North Africa, West Asia

New media and the changing narrative on Palestine

The new activism of a young generation in the US has largely come out of the multiplicity and consistency of a new media narrative confidently mushrooming from a new generation of educated Palestinians. 

Victoria Brittain
5 May 2014
A weekly Gaza sit-in for Palestinian prisoners swells as talks collapse, April 2014

A weekly Gaza sit-in for Palestinian prisoners swells as talks collapse, April 2014. Demotix/Joe Catron. All rights reserved.

I want to dedicate this paper to the great journalist and writer on the Middle East, Patrick Seale, who died last week – for decades he set an example of writing counter-narrative, and generously gave help and encouragement to others trying to do so. 

First I want to mention the great strategic importance placed on media by Israel’s government and its allies.

Second I discuss what I call the intellectual guerrilla war of new media in the Anglophone world.

Third I illustrate this war with some examples of the challenges to the iconic and powerful New York Times in this new struggle.

Fourth I examine the rising tide of activism on Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions in US campuses and the role of the new media’s fearless and professional Palestinian writers in creating this new moment of global popular struggle.

1. The western press’ long-standing compliant relationship with the official Israeli version of progressive dispossession of the Palestinian people over more than 60 years has been exhaustively explored in countless excellent books – and new work on this subject comes out all the time. (Nothing is better however than the seminal 1983 book by Professor Noam Chomsky, The Fateful Triangle, the United States, Israel and the Palestinians, which, like his Manufacturing Consent with Edward Herman published five years later, goes to the heart of the power relations behind the media’s historic compliance.)

Thirty years on from these books Israeli leaders and their western allies and media associates are having to work much harder and spend very large sums of money in the fight to maintain their dominance of the narrative. The Israeli government and its friends are certainly doing that spending at home as well as abroad - with mixed results.

Only last month, for instance, the US billionaire Sheldon Adelson, who strongly backs Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu, spent $5m to buy a small right wing religious paper in Israel, Makor Risho, adding to his overwhelming media strength inside Israel with the successful free paper Israel Hayom. (Within Israel this has been harshly criticised from both right and left.)

And, to reach the outside world, for more than a decade the Israeli government has systematically organised students and others in semi-military mode to flood the Internet with hasbara material, as anyone who has ever written anything critical of Israel’s government knows.  Union of Israeli Students “covert units” within Israel’s seven universities have engaged in online public diplomacy and been part of the Prime Minister’s public diplomacy arsenal.

Meanwhile, Brand Israel was conceived and launched with a multi-million dollar budget and top international PR companies to promote an image of Israel via culture and tourism (including maps where Palestine did not exist) in Europe and the US. The map mistake brought them a great deal of criticism, while the heavy handed attempts to frame Operation Cast Lead in Gaza or the attacks on the Mavi Marmara peace flotilla as justified, largely backfired internationally. But still the basic Israeli political narrative has dominated in the west. And one illustration of the lengths the government and its allies go to control that narrative emerged some years ago in an Electronic Intifada report on systematic amending of Wikipedia entries on Israel.    

2. Against this powerful current in recent years a modestly-financed series of initiatives in new media has begun a kind of guerrilla intellectual war challenging the old dominance.

Dents in the old master-narrative of Israel as the only democracy in the Middle East, and with no interlocutor among the Palestinians, who threaten its existence, are visible in many areas. Here are just three recent examples and their effects.

One was the BDS movement’s adroit seizing on a movie star’s promotion of a product made in an illegal West Bank settlement, with a web-based campaign that went viral. Significantly, the company – SodaStream - saw a 14% slip in its share price in the first quarter of 2014 after its PR debacle with the movie star Scarlett Johansson. Business will have taken note: working in settlements = toxic for share price.

Another is the feverish series of public rows in universities in the US over academic boycotts of Israeli universities, and peaceful student protests about house demolitions, the apartheid Wall, and other injustices faced by Palestinians.

Third was the NYT decision earlier this year to publish an article on its prestigious op-ed page by the prominent Palestinian BDS activist Omar Barghouti. The NYT, because of its iconic status in US journalism and politics, is a particular focus of the intellectual war I look at below.

The SodaStream factory in Ma’ale Adumim illegal settlement had been there 20 years before it became a world-wide story and Johansson had to pull out of her support for the British charity Oxfam when she chose to continue supporting SodaStream despite the controversy. And the Palestinian civil society call for boycotts, divestment and sanctions was ten years old before it reached the current stage of involving university governors and state legislators in the recent attempts to silence student opinion and action. Barghouti’s book on BDS was published in 2010 and had been mainly ignored by mainstream media.

Where did this change in attitudes and actions come from? Not from any Palestinian political leaders, but the effect of many foreign visitors to the Occupied Palestinian Territories, and a multitude of grass roots media initiatives, mainly by younger Palestinian academics, journalists, writers, film-makers, and lawyers. They have been unified by the BDS campaign launched in 2005, and have now created a moment of a popular street struggle based on morality, legitimacy, and justice.

The Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) Campaign has shifted the dynamics of power away from empty diplomacy and moved the battle for Palestine into the realm of global awareness and public participation in a struggle for liberation. The US rapper Jasiri X at Qalandya checkpoint reflects just this.

Everywhere the Internet has shifted the balance of power in journalism as compared to, say, 20 or 30 years ago. It is simply no longer necessary to work for a large media organization in order to have a decent-sized readership or a voice that will be heard. There are journalists, commentators and activists from around the world who have never been employed by a large media organization who have amassed thousands, or tens of thousands, or even more Twitter followers – more than many if not most of the full-time reporters and columnists for those established media organizations.

In a world where media organizations are financially struggling and are desperate for online buzz and traffic, these independent journalists and activists can have real leverage. Large media organizations need them.

In the last decade or so, the Internet has of course made available a vast amount of information on almost every corner of the world. This is true of Palestine like everywhere else. But what is different about the Palestine case is that a number of websites and blogs, mostly written in English by a young generation of highly educated Palestinians, now produce a consistent and fearless body of reporting and analysis which is reaching new audiences – as in the SodaStream case – and, with the help of YouTube, nurturing the new readiness of US students to face harsh sanctions for protest action.

I’ll mention just a few of the new media initiatives whose work I think is creating this consistent counter-narrative around Palestinian issues, particularly in the US and UK: Al Shabbaka, Electronic Intifada, Yousef Munayer’s Jerusalem Fund/Palestine Centre, Jadaliyya, The Palestine Chronicle by Ramzy Baroud. The blogs of Omar Barghouti on BDS, and of the Nazareth-based British journalist Jonathan Cook, are part of this same mosaic, as are The Real News and Al Monitor.  Mondoweiss, Israeli-based 972, and Tikun reach in particular a significant US Jewish audience, which is one of the areas where whole new debates are under way and old certainties in attitudes to Israel are eroding. Other independent leftist media outlets that frequently write about Palestine, such as Counterpunch, and Al Jazeera are part of this shifting picture, which is also beginning within US major media outlets.    

3. One strand of this is a tireless scrutiny of the New York Times. The paper’s bureau chiefs and reporters on Israel/Palestine are invariably based in West Jerusalem and some have had personal connections with Israel (for example: former bureau chief Ethan Bronner’s son served in the IDF ). The Washington DC-based Jerusalem Fund/Palestine Centre, the Electronic Intifada and Mondoweiss systematically launch detailed challenges to the NYT reporting. They take on the NYT professionalism – making dents in the credibility of the key US paper of record, and having these critiques amplified by an incalculable number of new media links.

Here are three recent examples of this scrutiny, among many others:

First: The passing of the new law that allows Israel to detain African migrants without trial for a year was reported like this:

Here is Reuters' headline, Israel approves detention without charges for African migrants


Here is Haaretz's headline, Knesset Okays Dentention of Migrants without Trial  


Here is the LA Times' headline, Israel passes law aimed at deterring African migrants 


Here is the AFP's headline, Israel passes law to detain illegal African migrants


Here is the NY Times' headline, Israel: Law Reduces Migrant Detention


Second, in the combative tone of the EI:  

“It will not be news to regular readers of The Electronic Intifada that The New York Times systematically excludes all except token Palestinian voices from its coverage. But under the regime of Jerusalem bureau chief Jodi Rudoren, the silencing of Palestinians has plumbed new lows.


On 29 November, the Times published a story by Isabel Kershner about a Jerusalem photo exhibit put on by UNRWA, the UN agency for Palestine refugees.


The exhibit showcases some of UNRWA’s unique archive of photographs of Palestinian refugees since the Nakba. In the Times article, as Adam Horowitz noted on Mondoweiss, Kershner does not quote a single Palestinian. Instead, as Horowitz writes: “For some reason Isabel Kershner gives more space to Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesperson Yigal Palmor to denounce the exhibit than to UNWRA staffers to explain it. And, of course, the article ignores actual Palestinian refugees altogether.”


Third, on the massive displacement of Bedouins and the demolishing of their villages in the Negev, the EI’s Ali Abunimah was in action again on December 1, 2013 :

“The Times published what appears to be its first ever story about the Prawer Plan.


On 30 November, protests all over historic Palestine against the plan, were met with Israeli police brutality and, according to eyewitnesses, unprovoked police violence (including on a 14 year old child), as I reported in a post earlier today.


But Kershner presents what happened as being the fault of protesters:

“In scenes reminiscent of the Palestinian uprisings in the West Bank, protesters hurled stones at police forces, burned tires and blocked a main road for hours near the Bedouin town of Hura in the Negev. The police used water cannons, tear gas and sound grenades to disperse the demonstrators.”


It’s hardly surprising that Kershner follows a purely official Israeli narrative, because she only quotes Israeli officials: police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld, justice minister and war crimes suspect Tzipi Livni and the Israeli prime minister’s office.

In this – the only article published by the Times on the Prawer Plan – Kershner cannot find a single Bedouin who will be directly affected to speak to.”


Abunimah’s entertaining anecdote about his chance encounter with the NYT’s former Jerusalem bureau chief Ethan Bronner – a sideline in a long interview about his important new book (The Battle for Justice in Palestine, Haymarket, Chicago) – neatly illustrates what a raw nerve EI’s reporting has hit at the NYT, although it is never acknowledged.

But things are changing in parts of the NYT that are not the Jerusalem bureau.

Last month (ie April), Mondoweiss revealed that the NYT went along with an Israeli gagging order on the arrest and incommunicado detention in a windowless cell without a bed, of Palestinian journalist Majid Keyyal on his return from a conference in Lebanon. For the NYT Jerusalem bureau chief going along with the gag was “analogous to abiding by traffic rules.” However the NYT public editor, Margaret Sullivan did not see it quite like that and wrote an article about the gag that said, “I find it troubling that The Times is in the position of waiting for government clearance before deciding to publish.” And giving credit to EI, which broke the gagging order several times, Sullivan made it clear that she, if not the bureau chief, understood how important a story this was for Palestinians.

Earlier this year Jonathan Cook wrote an account of his experience of how the tide at the NYT has changed in a decade. A commentary he wrote back then for the International Herald Tribune (now the International New York Times) argued that Israel’s wall that was then just starting to be built in the West Bank was really a land grab.

“The paper then received the “largest postage in our history”, as an editor told me – possibly not surprising as the US Anti-Defamation League had urged its followers to complain and had even published a template letter of condemnation on its website to help them. The result: the paper published a whole page of letters attacking me and dropped me as a writer.”

Cook noted a more recent avalanche of letters following three articles on BDS in both the NYT and INYT in late January 2014: one was the Omar Barghouti article already referred to and the other two were by NYT staff Jodi Rudoren and Roger Cohen attacking BDS, the former implicitly and the latter explicitly.

As Cook put it,

“What’s so different this time is that the INYT’s letters page is dominated by readers backing Barghouti and attacking Rudoren and Cohen. Not only that, but the arguments used to support BDS are intelligent and well-informed, while the few letters attacking BDS sound tired and formulaic.

The fact that the NYT has allowed the BDS debate into its pages is a triumph for the cause. That its international sister publication (and the NYT website) has then allowed its letters page to be dominated by BDS supporters is another small landmark.”

In fact the NYT has also had some strong anti-settlement editorials. It seems that as the Israeli government becomes even more extreme in its racism and settlement expansion policies – so vivid in the unending pictures of the Wall - the NYT has been more open to criticizing government policies – even as it continues to shut out Palestinian perspectives in its reporting. The Sunday Magazine also went against the general news line by publishing a long, good piece on popular resistance at Nabi Saleh.

The new media websites I’ve mentioned also publish the kind of exclusives which come from extremely good sources and which used to be the preserve and pride of powerful western media like the NYT. For instance, the recent very important story by NY based Professor Joseph Massad on the Abbas/Dahlan rivalry and its corrupt Egyptian links, which appeared on Al Jazeera’s website for a few hours before being summarily removed, was promptly re-published by the Electronic Intifada with a commentary by Professor Massad explaining the exchanges with Al Jazeera. It went viral.

4. There is a wide impact from new media’s leading writers in these overlapping networks making appearances as authoritative commentators on US TV, as well as in academic conferences and meetings such as those hosted by The Palestine Fund in Washington, and available live-streamed across the world. Where once there was a clean sweep in discussing Israel/Palestine for familiar US government-line faces, like Dennis Ross or Aaron David Miller (who are still of course fixtures in these debates), now you see, among others, academic lawyer Noura Erakat, an Al Shabaka adviser, or Nadia Hijab, one of its founders, or Ali Abunimah, founder of the Electronic Intifada, prolific author of books and articles, or Omar Barghouti, or the novelist and poet Susan Abulhawa,  (see her on YouTube with Alan Dershowitz, and unforgettably demolishing Israeli judge Itamar Marcus. This too went viral.) 

This new strand of narrative has not, of course, much affected the business-as-usual official western government and mainstream media narrative of “two-state solution” and “peace process” etc. And recently, when the NYT reported “Israeli settlement plan derails peace talks, Kerry says,” in a straight news piece quoting Kerry’s Senate testimony, it did not take many phone calls of complaint to have the headline transformed into, “Mideast Frustration, the sequel”. The rewritten version of the piece that then appeared had a soft historical intro, and also contained a new quote from Aaron David Miller lamenting Kerry’s statement as no good for peace. Mondoweiss had both versions of that piece, and some trenchant commentary on the web, very rapidly. In addition it gave a link to the long NYT piece detailing both Israel’s sharp rejection of Kerry’s point, and a State Department comment rowing back from the Secretary of State’s criticism of Israel.

These torrents of debate and information are running through US college campuses as never before since the Vietnam years. The official responses have become even more extreme than the cancelled lectures, lost jobs, and ruined careers, which openly pro-Palestinian US-based academics have sometimes suffered. (And behind those are the shadows of the far heavier prices paid in the iconic US court cases of prominent Palestinian/Americans such as Professor Sami El Arian, and the board of the charity Holy Land Foundation. One of these extreme cases ended with an indefinite house arrest, the other with prison sentences between 15 and 65 years.)

In recent months the responses to student and faculty peaceful pro-Palestinian campus activities, from North-Eastern in Boston, to Michigan, Florida, California, and Colombia (to name but some), or to the open support for BDS from academic institutions such as the American Studies Association and the Association for Asian American Studies have had an air of panic and hysteria. For leafleting or peaceful protests Students for Justice in Palestine groups have been suspended, some interviewed by police, some placed on academic probation, some facing disciplinary charges and others obliged to attend re-education training led by university administrators.

Israel’s response has been twofold.  As Israeli journalists have noted, they have employed the tried and tested tactic of negotiations for “interim agreements,” into which Secretary of State John Kerry was most recently lured. According to a Haaretz report, in addition to “advancing the peace process with the Palestinians [to] stave off a large portion of the boycott threats,” other tactics include “a massive PR campaign against pro-boycott organizations,” filing “legal suits in European and North American courts against organizations that are proponents of the BDS movement,” lobbying for the creation of new laws under which more people can be prosecuted for boycotting Israel,  and finally stepping up surveillance of BDS supporters, which would involve operations by the Mossad and Shin Bet.

Perhaps the official over-reacting is not so surprising given that ASA added 700 new academic members after its boycott call, and new academic names penned opinion pieces in numerous US media outlets supporting ASA’s vote.

Meanwhile, Palestine Solidarity Legal Support has reported 100 cases of legal threats, intimidation and suspected surveillance of activists on campus. Efforts to legislate against academic boycotts have been tried in seven states and the US Congress, including bills in Illinois and New York. All but one has failed, and the one failure, Maryland, was a very watered down initiative.

As I said earlier, this new activism of a young generation in the US has largely come out of the multiplicity and consistency of a new media narrative confidently mushrooming from a new generation of educated Palestinians.

In parallel, and feeding off this Palestinian narrative, young US Jewish communities too are producing dissident writing, on websites I have referred to earlier, and books of extraordinary reporting like Max Blumenthal’s Goliath or a mea culpa like Noam Chayut’s The Girl who stole my Holocaust.

All of this begins to change the terms of debates on these issues far beyond what we can see on campuses these days. Washington and Tel Aviv have not yet changed any policies as a result of this intellectual struggle, and the NYT is still largely stuck in its old self-referential certainties. But the moment reminds me of many such media seminars and conferences in the years when apartheid began to crack. They contributed to media change. The powerful media that had supported the white regime in South Africa began to realize that they were telling losers’ stories and missing the analysis of the future. Palestinian new media writers today show the world a different future.


A short version of this paper was given at the Palestine International Forum for Media and Communication, Istanbul, April 23, 2014.


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