos which have been flooding out over the last few weeks.

Elizabeth Tsurkov,  research fellow at the Forum for Regional Thinking, a progressive Israel think-tank, who has studied nearly all of them, said that many of the videos are centred around competing over which candidate killed the most Palestinians.

“Every election season is a time where Israelis get a concentrated dose of racist incitement playing on TV, on social media even in texts,” she told me.

“I think what we are seeing in this campaign is the targeting of Palestinian minorities in Israeli.  Israeli politics keeps shifting to the right. Now the main competition is among a multiple of right wing parties,” she added.

She pointed to the campaign video for [MK] Anat Berko of Benjamin Netanyahu’s ruling Likud Party, which is bizarre to watch. In it, her husband, dressed as a Palestinian, appears to kidnap Dr Berko. In the short clip, Berko lists her military credentials in fighting “foreign terrorists” (i.e. Palestinians). As proof that the Palestinians never had a state of their own, Berko mocks Arabic language and pronunciation.

However, if you’ve read analyses of the election videos and social media campaigns, you’d know that most don’t even touch upon the Palestinian issue, yet alone repeat racist themes about Palestinians. 

Further, Trew misses important context about the video in question. First, it’s important to note that both of Anat Berko’s parents were Iraqi, and she’s fluent in Arabic and familiar with Arab culture.  Also, she’s an expert on the issue of terrorism (her doctorate thesis was about suicide bombers), and has published articles, academic papers and books on the subject – and even once interviewed Hamas leader Ahmed Yassin. So, it makes perfect sense that terrorism is the focus of her video. 

Also, in the video, her husband doesn’t dress up as a random Palestinian, but as a Hamas terrorist – undermining Trew’s claim that Berko was bragging about her record targeting (random) Palestinians. Berko is making the case that she can be trusted on an issue that Israelis care about, and that they should vote for her and support anti-terror legislation she sponsored which would prohibit terrorists from having their sentences shortened.

As far as the claim she’s mocking Arabic, we consulted CAMERA’s Arabic researchers who noted that Berko does stress (in one brief sentence during the one minute, twenty-second clip) that Arabic doesn’t have the letter ‘P’, so that the Palestinian use of the word ‘Palestine’ is not authentic. However, whilst this is an inconsequential point, it’s a stretch to suggest that she, as an Arabic speaker, in a general sense, is mocking Arabic – yet alone that this is evidence of anti-Arab racism. 

Also, Berko’s point that there never was a Palestinian state is historically accurate.  

We contacted Dr. Berko to get her comment on the Indy claim, and she emphatically denied that the video is racist.  She stressed to us that she proudly identifies – given her background – as an “Arab Jew”, and that the suggestion she would mock her parents’ native language is absurd.  She also stressed that the video was designed to draw attention to her efforts to understand and help combat Palestinian terrorism – the focus of her academic and professional life.

Trew then cites a campaign video by Benny Gantz:

Another chilling video was released by the campaign team of Benny Gantz, Israel’s former chief of staff, who is supposed to be the “moderate” alternative to Netanyahu. Lieutenant-General Gantz, who oversaw the Gaza war in 2014, has soared in the polls this week to a very close second to the incumbent prime minister.

In his latest video, footage of funerals of fighters in Gaza is overlaid with a scrolling Palestinian death toll count from the 2014 conflict ,during which over 2100 Palestinians and 70 Israelis were killed. It concludes by saying that Lt-Gen Gantz was responsible for killing 1,364 Gaza militants in the seven-week military campaign. The problem is that militant body count is even higher than Israel’s agreed numbers and nearly double the United Nations figures.

If you break down the percentages, Gantz’s campaign have included the 935 Palestinians killed that Israel believes were fighters, as well as more than 420 males of fighting age (so aged between 16-50) who were killed in the war but whose status is unclear.

In short, the video effectively glorifies the killing of civilians.

Trew’s accusation doesn’t hold up. Whilst the video can be faulted for assuming – without evidence – that the unidentified 420 Palestinian males of fighting age killed in the war were indeed terrorists, Trew’s argument rests on the reverse assumption – that the 420 were all civilians.  If Gantz were to brag that he killed civilians, he would have used the 2,100 figure (which includes those identified by the IDF as civilians), not the 1,364 figure.

Also, as with most of her article, Trew’s take on this one Gantz video assumes the worst motives, fails to provide context and omits evidence which would contradict the desired narrative. 

For starters, images in the video solely depict fighters, not civilians – further undermining the Indy reporter’s claim that Gantz is glorifying the killing of civilians.  And, anyone familiar with the election campaign would understand the video as an attempt by Gantz’s campaign to blunt charges from Likud that he’s left-wing on security matters.  His campaign video’s bravado over defeating Hamas during the 2014 war, and killing terrorists, can not reasonably be interpreted as racist.

Most telling is the fact that Trew failed to mention that Gantz released another campaign video stressing that Israel needed to seriously pursue peace with the Palestinians. “It’s not shameful to be striving for peace,” he said in the video, which also featured images of Menachem Begin holding peace talks with Anwar Sadat in the 1970s and Netanyahu meeting Yasser Arafat in the 1990s.

Finally, here’s a video of Gantz expressing pride in the morality of the IDF under his command, when soldiers avoided attacking Gaza targets that would have risked civilian casualties – showing a side of the former Chief of Staff that’s completely at odds with Trew’s narrative.

Trew then cites another example of Israeli racism:

Arab-Israeli politicians have also come under fire from their Jewish counterparts. The Likud’s popular MK Oren Hazan used a Facebook Live to call Palestinian members of the Knesset “terrorists” and repeatedly referred to Arab Israeli MK Jamal Zahalka as “Zahalkaka” which basically means “sh***y Zahalka”.

However, anyone even remotely familiar with Israeli politics would know that Hazan is not “popular”, as Trew claims. He’s in fact now an outlier and constantly mocked for his horrible behavior in and out of the Knesset – referred to often as Likud’s “bad boy MK” or as the “enfant terrible” of Israel’s parliament.  He can hardly be cast as somehow representative of widespread racism in the Knesset or the wider society.

At the end of her article, Trew even appears to take a swipe at diaspora Jews for allegedly failing to hold Israel accountable for ‘increased racism’ in their society:

Before, issues like racism were kept in check by the left in Israel and the Jewish diaspora in countries like the States, with many arguing that prejudice towards Arabs was only bad for Israel, isolating the country and making it tougher to reach a peace settlement with the Palestinians.  But that backlash seems to have quietened. There was little to no reaction abroad when the Israeli parliament pushed through the Nation State law last year, which critics said was akin to apartheid legislation.

It downgraded the Arabic language from an official state language, promoted the creation of Jewish-only settlements and defined national self-determination as “the unique right of the Jewish people”. It was passed with little more than a whimper outside of Israel.

Trew’s broad contention that diaspora Jews kept Israeli racism in check is as baseless as her specific claims that the nation-state law “promotes the creation of Jewish only settlements” and is akin to “apartheid legislation”. The law doesn’t in any way erode the civil rights of Israel’s non-Jews, as even the left-leaning Israel Democracy Institute (IDI) acknowledged that the law is largely “symbolic and educational”, and merely codifies Israel’s identity as a Jewish state.  Regarding the ‘downgrading’ of Arabic, IDI President Yohanan Plesner said that, under the law, the status of the language will not in fact be harmed.

Beyond refuting Trew’s specific allegations, there are other major problems with the article.

First, throughout the piece, she conflates Palestinian terrorists with Palestinians in general – misleadingly suggesting that efforts to vilify the former is no different than doing so to the latter. 

Additionally, Trew doesn’t provide any context regarding Palestinian racism towards Jews, such as polls showing that Palestinians are literally the most antisemitic people in the world – and the possible impact this anti-Jewish racism (and culture of incitement and violence) has on Israeli perceptions of Palestinians.

Also, Trew doesn’t even attempt to provide evidence that would serve to counter the charge of Israeli racism. Unlike most articles in the British media critical of Israel which at least try to give the other side, she makes no effort to achieve any semblance of balance. For starters, Trew could have noted that co-existence and tolerance between religious and ethnic groups is the norm and not the exception in Israeli life. She also could have highlighted greatly increased government resources to bridge socio-economic gaps between Arabs and Jews, the fact that Arab Israelis are increasingly more economically.integrated, and that most are proud to be Israeli. 

Jaffa, Israel

Though, without question, serious problems between Jews and Arabs persist, it’s extraordinarily dishonest to erase the complexity of the relationship, and focus entirely on the negative, in order to confirm a preexisting opinion suggesting endemic Jewish racism.

Finally, in 2011, we interviewed Jonathan Spyer about the publication of his book The Transforming Fire: the Rise of the Israel-Islamist Conflict. Our first question focused on his contrast between the real Israel and what he termed the “mythical Israel” – evoked by anti-Zionists and other delegitmisers – which he characterised as a fictional place of “uninterrupted darkness and horror, in which every human interaction is ugly, crude, racist, brutal.” It’s this mythical Israel – divorced from any trace of nuance, balance or context – which informs Trew’s latest hatchet job, and indeed much of the demonisation of the state in the British media.

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