North Africa, West Asia

A culture of silencing

Pressure tactics on the media and event organisers by the pro-Israel lobby in Britain are nothing new, and reflect a fear of the truth getting out.

Abdel Bari Atwan
19 February 2016
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Flickr/The Weekly Bull. Some rights reserved.A fortnight ago I was due to chair a session at the British Houses of Parliament organised by the Labour Friends of Palestine, in which MPs would “hear directly from four young Palestinians from the Gaza Strip, East Jerusalem, the West Bank and a Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon, live via Skype”. As a Palestinian, born in a Gaza refugee camp, this opportunity to present lawmakers with the reality on the ground was dear to my heart.

The session was cancelled at the last minute under extreme pressure from the Labour Friends of Israel parliamentary group and a campaign waged against me in the pages of the Jewish Chronicle. This is not the first, and I am certain it will not be the last, time I have been prevented from offering the Palestinian point of view by the powerful machinations of the Zionist lobby and the propaganda department of the state of Israel known as Hasbara (‘explaining’).

Although I am a frequent guest on television news and talk shows, there have been occasions when a booking has been cancelled at the last minute for no apparent reason. Journalist friends at the channels involved have later hinted that this was because of pressure from the Israeli Embassy.

Readers may recall that during the invasion of Gaza in 2009 – in which 1600 Palestinians were slaughtered whereas Israel suffered nine casualties – broadcast commentary on the atrocity (in Britain at least) came mostly from Benjamin Netanyahu’s spokesman, Mark Regev, rather than Palestinians.

Mark Regev – who is, incidentally, about to present his credentials as Israel’s new Ambassador to London ­– is the Israeli ‘King of Spin’, perfectly versed in defending the indefensible, speaking softly and slowly, and always with a smile.

I, on the other hand, have a tendency to become enthusiastic, gesticulate wildly, ask awkward questions and challenge downright lies. Showing that you are really passionate about a subject is affecting and persuasive. I know this because of the many messages I receive on social media after every appearance I make; because thousands of people come to hear me speak in lecture halls, book festivals and university debates; because one million people have chosen to follow me on Twitter.

I am only one of hundreds, if not thousands, of media figures the Israelis seek to contain. Sites such as BBCwatch and CiFwatch (referring to the Guardian’s ‘Comment is Free’ pages) routinely blacklist people who criticise Israel.

It seems that no target is considered out of bounds for intimidation. Last week, Ban Ki Moon found himself under sustained attack.

And these ongoing pressures work: at the end of last year, an investigation by the Middle East Monitor revealed that Palestinian voices were being excluded from the Guardian’s opinion pages. “Out of 138 op-eds on Palestine/Israel published by the paper in its ‘Comment is free’ section from October 2013 to November 2015 (which includes both print and online-only articles), just 20 were written by Palestinians – 15 per cent of the total,” wrote Ben White.

Alan Rusbriger, who edited the Guardian until 2015, admitted in an interview for Telegraph journalist Peter Oborne’s book, The Pro-Israeli Lobby in Britain, that there is relentless pressure on newspaper editors. “There are a lot of newspaper and broadcasting editors who have told me that they just don’t think it’s worth the hassle to challenge the Israeli line,” he said.

Like many people in this country and the US, these newspaper editors are terrified of being labelled anti-Semitic. British journalist colleagues have told me that attracting such an accusation is “career suicide”.

But as Pink Floyd guitarist Roger Waters wrote, having himself been accused of anti-semitism by the shady ‘Community Security Trust’: “Israel is abusing the term 'anti-Semitism' to intimidate people, like me, into silence simply because we seek a better and equal future for Palestinians and Jews alike…This is a pattern…a part of the general tactic of Hasbara…I am 'vociferous' in my support for the Palestinian people’s struggle for basic human rights, including their right to self-determination. It is not, however, true that I am an anti-Semite or that I am against the Israeli people.”

My own criticisms of Israel over a long career as a newspaper editor, broadcaster and author have often been taken out of context and repackaged as anti-Semitism. It seems the Labour Friends of Palestine feared being ‘guilty by association’.

My Wikipedia page is routinely ‘edited’, and doctored video clips, removed from their context by the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), are posted as irrefutable ‘evidence’ of anti-Semitism. Regardless of the unreliable nature of their source, these materials cannot be removed under Wikipedia rules because they are ‘referenced’. MEMRI was founded in 1998 by a former Israeli intelligence officer, Yigal Carmon, and Israeli-born American neo-conservative Meyrav Wurmser.

Jewish writer Norman Finkelstein, who is an outspoken critic of Israeli policies and the machinations of the Zionist lobby, had a similar experience to mine when MEMRI posted what they claimed was an extract from an interview he gave on Lebanese television about the Nazi Holocaust. The clip had been doctored so that Finkelstein appeared to be a ‘Holocaust denier’; in fact, large chunks had been edited out, removing the true context which was his observation that Israel deflects criticism by focusing on the Holocaust rather than discuss Israel/Palestine. The deception was particularly cynical and hurtful given that Finkelstein’s own parents were Holocaust survivors.

Another charge that Hasbara likes to level at critics of Israel is that they support ‘terror’ or are even ‘terrorists’ themselves.

It seems that no target is considered out of bounds for Israeli intimidation. Last week, Ban Ki Moon, United Nations secretary-general found himself under sustained attack when he mildly suggested that the Palestinian resistance to 60 years of occupation was “natural”. Benjamin Netanyahu even accused him of “encouraging terror”, prompting the veteran diplomat to take to the pages of the New York Times to defend himself: “Everyone is free to pick and choose what they like or dislike from speeches,” he wrote. “But the time has come for Israelis, Palestinians and the international community to read the writing on the wall: The status quo is untenable. Keeping another people under indefinite occupation undermines the security and the future of both Israelis and Palestinians.”

As for myself, I clearly outlined my position on the Palestine-Israel question in my memoir, A Country of Words, when I wrote: “We have to learn to live together in peace and co-operation in a multi-cultural society in one democratic secular state for two people. One state for both peoples governed by a representative democracy and on an equal footing. We manage it here in London, it is working in South Africa, and there is enough room for everyone in Palestine. I respect the Jewish people and their religion. I do not want to destroy Israel but I do want to end racism and the current Apartheid system.”

The only comfort I take from disappointments like the cancellation of the event I was to chair in Westminster is that they reflect a fear of the truth getting out…a truth that I am likely to speak…and a truth that I will not allow to be silenced so long as I have breath.

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