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As the prevailing tenor of the media becomes increasingly committed to the Israeli military’s point of view, so freedom of discourse in the Israeli academy firmly shuts down.

The leading expert on Arab affairs at the time was Ehud Ya’ari, who was closely connected to military intelligence. He was a friend of Amos Malka, the chief of military intelligence, as well as of some of the popular guests on the talk shows, former generals or ex-colonels of the IDF. The result was that it did not really matter who provided the commentary, the military man or the journalist, as they all portrayed the Intifada in the same way, loyal to the army’s interpretation.[1]

The corruption of the media was particularly evident in the lack of empathy with foreign colleagues who had been banned since 2000 from obtaining proper coverage of Israeli actions, especially of Operation Defensive Shield in the West Bank in 2002 and Operation Cast Lead in Gaza in 2009. These foreign reporters were not only prevented from obtaining coverage, but they became targets of army harassment and abuse. In addition, the local media agreed to impose a blackout on its screens, radio transmissions and newspaper pages.

The desire to report only on what the army deemed right and useful sometimes ended in a public relations flop. Such was the case in March 2002, in the last big operation before Defensive Shield, when the army entered the refugee camp in the Palestinian town of Tulkarem. The IDF spokesman invited national TV crews and senior military correspondents to accompany its operation, hoping to show what it called ‘the humane face’ of the Israeli army. But the close-up pictures of soldiers hammering their way through walls from one house to the other, frightening women and children, humiliating the men and destroying most of what was in their path, did not fit a commentary on a surgical operation intended to avoid harming innocent citizens. Shocked viewers responded angrily and the army learned the lesson: this type of public relations exercise was never tried again. The following month, in April 2002, the IDF did not allow any television cameras, even loyal local ones, to accompany troops into the Jenin camp. Only the military correspondent of Israel Radio, Carmela Menashe, was allowed to be present, and she read on air a prepared text handed to her by military commanders.

This is the sad story of the media in a society that presents itself as democratic. In the year and half after the outbreak of the Second Intifada, most of its elements were voluntarily militarised as part of a more general militarisation of the public space and political system. When the media performs such a dubious role, it helps to block the public mind to alternative analysis. It should be said that had the Israeli media wanted to be demilitarised, it had the means of doing so. The fact that it willingly chose to become the spokesman of the IDF, the Shabak, the Mossad and the ministry of internal security is worrying in itself. If one adds to this dismal state of affairs the hijacking of party politics by former generals and the militarisation of the education system, it is possible to grasp how profoundly Israel had become a nation-in-arms at the beginning of the twenty-first century.

Sir Thomas Rapp, the somewhat unusual British colonialist who headed the British Middle East Office in the early 1950s, was a keen observer of Israeli society. Although in 1950 he favoured, as did almost all British officials at the time, closer ties between Britain and the newly-founded Jewish state, he warned: ‘The younger generation [in Israel] is brought up in an environment of militarism and thus a permanent threat to Middle East tranquillity is thereby created, and Israel would thus tend to move away from the democratic way of life towards totalitarianism of the right or the left.’[2]

The Intellectual Eunuchs and Tamed ‘Peaceniks’

The closed mind was not, of course, limited to the media, but extended to academia as well. Some scholarly critics from previous years, like Benny Morris, openly retracted their positions and returned to the all-embracing consensus, while others simply abandoned their previous interests.[3] What is very clear when analysing the fortunes of Israel’s ‘new history’ from its inception in the late 1980s until its temporary disappearance in 2000, is that historical demytholo- gising and reconstruction are closely linked to general political developments and upheavals. In societies torn by internal and external rifts and conflicts, the work of historians is constantly pervaded by the political drama around them. In such geopolitical locations a pretence of objectivity and impartiality is particularly misplaced, if not totally unfounded.

Anyone visiting Israeli academia in the mid-1990s must have felt a fresh breeze of openness and pluralism blowing through the corridors of a stagnant establishment that had been painfully loyal to the prevailing Zionist ideology in every field of research touching on Israeli reality, past or present. The new atmosphere allowed scholars to revisit the history of 1948, and to accept some Palestinian claims about that conflict. It produced local scholarship that dramatically challenged the historiography of early Israel. In the new research environment, pre-1967 Israel was no longer a small defensive country and the only democratic state in the Middle East, but a relatively strong nation that oppressed its Palestinian minority, discriminated against its Mizrachi citizens and conducted an aggressive policy towards neighbouring states in the region. The academic critique spread beyond ivory towers into other cultural areas such as theatre, film, literature, poetry, and even documentary television and official school textbooks.

Less than ten years later it would have taken an imaginative and determined visitor to find any trace of that openness and pluralism. Its disappearance was part of the general demise of the Israeli left in the immediate aftermath of the Intifada. The left was that part of Jewish public opinion which, with varying degrees of conviction and honesty, held peace-promoting and conciliatory positions on the question of Palestine. Academia had always had a strong presence in the left, and when it began to disappear, academia changed with it.

Notes

[1] This information is brought out in Ha’artez, 9 November 2000, ‘Ehud Yaari Said’, weekend supplement.

[2] Public Record Office, FO 371/82179, E1015/119, Rapp to Ernest Bevin, 15 December 1950.

[3] Ilan Pappe, ‘The Decline and Fall of the Israeli Left’, Al-Ahram Weekly, 27 September 2001.

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