Posted on May 04, 1998 in Washington Watch
American perceptions of the Arab-Israeli conflict were shaped by myth and prejudice. As described by one of Zionism’s founders, Chaim Weizmann in a 1930s appeal to supporters in the United States, the parties to the conflict in Palestine were:
on the one side [the Arabs] the forces of destruction, the forces of the desert…and on the other side [the Zionists] standing firm are the forces civilization and building. It is the old war of the desert against civilization.
This stark and racist equation found no better expression than it did in the 1950s film The Exodus, which defined for generations of Americans their images of Arabs and Jews. The Jews of The Exodus were survivors of an infamous tragedy. But more than that they were industrious and visionary pioneers who sought only to create a homeland where they and their children could find freedom. They were artists and musicians. They were brave and passionate, soldiers.
The Arabs of The Exodus, on the other hand, were objectified as evil, lacking in human virtue. They were backward and liars. And they were cowards.
Millions read the book on which the film was based. The film itself was seen by tens of millions. And the theme song from the movie became, for many years, one of America’s most popular tunes.
Actually this entire Zionist effort was not only insidious, it was also quite clever. From the beginning this movement had identified itself as a Western colonial enterprise. Zionists portrayed themselves, in Hertzl’s words as “a rampart of Europe against Asia…an outpost of civilization against barbarism.”
In the United States they defined their conquest in terms Americans would understand. They, the Zionists, depicted themselves as the pioneers and cowboys, and the Arabs, as the Indians.
In the end, the Zionists won not only on the battlefield in Palestine, they also won the cultural battle in the United States to define the images through which Americans would understand this conflict.
In the face of this cultural onslaught the Arabs stood defenseless. Jews had made their story into a centerpiece of popular culture. While the Arabs told the story of their tragedy to no one except themselves.
It was not that the Arabs had no story to tell, no powerful images to evoke. They simply did not enter the market place of ideas in the West. And when they did, they did so clumsily and artlessly.
For more than half a century we have lived through this onslaught–this typecasting of Israelis as good and Arabs as evil–of Israelis as humans “just like Americans” and Arabs as a faceless enemy.
We have struggled to define ourselves against overwhelming odds and relentless campaigns. Arabs portrayed as bloodthirsty terrorists, Arabs depicted as wealthy and unworthy possessors of petrodollars. Through it all Arab humanity was denied and our accomplishments and aspirations ignored.
But despite these campaigns against us and despite our failure to wage an effective and intelligent cultural campaign in the West, nevertheless the struggle of our people is beginning to break through the stereotypes.
In this context it is especially interesting to note the rather significant and, to some extent, surprising U.S. press treatment of Israel’s 50th anniversary.
Virtually every major U.S. newspaper has devoted a series of articles to this event and almost without exception the coverage has been thoughtful and balanced. For example, The Los Angeles Times, the Detroit Free Press, the Washington Post, the Washington Times, and USA Today have all run a number of pieces examining the 50 years from a variety of perspectives, with almost all of them focusing on the unfinished issues of peace and justice for the Palestinians.
Of special note has been the coverage given by the New York Times, clearly the United States’ most influential newspaper. Thus far the Times has devoted seven separate full page articles to this series, all under the heading “Israel at 50.”
The first in the series was entitled “Many Voices, not All in Unison in Today’s Israel”, featured interviews with six different Israelis. Featured prominently among the six was an Israeli Arab who described the discrimination she has endured as an Israeli “second class citizen.”
Next came a fascinating examination of the outcry created in Israel over a TV series that included a segment on the Palestinian national movement. The piece called “Israel’s History, Viewed Candidly, Stirs a Storm” discussed the “new historians” of Israel who are for the first time publishing accounts of “the expulsions (of 1948)…the killings of Arab civilians in border skirmishes and missed opportunities to negotiate with the Arabs.”
The third in the New York Times series focused on economic matters and discussed Israel’s evolution into a capitalist hi-tech oriented economy.
But it was the fourth piece that has been the most interesting. Entitled “Living with the Palestinian ‘Catastrophe’” the full-page article documents the history of the Shikaki family. It begins with their expulsion from their village in 1948 (and reports on its subsequent destruction) and notes “the Shikakis’ farmed this land for generations, if not centuries, cultivating wheat, apricots, oranges and cucumbers…(after) May of 1948 they fled…and were never permitted back. Their house was demolished and their land given to the Jews.”
The article then goes on to sympathetically describe the different paths taken by each of the Shikaki children–Fathi, the founder of Islamic Jihad, Khalil, the Director of the Center for Palestine Research and Studies, and Abdul Aziz, a pharmaceutical businessman.
The next article in the series presents the results of a New York Times poll on Israel entitled “For Better or Worse, Israel is Special in U.S. Eyes”, while the sixth article was entitled “Jews and Arabs, Painting a Mural Together, Find a Mosaic of Distrust.” This article describes the tensions that developed among three artists–an Israeli Jew, an Israeli Arab, and a West Bank Palestinian–as they worked together to create an artistic representation of their conflict.
This final piece in the series was a balanced treatment of the actual celebration on Israel’s anniversary: including the demonstrations by rightists and peace activists at Jabal Abu Ghneim and a separate long article on Palestinian reactions to the day during which they mourn for their loss.
What has been exceptionally evident in the Times series and most of the other press treatments of the 50th anniversary is the extent to which Arab voices and Arab stories have figured prominently in the accounts.
Despite Zionism’s fervent efforts to deny the Arab human component to the conflict in Palestine, 50 years later it continues to weigh heavily on their story. As it is, notwithstanding Zionism’s military conquest and its cultural onslaught this movement has been unable to erase Arab humanity from the equation in Palestine. The Palestinian demand for justice remains a significant issue that will not go away. And Palestinian voices continue to factor prominently throughout the U.S. press stories written about “Israel at 50”.
In the end, the exclusionary myth could not totally conquer. Palestinians remain and must be dealt with as equals–and their aspirations respected.
Israel can not commemorate its anniversary even in the United States without being reminded of its past. And it will not know peace until the injustices of that past have been restored.
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