By June Rugh
Ramzy Baroud, veteran Palestinian-American journalist and Editor-in-Chief of the Palestine Chronicle, recently completed a speaking tour of the United States’ East Coast to promote his second book, The Second Palestinian Intifada: A Chronicle of a People’s Struggle (Pluto Press, 2006). The Second Palestinian Intifada is a far-reaching account of key events of the past five years that transformed the political landscape not only of Palestine and Israel, but of the entire Middle East. With a critical eye, Baroud takes the most controversial issues head-on: the alarming escalation in suicide bombings, the construction of the Separation Wall, the devastating hunger and unemployment in the Occupied Territories, the brutality of the Israeli army, the political surprise of the Palestinian elections. On November 12, 2007, Baroud was interviewed by June Rugh, a freelance writer, in Seattle, Washington.
June Rugh: Good afternoon, Mr. Baroud. Your book, The Second Palestinian Intifada, has been widely praised by eminent scholars and intellectuals such as Noam Chomsky, Ilan Pappé, and Norman Finkelstein. Coupled with the national media awareness of the momentum building towards the US-based Palestinian-Israeli peace conference, did your book tour receive considerable attention from the press?
Ramzy Baroud: On the contrary, the silence has been deafening. Let me clarify: The Second Palestinian Intifada has received wide coverage in the progressive, alternative, Asian, African, and Arab media, and has been reviewed many academic journals, in print and online. But not one corporate newspaper—that I know of—has touched it so far.
JR: Not one? Are you surprised?
RB: Actually, I’m not surprised at all. In Western corporate media, it is the most predictable and consistent practice: if the narrative doesn’t fit the dominant “liberal” ideology, it is simply omitted. And it’s not just the media boycott of the book. Sometimes the local newspapers refused to cover the events of my tour. Rather than straight reportage, certain newspapers opted to publish defamatory articles and letters to the editor that chastised the academic institutions for inviting me to speak and deliberately misinterpreted my comments.
JR: In other words, they literally replaced your words with other content—a kind of journalistic ventriloquism. Can you give an example?
RB: The most disturbing case occurred around my talk at Virginia Wesleyan College, in Norfolk, Virginia. Norfolk has a powerfully committed antiwar community—in addition to fourteen military bases, interestingly—and I was very much looking forward to speaking to this audience. My core message was a call for justice for the Palestinian people based on coexistence, coupled with global alternatives to war and racism. In my talks, I always address other regions of concern in addition to Palestine; notably, Iraq, Venezuela, and Nicaragua. I feel it’s crucial to give a cross-cultural perspective to encourage the audience think beyond the usual geopolitical limitations and ethnocentricities. Yet a local Jewish newspaper announced the event on the front page as a “pro-Palestinian journalist”—suddenly, I’m a speaker with a narrow agenda.
JR: What happened when you spoke at the college?
RB: A local rabbi and his supporters came and heckled me with questions and outrageous claims. One said that in 1880 there were more Jews than Christians and Muslims in Palestine; another claimed that my effort to explain the sociopolitical context of suicide bombings was the same as endorsing the horrific attacks of 9/11. The rabbi himself accused me of being a “Hamas sympathizer”; and since Hamas is on the US State Department’s list of terrorist groups, his implication is clear.
JR: This brings to mind an observation by Steven Salaita: that the discourse of mainstream America is shaped in such a way that if an Arab expresses any feature of political identity, he or she immediately evokes the “undefined but identifiable terrorist.”
RB: Yes, I’d say that applies here. The rabbi’s supporters followed me to a second event at a local theatre, and when I refused to modify my statements, they began a campaign of commentary, letter-writing and calling the college and local papers, describing my message as “poisonous.”
JR: So as far as mainstream media goes, you—and your book—are either ignored or vilified. What is it that strikes a nerve? Is it the topic of Palestine, or your particular perspective?
RB: The subject of Palestine always strikes a nerve in American media. Even more, though, the fact that I was born in a Palestinian refugee camp in Gaza to a dispossessed family forced to leave its ancestral village in 1948—leaving behind burned homes and bullet-riddled bodies—does not make me a desirable voice for the “liberal” media. I was raised in a place where I had to negotiate my daily survival among Israeli tanks and soldiers. As a Palestinian, I advocate for a just peace and dignity for my people, who remain hostage to the inhumanity of the Israeli occupation; as an American, I protest my country’s contributions to violence in the Middle East. This is not the kind of writer that the New York Times wants to profile. It’s too far out of their readers’ comfort zone.
JR: So, as a Palestinian, you find yourself doubly effaced: first, by the Israeli government, and then again, by the Western press.
RB: Yes, you could say that.
JR: One of the objectives of your tour was to promote The Second Palestinian Intifada: A Chronicle of a People’s Struggle. What is your primary goal in getting people to read this book?
RB: To present an alternative reading of Palestinian history. To help people realize, among other things, that Palestinians should be praised for their courage in taking on the risks of democracy; that they should not be forced to suffer, and a civil war provoked, because their elections resulted in a government that is not a regime compliant to the US government. That the terms “extremism” and “moderation,” as used in the corporate press, are not objective concepts, but rather tied to whether a government or political agency serves the interests of the Bush administration. These are concepts you’ll never see in the mainstream media.
JR: So, in a sense, you are raising awareness that an alternative narrative of Palestinian history even exists.
RB: Exactly. And this issue goes beyond me and my particular book. As you know, well-known figures such as Jimmy Carter, John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt—even the usually untouchable Desmond Tutu—have recently been victims of smear campaigns, accused of anti-Semitism and so on, simply because they were presenting the Palestinian perspective and, implicitly or explicitly, criticizing US and Israeli government policy.
JR: And that’s in the public forum. It’s striking that even in academia—traditionally, the last bastion of open debate—there is now also a systematic silencing of alternative readings of Palestinian history. Norman Finkelstein was essentially forced to resign position at DePaul University; Ilan Pappé recently left the University of Haifa for similar reasons.
RB: Even the area of publishing is no longer safe. Pluto Press, the publisher of my latest book, is currently fighting for the right to distribute Joel Kovel’s book, Overcoming Zionism, in the United States. Kovel’s book was published by Pluto Press and is distributed in America by the University of Michigan Press, under contract with Pluto. But when the Michigan chapter of the pro-Israel group StandWithUs denounced the Overcoming Zionism as anti-Israel propaganda and discredited facts, the university press stopped its distribution. In early September, the press’s executive board decided to continue distribution temporarily; but the incident has caused the university press to review its relationship with Pluto Press, with a decision due in late November. A statement from the University of Michigan says explicitly that Pluto Press’s decision to publish Kovel’s book brings into question the viability of the university’s distribution agreement with the publisher. So sometimes, quite literally, the phrase “Stop the press!” is treated as a reasonable request.
JR: In other words, what we’re seeing is not just a chilling effect, but a deep freeze that appears to be settling over all alternative sources of information. Do you have suggestions for people who want to counteract this, who want to keep these lines of communication open?
RB: Yes. It’s important to actively support progressive publishing companies such Pluto Press, and to be aware of the attempts to shut down distribution of their books. I’d urge everyone to go to their website and see the books they offer. It is vital to keep information sources flowing to counteract the deceptively complete discourse presented in the corporate media. And be aware of other news sources: progressive websites such as Counterpunch, and other resources such as the Palestine Chronicle, Zmag.org, etc.
JR: It strikes me that by referring to your book and the progressive press as “alternative narratives,” we are implicitly affirming the primacy of mainstream media. Yet the fact is that your book, which deals with on-the-ground realities of the second intifada, is not “alternative,” but central, and vital to any real understanding of the Palestinian struggle.
RB: Quite right. In fact, if you want a true alternative reality, I’d suggest a front-row ticket to the upcoming peace conference in Annapolis, Maryland. That will be a parallel universe constructed to serve the needs of the Bush administration, with very little to do with the actual needs of either the Palestinian or the Israeli people. It will be a media spectacle, starring Ehud Olmert and Mahmoud Abbas as the already-disempowered players, and with little result—except for preserving the US and Israeli governments’ status quo, and keeping the region ruled by military occupation, state violence, and, inevitably, terrorism.
JR: One challenging issue you address in The Second Palestinian Intifada is the increasing violence used by Palestinians against the Israeli military and Israeli civilians. You write that it is important to “contextualize this phenomenon, not to justify it, but to present the Palestinian response as a tragic yet predictable human reaction to decades of subjugation.” Do you think it’s possible for the American audience to get beyond the image of a suicide bomber and see the larger phenomenon behind it?
RB: Yes, I do. I assume intelligent readers, and thoughtful readers will ultimately be able to put themselves in the position of the Palestinians described in the book. To eliminate violence, one must be brave enough to examine the root causes. That requires a mixture of humility and imagination—a mental exercise rarely required by the corporate media.
JR: Finally, in practical terms, how can one buy a copy of The Second Palestinian Intifada?
RB: You can order the book directly by sending a check of $23 USD, which includes shipping charges, to Ramzy Baroud, PO Box 196, Mountlake Terrace, WA 98043, USA. If you have a PayPal account, you can send $23 USD, including your shipping address to: firstname.lastname@example.org.
-For more information on Ramzy Baroud, please visit his website at http://www.ramzybaroud.net.