Why can’t Britain’s journalists call Israel an apartheid state ?

Journalists held a protest after Israel attacked media offices in Gaza earlier this month (Ashraf Amra - APA Images)

David Cronin

The Electronic Intifada  /  May 27, 2021

Expressing solidarity with an oppressed people is not complicated. The only really important rule is that you should listen to them.

During its attack on Gaza earlier this month, Israel bombed a tower where staff from Al Jazeera and the Associated Press were based.

After that act of state terrorism, an appeal was made to media workers around the world.

Journalists were urged to name “Israel’s regime as apartheid” in their reporting and to refuse press trips financed by Israel and its lobbying network.

The appeal was issued by the BDS National Committee – which coordinates the campaign for boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel – and the Palestinian Journalists’ Syndicate.

Last week, the National Union of Journalists (NUJ) for Britain and Ireland held its annual conference.

Shamefully, the conference rejected the Palestinian call.

Jim Boumelha, a leading NUJ figure, opposed a request from five branches of the union – four Irish and one Scottish – to amend a motion he had drafted. The proposed amendment included the Palestinian demands.

I contacted Boumelha asking why he would not accept the amendment.

Boumelha replied by insulting his NUJ colleagues who had put forward the amendment as “pseudo-revolutionaries.”

According to Boumelha, the amendment was a “clumsy attempt” to align the union with a recent report from Human Rights Watch.

The Human Rights Watch report in question documented how Israel commits the crime of apartheid. Boumelha claimed it was not relevant because “in around 100 pages, the report does not mention journalists once.”

Misleading

Boumelha’s argument is misleading.

The Palestinian Journalists’ Syndicate called for the accurate use of terminology by reporters and for them to avoid repeating Israeli propaganda.

Palestinians have labeled the system under which they live as apartheid for decades. Human Rights Watch and the Israeli group B’Tselem have finally acknowledged in 2021 that the term “apartheid” does indeed apply.

The NUJ is an organization officially dedicated to truthful information. Why can’t it accept something that is demonstrably true?

Jim Boumelha also argued that it was “daft” to recommend that the NUJ should urge its members to refuse junkets funded by Israel and the pro-Israel lobby as that was already the union’s policy.

He referred to a call backed by a majority vote at the NUJ’s 2018 conference. Yet the 2018 decision was more limited than he suggested.

It was focused on the Giro d’Italia cycling race, which began in Jerusalem that year, and on Israel’s propaganda activities around that event.

Contrary to what Boumelha inferred, the 2018 decision did not explicitly say that journalists should refuse all trips paid for by Israel and its lobby.

According to Boumelha, the main reason why the amendment to his motion was unsuccessful last weekend was because it would have removed a few words commending the stance taken by Simon Coveney, the Irish foreign minister.

In Boumelha’s view, the attempt to delete a sentence praising Coveney was “an unwarranted sectarian move” by trade union activists who oppose the minister’s politics.

Abuse of power

Coveney did speak out against Israel’s latest attack on Gaza and he has subsequently denounced the de facto annexation of settlement blocs in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem.

Yet Coveney does not have a good track record on defending Palestinian rights.

Coveney has blocked the entry into force of a ban on goods from Israel’s settlements in the West Bank. As the ban was approved by both houses of Ireland’s parliament, the Oireachtas, Coveney’s behavior has been patently anti-democratic.

Why, in any event, should the NUJ pat a government minister on the back? Journalists are supposed to cause trouble for politicians, not caress them.

Speaking at last weekend’s NUJ conference, Jim Boumelha said “we should remind ourselves of our level of commitment to Palestinian journalists over the last 40 years, we have done everything in our power to help.”

In truth, Boumelha abused his own power as the NUJ’s de facto spokesperson on international affairs by rejecting the demands from Palestinian journalists – the very people he purports to help.

Unions representing western journalists can and must do better than draft bland declarations about Palestine.

They can and must insist that newspapers and broadcasters cease treating Israel’s habitually dishonest version of events as factual.

They can and must insist that violence by the Israeli state is not downgraded to “clashes.”

They can and must stop trying to create a fake balance by implying that “both sides” are to blame for the “conflict,” when one side – Israel – has its jackboot on the neck of the other, the Palestinians.

They can and must listen to Palestinian journalists and take their demands seriously. The NUJ has refused to do so.

David Cronin is an associate editor of The Electronic Intifada; his books include Balfour’s Shadow: A Century of British Support for Zionism and Israel and Europe’s Alliance with Israel: Aiding the Occupation