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July 20, 2001
Up to a Point

by Israel Shamir


Dear friends,

I had the honour to be invited to speak in the high international forum of UNESCO in Paris on the question of the media's coverage of the Israeli/Palestine conflict. It was an interesting gathering of upper-middle level politicians and journalists.

The key speaker was UN Coordinator for the Middle East, the suave Scandinavian Terje Roed-Larsen. His idea was gradualism, back to Oslo, step-by-step and shwaye-shwaye. One felt he learned well the terrible lesson of his predecessor Count Folke Bernadotte, who was assassinated on orders of the Israeli Prime Minister and my namesake, Yitzhak Shamir. Bernadotte was rash enough to think he could tell Jews what to do. Terje Larsen was very diplomatic, very pro-peace process, now and for ever. After all, he does not have to stay in the Khan Yunis refugee camp to wait for gradualism to bring fruit from a barren tree.

The Palestinian National Authority was represented by that eloquent teddy-bear, the round-faced Nabil Shaath and the witty and dignified elder ambassador Nasser al Kidwa. Nabil Shaath provided the journalists with a much needed headline, when he said that in Taba they almost made peace. My headline would be ‘A miss is as good as a mile’. The invited Palestinian journalists were prevented by Israeli authorities from going to the conference, while Israeli ones promised to come but failed to appear. There was a loud-mouthed French Jew in the audience, who claimed to represent an Israeli paper. He even tried to speak Hebrew to me, but his Sunday school lessons were not up to it. Anyway, he denounced me as a communist, and thus unfit to speak in such distinguished company.

Israel sent two ex-ministers, a youthful and good-looking devotee of Barak, Professor Yuli Tamir of Peace Now, and General Amnon Lipkin-Shahak, the ex-Chief of Staff for the IDF and a one-time candidate for Prime minister from the now defunct Centre Party. Yuli Tamir spoke of Barak’s largesse in Camp David, and of importance to keep ‘the Jewish character of the Jewish state’. One wanted to ask ‘What about the importance of keeping the Aryan character of the Aryan state?’ In the mind of an average Jew, these two men probably exemplify the Israeli Left. This alone speaks volumes about Israel. If that is Israel's ‘Left’, you can imagine the Israeli Right. The late lamented Israel Shahak used to say that the Israeli Left is worse than the Israeli Right. These two ex-ministers, taken as a sample, served to remind us of Shahak's maxim.

Of the ladies and gentlemen of the press who attended the conference, I must mention the incredibly tall and pleasant Scot, Sir Ian Gilmour, the British ex-Minister of Defence and a media personality, one time owner of The Spectator, a exuberant and feisty magazine that fell into evil clutches of Conrad Black. And the dynamic Phyllis Bennis of Washington IPS called for Israeli withdrawal from occupied territories. I think I heard this notion before, but she was very convincing anyway.

It was an important occasion, made possible thanks to the Palestinian organizer of the conference, Dr Saleem Fahmawi, a man who grew in a refugee camp, made it all the way to the UN, but never forgot the village of his ancestors. There was also a chance to meet some friends of Palestine. Some hundred of them gathered at night to hear my call for the new strategy, i.e. ‘one man – one vote’ solution. It was a heated discussion, with many young people present, and I left comforted by the general response. The following is the gist of my speech at the UNESCO conference on Getting the Facts Right.


The media world was well described in the brilliant novel by Evelyn Waugh, The Scoop. Though the main plot of the book unfolds in Africa, the relevant scene takes place on Fleet Street, at the office of the Daily Beast owner, lord Copper. The media baron asked his foreign editor from time to time, is Yokohama the capital of Japan? Or Does Hong Kong belongs to us? The editor had two 'safe' answers. When lord Copper was right, he said, Definitely, lord Copper. When he was wrong, he said, Up to a point, lord Copper. That is the fork, from definitely to up to a point, of the permissible borders of mainstream media discourse. We journalists are dependent creatures. We would like to be honest and sincere, but we have to think of our mortgages, and of our vocation. If we step over the borders established by the media owners, we would have to look for a different occupation altogether.

Speaking of Palestine, the borders are quite narrow. I would say they run parallel to the borders of internal Jewish Israeli mainstream discourse, from Meretz to Sharon. If we compare it with pre-Mandela South Africa, it is similar to the White mainstream discourse, from Nationalist to Progressive, not including ANC. In my view, this discourse is exclusivist, even supremacist. It is based on sustaining Jewish supremacy in Palestine. It does not offer equality or even a safe future to the local inhabitants. But that is all you are allowed to say. You may support the creation of Palestinian reservations which puts you firmly in the Israeli ‘liberal’ camp, or you can back mass expulsion and ethnic cleansing, and you will be called a hardliner or a hawk. These are the firm borders of the discourse. Whoever crosses the borders, and speaks for equality of a Jew and Gentile in the Holy Land, finds himself in the wilderness. His voice will be silenced, maybe for good.

I know this first hand. I live in Jaffa, a town with a mixed population. There are Palestinians, Moroccans, Israeli Ashkenazi Jews, Russians, and we all live together rather harmoniously. But a lot of people who were born in Jaffa live in refugee camps and they are forbidden to return just because of their religion or ethnicity. I find it morally impossible, that a Jew from New York, Paris or Novosibirsk, like me, can come and live in Jaffa, while a local man, born in Jaffa, may not come back home. I called for the return of the Palestinian refugees and immediately lost my job with Haaretz. That is the most liberal Israeli newspaper.

The case of Palestine coverage in the media is special for one reason. We have a peculiar vocabulary, developed for the local coverage. If I kill Ahmad, it would be reported that ‘Ahmad was killed by an Israeli’. But if, God forbid, Ahmad would kill me, you would learn that ‘a Jew was murdered’.

As in Dr Jeckyll and Mr Hyde, an Israeli may kill; but if an Israeli is killed, he turns into a Jew. It is absolutely forbidden to speak about Jewish atrocities and murders. The Jews are forever victims. It often appears we have three nations in Palestine: Jews, Israelis and Palestinians. Israelis may commit crimes, but it is innocent – always innocent – Jews that are murdered. If you confuse these two words, and refer to a murderer as ‘a Jew’, you will be called an anti-Semite, and probably you will lose your job.

It should not be too complicated to cover our story. It is not even as complicated as other places of world concern. The right of national self-determination inclusive of autonomy or independence isn’t an easy right to realize, as Corsicans can tell you. Palestine should be easier to cover: it is not the question of national self determination, but of basic human rights. Kosovo? In Kosovo, Albanians were discriminated against and tormented by Serb authorities, but they always had the technical right to vote and the Yugoslav government never withdrew their citizenship. They were distant second-class citizens, but still citizens. Kurds in Turkey? They also can vote.

The coverage of Palestine should be easier, but it is not. A journalist may write and speak about marginal problems, like the Jewish settlers beyond the Green Line. But the basic power structure of Jewish dominance in Palestine may not be questioned. We may not say that the Palestinians have no right to vote; no right to move to other parts of their country and no right to return to their homes in the only country they have ever known.

In my opinion, the source of the media bias in covering the Palestinians is tremendously important. For it speaks volumes about the power structure of the US and Europe. It gives us unique feedback from the obscure world of media lords. And, it goes without saying, that 'establishment' journalists are not given much leeway on reporting on this valuable feedback. They are always too busy writing ‘definitely’.

The reason is obvious. Too many of our media lords subscribe to the notion of Jewish supremacy, and they are spread around the globe. In England, there is Conrad Black, he actually owns many papers in Canada, the US, and in Israel. In our country, he owns The Jerusalem Post. When he bought this paper, he dismissed the staff and hired people of his opinions. He is a right wing Zionist, a zealous supporter of Jewish supremacy.

In the US, there are too many of them to count. But allow us to mention Mortimer Zuckerman, a media lord and the current Head of the Presidents’ Conference of American Jewish Organizations, the big daddy of all Jewish groups in America. He is one of the richest men in America, he made his fortune speculating in real estate and owns the third largest 'serious' American weekly magazine, US News and World Report. He also owns the popular plebeian tabloid, The Daily News, a major circulation in the New York and New Jersey market. His newspapers generally advocate the brutal rule of market forces. With one exception; they call for generous annual subsidy of Israel by American tax payers. Two ex-Prime Ministers of Israel, Netanyahu of the war-mongering Likud and Barak of the slightly less hawkish Labour party supported Zuckerman in his quest for the leadership of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations. This side of the Ku Klux Klan, this association of 52 heads of American Jewish organizations is the most bigoted body of men in American politics. Haaretz recently reported, that Mortimer Zuckerman had dismissed his shiksa wife, in order to get this coveted chair. As long as he stayed married to a non-Jewish woman, his colleagues, Jewish billionaires, would not trust him. And he is one of the most influential publishers in the US.

On the other end of the planet, in Russia, the TV stations and newspapers also are under the ownership of Israeli citizens. One of them, Vladimir Gusinsky, was forced to part with his TV station. But his extremely pro-Israeli staff was quickly hired by another channel, belonging to another Israeli citizen, Mr Chernoi. In 1985, he was an accountant living on a salary of 100 dollars a month. Today he is worth 5 billion dollars, owns virtually all the aluminium plants in Russia, and lives in a nice suburb of Tel Aviv. Currently, he is under investigation for 34 murders, money laundering and membership in the Russian mafia. In a recent quip, he was quoted as saying that ‘the media is not business. the media is politics and influence’. He uses his media empire to stifle all criticism of Israel in Russia.

I spoke recently to a young Russian military attaché in one of the Western capitals. He told me: your Israeli situation is similar to ours, but we have Chechnya a thousand miles away, while you have it next door. I asked him: do you want to say that Chechens have no right of vote? He was amazed. He did not know that the Palestinians have no right to vote. The media of Gusinsky, Chernoi, and Berezovsky, that is three powerful media lords, all of them Israeli citizens, took care to cultivate his ignorance.

Even in Sweden, traditionally supportive of the Palestinian cause, since the national newspapers were bought by Jewish entrepreneurs, the coverage of Palestine became more and more lopsided. I do not know whether the new owners had to ask for it explicitly, or their chief editors just guessed their desires, but the results were the same.

This international group of Jewish media lords, from Washington to Moscow, is not subservient to the interests of Israel. But support of Israel is a part of their agenda. On the top of the list, is globalisation and neo-liberalism; what they call ‘freedom of market forces’. On political matters, they tend to distrust democracy and personal freedoms while making constant demands for corporate liberties.

Mutual support is also high on their list of priorities. When Gusinsky was under investigation for embezzling funds, the New York Times and the Washington Post, that is the late Mrs Kathryn Graham and Mr Sultzberger, both published virtually identical lead stories and editorials supporting the ‘Independent Russian Press’. Independent, appears to be a code word for ‘Jewish-owned’.

This should be a serious cause for concern. When an Egyptian businessman bought Harrods in London, the newspapers went into a fury. The headlines blared 'our national heritage is being taken away by foreigners'. In Israel, no outsider is allowed to own a newspaper. There was a rich Russian Jew, Gregory Lerner, who tried to buy a newspaper in Israel. He was sent to jail for six years for various mafia-related crimes. It is worth noting that, before he made his rush into the media, nobody cared about his offences. An Iraqi Jew took over a newspaper, and very soon he found himself in jail. Because the media is not a business, it is the nerve system of a country.

In my opinion, the case of Palestine is much more important for you, for Europeans and Americans, than just another case of injustice. Because it proves that this international group of Jewish media lords have become a mite too powerful. In my experience, Jewish journalists can be as objective as any. Actually, the best coverage of Palestine is done by Jewish journalists, from Susanne Goldenberg of the Guardian to Gideon Levy of Haaretz. But it is easier to squeeze a camel through the needle’s eye than to find an objective media lord. This problem can be solved without actually removing media from the hands of individual proprietors if newspapers would be treated like precious water sources and other all-important public utilities. That is, unless we want to delegate all these newspapers to the murky realm of ethnic press, and build from scratch a new network of free press.

Israel Shamir is an Israeli journalist based in Jaffa. His articles appear on his site www.israelshamir.com/ or write to shamiri_@netvision.net.il
All his articles are in public domain and can be distributed freely, but hard copy publications must ask for a permission.