When it comes to the Palestine-Israel conflict, the US media has been systematically biased
By Neil Berry
It is impossible to underestimate the privileged status accorded by the US media to the Zionist reading of the Palestine-Israel conflict. American Jews, and for that matter Americans at large, have seldom been directly exposed to the Palestinian point of view.
Despite the tireless educative efforts of the great Anglophone champion of the Palestinian cause, the late Edward Said, ignorance about the historical basis of Palestinian grievances remains endemic among US Jews and Gentiles alike.
The Nakba, the expulsion from their homeland in 1948 of 750,000 Palestinians by Zionist forces, was long a blank not just in American but also in general Western public discourse. Palestinian preoccupation with the issue — when acknowledged at all — continues to be seen as an outrageous attempt to claim moral parity with the immeasurably more terrible experience of Jews wiped out in the Nazi death camps. When it comes to the Israel-Palestine conflict, the US media has been systematically biased toward occluding the whole episode of the Nakba.
Albeit sluggishly, perceptions are shifting. Consider the ground-breaking article ‘Lydda, 1948’ in the Oct. 21 issue of the New Yorker magazine that addresses the monstrous cost to the Palestinians of Israel’s creation. The author of the article, the Israeli journalist Ari Shavit, chronicles the terrible circumstances in which some 70,000 Palestinians were driven out of the city of Lydda. Visiting the city that witnessed a massacre and noticing its mysterious ruins, Shavit senses that something feels “very wrong.” Unlike other Israeli cities where the Jewish state’s modernity has effaced old Palestine, Lydda, he writes, is a city whose Arab past is still palpable, a place with an “unhealed wound.”
Sharit is, it must be said, an unabashed Zionist. For all his acknowledgement of the Palestinian trauma, he frames his narrative with conspicuous reference to the threat that Arab armies posed to the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine. Moreover, in focusing on what happened at Lydda, he contrives to compress a complicated story of Zionist eviction of vast numbers of Palestinian communities into a single event. And the initial impression that he is writing in a vein of hand-wringing contrition proves misleading.
Though he wonders, briefly, if he should turn his back on the Jewish national movement that laid Lydda waste, Shavit concludes that there was in the end no alternative to the “filthy work” carried out by the embryonic Israeli Defense Force. Without it, his people, his nation, his daughter, his sons, he himself, would not have lived.
Shavit’s engagement with Lydda’s tortured history makes him doubtful whether true peace between Israeli and the Palestinian people will ever be possible. The Jewish case is clear, he believes. Jews had to come into and take the Lydda valley: “there was no other home for us, no other way.” Yet the Arab side, he remarks, is equally clear: They cannot forget Lydda or forgive Jews for what they did. Israel has a right to exist, and if it is to survive will never be able to resolve the Lydda issue. Above all, the Jewish state will never be able to concede to the Palestinians the right of return. Their homelessness was the inescapable price that had to be paid if Jews fleeing a Europe where they had faced collective destruction were to find sanctuary.
Imagining the Lydda of 1948, Shavit sees a column of Palestinian refugees marching east. After all this time, he adds, the column marches on.
The vision of unending Palestinian displacement is evidently one that Shavit can live with. In the blogosphere, anti-Zionists have recoiled from Shavit’s article as a distasteful outburst, Zionism at its most brazenly unapologetic. It is hard to deny that Shavit is expounding what amounts to “life-boat” ethics that he is saying in effect: It was “us or them.”
And it is understandable if some think he displays a peculiarly Jewish sense of belonging to the chosen race, a people who constitute a wholly exceptional case and cannot be judged in the way that others can. Nevertheless, this confrontation of the Palestinian Nakba by an Israeli Jew in the pages of a famously philo-Semitic American magazine is no inconsequential development. Shavit has opened a window onto historical perspectives over which in US/Israeli public commentary a veil has customarily been drawn. Most notably, he has made a contribution, however modest, to raising public awareness that it is not 1967, the year that Israel’s occupation began, but 1948 that is central to the Palestinian story and to Palestinian psychology. At the same time, he has italicized the message that no sustainable solution to the conflict will ever be reached that fails to take proper account of this primordial Palestinian sense of injustice.
The other day, the American Jewish liberal polemicist Peter Beinart wrote witheringly about the “American Jewish cocoon.” Beinart was referring to the way US media discussion of the Palestine-Israel conflict is apt to be confined to representatives of one or another shade of Jewish political opinion.
In many ways, Shavit’s article is of a piece with this tendency, part of an American conversation about the conflict that, dominated as it is by Jewish voices, is essentially narcissistic. Yet it is also a challenge to that narcissism from within, a small but significant break with a solipsistic mindset that endures even among many Jews who pride themselves on their education and moral wisdom.
- Dr Neil Berry is an eminent British journalist and writer who has extensively written for British, international and Middle East papers. He is the author of ‘Articles of Faith: The Story of British Intellectual Journalism.’