Destroyed fishing boats at a Gaza port. Photo via Flickr user Oxfam International
The political climate surrounding Israel’s ground incursion into Gaza is increasingly disconcerting for a number of reasons, first and foremost being the mounting death toll and general suffering inflicted on innocent civilians. Lower on the "horrific” scale would be the portrayal of the bombardment in American media. Too infrequently do journalists make clear, for instance, that Israel is the United States' most generously-funded client state; taxpayers subsidize 25 percent of this prosperous power’s military budget. So at the very least, the US government is culpable for any Israeli attack on its besieged and blockaded neighbor. Without the military, political, and cultural support (almost) unconditionally provided by American elected officials, Israel could not wage such an audacious campaign.
Unlike in the United Kingdom and other places, where mainstream news anchors sometimes challenge the claims of Israeli government officials, US journalists generally take a meek and submissive approach. Allowing these officials to repeat their talking points uncontested is standard practice. But as Israel’s attacks intensify, there have been encouraging exceptions. Jake Tapper of CNN reacted with incredulity last week when Israeli Ambassador to the US Ron Dermer said, "Disproportionality has nothing to do with a body count on both sides.” Tapper countered Dermer’s suggestion that such a huge discrepancy in respective death totals—some 600 Gazans to around 30 Israelis as of this writing—has no moral relevance. Nevertheless, variants of Dermer’s meme have taken firm hold in social media thanks to the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) public relations “war room," manned by 400 volunteer college-aged students, which has proven quite adept at feeding highly shareable memes, graphics, and other propaganda materials into Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.
In the CNN interview, Dermer reminded viewers that the “disproportionality” between the number of German deaths in World War II and the number of American deaths “didn’t make the Nazis right." But what this 8th grade history level analysis omits is that when critics point out the casualty discrepancy, they intend to posit that the threat allegedly posed to Israel by Hamas rockets is not quite as profoundly existential as the Israeli government’s rhetoric often implies. A total of 28 Israelis have been killed by rocket fire from Gaza since 2001. That is tragic, and prudent steps to protect Israelis from the attacks are reasonable—but for some perspective, in 2013, there were 303 traffic fatalities in Israel. A sense of proportionality means not overinflating threats to justify military actions that cause the deaths of hundreds of innocent civilians, including many children.
In response to Tapper’s continued queries about Palestinian civilian deaths, Dermer conceded, “We’re not perfect,” which would likely not be tolerated as an excuse by Barack Obama’s domestic political opponents if his administration had used it to explain some US military campaign that claimed hundreds of innocent lives. Probably, Obama and his spokespeople would be expected to provide a better explanation for why children playing on the beach were bombed. But as Daniel Larison of The American Conservative notes, “the near-total ‘pro-Israel’ uniformity among conservative pundits” has meant that Republicans are “constantly propagandized on this subject in one direction” and therefore tend not to raise even a murmur of disquiet about the unrelenting killing of Palestinian kids. Despite their regular calls for attention to the persecution of Christians in the Middle East—including the truly outrageous expulsion of ancient Christian communities in northern Iraq by ISIS—US conservatives have offered nary a peep in defense of approximately 1,000 minority Christians subjected to bombing and terror, right alongside Muslim Gazans. Father Mario Cornioli, parish priest of Beit Jala in the West Bank, denounced Israel’s actions as a “massacre” in an interview with the Vatican radio service last week.
Progressive media have taken slightly more interest in the humanitarian calamity in Gaza, but still lag behind the rest of the world. As of Friday morning, July 18—more than a half-day after Israel’s ground incursion commenced—the words Gaza and Israel appeared nowhere on Mother Jones magazine's homepage (one headline photo essay was later added). A spokesperson for the outlet, Jacques Hebert, told me, “We publish our top stories each day typically at 6:00 am, and the Gaza story was one of them.” But still, as of Tuesday afternoon, the only piece on the liberal zine's homepage mentioning Israel or Palestine is about the threat posed by Anonymous hackers to the IDF (in fairness, Mother Jones did publish this worthy examination of US funding for the Israeli military earlier in the year).
Likewise, MSNBC political reporter Benjy Sarlin’s main Twitter analysis of the assault has been to point out an instance of “insane anti-Israel rhetoric,” and favorably link to commentaries by journalist Jeffrey Goldberg—a former IDF prison guard whom Roger Cohen of the New York Times once described as “Netanyahu’s faithful stenographer”—and Philip Klein, a polemicist associated with hardline neoconservative causes. In 2010, journalist Glenn Greenwald remarked of Goldberg: “The more discredited his journalism becomes, the more blatant propaganda he spews, the more he thrives in our media culture.” Klein has tarred critics of previous Israeli attacks on Gaza, such as former Congressman Ron Paul, as abettors of ”the global propaganda campaign to delegitimize Israel,” and regularly flings baseless charges of anti-Semitism at his political opponents.
One propaganda meme much heard of late is that those who make civilian suffering and death central to their analysis of this conflict are somehow by extension expressing sympathy with the hardline Islamism of Hamas or other militant groups. This is absurd. In fact, one can be generally “pro-Israel” and still deplore the Netanyahu government’s conduct for the simple fact that it will likely provoke further attacks on Israel, and further jeopardize the well being of ordinary Israeli citizens, who, like most Palestinians, simply wish to live their lives in peace.
Just as opposing the policies of Obama or George W. Bush don’t ipso facto make a person “against America,” there is nothing intrinsically anti-Israel about opposing the Netanyahu government’s military ventures, and anyone who suggests otherwise is engaging in pretty transparently fallacious reasoning. The notion that one must take sides in order to assess this conflict critically is infantile, and stymies the kind of inquiry that we would apply to almost any other contentious subject.
One factor that exacerbates this dynamic is that many view Israel as a profoundly metaphysical project, often with divine features, rather than principally as a state. (Every year hundreds of American Jews aged 18-26 take an all-expense-paid pilgrimage to Israel called Birthright—funded in part by billionaire GOP donor Sheldon Adelson—where they fraternize with IDF soldiers, hook up, and establish deep emotional bonds with the country. In fact, one of the IDF soldiers killed in the fighting was an American who "graduated" from Birthright.) A sounder way of assessing Israel’s conduct is to view it as a state acting in what it perceives to be its own self-interest. With passions so inflamed on both sides of this issue, it is often difficult to deploy dispassionate analysis; when discourse is fueled by angry emotionalism, there are almost always awful consequences.
Thought experiment: If a leading client state in, say, Southeast Asia, whose armaments were supplied by the US, repeatedly bombed and then invaded its immiserated neighbor, killing hundreds of civilians, how would the American public react? The client state would almost certainly receive at least a mild rebuke from an elected official or two. But this pretty much describes the current situation with Israel, and yet not a single condemnatory remark has been heard from Congress. Not a word, either, for the hundreds of thousands of Gazans who’ve been subjected to trauma and terror, and will likely suffer long-lasting psychological harm as a result.
Meanwhile, American politicians such as New York State Assemblyman Dov Hikind—best known for dressing up with blackface for a holiday last year—have just returned from a solidarity mission to Israel. Hikind was pictured consulting with military personnel from the “Ashkelon war room” near Gaza. A spokesperson for Hikind, Yehudah Meth, refused to comment on the Assemblyman’s activities. Wolf Sender, liaison to the Orthodox Jewry for Brooklyn District Attorney Kenneth Thompson, also made the voyage. Before Sender confirmed the trip, the DA’s office would not comment on his whereabouts. “The answer to your question is that no one is in Israel on behalf of the Brooklyn DA’s office or being sponsored by the Brooklyn DA’s office,” Public Information official Helen Peterson wrote to me. “If an employee is there it is on their own time and with their own funds.”
Rep. Justin Amash (R-MI), founder of the House Liberty Caucus and vocal critic of US military aid to foreign countries—and himself of Palestinian descent—did not respond to repeated requests for comment. Rep. Jim Moran, a Virginia Democrat and one of the very few congressmen in recent history to utter even mild criticisms of Israel, said last week, “There are going to be too many innocent Palestinians killed in this” and dismissed as “feckless” the rockets fired by Hamas that allegedly pose such a severe threat to Israelis. But his spokesperson told me he was “not available” for further comment. Rep. Keith Ellison, one of only two Muslim members of Congress, co-released a statement calling for unspecified efforts to stop the “cycle of violence,” but offered no direct condemnation of Israel’s actions, and was said to be unavailable for further comment.
Through spokespeople, Democratic Representatives Donna Edwards of Maryland and Rush Holt of New Jersey declined to comment. Walter Jones, Republican of North Carolina, was unavailable. Patrick Newton, a spokesperson for Tennessee Republican Congressman John Duncan, said via email, “My boss votes always to support Israel and beyond that […] this isn’t an area he covers in congress [sic] or something he is commenting on at the moment.”
A Senate resolution endorsing Israel’s assault was co-sponsored by, as usual, a broad bipartisan coalition including New Jersey Democrat Cory Booker, libertarian-leaning Rand Paul of Kentucky, progressive civil liberties champion Ron Wyden of Oregon and conservative hardliner Ted Cruz of Texas. Booker, a protege of celebrity rabbi Shmuley Boteach, took pains to describe the current violence as “Hamas-initiated.” (This doesn’t jive with the facts.) In other countries, politicians occasionally—gasp!—criticize the Israeli government’s attacks on children. UK Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg has denounced Israel’s actions, characterizing them as “deliberately disproportionate” and having unjustly caused a “humanitarian crisis.” (It would seem that the word disproportionate doesn’t quite capture the moral dimension of purposely bombing civilians, but whatever.)
Another popular talking point propagated by Israeli PR apparatchiks goes something like this: ”The IDF does not deliberately target civilians, unlike Hamas.” But again, this logic doesn’t hold up. As Glenn Greenwald told me, “Slaughter can be so indiscriminate that it's tantamount to intent. Same under the law: gross recklessness can be viewed as intent.”
Moshe Feiglin, the Deputy Speaker of the Israeli Knesset, has called for the “conquer” of Gaza, “elimination” of undesirable occupants, and establishment of the territory as “part of sovereign Israel” to be “populated by Jews.” Hamas leaders have said similarly terrifying things about wiping out Jews and Israel (the latter being an objective that remains in the militant group's charter), but no one seriously thinks they have the capacity to achieve those archaic, contemptible goals.
Journalists face enormous pressure to stay silent in the face of the stalwart pro-Israel sentiment that permeates elite US political and media circles. Expressing basic moral revulsion toward the deaths of children, calls for ethnic cleansing by prominent Israeli politicians, and so forth is seen as uncouth, and has led to the sanction of renowned reporters. It does seem, though, that the weight of the human suffering inflicted by Israel is becoming too much to bear, compelling some high-profile journalists to prod Democratic Party figures on their staunch pro-Netanyahu views. (Former Democratic Congressman Barney Frank got all pissy on MSNBC Saturday when host Steve Kornacki asked a few minimally critical questions about Israel’s tactics.) What's more, US Secretary of State John Kerry was caught on a hot mic over the weekend mocking Israel's assertion that its attacks have been "a pinpoint operation." This client state has long enjoyed unwavering public support from the United States government, and has been carrying out its latest assault comfortable in the knowledge that the world’s sole hegemonic power has its back, no matter what. But, you know, nothing lasts forever.
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