We need to stop confronting Israeli propaganda on Israel’s terms

Thomas Suárez

Mondoweiss  /  May 27, 2023

We in the Western nations tend to unwittingly allow Israel to control the terms of debate even as we fight for the Palestinian cause. Instead, we need to throw Israeli charges back on the people making them.

The battle for justice for Palestine is a battle of language. It is a battle not just of information, but of the context in which alleged facts are presented — that is, of narrative. Thus septuagenarian Israel employs a “national” narrative that begins in the Old Testament and enjoys our own media and governments as co-conspirators. Were instead the Western media to report the Israel-Palestinian reality, the entire Zionist project would become untenable overnight.

Increasingly, the Palestinian narrative is seen as vital to the struggle for justice. Yet it remains largely sidelined. As Exeter Professor Nadia Naser Najjab observes, there will be no justice for Palestine “as long as the international community continues to ignore the Palestinian narrative.”

Why, then, is it ignored? What is it up against? What is the (true) story of a land hijacked, its people ethnically cleansed or corralled into bantustans under an apartheid state, up against?

It is up against elaborate, multi-faceted mythology rooted in Biblical and messianic iconography for which its audience is culturally hard-wired. It is up against the fable of a covenanted people returning to their own “country” dating back five thousand years. It is up against a state whose name was selected to make us believe that we read about it in the Bible, that cynically acts as the torch-bearer of the moral weight of the Holocaust and the refuge for Jews from the scourge of antisemitism. It is up against Christian Zionist fundamentalism, and a public further pre-conditioned for it through the systematic dehumanization of the Palestinians.

And to top it off, the Palestinian Narrative is up against the precondition that even for it to be humored, the Palestinians must first fully accept Israel’s mythology.

As Jeremy Ben-Ami of the “liberal” J Street put it in his article commemorating the 75th anniversary of the Israeli state (all emphasis mine):

… I believe those who mark the Nakba should also acknowledge the legitimacy of Jewish connection to the land of Israel and that the Jewish people too have a right to self-determination.

… if we are ever to resolve this tragic conflict between Jews and Palestinians, both peoples will need to understand the narrative of the other, their history of pain and their connection to the same land…

Note that “conflict” is itself narrative for the benefit of Israel.

…and all Jews will, I hope, one day acknowledge the Palestinian connection to the land and understand why they regard 1948 as a catastrophe…

Palestinians must accept the Israeli narrative now; but reciprocally? Maybe, “one day,” he hopes. The “Palestinian connection” to their own land is presented as an elusive concept that is valid only if “all Jews” accept it; whereas foreign settlers’ connection to it is so natural as to not merit explanation. And finally, in antisemitic stereotyping, “Jews” are cast as so self-absorbed and insular as to be challenged in understanding why other people might consider the wholesale theft and ethnic cleansing of their country a “catastrophe” — indeed so difficult that:

… Israelis and Palestinians are unlikely to ever agree on a common version of history…

By libeling what actually happened to the Palestinians as a “version” — a pejorative replacement for “narrative” —it can be dismissed. Indeed, an internet search for “Palestinian Narrative” will keep you busy all day, but as many times as Narrative is used to establish the century-old crime against the Palestinians, it is seized upon by Israel’s propagandists as something of belief, of nostalgic invention — nothing more than “what the Palestinians say.”

In response to Professor Rashid Khalidi’s efforts to block the US from building its Jerusalem embassy on land stolen from Palestinians, his family among them, a virulent essay in the Jerusalem Post claimed that “what is going on here is not so much a battle over Jerusalem’s history as much as a battle over historical narratives.” A review in the same newspaper of Prof. Khalidi’s excellent The Hundred Years’ War on Palestine begins right in the headline: “Controlling the Palestinian narrative.” The reviewer counters Khalidi’s “narrative” with a litany of Israeli fiction whose very logic would be correctly condemned as hate speech if the “sides” were reversed. And it is in countering such racism — dehumanization — that narrative is so crucial, assuring the failure of Ben-Gurion’s infamous presumption that “the young will forget.”

Reclaiming the terms of debate

Only Palestinians can tell the collective and individual Palestinian narrative. But for those of us whose countries caused the century-old crime against them — in particular the UK and USA — the primary responsibility for ending our countries’ ongoing complicity lies with us. It is our task to end the jungle of lies upon which Israel depends. 

To that end, I offer one general observation. We in the Western nations who have been weaned on Israel’s mythology tend, unwittingly, to allow Israel to control the terms of debate even as we fight for the Palestinian cause. Of myriad examples, perhaps the simplest with which to illustrate my point is how we handle Israel’s use of the antisemitism smear to silence us.

When the Scarlet Letter “A” is scrawled on our chest, our typical response is to deny the charge: No, I am not antisemitic. Anti-Zionism is not antisemitism. This response is entirely on Israel’s terms — its propagandists, not you, remain in control, and you remain “guilty”.

The response must correctly throw the charge back and include words that the smear was intended to silence: No, don’t try to cover up Israeli apartheid. You’re the Zionist. That’s antisemitism!  Or, I’m arguing for simple human rights. You are smearing Jews as opposing these? Or, The only antisemitism here is from Zionists defending Israeli apartheid against Palestine in the name of Jews.

I cite this as a suggested template for rethinking and freeing all our arguments from inherited context. We are at a moment when Israel’s hold on the public is faltering, Israel itself is in political chaos, the three syllables ‘apartheid’ get more tenacious by the day, and the reality that Tel Aviv has stolen all of historic Palestine is no longer deniable. The public is more open to the truth of the Palestinians’ collective and individual experience — and the rest of us must push ever harder to ‘delegitimize’ the race state that is the cause of the entire catastrophe.

Thomas Suárez is a London-based historical researcher as well as a professional Juilliard-trained violinist and composer; a former West Bank resident, his books include three works on the history of cartography, and four on Palestine, most recently “Palestine Hijacked – how Zionism forged an apartheid state from river to sea