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Wednesday, February 11, 2009

About "Bullets in box" - letter to Ethan Bronner

Mr. Ethan Bronner

c/o  N.Y. Times

620 Eighth Avenue

New York, N.Y. 10018


                                                In re: "The Bullets in My Box,"  January 25, 2009






Dear Mr. Bronner,


Forgive me if this letter is not quite coherent. I'm still weeping over your sad plight. You want to be a good journalist by reporting "in a way both sides can accept as fair" and everyone is picking on you. No one's happy. What's a reporter to do? To paraphrase Herr Eichman, you are just doing your job, following your conscience. We all know (we all should know) that there is no such thing as absolute truth. There are only different perspectives, competing narratives. Had you been working for the Times during World War II, you would surely have been the one courageous enough to show the Nazi side (After all, there's always another side to the story): how traitorous Jews betrayed Germany's war effort causing it to lose World War I; how plutocratic Jews undermined the German economy; how Communist Jews were trying to take away the profits of hard-working German citizens; how degenerate Jews were leading to the general decline of culture and morality; how even American auto magnate, Henry Ford, and the inspirational Catholic priest, Father Coughlin, subscribed to Nazi views on the Jewish menace.  And, as the advertisers say, there's much, much more. Indeed, a very good case could be made for Hitler's cause. Morality is in the eye of the beholder. If you put a pound of gold on one side of the scales and a pound of baloney on the other, the scales will balance. A pound is a pound no matter what it's made of. If it balances, it's fair. No? A good journalist understands that everyone has his own truth. His job is to keep things even.


That is why you can write that "Among Israel's Jews . . .  Zionism . . . is bathed in a celestial glow," even though you know that there is an active peace movement in Israel for whom the word "Zionism" has become radically tainted. Israel's insular arrogance must be emphasized in order to balance your statement that "Zionism stands for theft, oppression, [and] racist exclusionism" throughout the Middle East. Jews may be well-meaning, but they're blind. Arabs may be overly hostile, but they have good reason to be. Each side overstates his case. What's not a good idea is to mention that while there are over a million Arab Muslims living as citizens in Israel, no Jew is allowed to live in Jordan or Saudi Arabia (although Jews once had a flourishing population in the Arabian Peninsula). Forget also that close to a million Jews were unceremoniously kicked out of practically every other Muslim state. And that even though the Arab world is, for all intents and purposes, Judenrein, somehow, it's Israel that's apartheid. But there are no villains, just a "cycle of violence" that goes on and on.


Because everyone's at fault in the "Greek Tragedy" that is the Middle East "crisis," it is important to blame both sides for the failure to bring about peace. Thus you write that "an understanding crystallized over a decade ago over the outline of an eventual solution," but you do not mention that the PLO never changed the clause in its charter that refused to accept the existence of a Jewish state, although acceptance was a core requirement of that understanding. Better to write that "the two sides' narratives have actually hardened." For it would certainly be hitting below the belt to call attention to the ways in which Arafat's P.A. broke all of its agreements within a day of the arrangement with vicious attacks and educational propaganda essentially erasing Israel from the map. And it would be snide for someone to point out that Israel "actually" softened her stance by choosing to ignore Palestinian violations. Even more troubling would be to mention that in 2000 and in 2001 Israel offered deals that "actually" sweetened the Oslo accords and that Arafat turned them down unequivocally (never pondered them, argued them, or came back with an alternative). Instead his response was the second Intifada--suicide bombings--the murder of school children in pizza parlors and buses, the murder of celebrants during a Passover Seder. So, the  P.A. has a terrorist wing. So, Israel has settlers. The Arabs make terror! The Jews make concessions! If you want to do business you have to have bargaining chips. Only the Mafia would recognize this deal as a form of extortion called "the protection racket." Besides, both sides accepted the agreement--didn't they? Both are responsible for its failure--aren't they? If Arafat was a bad guy, so was Ariel Sharon.



And if the "bad guys" are on both sides of the fence, there can be no aggressor, no defender. There can be no deterrence, only retaliation (a dirty word). Thus you can write that "opponents of Israel" believe her to be "a kind of Sparta that dehumanizes the Palestinians" as an excuse for her use of  "overwhelming force," but it would be tacky to even hint that overwhelming force (a dirty phrase) is the only way Israel has of stopping Hamas rockets. Because that would suggest that Israel's "excuse" for using overwhelming force might not be an excuse. And it would be just as tacky to suggest that Israel could, with minimal risk to her army, have carpet bombed Gaza and Hamas (as well as most Palestinians) would have been obliterated. But that would suggest that Israel's restraint showed she was interested in deterrence not retaliation (You know, that Jewish thing, an eye for an eye?). Nor is it in the best of taste to remind folks how Israel tolerated eight years of weapon smuggling and rocket attacks of an ever-increasing range on her innocent civilians--nursery schools and kindergartens; or that her civilian losses have been low because she has gone to the trouble and expense (cheated?) of building bomb shelters and early warning systems; or that the trauma for Israeli children undergoing years of close calls is comparable to the P.T.D.S of adult war veterans.  True! True! But, if a reporter has any decency at all, as you so obviously do, he must consider that the casualty count for operation Cast Lead was so lopsided, it would hardly be cricket to say anything that allows Israel to claim existential necessity. And, as an unfortunate corollary, gives the Palestinians the burden of responsibility.


In the same way (For obvious reasons Palestinians always seem to be getting the worst of things) it's perfectly legitimate to quote those who say that Israelis put "racist graffiti" on walls (I'd be curious to know how prevalent such graffiti are, or if the statement is even true). But it would be racist to bring out the fact that there has never been a national celebration of Palestinian deaths in Israel, whereas thousands turned out on the streets of Gaza and the West Bank to cheer and pass out candy whenever Jews were murdered in horrific explosions by devices filled with nails and poisons or, more recently, when eight Yeshiva students were shot in cold blood as they were studying torah. And it would certainly smack of bigotry to condemn the feisty Gazans who poured into the streets to mock in effigy a captured Israeli soldier who is being kept, against all international standards, incognito with never a single visit by the Red Cross. The barbaric pleasure Palestinians get from reveling in Jewish misery and Jewish blood must be downplayed, rationalized and justified lest charges of Islamophobia be brought to bear. That is why news of the omnipresence of anti-Semitic graffiti on Palestinian walls must be suppressed along with the broadcasts of anti-Semitic libels on Palestinian TV where even kiddie shows watched by three year olds feature a rabbit named Assud who kills and eats Jews. The scales must not tip. Palestinians must look at least as good as Jews. Better! Because to look at Palestinian blood lust squarely would be too appalling. True, anti-Semitism is a kind of entitlement for the poor, down-trodden Arabs, but it's wiser not to hit people over the head with it.


In this eternal war without cause, no reporter worth his salt would charge either side with evil intent. Palestinians may seem a little over-ardent in their struggle against "occupation," but then Israel is only too ready to demonize them in order to justify her "assault" (as one news report put it) on women and children. And you can write about "those who saw in this war an affirmation of their [Israeli's] beliefs--that Hamas . . . hides its fighters behind women and children," even though you know that this charge is not merely a belief but a fact corroborated by eye-witnesses and video tape; even though, in fact, Palestinians speaking among themselves on their own TV stations brag about their citizens' willing martyrdom and the delight it gives them; even though it is a well-known fact that Palestinians have, for years, been putting their families, their children, in harm's way as a PR gambit. But it is standard media fare that when Palestinians kill they are Hamas and when they get killed they are "innocent civilians." We mustn't blame the victim. Yes, Israel has every right to defend herself, but not to violate the rules of war. How an army can defend itself without returning enemy fire is not a question reporters need answer. Point-of-view determines fact.


That is why you can write that "one side says . . . the Jewish nation has returned to its rightful home" and the other side says "there is no Jewish nation," as if every argument were a simple matter of narrative disjunction. Although you know (you must know) that, despite Palestinian efforts to "prove" that there was never a Jewish nation in the Middle East, every archeological study, every legitimate history (including Muslim ones) documents the opposite. And you also know (you must know) that there is not and has never been a Palestinian state because the people who call themselves Palestinians have said to Israel "No negotiations. No recognition. No Peace." And you know (you must know) that before 1948 Palestine was a geo-political territory designated as such since 135 C.E., and that Palestinians were considered Jews (even by most Arabs) until the creation of the state of Israel; and that a unit called The Palestinian Brigade, comprised entirely of Jews, fought along side the British in World War I. And you know (you must know) that those who now call themselves Palestinians have never worked to build a state in the territories they lay claim to by creating viable institutions through government, commerce, and the arts or even by setting forth reasonable boundaries. Instead they turned the lushly developed area where Israel gave them total autonomy into a vast warren of weapons caches, a launching pad for deadlier and deadlier aerial attacks.  Why? Because they've based their nationhood on one overarching principle: the destruction of Israel and the Jewish people. No Jew may have a sovereign state in Arab/Muslim territory. No Jew may triumph over a Muslim. It says so in the Koran: "He made you masters of their [the Jewish tribe of Khayber]  lands, their houses, and their goods," Sura 33:23. Jews cannot be winners. (It would be too humiliating.) As one who's written about the Middle East for years, you have to know this because it's plainly stated in the charters of both Hamas and the PLO.


But admitting that "occupation" in the Palestinian lexicon means that Israel and the Jews must be wiped off the face of the earth would be to stack the deck against a proud and ancient people whose language, culture, and religion just happen to have originated in the Arabian Peninsula. You might have to acknowledge that the real Palestinians (Philistines) were a sea people from the European continent, invaders who disappeared some 2500 years ago, absorbed into the dominant population who happened to be (Hmm!) Jewish. Well, if there's no Palestine, only disputed territory; no Palestinian ethnicity, only one sample of Arab particularity, of what does the vaunted Palestinian identity consist? Is it a hoax? Could it be that it is made entirely of lies, hatred, bigotry and self-pity? Is this the glue that holds Palestinians together? Dear me, no. Such an ugly characterization must not be promulgated. That would be--mean-spirited


The Palestinians are too abject. The Israelis too successful. "Envy," "intolerance," they're only a "story line," a construct of the pro-Jewish lobby that has nothing to do with reality. Thus it is imperative that you write that "the other side tells a different story . . .;" that you repeat the canard that the Israeli Jews are colonialists who "stole and pillaged, throwing hundreds of thousands off their lands," that Israel was "born in sin" (an Israeli formulation, by the way); even though you know that Jews bought every inch of land they had, land which Arabs were happy to sell at exorbitant prices, until five Arab nations declared war on them.. You also know, I'm sure you do, that if any ethnic cleansing went on, it was done by Arabs whose pogroms pushed the Jews completely out of areas like Hebron where Jews had resided since biblical times. And this was before there was ever a Jewish State. You must also know, I'm sure, that since the middle of the 19th century, Jerusalem was a predominately Jewish city until Jordan purged East Jerusalem of its Jews after the '48 war. Are you lying? Heaven forbid. Unless there's such a thing as the lie of omission. You're just telling what you've heard. What you choose to hear.


As you say, everything depends on who is telling the story. What does it matter if one side strains toward peace and the other is full of murderous violence? If the Israelis are always apologizing, they must be guilty of something. If the Palestinians are always defiant, they are obviously being oppressed. The Israelis have their tanks. The Palestinians their suffering. No back story is necessary. As long as balance is maintained, the reporter has fulfilled his obligations. A reporter cannot lie if he is quoting each side accurately. He is being objective. He is performing a great public service. No one's self-perception should be denied or discounted, even if it is false or falsely acquired. If one side looks bad (or good), the true reporter must make the other side look the same. No favoritism--for heaven's sake. Taking sides is for the Op-Ed pages. Everyone sees himself as victim anyways.


Truth, as you so diligently have reminded us, depends upon the light in which it's shown. Of course, it is the reporter's task to shed that light. Ultimately (the media's dirty little secret), it is the reporter who tells the story. That is why certain uncomfortable glitches must be smoothed out, covered over, or ignored like the emperor's new clothes. And that is why certain uncomfortable stories like the Mohammad Al-Dura hoax gets not one word of press from the New York Times. Again, I'm sure that you must have some knowledge of this affair which is prominent on the internet. It concerns a cynical fraud perpetrated by Palestinians that was instrumental in the death of thousands of people, including that of reporter Daniel Pearl and, if given appropriate attention by the mainstream media, might inspire more than a few pundits to call into question every explanation, every justification, every claim Palestinians make for themselves.


But righteousness (self-righteousness) must never give way to moral fatigue. Fair play demands that other side be given its due, especially when the "other" comes from an exotic culture that the reporter can never really comprehend. He must struggle against his "natural" biases in order to equalize the scales. He must neutralize (neuter?) the issues so that no one side can stake a claim to the moral high ground. He must make blanket pronouncements and all-purpose generalizations so that only noble ends are weighed, never despicable means, especially if those means belong to the underdog. Above all, justice, as well as his journalistic honor, demands that he work the text and shape the context, so that his piece will conform to some abstract model of public virtue. Thus the underdog (as he is perceived) must be raised up and the lucky dog (as he is perceived) must be put down. Deficiencies on one side need to be made up by subtractions on the other (besides, the pornography of violence sells). And, since the Palestinians are the needier, they are the ones who merit the handicap. If they come out slightly ahead, it's only because the Jews tend to win the battles (if not the war).  And when Jews are winners the reporter, especially if he himself is Jewish, must, often as not, look the other way. But then again, just as an Ahmedinejad can make homosexuals disappear by saying "There are no homosexuals in Iran," a reporter, particularly one working for as prestigious a vehicle as the New York Times, can always say, "If we don't print it, it doesn't exist." 




                                               Mitzi Alvin

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