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June 1994

Normalizing Israeli Repression

By Edward S. Herman


In her book Beyond Belief, Deborah Lipstadt showed how in the years of the holocaust the mass murder of Jews in Nazi death camps was treated in muted fashion in the mainstream U.S. media (including the New York Times and Washington Post); reports about these mass killings were treated episodically, on the back pages, and did not provide the basis for major investigative efforts or sustained and indignant editorializing demanding action. These were "unworthy" victims.

In one of the great ironies of modern history, the Jews have belatedly become worthy victims and their own victims have replaced them as unworthy. As in the case of the holocaust itself, the categorization--which reflects power and powerlessness--provides the intellectual and moral basis for horrendous actions.  

Eye Aversion

Key elements in normalizing the mistreatment of unworthy victims are eye aversion, low-key reporting where complete silence is not possible, and the absence of indignation. It would not be easy to find any discussions in the U.S. mass media of Israel's legally mandated discrimination against non-Jews in land and home ownership and rental, and state confiscations and purchases for the exclusive use of Jews, although such discrimination violates Western values and would elicit outcries if done against Jews. In the occupied territories, officially authorized beatings, large scale administrative detentions, the destruction of thousands of homes and numerous orchards, and systematic torture, have been almost entirely ignored. (The only scheduled program on Israel on PBS's main station in Philadelphia this spring has been "Israel: A Nation Is Born, with Abba Eban," the host representing the only acceptable form of bias on this subject.)

The more than one thousand killings of intifada protesters have been reported in very low key, on the back pages, as impersonal happenings like traffic death numbers. The coverage has been kept at a level--both quantitatively and qualitatively--that would not arouse public opinion or interfere with the Israeli policy of subduing the uprising by unrelenting low level state terror. The violations of UN resolutions and international law on occupation policies have been almost entirely ignored, by the same media that were so alert to Sadaam Hussein's failures to respond to UN resolutions and misbehavior in an occupied country.

The process of normalization by eye aversion is dramatically illustrated by the media's handling of the torture of prisoners. Generally regarded in the West as barbaric and an extreme form of human rights violation, its institutionalization in Israeli practice is simply not an issue in the West. Most telling, when it is mentioned--when, for example, a human rights group puts up a strong statement on the subject--it is reported with brevity, in a back page article, and without follow-up or editorial indignation. When the London Times did an extensive study of Israeli torture in 1977, the New York Times and Washington Post both declined the opportunity to use the original materials, and the New York Times ' first article on the report, on a back page, featured Israeli denials and included none of the substantive findings of the London Times study.

In 1993-94, when Israeli torture of Palestinians was running at 400-500 victims per month, a rare New York Times article on the subject mentioned the numbers being tortured quite matter-of-factly, deep within an article that stressed Israeli doubts about the merits of the ongoing "interrogation" practices (Joel Greenberg, "Israel Rethinks Interrogation of Arabs," Aug. 14, 1993). In William Safire's April 7, 1994, column in the Times,torture was condemned vigorously as immoral, uncivilized, and intolerable. The column, inspired by and mainly devoted to the Singapore caning case, also cited other countries using torture, but Israel was never mentioned. It is these kinds of evasion and dishonesty that help normalize state terror against unworthy victims.

Unworthy Victims as Terrorists

It has been standard practice in the West to designate insurgents and victims of western power terrorists and western state oppressors defenders against terror. The murderous governments of El Salvador and Guatemala were granted U.S. aid in 1983 under an "Anti-Terror Assistance Act," and in 1988 the Pentagon listed the African National Congress (ANC) as one of the world's "more notorious terrorist groups." As a U.S. client and ally Israel automatically qualifies as a victim of terrorism and is never treated as a terrorist state, despite its regular bombing of Lebanese villages outside the "security zone," or as a sponsor of terrorism, despite its maintenance of the brutal South Lebanon Army as a proxy force in Lebanon. Israel only retaliates and engages in counter-terror, it never terrorizes, by biased political definition.

There has been a great deal of tit-for-tat terrorism in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but Israeli initiatives and provocations have been at least as important as those of the Palestinians. In fact, the Israeli leadership has found that military provocations producing Palestinian responses are a perfect instrument for making the Palestinians "terrorists" and thus unworthy of political participation. This has been possible because the Israeli provocations are largely ignored, while the responses of the Palestinians are featured with great indignation. (For extensive documentation, Chomsky, Pirates & Emperors, chaps. 1-2.)

The intifada has demonstrated how far the corruption of language and framing of issues in service to the powerful can be carried. The Palestinians living in the occupied territories have been treated brutally and denied basic human rights for many years. In response, they rose up in a multi-year rebellion in which stone-throwers confronted a very well armed army. The army's violent response has never been treated by U.S. officials or the mainstream media as a case of state terrorism, which it has been; on the contrary, all through this period only the occasional Palestinian forays were designated terrorism and treated with anger; the vastly greater Israeli violence, with Palestinian deaths exceeding those of Israelis by the usual large factor, have been normalized.

Unworthy Victims Have No "Security Problem"

Another feature of the racist double standard of the West is the constant reference to Israeli "security" and the comprehensive disregard of Palestinian security. Just as U.S. "national security" was threatened by Arbenz and land reform in Guatemala in 1954 and by the Sandinistas in the 1980s, so Israeli security is always threatened by the Palestinians and Arabs, despite the disproportion in power favoring Israel. Bill Clinton has reassured Israel that he will not ask for any cuts in U.S. military appropriations because of its "security concerns." No security concerns for Palestinians have been recognized by Clinton, or by any other mainstream politician or pundit. The irony is that the Palestinians have real security problems, as they are subject to harsh military rule by a government that considers them inferior creatures and has a barely concealed interest in displacing them and seizing their property. Power also produces gullibility: the possibility that the alleged threat to Israeli security, like their unwillingness to deal with "terrorists," is a fraudulent cover for a 50-year long effort to crush the Palestinians and absorb their lands, is never suggested in western mainstream news and commentary.

A similar double standard has also applied to South Africa. During the "constructive engagement" years, and earlier, there were frequent references in U.S. official statements and media accounts to the security problems of the apartheid government and the need to accommodate to it, most notably by getting the Cubans out of Angola. The security problems of Angola and black South Africans were not mentioned. There are other parallels: ANC and SWAPO were frequently labeled terrorists; the South African government, like Israel, was engaged in counterterrorism.

Israel has been allowed to build up a nuclear arsenal, for which it even received direct Western support, in violation of non-proliferation laws and rules that are applied to less privileged states. South Africa also worked toward nuclear weapons development, in collaboration with Israel, and with little concern on the part of the great powers. It, like Israel, was allowed to have legitimate security problems, in contrast with "outlaw" states, although it did not have the high moral status and urgent security concerns that Israel had.

Israeli Shame and Action

Because Israel is powerful and has virtually uncontested support in the U.S. mainstream media, numerous protective devices are brought to bear when the cover on the normalized terror is momentarily blown. When several dozen Arab worshipers in Hebron were massacred by a settler in February, it was not possible to hide the fact that although the settlers were heavily armed and Palestinians lacked arms, the Israeli army was still allowed to fire only at Palestinians. The racist fury of the settlers against Palestinians was also forced into momentary prominence, although this was not linked to the overall apartheid system, the brutal handling of the intifada, or the long term policies of settlement and land confiscation in which the settlers served as frontiersmen coping with the native population.

The mainstream media quickly put forward the lone nut theory to explain the attack, and stressed Israeli horror and shame at the massacre and the government's intention to crack down on the settlers. These claims of horror and shame were not based on any serious sampling of Israeli opinion. The claim of a crackdown on Israeli settlers was also fraudulent. The real crackdown was on the Palestinians, who suffered a rigorous curfew and numerous army beatings and killings to prevent "terrorism." Settler-murderer Baruch Goldstein's house was not demolished; the settlers were not forced to move or to give up arms; Kahane Chai, while designated a "terrorist organization" by the Israeli government, did not have its offices and fund-raising operations in New York closed down.

Expressions of shame and apologies are cheap and serve to divert attention from abusive policies. The West is good at apologies, and has made capital over alleged PLO and Soviet failures to apologize. We may recall that the U.S. media assailed the Soviet failure to apologize for shooting down Korean airliner 007 in 1983, which showed their barbaric quality; by contrast, we expressed deep regret at shooting down an Iranian airliner in 1989, which showed our more moral character. The media have not made anything of the facts that there was no justifiable excuse for shooting down the Iranian plane, that the captain received a hero's welcome on his return to the U.S., and was quietly granted an official medal of honor in 1991; and that the ship's mission was to assist Sadaam Hussein in his war with Iran.

The "shame" model for Israel, contrasted with the Palestinian penchant for "terror," is thrown up by rote via the aggressively pro-Israel apologists who populate the syndicated columns and talk shows (e.g., Barnes, Krauthammer, Will, Safire, and Kondracke) and help form the "conventional wisdom." After Hebron, Krauthammer came through quickly with his formulaic: "Terrorism in the Middle East: For Israel, it's shameful: for the Palestinians it's policy." Following the 1982 Sabra-Shatila refugee camp massacres of Palestinians by Christian Phalangists, introduced there by the Israeli army in the certain knowledge of the murderous consequences, and with de facto support of the ongoing killing, Israel appointed the Kahan Commission to review the episode; it found that a number of Israeli army leaders had been careless and derelict, and several of them got harsh slaps on the wrist. This self-serving whitewash was turned by the U.S. media into a marvel of self-criticism and triumphant justice. Rather than becoming a terrorist state, Israel's moral stature and reputation for "purity of arms" were enhanced by its active involvement in one of the greatest massacres in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but followed by the obligatory remorse and "retribution lite."

Myth Structures

Apologists for Israel regularly rely on a structure of myths that justify ongoing policy, which are rarely contested in the mainstream media. One is that the exit of Palestinians in 1948 was voluntary, based on appeals by Arab leaders, rather than on fear, threats and violence. As 374 Arab villages were destroyed with "ruthless efficiency" (Flapan), the property of the 700,000 or more refugees expropriated, and the dispossessed never compensated or allowed to return, the myth is important in making the Israeli cause just. Otherwise the Palestinians would be victims of Jewish terror and their post-1948 acts of resistance would be counter-terror and retaliation. The refusal to allow the Palestinians to return or to compensate them for expropriated property violates international law, as has been accepted by the international community since 1948, including the U.S., at least nominally, until December 1993. (The U.S. de facto position on property expropriation in this case, with massive aid to the expropriator, is a bit different from its reaction to Cuban expropriation.)

The serious literature on the subject of the Palestinian flight does not support the apologetic version: as Flapan says in his The Birth of Israel, there was in Israel in 1948, as today, "a basic `philosophy of expulsion`" in operation, and "Nonrecognition of the Palestinians' right to self-determination turned into an active strategy to prevent, at all costs, the creation of the Palestinian state as called for in the UN Partition Resolution." The exodus was based primarily on Jewish threats and violence which pushed the Palestinians out. Arab leaders did not urge the Palestinians to leave, they were told to stay; they fled in fear.

A second myth is that the land proposed in the Partition Resolution for a Palestinian state became part of Jordan, which was therefore the Palestinian successor state. In reality, the proposed Palestinian state was taken over by Israel as well as Transjordan (as it was then called), each seizing about half, by collusive arrangement between Ben-Gurion and Transjordan's King Abdullah.

A third important myth is that the Palestinians and PLO have been "rejectionists," the Israelis (and U.S.) futilely seeking a negotiating partner but not finding one, until the recent PLO-Arafat/Israeli tentative agreement. (An alternative version is that the PLO is inherently rejectionist as its Covenant pledges the destruction of Israel.) It is true that the PLO would not recognize Israel for many years, as it was expected to do this unilaterally, without any Israeli rectification of the huge historic wrong that underlay the Palestinian resistance. And of course it was being subjected to a second round of dispossession, along with brutal state terror, in the occupied territories.

From 1975 onward, however, the PLO has been prepared to recognize the state of Israel as part of an overall settlement. On the other hand, until the recent Madrid talks and Arafat-Rabin deal, Israeli leaders consistently refused to recognize the PLO or deal with any Palestinian representatives. Furthermore, while the PLO and some of its members have occasionally blustered about damaging or destroying Israel, the Israeli state was actively eradicating Palestinian communities on the ground and refusing to abide by numerous UN resolutions and international law bearing on Palestinian rights. Israel still does not recognize any Palestinian national rights. Somehow this has never been "rejectionism" in the West: only the failure of the weaker party to unconditionally recognize Israel fits that category.

Alleged Media Bias Against Israel

The powerful and their agents never feel that the media serve them adequately. Reed Irvine of Accuracy in Media wasn't even satisfied with the media's performance during the Persian Gulf war, and he organized a conference in which the media's failings in patriotic service were the central theme. Similarly, Norman Podhoretz, Martin Peretz and their allies are never satisfied with media coverage of the Middle East and have held their own conferences and written books and articles denouncing the anti-Israel bias. What they want, essentially, is for the media to be an Israeli press agent, the role Irvine demanded the media play during the Persian Gulf War.

In addition to the techniques previously discussed, the preferred stories should be reiterated often, to demonstrate the evil of the unworthy victims. And this must be done without context, and with a certain amount of outright lying. Thus, the death of 20 Israeli teen-agers at Maalot in 1974, taken hostage by Palestinians, and then killed when the Israelis, refusing to negotiate, stormed the school, is repeated time and again as the salient case. Furthermore, Maalot is always presented without the context of immediately prior Israeli bombing attacks and killings in nearby refugee camps, and usually with the lie that the hostages were murdered by the Palestinians (when in fact, many of them died from Israeli fire). The focus on Maalot is itself a political choice that reflects a deep bias. Several dozen cases of equal or greater number of Palestinian and Lebanese civilians killed by the Israeli army, or by its proxy South Lebanon Army, are somehow not mentioned, let alone reiterated, as symbols of evil.

It is an uncontestable fact that Israel--a U.S. ally that receives huge and steadfast U.S. economic, military and diplomatic support, with a potent lobby serving its interests, and which has the Democratic Party groveling to express its devotion--gets staggeringly biased positive treatment in the U.S. media. The bias is so profound that news anchors and pundits openly display their fealty to Israel without the slightest qualm. Thus, Dan Rather, CBS New anchor, and Fouad Ajami, a CBS News consultant, attended an Israeli fund-raiser on June 3, 1992, where keynoter Henry Kissinger stated that "you can't really believe anything an Arab says," and Ajami asserted that democracy was unworkable in Arab countries and described a visit to a Bedouin village where he "insisted on only one thing: that I be spared the ceremony of eating with a Bedouin." Rather, introduced by the racist fanatic Martin Peretz as "my favorite newsman," made some extremely biased and ignorant remarks at the gathering on his own (see Sam Husseini, EXTRA!, Oct.-Nov. 1992); and although his participation in this partisan affair was contrary to CBS rules, he suffered no penalties at CBS or criticism outside of the alternative media.

Other brazen apologists for Israel like Krauthammer, Will and Safire also propagandize freely, essentially without debate even when they lie. In an enlightening case, several years ago George Will wrote a column in Newsweek in which he made a false statement about Noam Chomsky and a major error of fact about recent Middle East history. When Newsweek refused to publish a letter of rebuttal, Chomsky told Newsweek, tongue-in-cheek, that they would soon hear from his lawyers. The magazine then quickly agreed to publish his letter, but only the defense of the libel; they conceded that the rest of Chomsky's letter was accurate and that Will had made a gross factual error, but they would not allow the error to be corrected!

In short, the frequent noisy complaints about anti-Israeli bias reflect pro-Israel lobby power and serve as flak to further discipline the media to toe the pro-Israel party line. The mechanisms of this discipline, and the institutional underpinning of this remarkable bias, will be examined in Part 3 of this series.

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