Yesterday, Tuesday, the New York Times ran a long front page article about the Hamas use of incitement against Jews and Israel. The first thing to say about the piece is that it is almost certainly accurate and not something that can be easily dismissed. There are problems with some of the sources but beyond this article there is the need to recognize the full range of causes of mutual anger, hatred, and suspicion. There are no excuses for the incitement that Steve Erlanger highlights, there are though more ways to be more serious about combating it.
The article describes not only the commonplace exhortations from the pulpit during Friday prayers—the Jews are “the brothers of apes and pigs” went one jingle—but also the pervasive influence of anti-Semitic propaganda in many Hamas-led TV channels. Whether made manifest in newspaper articles, or displayed on children’s TV puppet shows, the penchant for vitriol is not really in question.
These instances and examples are a troubling phenomenon, are part of the Israeli-Palestinian reality and also help shape that reality. Sure, one could point to the ugly statements made by religious leaders and Rabbis in Israel, including two recent diatribes: Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu’s proposal of “hanging the children of the terrorist who carried out the attack in the Mercaz Harav yeshiva from a tree”; or Rabbi Dov Lior’s halakhic ruling that Jewish law forbids the employment of, or renting of a home to, any Arab. Additionally, one can see the effect of such incitement in society at large: a recent poll by Ma’ariv-NRG said that 75% of the Israeli public would support the transfer of Israel’s Arab citizens to a future Palestinian state. But those statements (and the wider trend they represent), as egregious as they are, do not excuse what is exposed in Steve Erlanger’s story.
MEMRI, founded by former IDF colonel Yigal Carmon (who is currently the director), portrays itself as a non-partisan non-profit dedicated to bridging the language gap between the West and Middle East, through “timely translations of Arabic, Persian, and Turkish media, as well as original analysis of political, ideological, intellectual, social, cultural, and religious trends in the Middle East”.
Sounds very innocuous, but MEMRI’s output looks more like an anti-Arab and anti-Muslim propaganda machine. Carmon’s post-IDF career initially sent him as a representative of Likudist groups to lobby Congress against the then Israeli Government of Yitzhak Rabin in the early 1990’s. Carmon has been a consistent foe of the Oslo process since its inception—MEMRI is the sophisticated mechanism through which he channels his far-right ideology. Here is what Juan Cole—who knows a thing or two about the Arab media—has to say on MEMRI:
The organization cleverly cherry-picks the vast Arabic press, which serves 300 million people, for the most extreme and objectionable articles and editorials. It carefully does not translate the moderate articles. I have looked at newspapers that ran both tolerant and extremist opinion pieces on the same day, and checked MEMRI, to find that only the extremist one showed up.
Palestinian Media Watch, founded by Itamar Marcus, is arguably even more partisan than MEMRI. A brief perusal of the PMW website suggests that the entire Palestinian raison d’etre is to incite hate against Jews. A little reductionist one might say. It seems the PMW is at least as tainted with hatred of Palestinians as are the episodes of Palestinian intolerance towards Jews, which it seeks to expose. PMW’s reliability is very questionable. Here is just one example of a debunking of a study its director, Itamar Marcus, conducted on textbooks (I will post more about MEMRI and especially PMW in the near future).
Using these sources was problematic, but Erlanger is a serious journalist and the article includes his reporting from Gaza and direct interviews that are not connected to MEMRI or PMW. So his basic thesis is accurate that this kind of incitement does exist, and it cannot be ignored.
There is another unnecessary glitch in the article. The use of Fatah sources is emblematic of a trend in which certain elements within Fatah are now very eager to tell the Western press what they assume it wants to hear regarding their internal political rivals. Of course, the incitement argument was used for so many years against Fatah itself, and still is in many quarters. There were constant attempts to derail the Oslo process by highlighting speeches from Fatah and PLO leaders, what was broadcast and what was taught. Under PM Netanyahu, as part of the Wye River memorandum of 1998, a Tri- Lateral (Israeli-Palestinian-American) Anti-Incitement Committee was established. The incitement question has been a genuine ongoing problem, but has also been repeatedly used as a stick to beat the Palestinians by people who have no interest in peace, ending prejudice, a two state solution, or ending the occupation.
This is not about what should or should not have been in the NYT piece, but about a bigger picture that needs to be kept in mind. The challenge is to take both incitement and peace-making seriously. That issue, of incitement then and now, reminds us of two points that should not be forgotten amidst all the justified ‘oy veys’ that will be heard in the wake of the NYT article.
First, anyone who is serious about incitement has to take seriously the impact that the realities on the ground have on young Palestinians and how they view Israel. Yes, incitement is impactful and deplorable. There is also very strong case to be made that the endless humiliations of the occupation and its manifestations in checkpoints, closures, military raids, and sonic boom over flights, etch a more powerful image into a young Palestinian conscience than words occasionally heard on unpopular TV stations or on a mosque on a Friday. To create an entire industry dedicated to cataloging every instance of the latter, but that totally ignores, or worse totally condones or supports the former, suggests a political and ideological agenda that actually has very little to do with overcoming and changing a reality of mutual fear, suspicion, and hatred. Spending a lifetime documenting TV puppet shows but doing nothing about the daily violence of the occupation suggests a real lack of seriousness when it comes to battling hatred in future generations. What it suggests is ulterior motives.
Second, Israel, America and the International community all worked (and continue to work) with Fatah, even while claims of incitement were being raised, argued over and condemned. That same approach should be pursued with Hamas. It is the approach that Israel has taken correctly with Egypt and Jordan. It is undoubtedly also true that plenty of American allies in Iraq and Afghanistan, not to mention the lesser hot-spots in the region, are hardly squeamish when it comes to the accusations and rhetorical insults they hurl at America. Yet America still works with these allies.
Some have claimed that the lesson to learn is that one should not pursue a peace process without first addressing and putting an end to incitement. But reconciliation and occupation do not make happy bedfellows. Can you end hate by closing a TV channel, newspaper or mosque but maintaining a siege on Gaza, 580 obstacles to movement in the West Bank, 121 settlements, and at least 130 Palestinian civilians killed in 2007 (plus the deaths of 53 Palestinian minors)? Not so much. To get real about incitement, you also have to get real about the full range of grievances that drive anger on both sides. Ending the occupation may be a precondition for reconciliation—reversing that equation cannot make any sense whatsoever.