Opinion

The occupation of the narrative

How Pro-Israeli discourse rooted itself in the popular culture of the West

By Qassam Muaddi

Let us do a quick check: If I asked you when did the “Ramadan war” happen, where is the “Ben Amer” valley located or who were Hassan Salameh, Abdel Qader Husseini and Youssef Abu Durra, how many questions can you answer correctly without checking Google? Now, how about if I asked you when did the “Yom Kippur” war happen, where is the Jezreel valley located and who were Ziev Jabotenski, David Ben Gurion and Chaim Wizeman, how many questions can you answer now? Well, The Ramadan war is the Yom Kippur war which happened between Syria, Egypt and Israel in October 1973. The Ben Amer valley is the Jezreel valley, that crosses Palestine from the Eastern slopes of the Carmel mountains in the West, to the Northern Jordan Valley in the East. As for Hassan Salameh, Youssef Abu Durra and Abdel Qader Husseini, they were Palestinian national leaders in the 1930s and 1940s, at the same time that Ziev Jabotenski, David Ben Gurion and Chaim Wizeman were leading the Zionist movement.

The vocabulary, the historical references and even the geographical lexicon, by which the public build their knowledge about a country constitute the narrative they will adopt, intentionally or not. That narrative is given out, primarily, by the media. In recent years, criticism has increased of mainstream media bias towards Israel. The role played by lobbies, private stakeholders and even governments in shaping the media discourse are regularly exposed. However, when it comes to Palestine, there is another kind of bias, more rooted, more cultural, more implicit and sometimes, even more unconscious. A type of bias that precedes Zionism itself. This type of cultural bias relies on a series of elements, influencing Western culture and promoted by mainstream media. One of these elements is the long-standing biblical reading of the history of Palestine and of the Middle East in General.

The shovel in one hand and the Bible in the other

In his book “The history of Jerusalem”, Syrian historian Firas Sawah explains that when the first archeologists came to the Middle East, shortly after the Napoleonic campaign on Egypt in 1799, they were looking for the traces of the biblical stories, as if the Bible was a historical reference itself. For nearly two centuries and in the Middle East exclusively, archeologists dug the earth “with a shovel in one hand and the Bible in the other”. Sawah gives one of the most recent examples and the most monumental ones as well; the British archeologist, Dame Kathleen Kenyon’s work in Jerusalem between 1961 and 1967. Kenyon excavated the immediate outside area of Al-Aqsa compound, or as she knew it “the Temple Mount”. She looked for the foundations of the Hebrew temple and reached the bed-rock of the hill on which the ancient Jerusalem stood, back in the 10th century BC. However, Kenyon did not find any bases from the time of Salomon. She rather found enormous base stones dating back from the time of Herodes, some 10 centuries after Salomon’s times. Despite this, instead of concluding that the temple of Salomon was not found, as you would expect, Kenyon concluded that she found the foundations of Herodes’ renovations to Salomon’s temple.

Keynon is just one of many examples of what Father Rafiq Khoury, the leading Palestinian catholic theologist calls “the limitation of lecture to the Jewish history of the land”. Father Rafiq Khoury argues that “because Christianity became a European and therefore Western heritage, the Jewish religious heritage that came with it became a fundamental part of the Western culture and of Western understanding of Palestine and the Middle East”. This “limitation” generates the first misconception in popular culture towards the modern state of Israel; to consider today’s state of Israel to be the historical extension of the Biblical people of Israel. That concept in itself, according to Father Rafiq Khoury, “provides the basis for a cultural bias towards Israel, on the expense of the Palestinian narrative, which gets eclipsed by the Zionist one”.

Zionism and classic European orientalism

But there is more to this cultural bias than mere religious heritage. According to writer and lecturer in postcolonial studies, Professor Khaled Odetallah, Zionism is “a product of European modern colonialism and shares its concept of Eastern peoples”. A concept which Edward Said analyses in his masterpiece “Orientalism” as depiction of Arabs and Muslims, based on subjective misconceptions, motivated by the search for an exotic, static Orient which never changes. An Orient always available there to satisfy the fantasies of European explorers. That distorted image of the Oriental nations, from Morocco to India, was passed on to modern Western popular culture through art, cinema and literature. For Khaled Odetallah, “Zionism itself is pure orientalism, loaded with false affirmations central to colonialism”. For instance, “that nations, in the political sense, are the European nations, whereas Eastern peoples remain outsiders to this definition, which gave origin to the Zionist idea of Palestine being a “land without a people”.

These basic concepts shared between classic European colonial culture and Zionism have made the fundamental affirmations of the Zionist narrative a cultural common place, very hard to overcome. However, neither Europe or the West froze in 19th century’s colonialism. The second half of the 20th century brought great changes. The Third World struggles, the decolonisation process, internationalism and anti-racism, all created the conditions in which the Palestinian cause emerged on the international scene. But the Zionist narrative and the bias towards Israel prevailed in the Western mainstream culture, due the adoption of the pro-Israelí discourse by mainstream media.

Israel and its “Media-lies”

During this period, mainstream media played the central role in promoting the basic elements of the Zionist narrative in Western culture. These elements were analysed by Belgian journalist and writer Michel Collon in his book “Israel, let’s talk about it”, published originally in French in 2011. Michel Collon explains that the mainstream corporate media has managed to establish ten false affirmations about Israel in the popular culture of the Western societies. These false affirmations include; That Israel was created as a reaction to the Nazi holocaust, that Palestine was an empty land with no people, that the Jews were returning to their ancestors’ land, that Palestinians left their land willingly in 1948, that Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East, that every criticism of Israel is a form of antisemitism and that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a nationalistic chauvinistic conflict, fueled by hatred and thus, has no possible solution or end.

With the large absence of the Palestinian narrative in Western popular culture, this discourse shaped the public opinion in the West for half a century. Alternative voices represented by Palestinian academics and the Israelí new historians movement challanged the Israelí narrative in the academia, but the popular culture remained influenced mainly by the media. That started to change after the emergence of the Internet. More precisely, after the emergence of social media. With a new generation of Palestinians growing up in the aftermath of the second Intifada, connecting with their peers all over the world, Palestinian content, with Palestinian vocabulary and historical references began to circulate the virtual spaces of Facebook and Twitter.

Blood, social media and Hasbara

Eyad Refaei, director of the Palestinian “Sada Social Center for the Defence of Digital Rigths”, explains that “the emergence of Palestinian content on social media started to make a difference after 2011. It was unorganized, relying mostly on individual initiatives, but it created a shock wave to which internet users from all over the world reacted”. Surprisingly, this “shock wave” did not come from theoretical discussions, but from something more direct and crude; direct images of Israeli daily brutality. “The images of Palestinian victims and blood, especially during the Israeli attack on Gaza in 2012 shattered all discussions. Many people were not used to seeing them and thus, the grounds of the debate were shifted”. This shifting towards the Palestinian voice, produced by the simple human tragedy, coming directly from the field to the audience, threatened the monopoly of pro-Israelí discourse on the circulation of information and thus, demanded an Israeli reaction.

Israel had already started to develop a special propaganda method since 2009, in order to encounter the increasing criticism of its policies and the growing international boycott movement. This method was given the name of “Hasbara”, Hebrew for “explanation” and is generally described as “Israeli public diplomacy”. But it is much more than that. In the words of former US ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Chas Freeman Jr., “Hasbara seeks actively to inculcate canons of political correctness in domestic and foreign media and audiences that will promote self-censorship by them”. It is a method of propaganda that targets the reception willingness of the public, rather than the information offered. It combines social and traditional media and uses official and non-state actors as well.

Text manuals of Hasbara have been elaborated with the participation of pro-Israeli think tanks in the United States. For instance, the “Hasbara 2009 manual” produced by the pro-Israelí lobby group “The Israel Project” in 2009, instructs pro-Israeli propagandists, to “change the subject” every time settlements are mentioned in the media, to bash any criticism of Israeli policy as anti-Semitic and to focus on portraying the conflict as being between Israel and Palestinian factions and leaders, like Hamas, and not the people, because “the American public has empathy for the Palestinian people”.

Facing the “electronic army”

Nevertheless, the Israeli efforts to build a systematic methodology of a modern, effective propaganda, shocked again in 2014, against the wall of crude reality of the Israeli brutality. The 51-day Israeli aggression on Gaza, that year, left countless images and testimonies of death, blood and destruction. Eyad Refai explains that “It was during the 2014 war that the Palestinian activity on social media began to organize. Palestinian pages and accounts multiplied and several Palestinian social media-based outlets were already covering the events”. At this point, Refai explains, “the discussion surrounding the Palestinian cause had already become more elaborate. Digital activists from Palestine, Europe and America engaged actively in presenting the Palestinian content with a Palestinian vocabulary and online material like videos, infographics and articles became more sophisticated”.

This type of content proved to be effective online and it influenced debate on mainstream media as well. However, on the Israelí side, efforts were further organized as well. As Eyad Refai highlights, “The Israelí government had organized entire teams of online propagandists who worked aroud the clock to promote Hasbara discourse and tackle the Palestinian narrative. They are trained, organized and oriented. A real “Electronic army”, unlike Palestinian online activism, which remains largely relying on personal initiatives”.

Nevertheless, Eyad Refai thinks that change is moving forward; “The Palestinian voice is more audible than it ever was. Public around the world begin to question the narrative they have received for so long”. But the long way to go that remains ahead, he believes, is to be walked on both sides of the equation; “We, Palestinians, still need to organize better, to have more public engagement in these efforts, to elaborate a unified approach. But public in the West and around the world also need to question even more what they know” Refai affirms, “to search, to learn and to criticize”.

By the way, let us do a quick check: If I asked you now, what are the Palestinian names for the Yom Kippur war, the Jezreel valley or who led the Palestinian national movement in the 1930s and 1940s, do you feel like you want to search for a different side of the story?

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