28 Dec 2005 THE GUARDIAN & ISRAEL
I have ongoing difficulty with the Guardian’s long-held anti-Israel stance, which has become ever more pronounced in recent times. My view is based on recollection and is not supported by extensive research. I have lived in Australia since 1987 and for several years I have been a subscriber to the Guardian Weekly. In the UK, the Guardian was my paper of choice. In what follows, I mostly tend to equate the Guardian Weekly with the Guardian and vice versa, although I surmise that items which appear in the Weekly may be edited versions of what has appeared in the Guardian. And of course, the Weekly does not have the space to be as diverse in its contents as the Guardian.
As a Jew it grieves me that Israel proceeded to settle the West Bank and Gaza, a decision which reverberates in its brutal and oppressive occupation of these areas. In this regard Israel’s current troubles are of its own making. But the reality that perhaps uniquely in the world, Israel since its creation, has had to deal with enemies dedicated to its annihilation, is not of its own making. Decades later, the Palestinian fighters bent on annihilating Israel, though unable to remotely match its fire power, still pose a deadly threat. By basing themselves amongst the civilian population and putting the lives of non-combatants at risk, they not only make it harder for Israel to take them on, they also gain an advantage in the propaganda war, which is the whole idea. How would Britain or France act under similar circumstances? In the case of Britain in Northern Ireland we have reliable knowledge, except that the IRA never resorted to suicide bombing.
Nothing reveals how cruelly both Israel and the Palestinians have been duped by the UN and Britain in their well-intentioned (for post holocaust Jewry), but inept and irresponsible exercise in nation building, as Israel’s pre-1967 borders. The dispensation ushered in by the UN nearly 60 years ago, has resulted in the utterly perverse and heartless situation where the cocks are universally blamed for the cock fight. A glance at the map shows that Israel’s borders prior to 1967 were untenable for a nation that was still at war with all its neighbours nearly 20 years after it was forced to fight for its right to exist. An enemy on the pre-1967 eastern border north of Jerusalem could lob heavy artillery shells into the Mediterranean. And forces occupying the Golan Heights would direct mortar shells onto Israeli settlements below.
The pre-1967 borders failed to inspire confidence in the past and do not inspire confidence now. The United Nation’s insistence on upholding them not only compounds its error in initially mapping out unrealistic borders, it also overlooks the fact that Israel’s post-1967 borders, like the borders of many of the world’s sovereign states, were legitimised through force of arms. The Six Day War was about redrawing Israel’s borders out of necessity. It flies in the face of history for the victor to give up all the spoils. Even now, it is hard to see how a putative Palestine, occupying the Gaza Strip and a percentage of the West Bank, will be able to function as an integrated state, which is not the same as saying that there should be no Palestinian state. I do not doubt the Guardian’s sincerity in embracing the plight of the Palestinian people. But I think the Guardian’s unwillingness to properly apportion blame for their plight to the Palestinian leadership in its several manifestations, the worst of them malign and lawless, and to the wider Arab world, shows a lack of intellectual rigour. In other words, the plight of the Palestinians is significantly of their own and the wider Arab world’s making and to that extent cannot be blamed on the actions of Israel. The Guardian’s lack of intellectual rigour is also evident in the absence of an underlying recognition of Israel’s political identity compared with that of its neighbours, or, it seems, of the fact that Israel has every right to defend its people from its enemies. Whatever its shortcomings, Israel remains the sole liberal democracy in its part of the world. Broadly speaking, its citizens enjoy freedoms which can only be dreamed of in neighbouring countries.
The conflict between Israelis and Palestinians is above all else a horror story for both sides. That awful reality should inform all coverage of the endlessly tragic events to which the conflict gives rise. To uphold common humanity what is needed is a nuanced response, not crude bias. For most people, particularly for most people who are used to living in the world’s liberal democracies, political life which entails soldiers firing live rounds at people who are only throwing stones and buses being blown apart by a bomb, their passengers killed or wounded, is beyond knowing. Both are monstrously indefensible acts. Until the current cease-fire, this was everyday reality for Palestinians and Israelis.
The Guardian’s reflex response to the conflict, revealed through the position and wording of headlines and the allocation of column inches, seems to be to downplay the suffering of Israelis, while dwelling on their brutality and to expatiate on the suffering of the Palestinians while downplaying their participation in terrorism. I am not suggesting that the Guardian should curtail its coverage of the suffering of the Palestinians. My point is that the paper’s stance risks conveying the impression that it sees the Palestinians as the only victims, whereas the Israelis are getting what they deserve, which indeed may be the Guardian’s position. That said, the Guardian’s response to the conflict in my view veers towards being populist (in terms of pandering to its readership) rather than principled.
The cumulative, if unintended effect of the Guardian’s voluminous writing on the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians since before the first intifada, is to communicate and foster a growing dislike of Israel and by association, of Israelis and ergo Jews. Regrettably, the Guardian appears to think that it can continue to anathematise Israel without causing harm to Israelis and to Jews generally, to a point which appears indistinguishable from anti-Semitism. This is not a case of “with friends like that, who needs enemies”, because the Guardian is no longer a friend of Israel. Neither is it anti-Semitic, otherwise it would not publish a feature article on the new Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem. But it seems that not a week goes by without an issue of the Guardian Weekly containing at least one condemnation of Israel somewhere in its pages. I doubt that the United States has received such unremitting opprobrium from the Guardian Weekly over these years (if only because George W Bush’s presidency began after the second intifada was launched and the United States, due to its dominance in world affairs, is written about so widely that there is bound to be room for relieving, favourable coverage). Israel, by comparison, is covered in predominantly political terms.
I may be wide of the mark in my perception, but what if I am not? Fortuitously, the April 1 – 7 2005 issue of the Guardian Weekly helps to make my point. An ad at the foot of page 14, promoting the paper and The Guardian Year 2004 book, is captioned READ THE BEST OF THE GUARDIAN…. and the front page of the issue of the Guardian Weekly chosen to illustrate the caption has the headline Israeli assault turns Gaza into battlefield. It reads perilously akin to an admission that the Guardian’s take on Israel is amongst the paper’s best content. Why single out Israel, of all the countries in the world, in this way? It is a question that the Guardian should take to heart.
If any fairly recent issue of the Guardian Weekly exemplifies my concern, it is the one which really went to town marking the death of Yasser Arafat. David Hirst’s full page obituary was not the half of it. I would find it as surprising and objectionable were Ariel Sharon to be given so much space. In contrast, the more recent obituary devoted to the founder of Amnesty International Peter Benenson, was about a third as long. The Guardian was not alone in devoting more space to Arafat than to Benenson. Even after allowing for the fact that, unlike Arafat, Benenson did not live in the public eye, the discrepancy in the Guardian seems excessive. It is made more so because Peter Benenson was a great benefactor of humanity, whereas it is arguable to what degree Arafat was even a benefactor of his people.