By Roger H. Lieberman
Special to PalestineChronicle.com
Last night, I had a brief but vivid dream pertinent to the crisis in the Middle East. I saw myself watching a documentary on Public Television about Syrian villagers living under Israeli military occupation in the Golan Heights. In a series of interviews, they spoke of how most of their neighbors lost their homes and became refugees when the Israeli Army invaded during the June 1967 war. They told how all but five Syrian villages on the Heights were subsequently destroyed by the Israelis to “make room” for Jewish settlements, and how the remaining Arab population has endured years of political repression aimed at severing their ties with Syria and reducing them to the status of third-class Israeli citizens – like the Palestinian minority that remained inside the Green Line after the war of 1948.
This dream was disturbing on a number of levels. First, it reminded me how easily victims of aggression and discrimination can be forgotten by Earth’s more fortunate inhabitants, whose lives aren’t circumscribed by barbed wire, military checkpoints, and land confiscation. Second, it reminded me how a prolonged succession of such actions can have an insidious psychological effect on spectators, gradually numbing their senses and leading them to forget earlier injustices in the face of new and ever more egregious ones. Third, it reminded me how much the media can influence public perceptions of international conflicts – often as much by what it does not choose to discuss as by what it does.
As it happens, there was no such documentary on the Golan Heights – but even if it did exist, it is highly doubtful that the politically-correct eggheads running PBS these days would deign to air it. They could, in fact, have shown the recent film “Occupation 101” about Israel’s repression of the Palestinians, had they wished. They might yet find time to present the provocative film “Reel Bad Arabs” – based on Jack Shaheen’s study of Hollywood stereotypes – but so far, to my knowledge, have expressed no interest in doing so. Perhaps these oversights might be attributed to a busy programming schedule – after all, PBS did have to set aside a gargantuan block of prime time viewing for Ken Burns’ decidedly tedious and unoriginal magnum opus on the Second World War.
But that explanation doesn’t fit the big picture – because some months ago, the New York area PBS station did think it worthwhile to devote several hours to, of all things, an Israeli baseball game. It’s hard to see how airing such a spectacle could possibly benefit Americans’ understanding of the Middle East, but it is possible to recognize how it could foster mistaken and prejudicial perceptions. Baseball is, after all, a quintessentially American social phenomenon. What more transparent way could Israel’s US apologists have found to convey the message that Israelis are “like us” – and that their government, by extension, deserves our unquestioning approval? Had this baseball game from Israel been juxtaposed with, say, a Palestinian soccer tournament, the net effect might have been more positive. But when presented against the background of such neo-conservative balderdash as “America at a Crossroads” – to say nothing of the barrage of hate available on cable and network TV, it could only add to Americans’ rueful ignorance.
I mention all this not to attempt a thorough critique of Middle East stereotypes in America’s popular culture – a task which would take up far too much space and time, and which Professor Shaheen has already brilliantly accomplished – but rather to provide a sober, if austere, assessment of the “mainstream” American mindset on the eve of the peace talks between Ehud Olmert and Mahmoud Abbas slated to begin next month in Annapolis, Maryland. It is precisely because of this cultural and political conditioning of the American public that the outcome of this summit, one way or the other, is cause for deep concern.
When negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority broke down seven years ago over core issues – due largely to Israel’s corrosive abuse of “facts on the ground” and its “special relationship” with the White House – Americans were force-fed a tall tale by the pro-Israel lobby that Yasser Arafat had turned down a “generous offer”, and therefore could not be a “partner for peace”. American politicians, with few exceptions, ignored the inconvenient truths of the Oslo “peace process”, and refrained from condemning Israel’s brutal suppression of the second Intifada that followed, in deference to entrenched prejudices and corrupt lobbyists. The sad result is that seven years later, few Americans understand the realities of the Israel-Palestine conflict any better – in spite of the difficulties Israel’s “defenders” have faced in concealing the ugliness and abject misery of Palestinian life under occupation, and the commendable efforts of Jimmy Carter.
In other respects, American attitudes toward Middle Easterners have grown decidedly worse since 2000. This is a tragic consequence of the September 11th terrorist attacks and the dreadful political climate that set in with the Bush Administration’s declaration of a “War on Terrorism”. Just as the Vietnam War left behind a toxic legacy of anti-Asian prejudice that permeated American culture in the 1970s and 80s, the devastating war in Iraq has encouraged an insidious hostility toward Middle Easterners and the Muslim religion. The entertainment industry has irresponsibly encouraged this trend with movies and television programs that portray Arabs and Muslims in the most vile and distorted manner, and even condone (often none too subtly) the torture and killing of civilians by US forces. Such attitudes have been repeatedly appropriated by Israel to defame Palestinians for an American audience in the past, and are, alas, likely to be marketed at an intensified level in the event the Annapolis talks collapse.
None of the tidbits released thus far regarding Olmert’s “final status” proposal are encouraging to those who long for peace with a modicum of justice – instead, it promises to be either a reheated Barak-style “generous offer”, or something even more draconian. Acceptance of such an arrangement by Abbas would undoubtedly be a catalyst for multifold regional and international problems. But, for the purposes of this article, I will concentrate on the dangers of failing to reach an accord at Annapolis.
What the Bush Administration would do if confronted with this turn of events is by no means certain, and might, for obvious reasons, be largely irrelevant. But there can be little doubt as to how the candidates aspiring to succeed Bush in the White House would make use of it. In deference to long-established unprincipled custom, they would lambaste the Palestinians as a people, and fight to outdo each other in pro-Israel inanity.
Although one can expect little independence of thought and decency of spirit from the likes of Hillary Clinton in this regard, a far more worrisome prospect is how Rudy Giuliani (at this point, the most likely Republican nominee) will behave on Middle East issues as the 2008 campaign swings in high gear. Giuliani has a well-deserved reputation as an anti-Palestinian (among other varieties) bigot, who, as mayor of New York, took great pleasure in snubbing Yasser Arafat during his 1995 visit. (1) He has already received the endorsement of some of worst neo-conservative warmongers (including the neurotic ex-leftist Christopher Hitchens), (2) and one can predict that his chief foreign policy theme will be that the “War on Terror” hasn’t been prosecuted with sufficient violence.
One can imagine that the election of Giuliani is a “consummation devoutly to be wished” in right-wing Israeli circles. After all, as solicitous as George W. Bush has been toward Israeli expansionism and obstruction of compromise, he has at least pretended to support Palestinian statehood in order to keep Arab leaders in line with US policies in the region. It is not at all clear that Rudy would even maintain this facade – he might instead allow the Israelis to pursue even more violent policies in the West Bank, abusing civilians and expanding settlements to their hearts’ (?) content, while subjecting impoverished Gaza to ever greater suffering.
The Israeli Right may be content, in the short-term, to unilaterally impose borders dictated by the illegal Apartheid Wall, but there can be little doubt about its long-term intentions. What has already been done in the Golan Heights – depopulation, colonization, and annexation – is what a substantial and dangerous segment of the Israeli body politic (along with its enablers in America) has long had in mind for the West Bank. The economic havoc wreaked by the Wall and hundreds of checkpoints is seen by many hawkish Zionists as the most “practical” means of carrying out ethnic cleansing, in an era when mass-communication makes overt expulsions difficult to conceal – as was done to tragic effect in 1948 and 1967.
It may even be that Israel’s reluctance to return the Golan to Syria, and the explicit instructions by US neocons not to do so, stem from the value of retaining that region, not for “security” as is claimed, but as a relatively recent example of how Israeli unilateralism effectively erased a substantial Arab community in the Levant without many people in the outside world taking notice and protesting. The fact that the population of the Golan today (38,000) is but a fraction of what it was before 1967 (124,000), and that the 18,000 Jewish settlers there are still marginally outnumbered by the 20,000 remaining Syrians, should remove any illusion that Israel lacks the means to impose a similar policy, given sufficient time, on Palestinians in the West Bank – it has, in fact, already done so to an alarming degree within East Jerusalem.3
There has never been a more urgent time for Americans to wake up to the fact that, baseball or no baseball, Israeli “democracy” is not an achievement to celebrate – let alone an example to emulate. For Israel, democratic rule has always been contingent on a large Jewish majority, and this policy – from the very outset – entailed the massive dispossession and alienation of Palestinians (and later other people, like the Golan Syrians). Israel accepts these peoples only as grudgingly tolerated subjects, once the majority of their brethren have been uprooted, and most of their lands confiscated – in other words, at the point when they can be easily buffaloed, and watched over with perpetually mistrustful eyes.
Furthermore, it must be understood that Palestinians, Syrians, and Lebanese are not American Indians, and this isn’t the 19th Century. Quite apart from moral considerations, what Israeli hardliners and the Westerners who cheer them on seek in the Middle East is physically impossible – at least insofar as being a path to “peace” by any sane definition. As Jared Diamond astutely argues in “Guns, Germs, and Steel”, European colonialism has only made indelible changes in the demography of regions where colonists possessed thousands of years’ technological advantage over the natives, came in overwhelming numbers, and introduced unfamiliar epidemic diseases. None, repeat NONE, of those things was ever true in the case of Israel-Palestine. The greatest sadness comes, however, when one realizes the positive synthesis of traditions and talents that might have taken place in the Holy Land had outside forces encouraged, rather than discouraged, it.
It is not too late for such a transformation to take place – for wherever there is life, there is hope. All the United States needs to do for genuine peace and reconciliation to commence is lend its support to the international consensus, and the Arab Peace Initiative: full Israeli withdrawal to the Green Line, in exchange for full recognition. But for this to happen, the American political establishment that has nurtured Israeli militarism for decades must recognize that peace can never, ever be achieved by forcing Palestinian leaders to acquiesce to Israel’s dictates – let alone, by collectively punishing the Palestinian people whenever their leaders refrain from doing so.
– Roger H. Lieberman is a graduate student of environmental, technological, and medical history at Rutgers University in Newark, New Jersey.
1. Paul Findley, “Mr. President, Mr. Palestine”. Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, December 1995, Pages 8, 87. www.wrmea.com/backissues/1295/9512008.html
2. Justin Raimondo, “Christopher Hitchens and Genocide”. Antiwar.com, 10/17/2007. http://antiwar.com/justin/?articleid=11768
3. Isabelle Humphries, “In the Ghost Towns of the Occupied Golan, Five Villages Defiantly Wave the Syrian Flag”. Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, August 2006, Pages 16-17. www.wrmea.com/archives/August_2006/0608016.html