Will Palestine always be the issue? – Part 1

An Interview with Raymond Deane

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Last week, in interview with a More 4 journalist, Mark Regev, one of Ehud Olmert’s spokespeople, admitted that Israel knew and had officially recorded the fact that Hamas had not broken the ceasefire between the two regions and, further, that the Israelis were also aware that Hamas had made attempts to prevent other, small groups from firing rockets.  Given that the accusation that Hamas had resumed hostilities was the basis for this war, why then do we continue to read and hear in the media that Israel launched its attack in self defence?

We recently interviewed Raymond Deane – former Chairperson of the Ireland Palestine Solidarity Campaign –  about media coverage of the Palestinian situation.  Since the interview was originally conducted in early November – the day after Israel broke the ceasefire – Israel has launched its latest assault on the Palestinians, this time in Gaza, with devastating consequences for the besieged Palestinian community there and who have no means of escape from the continuing carnage.

The willingness of most of the Western and world media to frame its reporting entirely within the context set for it by Israel has, arguably, been more pronounced than ever before.  John Pilger in a recent article in The New Statesman observed:

“They [the media] know that the horror now raining on Gaza has little to do with Hamas or, absurdly, “Israel’s right to exist”. They know the opposite to be true: that Palestine’s right to exist was cancelled 61 years ago and that the expulsion and, if necessary, extinction of the indigenous people was planned and executed by the founders of Israel. They know, for example, that the infamous “Plan D” of 1947-48 resulted in the murderous depopulation of 369 Palestinian towns and villages by the Haganah (Israeli army) and that massacre upon massacre of Palestinian civilians in such places as Deir Yassin, al-Dawayima, Eilaboun, Jish, Ramle and Lydda are referred to in official records as “ethnic cleansing”. Arriving at a scene of this carnage, David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, was asked by a general, Yigal Allon: “What shall we do with the Arabs?” Ben-Gurion, reported the Israeli historian Benny Morris, “made a dismissive, energetic gesture with his hand and said, ‘Expel them'”.”

Typically, Irish media coverage has conformed religiously to the Israeli narrative – the one which emphasizes the right of return of the Jews to Palestine and their claimed right to seemingly unlimited military aggression in ‘defence’ of the state they created out of the land whose native people they had expelled.

2008 was the 60th anniversary of the Naqba – the name which the Palestinians give to the events which saw them expelled from their homeland by the Israelis in 1948.  We thought it appropriate in that significant year, and given the increasing belligerence of Israel towards the Palestinians, to ask Raymond Deane for his views of Irish media coverage of the anniversary and of the situation in general.

(RD – Raymond Deane, MC – Miriam Cotton, MediaBite)

RD: I should say at the outset that I’m speaking for myself. I’m not enunciating official IPSC policy in this interview though of course much of what I say will be in conformity with IPSC positions.

MC: Outside of the internet there seems to be little critical analysis in the mainstream media of the notion of the right of return to Israel of Jewish people by virtue of their religious status alone.  What do you think gets left out of the account in this respect?  The idea is reminiscent of Edward Carson declaring Ulster ‘a protestant state for a protestant people’ – perhaps that’s often been cited as a comparison?

RD: Oddly enough it’s not quoted as much as it should be.   I quote it, because it’s taken for granted in this country that it’s an abomination – that you can’t say things like that.  But certainly, in the case of Israel ‘a Jewish state for a Jewish people’ is supposed to be entirely acceptable.  The Holocaust is the defence for that; people feel they are somehow absolving themselves by saying “we must make an exception for the Jewish people” – in effect they scapegoat the Palestinians so that Europeans can be absolved of the guilt they quite rightly feel about the Jews.  That applies particularly to Germany – I’ve spent quite some time in Germany and the nonsense that is spoken there about Israel is quite unreal –   But it applies right across the board.

MC: So far as the status of Jews as automatic Israeli citizens is mentioned at all in the media, the claimed ‘right’ seems to go completely unquestioned? Are there any exceptions you can think of?

RD: No. There are no exceptions I can think of.  It’s a bit of a taboo question among Europeans generally speaking. You can’t really speak about the right of return for Jews if you can’t speak about the right of return for Palestinians – and that is also a kind of taboo.  The official discourse doesn’t question these two assumptions – the right of return of Jews is perfectly acceptable but that of Palestinians is unacceptable.  It’s the official line and the media play along with it.

MC: The internet is a good source of information?

RD: The internet is the only source of information but you have to know your way around and that takes a while. It’s very difficult even for somebody like myself to know what to rely on – I know a fair bit about the issue, but would hesitate to call myself an “expert” – nobody is an expert on Palestine unless they actually live there. For example, there’s the MAAN news agency – I used to get a lot of stuff from them but I find that they are being more or less dismissed by Palestinians themselves as a mouthpiece for the Palestinian Authority.  For me that was news.  So the whole thing is a minefield.

MC: Coming forward to 2008 and coverage of the Naqba, Bush’s speech in the Israeli Knesset on the 60th anniversary seemed calculated to provoke in so far as there didn’t appear to be one word of consideration for the Palestinians in it.  What did you think of media coverage of the Naqba in general?

RD: The coverage was practically non-existent. I was in Germany for that and Bush’s speech was nothing in comparison to that of Angela Merkel – that was an obscenity – a real obscenity.  I published an article at the time about it in Electronic Intifada, where I write a lot of stuff nowadays. It was translated into German and reprinted in a number of German sources. It said in effect that the Germans, having scapegoated the Jews in the 1930s, are now happily scapegoating the Palestinians because of what they, the Germans, did to the Jews. There is no self-consciousness about this whatsoever among politicians, but there is an immense amount among ordinary people.   Many Germans are remarkably well-informed about the Middle East, although their media are worse than ours when it comes to reporting what happens in Palestine.

MC: Charles Krauthammer in one of his syndicated columns in the Irish Times laid the blame for Palestinian suffering on an ‘errant refusal to conciliate’.  What do you think of that accusation and of the Irish Times having used Krauthammer’s columns for so long?

RD: As for the supposed ‘refusal to conciliate’, I use the analogy of rape – it’s like saying the rapist’s victim wasn’t very conciliatory – that’s the attitude.  How is the victim meant to be conciliatory to the person who is victimizing them – or the group that is victimizing them?  The whole unspoken assumption behind that being that the Jews are the victims – and by the Jews is meant the Israelis – and no matter how powerful they are as a state with an army, they are still always the victims by definition, regardless of the actual present situation.   Ultimately that kind of exceptionalism isn’t so far from the kind of racism we call anti-Semitism – which is another kind of exceptionalism.  In each case it is to put the Jews, in one sense, outside the pale of humanity – in one case you are saying that they are demons and in the other you are saying that they are exempt from the norms that apply to the rest of us by dint of having been victims previously.

Anyway, I don’t understand the Krauthammer phenomenon.  Obviously before Krauthammer you had that lunatic Mark Steyn.  The Irish Times people feel they have to have some extreme right-wing nutter to balance what they perceive as the “reasonable” views of their other writers, but to be consistent they should then also have an extreme left-wing nutter!  I don’t read Krauthammer unless I absolutely can’t avoid it; I don’t read Kevin Myers – reading these people does my head in.

MC: Do you think it is true to say that Palestine was the sacrificial lamb of the Obama presidency?  Could he have won the presidency otherwise?  With Rahm Emanuel, for example, now sitting firmly on Obama’s shoulder he has no room for manoeuvre?

RD: You are right that it was the sacrificial lamb, but he didn’t need to sacrifice it quite so readily.  The speech he made to the America Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) seemed to have been written by some Zionist – he went further than Bush had ever done and said Jerusalem must remain the undivided capital of Israel.  He didn’t need to say that – that is really gilding the lily –  and other things since – dragging in Denis Ross and this whole coterie of old Clinton people – all of them Zionists, all of them intent on pushing Israeli interests before any others.  Every single one of those things is a slap in the face for the Palestinians.  And this is a man who when he was running for the Senate in Illinois courted the Arab community.  The Arabs thought that here was a man who was really on their side, and they voted for him en masse.   As soon as he became a presidential candidate he turned his back on them and slapped them in the face.  The team that he has put together to deal with the Middle East is a nightmare – it’s monstrous.  To my mind nothing tarnishes his reputation more than this.  It doesn’t inspire any hope.

MC: It seems as though he couldn’t have been elected unless he had capitulated to the Israeli lobby’s demands?

RD: He wouldn’t have been elected without going through the motions – but he did more than go through the motions.  He embraced and was embraced by the lobby to a spectacular extent and if he continues in this vein then there is absolutely no hope for peace in the Middle East – or anywhere else.  Anyone who thinks that Obama is for peace is kidding themselves – or that somehow or other he can be influenced to shake off the lobby.

MC: We earlier raised the question with Fintan O’Toole about the problem created by journalists when they arbitrarily pick starting points to stories they are reporting.  The example we put to him at the time was this: when Israel invaded Lebanon in 2006 it was widely reported that the Lebanese had provoked the attack by kidnapping Israeli soldiers whereas in fact the Lebanese action was a response to Israel having first of all kidnapped Lebanese and Palestinian citizens.  O’Toole thought that this sort of discrepancy might sometimes be explained by the parachuting in of superstar reporters when something big is happening and who are not familiar with the situation in the same way as a journalist who has been living in the country for a while.  O’ Toole didn’t claim that this was the explanation in this case but to what extent do you think media coverage of Palestine might be affected by this phenomenon – and is it really significant?  If you and I were fully aware at the time of what was actually happening, how much more difficult can it really be for a professional journalist whose job it is to know these things?

RD: I think it is just the official line – it makes no difference.  This concept of an official line – where does it come from?  Are these people instructed?  Or do they just find out for themselves what the official line is and because they are all courtiers at heart anyway they just follow the official line for careerist reasons?

MC: Have you tried to engage with Irish journalists about what they have said about Palestine?

RD: Of course.  Myself and another ISPC founder member, Conor McCarthy, had an interview with Madam [Geraldine Kennedy, Editor of the Irish Times] a few years ago, and it was like talking to the wall.  We made all the obvious points and we complained that the paper had David Horovitz – the Anglo-Israeli Zionist, not the US neocon of the same name – as its principal correspondent on Palestine. He subsequently stopped writing for the Irish Times and became editor of the Jerusalem Post, which happens to be just about the most right-wing paper in the English language with few exceptions.  Prior to this, everybody knew where he stood on issues because occasionally he would publish an op-ed which was extremely right-wing and you could tell by his language that he was presenting everything from the Israeli perspective.  Well, we complained about him, and later I heard through the grapevine that the Irish Times really resented complaints about Horovitz – they were very proud of him.  The same goes for Peter Hirschberg, who still writes for them occasionally, and who became the editor of Ha’aretz English edition. There he became known for censoring articles translated from Hebrew into English – the more controversial bits wouldn’t necessarily be translated.  Another Irish Times reporter is called Mark Weiss, whom you will also hear on RTE where he has been broadcasting for years. He’s another Anglo-Israeli who writes for the Jerusalem Post, another right-wing Zionist.  I believe – although I can’t prove it – that he lives or has lived on an illegal settlement.  So you’ve got people reporting on the settlements who are themselves illegal settlers.  Clearly they are not going to use language like ‘illegal settlers’.  They refer to ‘illegal outposts’ – that means the beginnings of several little settlements which under Israeli law are illegal.  But all settlements without exception are illegal under international law.  By referring to ‘illegal outposts’ you are implying that the other settlements are legal.

So, we said these kinds of things to Madam and she sort of nodded and at the end she said ‘by the way, something will be happening very soon that I think you will like’.  That announcement turned out to be that Nuala Haughey was going to be writing articles on Israel.  Nuala Haughey subsequently lived for a couple of years in West Jerusalem, and wrote quite good articles – but they were very cagey – they never really expressed a point of view.  I know that she knew what was going on and she had her sympathies but nothing was challenged.  So you know, we were forever banging on at the Irish Times about this, that and the other but never got any satisfaction.  On one occasion, when I had just read an article by Gideon Levy in Ha’aretz late at night – it shattered me.  It was a description of some atrocity which I thought had to be made available to Irish readers.  I emailed it to somebody in an editorial position at the Irish Times saying ‘look, I’m in communication with Gideon Levy and I’m sure he would be delighted if you would reprint this article’.  I had a reply saying that it was indeed a very powerful article but they couldn’t publish it because “the Irish Times is not a Palestine Solidarity Campaign.”  I replied: “Levy is a legendary Israeli Jewish reporter, one of the very few reporting from within the occupied territories, and was describing what he had seen, and you say that you can’t publish it because you are ‘not a Palestine Solidarity campaign’? “They replied “‘yes, he is describing what he has seen but he is using very emotive language”.  Now if you are writing an article about suicide bombing where Israeli children are blown to pieces, emotive language will be considered perfectly acceptable on Page 1 with pictures of weeping Israelis. That’s OK, but apparently it is not appropriate for this Jewish journalist to write an article using comparably emotive language about an appalling atrocity perpetrated against Palestinian civilians because the language is said to be too emotive. I believe there is actually a degree of racism implicit in this position.

On the other hand you have to acknowledge the work of Michael Jansen for whom I have a lot of admiration, and of Lara Marlowe on the occasions when she does write about Palestine although it’s not really her brief.  It’s ironic that the only two reliable reporters that the Irish Times have about Palestine are both American women.

MC: An insidious aspect of news reporting affecting the Palestinian issue is the difference in the language and terminology when talking about Israel and Israeli violence compared to that used about Palestinian violence.  There are countless examples but to stay with the situation we talked about earlier, the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 2006 when Israel first kidnapped the civilians they were almost universally said merely to have ‘detained’ them.  In contrast the Palestinians were shrilly accused of ‘kidnap’ and concern for the welfare of the Israeli soldiers almost drowned out similar concerns for the Palestinian and Lebanese prisoners seized by Israel from within the other territory.  Could you talk a little about the caricaturing of the Palestinian cause in the media? A lot of it is quite subtle.

RD: It is – there is a whole list of words that are used, for example, ‘moderates’ and ‘extremists’.  What is a ‘moderate’? Journalists often refer to ‘moderate Arab states’.  These are Jordan and Egypt essentially but even Saudi Arabia is included.  I think these are abominable dictatorships – they are appalling states.  So in what way are they moderate?  They are moderate because they are playing by the rules laid down by Israel and the United States in return for which they get colossal sums of money and shipments of arms – so that use of the term ‘moderate’ is appalling.  The use of ‘extremist’ is the opposite.  ‘Extremists’ are people who don’t agree with the paradigm established by the oppressor and the oppressor’s backers.  In this case Hamas is automatically described as extremist without there being any discussion of what Hamas actually stands for.  There are three demands being put to Hamas before it can be recognized.  Firstly, that it should recognize Israel.  Now that’s never analysed – what does it mean?  Is the oppressor supposed to be recognized by the oppressed?  That just means kissing the jack-boot.  Secondly, which Israel is to be recognized?  It still hasn’t negotiated its borders.  Then Hamas are to give up violence in the face of Israeli violence.  Israel is never asked to give it up.  They used occasionally to be asked to be more careful or some such but not anymore – they are now given carte blanche to do whatever they damn well like.  But the others have to endure Israeli violence without resisting.  The third condition is that Hamas must abide by agreements signed since the start of the Oslo process.  But Israel doesn’t abide by any of these – not one of the agreements that Israel has signed has it abided by – and yet that is never raised.  So there is that whole double standard and again it’s appalling.  There are many other terms like ‘Islamists’ and ‘fundamentalists’.  ‘The disputed territories’ – where the occupied territories are referred to as ‘disputed’ rather than ‘occupied’.   And what is the ‘Israeli peace movement’?  Usually when the media use this term they mean people like ‘Peace Now’, people like the novelists Amos Oz, A.B. Yehoshua, and David Grossman – the three of them are always lumped together.  But those people are simply Zionists who believe that the Zionist project should be completed but in a gentler fashion.  Peace Now are all for withdrawing the settlers because Ashkenazis don’t like these beardy people anyway for what are really class reasons; but beyond that they think the whole Zionist project is alright and don’t think there is any question of going back to pre-1948 and the foundation of the state which is questionable in its entirety.  This is all taboo in the media.

MC: You have defended the controversial musician and writer Gilad Atzmon’s right to express his allegedly controversial point of view. Isn’t Atzmon is trying to crash through exactly this sort of taboo – namely the untouchability of the Israeli state as a Jewish entity and the whole mess of thinking that equates justifiable criticism with racism?  Atzmon has written an article titled ‘The Wandering Who?’ – which is a review of a book by Professor Sand that tracks the movement of various Jewish groups around Europe over the last 2,000 years.  Sand has proved that there is no evidence for an awful lot of what is claimed by the Zionists – there is no information, paperwork or history to support the story.  Basically a lot of what is taken to be understood turns out not to be true.

RD: It’s remarkable that these myths – which incidentally have been understood as such by many academics for a long time but without much comment – nevertheless continue to be peddled by the military establishment and their mouthpieces within and outside Israel.  Without them they are really nothing.

MC: In correspondence with Noam Chomsky he said by way of comment on Atzmon’s article:

“It’s when Atzmon turns to the present that more serious questions arise.  Take his reference to me, and my insistence “upon dismantling the eloquent criticism of AIPAC, Jewish lobbying and Jewish power posed by Mearsheimer and Walt.” My “insistence” consists of a few sentences that he’s probably never seen, in response to queries, pointing out errors and criticizing the mysticism of “national interest” on which their work relies.  I’ve never written a thing about them, and don’t even mention them except in response to queries.

“In fact, their work is riddled with serious errors, many of which Norman Finkelstein points out in his detailed inquiries.  M-W are quite right that the lobby is influential on matters that US power doesn’t care much about, like crushing of Palestinians.  But whenever the lobby runs into conflict with US power interests, it quickly slinks away.  There is case after case, including one interesting current one.  AIPAC lobbied very hard to have Congress pass legislation (H.R. 362) that in effect called for a blockade of Iran, an act of war.  They were defeated in Congress by lobbying by anti-war groups — hardly a powerful force.  The background reason is that Washington doesn’t want to be dragged into war by a group of American Jews.  There is, in fact, a very detailed point-by-point refutation of M-W’s claims about American politics by Stephen Zunes.  M-W’s effort to deal with it in their book is very disappointing.  They refer to it in a footnote, in a sentence, falsifying what he said, and omitting any reference to the detailed refutation.

“Sand’s work however is quite important, though as Sands points out (and Atzmon accurately cites), the general observations are mostly not new.  The “Canaanites” within the Zionist movement (including many leading intellectuals, also Ben-Gurion for a time) recognized that the Palestinians may be the “original Jews” but as secular humanists, put aside absurdities about genetic origin, as Sands does.  I grew up in a Zionist household, and from early childhood was reading Ahad Ha-am (in Hebrew) with my father, for whom he was the major figure of modern Zionism (cultural Zionism – a Jewish cultural center in Palestine).  It’s a childhood memory, so don’t know how much to rely on it, but if it is correct, Ahad Ha-am had an essay on the two Moses’s, the historical one who may not even exist, and the cultural Moses contrived by the community of those who called themselves Jews over time – and for Ahad Ha-am, was the important one for cultural revival, but without fantasies about genetic/historical origins.”

There is a lot to consider there but before we talk about it what do you think of the suggestion made by some that there is essentially no difference to the Jewish right of return and the way that Christianity was deployed as justification for the slaughter of the Native Americans and the seizing of their lands and resources?
RD: Well, I think that is a reasonable point.  Where I take issue is the relevance.  What we are talking about here is something unique.  We are talking about state-building – a process of seizing sovereignty using a particular type of identity.  Now, you may say that to some degree that is what happened in early American history – but it’s a very loose analogy, because we are talking here about a modern nation state set up after the founding of the United Nations, after the Second World War, at a point where structures were supposedly put together that would prevent that kind of thing from happening again.  Yet suddenly, it IS happening again.  That’s where the difference is.  It was a very carefully constructed political and military process of seizing sovereignty and manipulating mythology.

But to respond to Chomsky’s comments, all this stuff about Mearsheimer and Walt –  I haven’t read their book and I can’t be bothered to read it either because the question about whether AIPAC pushed the United States into the Iraq war seems undecidable right now. As it happens, I think there is a lot of evidence saying that AIPAC was indeed one of the factors that pushed the US into war.  The fact that there are undoubtedly issues on which the United States government does not allow itself to be pushed by AIPAC doesn’t diminish the fact that AIPAC has huge influence.  Certainly AIPAC wants the US to go into Iran and it’s quite possible that this will happen, although I’m not convinced that it will. That doesn’t diminish the importance of AIPAC or its powerful influence on a number of issues.  And under Obama, it will still have a powerful influence.  As for Atzmon himself, while I sympathise with what he is trying to do I don’t sympathise with the way he does it.

MC: Can you think of a particular example?

RD: I can’t think of a specific example at the moment, but you only have to look at his website!  In a way I think he is playing games with the words he uses and for that reason, while I may agree with him a lot of the time, I don’t think that it’s useful or helpful to engage in the kinds of provocations that he does.  This is just ammunition for people who are lying in waiting precisely to pounce on such ammunition.  There are groups of people who call themselves ‘Jews for’ or ‘Jews Against’ or Jewish this, that and the other.  He is against that – and many left-wing Jews are against it too because they think it is tribal, and it is.   But there are other left-wing Jews who say: ‘I don’t like it, it is tribal, but I think it is also tactically useful’ –  and that’s a debate that goes on all the time.  As a chess player I’m inclined to the tactical side of things – that in choosing the language you use and the language you avoid you have to consider tactics as well as general principles.  Standing on principle is a wonderful thing and a good thing but not if you are going to lose your argument.

Tradition is not the same thing as identity.  It’s not entirely meaningless to suggest that there’s a secular Jewish intellectual tradition that takes its radical and emancipatory characteristics from the historical exclusion of Jews, the scapegoating of Jews. I’m thinking of Marx, Freud, Hanna Arendt, Isaac Isaac Deutscher (who coined the phrase ‘non-Jewish Jew’), Walter Benjamin and more recent figures like Jacques Derrida or Daniel Bensaid. To say that this radicalism might in some way be linked to the fact that these people are Jews is not the same thing as saying that this is their identity. I personally refuse to take up cudgels against people who call themselves Jews or Catholics or anything they want to call themselves.

To take another case, Zionists are saying that it is anti-Semitic to oppose the state of Israel and that Jews everywhere must support Israel – then you who just happen to be a Jew get together with other people who just happen to be Jews and say well ‘we are Jews and we don’t agree with you – we oppose the state of Israel, we do not believe that people necessarily who oppose the state of Israel are anti-Semites – which in most cases they are not.’  They have made a tactical decision which is that while they are not defined by Judaism, they nonetheless happen to be Jews, and the discourse with which Zionists try to define their identity for them in relation to Israel isn’t one that they share.  Again I am talking about tactics – and a lot of these groups – ‘Jews for Justice in Palestine’ and so on – these are people who are Jewish and who feel that by specifying that they are Jewish, whether or not it means anything to them, is tactically useful in that it prevents people of a Zionist mindset from enlisting all Jews regardless of what they may or may not think.

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