Oct 1 2009

‘Law-Abiding’ Israelis, ‘Unwelcoming’ Palestinians

U.S. journalists sympathize with Israeli colonists

Photo Credit: Flickr Creative Commons/Decode Jerusalem

Photo Credit: Flickr Creative Commons/Decode Jerusalem

The Obama administration’s push to freeze Israeli construction of illegal colonies in the West Bank has brought the settlement question back to the fore of media coverage.

On July 27, Time published a rather long piece by Nina Burleigh on Israeli settlements under the headline “Two Views of the Land.” The first view was Israeli: The Katzes, very normal, gentle people readers can identify with (they’re even from New York!), “consider themselves law-abiding citizens” and do earnest and upstanding things like “publish a small community magazine and take part in civic projects. Sharon raises money for charity by putting on tap-dancing and theater shows.” There was a smiling family portrait, and a picture of settlers playing in a swimming pool with their kids. They “don’t think their town is an obstacle to peace.”

These settlers from the large colony of Efrat were contrasted somewhat with the more militant settlers who live in the small outposts—the “legal” versus “illegal” settlements, according to the Israeli government. This distinction is not recognized by the United Nations, which determined that the settlements “have no legal validity and constitute a serious obstruction to achieving a comprehensive, just and lasting peace in the Middle East” (Security Council Resolution 446, 3/22/79). It’s a basic principle of international law that an occupying power is forbidden to colonize the occupied territory (Fourth Geneva Convention, Article 49).

But to Burleigh, the two sorts are “profoundly unlike each other”—and yet “Palestinians revile them equally.” In fact, that’s just about all Palestinians did in this article: “revile,” “hate,” “despise” and generally just be “unwelcoming” to Israelis. A single Palestinian was quoted (and one Israeli human rights group that opposes the settlements). The print headline gave the “Two Views of the Land” equal billing, but it was far from an even match.

As for political options and strategies, Burleigh observed, “Challenging…law-abiding citizens like Sharon Katz” would be politically difficult. (Note that “law-abiding” was originally presented as the Katzes’ self-identification, and then becomes the reporter’s own judgment.)

The closing paragraph reinforced the normalcy of the Katz family:

Sitting around their kitchen table, with grandchildren’s plastic toys scattered on a deck beyond sliding-glass doors, the Katz family doesn’t look or sound militant. Indeed, to American ears, their version of the national narrative sounds rather familiar.

Sharon Katz was given the last word: “Israel shouldn’t leave any hilltop! How did communities start out in the American West? With one log cabin. When we bought this land, it was a rocky hillside. Look what it looks like today.”

Political realities and options are shaped to no small degree by public perception, which is in turn shaped by media coverage. Perhaps if Native Americans had been portrayed in media accounts as sympathetic individuals instead of a generally undifferentiated mass (often treated as unwelcoming and hateful), the political realities of the American West would have turned out differently. U.S. media accounts that portray the Israeli settlers as highly “law-abiding” individuals with whom the reader can identify, contrasted with largely invisible but clearly hateful Palestinians, obscure the illegality of the colonies and contribute to the intractable political situation the Time piece wrings its hands over.

A feature in Christian Science Monitor (8/9/09) about young Israeli settlers “go[ing] hippie” with music festivals promoting “good vibes” and eco-awareness acknowledged that this embrace of universalism “has not made them more sympathetic to the aspirations of their Palestinian neighbors for sovereignty”—but had nothing to say about the Palestinians’ aspirations to reclaim the land the settlers have illegally taken. (The piece at one point called the settlements “unauthorized,” but didn’t further clarify.) The conclusion leaves readers with the perspective of a blissed-out settler:

“It’s funny when you walk into a settlement in [the West Bank] and you hear Bob Marley,” says Judelman. “It’s music that expresses a search for freedom, holiness, righteousness and redemption. Isn’t that what Israel is all about?”

It’s possible to find rather charitable portrayals in corporate U.S. media of even the most radical colonists. Take this Washington Post report (10/15/08) from the West Bank by Linda Gradstein:

Avi Ben Yakov is a soft-spoken Jewish settler who loves playing with his young children in their red-roofed home in the hills above Nablus, deep inside the West Bank. But when it comes to his Palestinian neighbors, his tone hardens.“They will not be my neighbors if I do what I have to do, which is take them back to their lands,” he said. “We don’t want them here. Expelling them is the solution.”Ben Yakov would not say if he had been personally involved in a series of recent attacks on the nearby Palestinian village of Asira Al-Qibiliyya. But he said the violence was justified by the Israeli army’s failure to protect the lives and property of West Bank settlers.

Gradstein described Ben Yakov’s sentiments as “frustration,” and the settler attacks as “reflect[ing] a deep-felt anxiety.” Ethnic cleansing could hardly hope for a friendlier hearing.