I ran across this comment from an Arab-American Kuwaiti-born journalist based in DC on the blog of comedian, activist, dialoguer Ray Hanania. In preparing a post at the Telegraph in which I cite it, I analyze it here.
09-01-09 Gilad Shalit in the Arab media
By Ali Younes –
Every time I read and watch how Arab media outlets cover the story of prisoner’s exchange of the Israeli solider Gilad Shalit and hundreds of Palestinian prisoners, I come to think how Arab media have fallen victims to Israeli PR machine (propaganda).
This is pretty interesting for me, since I just posted something to the exact opposite effect at the Telegraph (and, in longer form, here). Each side feels betrayed by the MSNM; each side bemoans the superiority of the PR machine of the other side. It seems like two parallel universes that do not intersect. Let me try to explain both these responses within the same universe.
There are several issues at play here when covering this story. Note that Gilad Shalit is always mentioned by name, I know his name, you do, and maybe my grandmother knows his name too!
So before we go to details, Younes lets us in on an emotional issue. It really bothers him that his grandmother knows Shalit’s name. Why will become clear if we read the rest (the substantive material) with this initial confession in mind.
Why, because the Israeli government has made sure that the whole world, and even my grandmother knows this soldier name. Every effort to release him ( note its always about him ) was made specifically for him, the Egyptians, the Germans, the Americans, even some Palestinians care more about him than their own.
Now we know two further things. 1) Younes sees the immense and sympathetic attention that Shalit, his central place in the narrative of that prisoner exchange, as a victory for the Israelis. 2) If the Zionists succeeded, it must be because of the (immensely effective) PR machine.
How many Palestinian prisoners’ names do we know? We know that there are 12000 of them in captivity. I might know Marwan Barghouthi, whose only image I know is him in chains and handcuffs waving them off. Maybe few others and that’s about it. The rest I just see them without actually see them in Israeli busses or cages, or jail cells. Or, we might see a crying wife, a saddened son, or an ailing mother clinging to a picture of her imprisoned son. But I don’t know who he is, or how, when and why did the Israeli army arrest him. We don’t even know if those prisoners have children or if they are married even.
In other words, why is Gilad Shalit humanized and not the Palestinians. Younes here confesses, perhaps unconsciously, to his sheer ignorance about the details of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. In Israel, many of these prisoners are widely known, some, like the two in prison for the Ramallah lynching on October 12, 2000, to the sociopathic icon Ahlam Tammimi, who specifically chose the target of Sbarro Pizza because it was full of religious kids, and broke into a beaming smile when she found out she and her human weapon had killed eight, not three, children.
Apparently Younes has no idea of what kind of people Israel has locked up. He seems unaware that these details he calls for can only weaken his case. He seems not just to manipulate, but believe in the prevailing paradigm of moral equality: “Palestinians are just as much people as Israelis. Where’s the sympathy for us? Aren’t we sympathetic?”
Moreover, I watched an Arab media outlet over the weekend looping a report as part of a show on the possibility of prisoner’s exchange, where the Israeli soldier was shown with his “boyish looks” smile around, eating, and joking like any other normal person. But this should be anything but normal.
Arab media showing sympathetic images of an Israeli soldier? How galling. Apparently Younes is not the only one to be annoyed by this, not only among Arab journalists, but Western sympathizers. Raja Chemayel, who fancies himself a “democrat by nature,” picks the least flattering picture of Shalit and compares him to Dracula’s brother.
The Palestinian movements did not capture him out of his bedroom or out of his school yard. He was manning a tank and military position that was laying siege against Palestinians, shooting at the Palestinians and God knows how many Palestinians he/they kill.
The classic Palestinian victim narrative: we didn’t do anything, we’re here minding our own business (or resisting Israeli aggression) and they’re gratuitously laying siege to us and killing us. It’s not Israel that declared war on Gaza, but – insanely – it’s Hamas’ Gaza that declared eliminationist war against Israel.
This paragraph of Younes, loosely constructed from speculations entirely from within the “innocent” Palestinian victim narrative (i.e., not the Palestinians as losers in an mad zero-sum game they’ve chosen to engage in, and whose pursuit can only lead to their suffering, not their freedom). And despite his effort to add on a retrospective justification of kidnapping Shalit, Hamas never “tried” Shalit for anything, never even made any claims about his actions as their justification. From their point of view, if little Israeli kids are legitimate targets of murder, why not kidnap an Israeli soldier?
Yet Arab media fall into an Israeli trap and present “normal” image of one its soldiers who was trained to kill Palestinian men, women and children.
Now we move from fantasies of victimhood to lethal narrative. Younes has no evidence that the IDF trains its soldiers to “kill Palestinian… women and children.” That, if you’ll excuse my bluntness, is one of the main lines of “lethal narrative” that Palestinians – who do train their “soldiers” to target women and children, insist upon to justify their own morally degraded behavior. On the contrary, the IDF explicitly trains its soldiers not to kill civilians, even when it puts their own lives in danger.
If imagery is not enough, let’s talk about the words. Almost every time an Israeli official talk about “the Exchange” we notice that Israeli is “in pain” at releasing “Palestinians with bloods on their hands.” One Arab TV anchor repeated those words, with the disclaimer that those were an Israeli allegations. This is true, but in the world of media and PR, the disclaimer matters not once you utter the crucial words that Israeli PR machine wants you to say.
Note that Younes shows no interest in whether these folks do have “blood on their hands.” The mere repeating of the claim, even if disclaimed, is offensive. On the contrary, let’s go back to the blood on Israeli hands.
Does the Israeli soldier have blood on his hands; no one says anything about it. What we know about Gilad Shalit-note I always mention him by name, whereas I don’t mention any Palestinian by name, because as an Arab consumer of television and news, I have been spoon-fed news reports and imagery about this one Israeli solider and that no one bothered, at least to the best of knowledge to mention that he was a killing machine part of even larger killing machine called the Israeli Army.
An army is, by definition, a killing machine. The issue is not whether soldiers kill, but whom they kill. Palestinians have chosen to fight a war which they cannot win on the battlefield, so they make a virtue of killing civilians. Israelis try to keep the killing on the battlefield and restricted to combatants. They – both the army and civilians – expend a great deal of effort in this direction, including trying and punishing soldiers who transgress the boundaries they try and erect to killing civilians. Palestinians do the opposite: they make heroes of people who target civilians.
Israel has humanized its solider making him a celebrity around the world and in the heart of the Arab world. Hamas, the Palestinians in general obviously for the lack of experience and host of other problems have yet to match the Israeli PR sophistication and prowess.
This is cute. How many times have I heard Israelis and their supporters complain about how sophisticated the Palestinian “PR machine.” (NB: I disagree. I think they’re incredibly clumsy and transparent – for example the appallingly poor “staging” of the al Durah “murder” – but they are systematically favored by an almost principled credulity to anything the Palestinian claims about Israelis targeting children – from the al Durah affair to the Goldstone Report.
Of course, rehabilitating and humanizing the Palestinians released is something of a tall order. Aside from images of their emotional home-comings, it’s hard to imagine how one can render mass murderers sympathetic to anyone but to ideologues who a) believe that the Israelis are child killers and b) the “only choice” they have is to fight back by killing Israeli children.
When was the last time the Haaretz or any Israeli newspaper or television or Fox news, or CNN run a true objective story that humanizes the Palestinian victims? It’s almost never.
Part of what’s so choice about this remark is that both Haaretz and CNN are constantly engaged in humanizing Palestinians, often despite the fact that they are telling neither a true nor an “objective” narrative. Indeed, they have fulltime journalists like Amira Hass and Gideon Levy who do virtually nothing but “humanize” Palestinian and proclaim their victimhood, often at the expense of truth and objectivity (impartiality). They virtually turn themselves inside-out for the Palestinians. The joke in Israel among those who no longer subscribe to Haaretz is that if they want to read the Palestinian point of view, they can just read the Arab press. And yet, Younes just assumes that Haaretz is anti-Palestinian.
Haaretz illustrates the post-modern paradigm, the other side right or wrong, in its most (crypto) Christian form: my enemy right or wrong. Indeed, part of adopting the Palestinian victim narrative necessitates demonizing their own people, internalizing the scapegoating narrative by which all Palestinian behavior, no matter how base, is somehow explainable, justifiable, as resistance to heartless Israeli oppression.
So Younes is doubly mistaken. He thinks that an “true objective” story will/should humanize the Palestinian victims, and that Haaretz “almost never” does so. It does it constantly, although at the expense of objectivity.
The only time Palestinians were dealt with as human beings, really, was that when treating them like “animals” would cause a “hiccup” in the conscious of Israelis. That’s about it.
Such contempt for the conscious [sic? conscience?] of the Israelis! Would that there were a fraction of that conscience among the Arab, like Younes. On the contrary, so vehement is he in demonizing the Israelis that when, for a brief moment, they get humanized in the Arab press, he’s disgusted. Can anyone name one significant Arab journal or newspaper that humanizes the Israelis? Younes, who can’t bear a moment of sympathy, would be sure to object.
What I especially like about his reference to treating the Palestinians as “animals.” That’s actually what I think describes the (unconsciously racist) Western attitude and the Arab demand: Do not have any moral expectations of them, do not hold them up to any kind of moral standard. Excuse everything they do, “objectively and truthfully” humanize them regardless of whether they merit the sympathy. In the same way that we don’t expect our cats to understand that they shouldn’t chase mice and eat birds, the West doesn’t expect the Palestinians to stop playing their insane predatory game. In my book, Younes is the one who treats the Palestinians as moral animals, covering their savage behavior with lethal narratives of Israeli guilt and ideological justifications about “resistance.”
It’s not that Younes is an outright defender of terrorism (ie attacks on civilians), or an apologist for Arab dictatorships like Hamas. Indeed he’s urging the US to act against Assad, in the name of democratic values. It’s more like he’s the victim of the Arab propaganda machine and its widely distributed (by the Western intelligentsia and MSNM) narrative of innocent Palestinian victimhood. He seems to know nothing of the revolting behavior of his fellow Arabs – and if he does, he assumes it’s in response to the cruelty of Israelis. He assumes the Palestinians are innocent and the Israelis are guilty.
I wonder how he’d respond to the evidence he calls for about why these folks were in jail. My guess is – and this returns us both to his initial comment about feeling irritation at the sympathetic treatment of Gilad Shalit – is that he would resist it with all his might. For him, the narrative he has eagerly swallowed about the conflict is a matter of honor. If you read his essay on Arab Intellectuals and the Arab Spring, there’s a whole category of Arab thinkers for whom democracy is subordinated to “solving” the Arab Israeli conflict. Again, in my book, that’s honor-shame concerns – tiny Israel humiliates us – subordinating the capability of these intellectuals to genuinely explore how to achieve democracy. If they really wanted democracy, the first thing they’d do is start cooperating with the Israelis.
But they’re too proud for that. And the West is too contemptuous of them (“racist”) to point it out. What can you expect of your cat? That he dine with the mice rather than on them? How humiliating.
To return to the original ambition of this post, which was to put the wildly variant views of how the media covers the arab-israeli conflict in a unifying perspective: 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.
But in a larger sense, what Carr 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 Carr 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 Carr 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.
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. 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 the 21st century, and given wings to the shrill moral madness of our unhappy times.