In my previous post I fisked Ali Younes’ complaint that the media – even the Arab media – had been sucked into the Israeli PR machine, and point out the mindset that lay behind his complaint. Here I try and interpret why perceptions are so wildly divergent between the Israeli and the Palestinians that both feel wronged, misrepresented, and offended by the same media coverage.
Obviously (for those who go no further), the fact that “both sides” object confirms the oft-uttered tropes of moral equivalence.
The MSNM often congratulates itself on its balanced coverage – what one analyst called the “he-said-she-said” narrative – by claiming that “we get criticized by both sides,” and then concluding, “so we must be doing something right.” I’m sure it’s tempting for them to view the presence of unhappiness “on both sides” – eg, me and Younes – as a good sign.
I’d suggest a different dynamic (obviously, but not necessarily incorrectly). Israelis are so self-critical that you have to get really nasty before they start to complain. (Granted, over the last decade, many Zionists have become more vocal in their complaints, I’d argue justifiably.) Criticism fine, demonization, not. And there’s a huge and legitimate debate on where to draw the line(s). But it has to be something pretty huge to get a loud complaint – like, say, making (or strongly suggesting) a moral equivalence between the plight of unrepentant mass-murderers of children and a soldier who was manning a hostile border taken hostage in a raid.
(The fact that, when these attacks were first taking place and Israel was blamed for the hatred of the Palestinians, Israel and the major Jewish organizations did little to fight back, supports my argument that Jews have huge tolerance for verbal aggression. I remember one of my early conversations with an Israeli friend about al Durah. Once he saw the evidence that it was a fake, he responded: “we deserved it. If the settlements hadn’t been there, it wouldn’t have happened.”)
On the other side, it takes very little to provoke hostility. In this case, the mere “sympathetic” view of an Israeli strikes pro-Palestinians as irritating, offensive, provokes outbursts of complaint. As I’ve tried to suggest, the language these protests use is that of a counter-empirical “Palestinian victim narrative” in which Israel is a child-killing country in resistance to which we cannot be reproached for killing their children. In the world of “he-said-she-said” the narratives are not “equal,” not equally honest or empirically based.
The exchange of Shalit for 0ver 1000 Palestinian convicted prisoners, some terrorists of the most heinous sort, was, on some level a humiliation for the Arab world. Some recognized it, some felt it but couldn’t acknowledge it, and many of these chose to make accusations against others to avoid acknowledging it (after all, in honor-shame cultures, only what is acknowledged is shameful), and with the help of Western allies, tried to turn it into Israeli racism.
Deborah Orr managed a magnificent exegetical pirouette in acknowledging Hamas’ shame while accusing Israel of racism:
At the same time, however, there is something abject in their [Hamas’] eagerness to accept a transfer that tacitly acknowledges what so many Zionists believe – that the lives of the chosen are of hugely greater consequence than those of their unfortunate neighbours.
She doesn’t even understand that Hamas was getting a fantastic deal. What does she want? That Hamas trade Shalit for only one person?
But in a larger sense, what Orr is missing here is that Hamas is the racist player, a “leadership” that treats its own people’s lives with contempt if only they can kill their neighbors, who’s very existence they consider an unbearable religious humiliation. What Orr identifies as Israeli “racism” is merely evidence that the Israelis have cultivated the arts and disciplines of civil society to a great degree (maybe more than her own). Israelis really do consider every life valuable, even those of their enemies.
Hamas, on the other hand, proudly proclaims they have contempt for everyone’s lives, and yet, Orr won’t listen. She’s another unconscious racist busy projecting her flaws on those she considers her moral rivals, people she prefers to despise than to understand.
Similarly, Laura Pawson, in a classic maneuver of post-colonial paradigm , insists not only on seeing the Western press’ sympathy to Shalit as a racist reflex on the part of our (unconsciously colonialist) mindset, but blames us for the problem. After an excursus into an African case of white racism (which may or may not be accurate, I can’t say, but she’s hardly earned my trust), she returns to the Shalit affair:
They [the Western press’ errors in Africa and in covering the Shalit affair] remind us that we have created a world in which a thousand Palestinians are equal to one Israeli. They remind us that this world was shaped by a trade in slaves ended not so long ago, and that it was justified on the grounds that Africans were said by Europeans to be equivalent to animals.
No. The Palestinians themselves, obsessed with their damaged honor, sacrificing their own people – the Palestinian “refugees”! – on the altar of vengeance, have created that world. As Faisal al Qassim put it, it’s a problem that goes well beyond the Palestinian leadership, to encompass a larger Arab political culture:
It is not a secret at all that the value of an Arab person in the stock-exchange of Arab regimes is sort of nil. He is as valueless as an onion’s peel. One should not expect of regimes which treat their downtrodden people like dirt by torturing and starving them inside their countries to care about an Arab captive in Israeli or other foreign jails.
As much as it may comfort Pawson to degrade Israel by shoving her in the racist muck of the slave trade and white racism, as much as it may reinforce (or represent an abuse) of the post-colonial paradigm, it’s got far less to do with reality that what al Qassim tells us is “no secret at all”… except for, apparently, Western fellow travelers.
So my take home message to any aspiring journalists who hope to clean the Augean Stables: examine the conflict for disparities between degrees of tolerance for self-criticism on the part of the narrative producers. If there’s a huge disparity, then you need to run these narratives by a hermeneutic of suspicion in which the unself-critical narratives get triple-checked and more. If one side tends towards demonizing, scapegoating narratives that accuse their enemies of many of their own sins, then you should doubt the validity of their claims until proven true. If the other tends to be so self-critical that they’ll take responsibility for things they didn’t even do, then you should be very careful about saying, “well if an Israeli admitted it, it must be true.”
In the mad Middle East, everyone’s narratives need checking. If you need short cuts, let me suggest finding a significant alternative to the current reigning epistemology of your comrades on the beat in the Middle East: believe Palestinians until proven wrong, and doubt Israelis until proven right. And whatever you do, don’t fall silent when it turns out you’re wrong. Like Enderlin (who’s aggressive in his cover-up), that is honor-shame behavior, unworthy of an honest journalist.
Lethal narratives are not a legitimate part of even he-said-she-said journalism. Had the media done it’s minimal due vigilance on the Al Durah case, we would not have had the 21st century’s icon of hatred, which has presided over the belligerence of our young century, and given wings to the shrill moral madness of our unhappy times.