Freedom of Thought in Israel

Journalists and academics in Israel know that Freedom of Thought does not exist if you are thinking about Palestine

“I was stripped naked at gunpoint, interrogated, kicked and beaten for more than four hours. At one point I fainted and then awakened to fingernails gouging at the flesh beneath my eyes. An officer crushed my neck beneath his boot and pressed my chest into the floor. Others took turns kicking and pinching me, laughing all the while. They dragged me by my feet, sweeping my head through my own vomit. I lost consciousness. I was told later that they transferred me to a hospital only when they thought I might die.”

Before he was beaten, the officers from the Shin Bet, Israel’s secret police, appeared to be only too aware of who Omer was. They insisted he hand over his “English pounds”—a reference to the £2,500 prize money. Israeli officials later explained Omer’s extensive injuries by claiming he had “lost his balance” during an interrogation over suspicions he was a smuggler. Mohammed concludes: “Could it be that despite their tanks, fighter planes and nuclear arsenal, Israel is threatened by our cameras and computers, which give the world access to images and information about their military occupation of Palestinians?”

Jonathan Cook, a freelance journalist living in Nazareth has written a very interesting article about media censorship in Israel, that includes the above quote.  Omer is Mohammed Omer, a Palestinian journalist who won the prestigious Martha Gelhorn prize for journalism.  The treatment he received from Israeli border agents occurred when he was returning home from London, after receiving his award.

Personally, I am not sure what is more disturbing – Omer’s story or the many others like it (including those of many murdered journalists) that Cook writes about.  It is clear to anyone who pays attention to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict that Israel puts much effort into controlling the narrative of the conflict; “Israel has been in the increasingly uncomfortable position of not only being but, more importantly, looking like the rejectionist party to the conflict,” as Cook notes.  Yet Cook’s essay, despite accurately reporting the media situation in Israel, is itself proof of the author’s claims (though if you read the entire article, it is difficult to disagree).

Cook’s essay was published by Americans for Middle East Understanding- an organization that has published the bimonthly magazine – entitled The Link – since 1968.  Both AMEU and The Link are valuable sources of information that provide unbiased insight on the Middle East and particularly the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.  Unfortunately, AMEU and The Link tend to be read by those who already have a basic knowledge of the Middle East and, in Cook’s example, an understanding of what is meant by the Israeli narrative.  Thus, Cook, though insightful and revealing is generally preaching to the choir.  Everyday Americans, Israelis and others are more likely to pick up daily newspapers that are subject to the scrutiny that Cook describes.

[tweetmeme] The same can be said for the electronic news sources that Cook mentions.  In his article, Cook uses the examples of Philip Weiss’s Mondoweiss and Richard Silverstein’s Tikun Olam. Both sites routinely offer alternatives to the Israeli narrative while often breaking stories that are generally ignored by the mainstream press (and why did Cook overlook NFAM?)  These sites are followed by those who agree with Cook, spurned by those who don’t and are generally unknown to the average person.

Of course, that is not to say that they are useless (particularly NFAM).  The mass rise in electronic media has led many more to understand the reality of the Israeli occupation and the daily brutality that Palestinians must suffer through.  Yet, as Cook mentions at the end of his article, “Israel may be struggling to keep its critics at bay, but its Watergate moment is still far off,” meaning, of course, that Israel’s brutality – both towards the Palestinians and to those journalists looking to uncover the truth – is far from abating.

Unfortunately, Israel’s censorship of conflicting narratives extends past journalism.  Academia – the profession supposedly inextricably paralleled with independence of thought – is also under pressure from the Israeli censors.  Ilan Pappe – an Israeli professor at the University of Exeter in England who famously wrote about the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians during the Nakbah – recently published a new book called “Out of the Frame: The Struggle for Academic Freedom in Israel” discussing this very issue.  Although Pappe’s book is still on my reading list, he spoke about the issue while giving a talk in Ramallah earlier this month.  Pappe once taught at Haifa University, but received death threats and institutional pressure due to his unwillingness to conform to the Zionist line.  After receiving word that the Russian mafia has a contract to kill him (seriously), Pappe moved to England with his family.

The academic freedom that Pappe spoke about is under pressure from not only the increasingly right-leaning universities, but also from independent organizations.  The group Im Tirtzu – an extremely right wing Zionist group – has begun a campaign this year aimed at limiting the freedom of Israeli academics.  It has called for a boycott of Ben Gurion University for what it calls a ‘non-Zionist tilt,’ and has threatened to try to convince donors and students to avoid the school.  The group singled out Professor Neve Gordan as being the most anti-Zionist professor in Israel and accused 9 of the 11 political science professors of being involved in “radical left” politics.

The issues of freedom of speech in Israel are serious.  It is increasingly clear that the state is desperately attempting to limit the amount of criticism it receives for its illegal occupation and the brutality that accompanies it by discrediting dissenters, refusing permits and attempting to delegitimize those who do not buy its pre-made line.  Indeed, Reporters Without Borders has ranked Israel “86th place for its treatment of journalists inside its own borders. That puts it behind Lebanon, Albania, Nicaragua and Liberia. It was in 132th place —out of 178 countries—for its repression of journalists outside its own territory, chiefly in Palestinian areas (from Cook).”

The continued and increasing presence of those who are able to report the truth is important for the future of Israel and Palestine.  Over the past few years, thanks to Israeli actions in Lebanon, Gaza and in international waters are creating more question marks in the eyes of those who support the country.  Certainly this is a complex struggle that touches on more than one freedom.  The right to freedom of speech and thought in Israel and in the occupied Palestinian territories is inextricably linked to the basic human rights of Palestinians.  While Cook and Pappe highlight the trials and tribulation of those seeking the truth about Israel’s illegal activities, two things are clear.  First, Israel is intent on not relinquishing control of the narrative and is using malicious means to maintain its grip.  Second, generally thanks to the actions of Israel and the IDF, many more people are beginning to see the truth, despite Israel’s best efforts.

Photo from ArtIntifada

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