John Pilger – expect nothing better

I’ll add my 2p to the critics of John Pilger’s latest. Think I’ve probably been too mild, though.

Anybody familiar with the Israel boycott debate will find his New Statesman polemic against Israel unremarkable, except maybe for its comprehensive coverage of nearly all of the anti-Israel themes in currency at the moment. The article is intended to reinforce these and broaden their reach – the boycott campaign will only succeed if it manages to construct Israel as the world’s worst state.

An early rhetorical reference to Elliot Abrams’ Zionism signals to alert readers that if they’re expecting a trustworthy report they’ll be disappointed. Had Pilger merely wished to point out a bias then describing Abrams as a pro-Israel US policy-maker would have been more accurate – but ‘Zionist’ achieves far more than pointing out a bias. Used here it will stigmatise Abrams not just for being pro-Israel but for his ethnicity. It’s a sleight-of-hand which communicates that Elliot Abrams is a Jew. Is he even Jewish? It doesn’t matter – an increment of damage is done. This use of ‘Zionist’ as a dirty word is widespread now, intended to strip Zionism of any positive association and make it a byword for an aggressive, supremacist, cleptomaniac, Jewish supporter of a privileged Jews-only state on stolen Palestinian land. But ‘Zionist’ is an extremely baggy term – only the most extreme feel entitled, by virtue of their birth, to live in Hebron, for example. Secular political zionists believe in the emancipation and ongoing self-determination of 5.3 million Jews residing in a currently hostile region, and therefore believe in Israel’s continuing existence. It is not acceptable for Pilger to use the word ‘Zionist’ in this way. But it is typical of the boycott movement.

There follows a stale litany of Israel’s abominations. He shakes his head in faux astonishment. Nothing like it in UN history. No other tyranny has such a record of lawlessness. No country enjoys such immunity. Certainly this creates a very, very bad impression. But by what standards does he assess UN history, or tyranny, or immunity? Has he weighed Israel against Iran, currently persecuting trades unionists and academics while financing military aggression across the region? Or China in its occupation of Tibet, imprisonment of large numbers of dissenters, harassment of AIDS activists, knowing sale of weapons to Darfur and censorship of the Internet? US? UK? Russia? Myanmar? Malaysia? We should vigorously condemn the evils of Israel’s occupation and we should uphold the equal rights and opportunities of all ethnicities in Israel. And, if we really care about human rights, we shouldn’t allow our selective concern for Israel to divert our attention from other states. So exactly why does Pilger insist that Israel is the world’s worst state? He doesn’t dignify us with an explanation. Impressions are what’s important to Pilger – we’re to take his word for it.

For regular Engage readers Pilger’s inaccuracies veer in familiar directions (read the comments to the piece for more fisking – he gets certain specific claims very wrong). There’s an attempt to cast anti-boycotters as partisan “friends of Israel” – of course they cannot be pigeonholed as that – they all have their own reasons for opposing the boycott and many are (Amir Hanifes, Ken Livingstone and Cath Palasz for example) often actively critical of Israeli policy. Pilger holds up South Africa as a precedent but the analogy fails because Palestinians and Palestinian Israelis, once the same, now exist in very different circumstances – Palestinians are occupied non-citizens whereas Palestinian Israelis – the 164,000 who remained in 1948 and their descendants – have imperfect but improving legal rights (the recent Land Law ruling is a deplorable relapse which is contested in Israel). None of this is any comfort whatsoever to Palestinians but should give pro-boycotters pause for thought: Israel, an occupying state, not an apartheid state and not a racist state.

That the boycott is ‘Jewish-led’ is neither here nor there – Jews can be antisemitic. So when Pilger dismisses the charge of antisemitism as ‘intimidation’, he is complacent. The recent union boycotts and condemnations, in the absence of similar treatment of other states according to universally applicable standards, are fundamentally discriminatory. They are also frequently defended with antisemitic tropes and stereotypes. Pro-boycotters have had to compromise their anti-racist credentials to make their case, and Pilger doesn’t seem to mind.

Pilger is right that the influence of pro-boycotters is growing. But he is wrong to present their campaign as a grass-roots movement, when in fact it’s the work of a small, assiduous group of ultra-activists who take advantage of union apathy and political process to push their boycott agenda. So far they have been conclusively over-ruled in the AUT and NUJ once the membership gets involved, and this summer Oxford, LSHTM and Imperial UCU members have already discussed and rejected the boycott in local ballots. They realise that the conflict to is more complicated than Pilger will admit and that if we want to end the occupation we should support the Israeli and Palestinian Left.

Dedication to the world’s oppressed and downtrodden is an unquestionably honourable thing, and Palestinians need the support of strident voices like Pilger’s in building a state and claiming an equal shared of resources, infrastructure and opportunities to succeed. Racist and violent acts against Palestinians by Israelis should be exposed and subject censure. But Pilger’s piece represents the worst excesses of underdoggism – unconditional, uncritical support for Palestinians which therefore never acknowledges that they, and regional string-pullers, have independent roles in the conflict. In Pilger’s essentialist view, helping the underdog means demolishing the oppressor rather than ending the oppression. This prevents him acknowledging the real fear of 5.3 million Israeli Jews that, if the ongoing project to end their independent state succeeds, it will be they who deserve his most avid ministrations.

Israel is a relatively successful state and in some areas – including academia and technology – an outstanding one. There is ample hope that the occupation will end and no indication that more than an extremist fringe of Israeli Jews feel they have the right to hang on to the Palestinian territories. Polls (such as OneVoice’s and PSR’s ) register a commitment in the majority of Israelis, Palestinian Israelis and Palestinians to two states. This is why balanced presentation of the facts about Israel and Palestine hasn’t been enough to galvanise union support for boycott and in order to achieve the longevity for their campaign, pro-boycotters have had to sacrifice the anti-racist character of the boycott and tap in to existing anti-Israel and antisemitic fervour.

So, during this pro-boycott ideological offensive, expect more of the Pilger variety of demonisation and be ready to dissect the half-truths and plain untruths.

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7 thoughts on “John Pilger – expect nothing better

  1. Thanks for the thoughtful blog, and I’ll second your disappointment in John Pilger and the wider ‘intellectual left’ on this issue.

    What frustrates me is that this is yet another instance where the usual gang of right wing conservatives get handed a free kick at the left, by virtue of oldschool left ideological dogma once again overriding a more realistic look at the problems faced by both sides on the Arab/Israeli conflict. It would be heaven sent if a more practical and progressive group of people emerged to take on the neocons (and old cons) ruling the Western world.

  2. I am amazed by your criticism of Pilger. You seem to write quite a lot about him without actualy having much in the way of content. I was also amazed by the dodging you did with regards to terminology; e.g. wether or not Isreal is an apartheid state. Firstly, if you were familiar with Pilger’s work, you would know that he (quite rightly) considers Palestine to be effective “Bantustan”-like regions “within” Isreal, so your sepearating of Palestinian Isrealis and Palestinian Palestinians is disingenuous. Secondly, “occupied non-citizens” is a fairly Orwellian way to say “victims of apartheid” anyway. Do you seriously think that “calling a spade a trowell” constitutes a serious refutation of Pilger’s contentions?

    You also write “But by what standards does he assess UN history, or tyranny, or immunity?” Actually, Pilger has made these standards fairly explicit in the past, describing the historical reaction of the US and British media towards Isreal, and describing the history that country has of ignoring UN decisions. You’re being disnegnuous again with your question, you frame it as a rhetorical question, “Oh, these standards of Pilger’s are all airy-fairy and pie-in-the-sky” – when in fact the question has a very concrete answer that Pilger has made quite explicit elsewhere.

    I’m quite dissappointed by your resorting to describing Isreal as a “very successful state” – surely the fact that you feel this statement has any weight is testimony to the very thing that Pilger rails against: Isreal is a technologically advanced, democratic nation – yes – nobody is denying it. Repeating it tells you absolutely nothing. Whats at issue is that it’s an “advanced” nation that just *happens* to enforce mass poverty and apartheid regulations and wage an unceasing war against ill-defined, airy-fairy, pie-in-the-sky enemies that seem to be interchangeable with innocent civilians in the eyes of the Isreali government.

    I’m also disappointed by your citing of Isrealis who support the Palestinian cause, as if that was some kind of a case against PIlger’s attitudes – surely Pilger is one of the people who has helped to bring pro-Palestinian Isrealis (and the prejudice they face) to international attention.

    If the conflict is “more complicated” than Pilger will admit, then why don’t you, or anybody else for that matter, spell it out for us? Where are these imaginary convolutions? Where are all these alleged complications and twists and turns that make it oh-so-hard for Isreal and it’s supporters (yes, supporters of Isreal are “supporters of Isreal”, i don’t see how you even managed to turn this innocuous statement into some evidence of Pilger’s lack of scholarship) to actually do or say anything remotely useful, insightful, enlightening or progressive to *anybody*, *anywhere*, except for the Isreali establishment?

    John Pike wrote “John Pilger used to be, in many ways (I think), a journalist worthy of respect”, and the last person to comnment here said something similar about being disappointed with the “intellectual left”. isn’t it amazing how he magically falls from grace on this one, specific issue, and no others?

    Isn’t it a strange and fascinating quirk that opponents of Pilger will (claim to) have loved him to death, but then, oh no, when he talks about Isreal, suddenly all that passion and honesty they praised elsewhere magically and mysteriously vanishes?

    I’m sure the Australian Labor Party would have loved Pilger’s reporting… until Pilger spoke about Australia’s complicity in East Timor.

    Funny how these things work, isn’t it? Reminds me of the tagline for Australia’s “MediaWatch” program. “Everybody loves our show, until they’re on it.”

  3. We’re supposed to take that Pilger piece in the New Statesman as a stand-alone, David Elliot. You can’t expect New Statesman readers to go trawling through his old stuff.

    You wrote “Secondly, “occupied non-citizens” is a fairly Orwellian way to say “victims of apartheid”

    No it isn’t. That you use the word “apartheid” signals that you think that Israel doesn’t exist. You think that Israelis and Palestinians are citizens of the same country, and the fact that the security wall exists means that apartheid exists. In fact the security wall was begun at the height of a bloody intifada when suicide bombers were blowing up Israelis every day. It happened after September 11th when jihadi Islam made it perfectly clear what it wanted to do. The security fence annexed land, and that was a crime. Within Israel, there is institutional racism and a widening gap between rich and poor, and that needs to be urgently addressed. Israel is a military-orientated state, and that is understandable and also always to be regarded skeptically. But to call Israel apartheid is simply wrong. Spare me your hand-me-down analogies.

    As for spelling out the complexities of the Israel-Palestine situation, I suggest you read Shlomo Ben Ami and Dennis Ross for accessible birdseye views.

    I never loved Pilger. He writes in a vacuum where his only authority is John Pilger, the unerring champion of the resistance. Look, if you want to play ad hominem games about why the people who dislike Pilger dislike Pilger (and to come at things from this direction locates you solidly in the Pilger apologist camp), then what about this – here he is attempting to deny Milosovich’s genocide. Awful.

  4. That you use the word “apartheid” signals that you think that Israel doesn’t exist.You think that Israelis and Palestinians are citizens of the same country, and the fact that the security wall exists means that apartheid exists.

    Firstly, they are citizens of the same country, because Isreal still does not support true self-determination in Palestine, and because Isreal essentially controls the West Bank and Gaza.

    Secondly, it’s not just the wall (though that is a pretty good example!). It’s the checkpoints that existed both before and after the wall, and their behaviour. It’s the treatment of Palestinians and Palestine by Isreali soldiers. It’s the Jewish-only settlements, residential zoning, aquisition of land, and roads. It’s the very existence of “Jewish rights” as something demonstrably distinct from “Palestinian rights” – as if they don’t both just deserve legally enforced “human rights”.

    It happened after September 11th when jihadi Islam made it perfectly clear what it wanted to do.

    Actually, the only thing that changed after September 11th was Isreali and American policy, not jihadi Islam’s pathetic “policy” (such as is). September 11th was an excuse, not a reason. And the wall around Palestine was neither nessecary nor reasonable as a response to suicide bombers.

    Within Israel, there is institutional racism and a widening gap between rich and poor, and that needs to be urgently addressed. Israel is a military-orientated state, and that is understandable and also always to be regarded skeptically. But to call Israel apartheid is simply wrong. Spare me your hand-me-down analogies.

    It’s not just an “analogy” – it’s a description of the actual situation. It’s a demonstrable fact.
    *It is a policy of the Isreali government to cordon off a certain race.
    *It is a policy of the Isreali government that members of one race have more rights than members of another.
    *It is a policy of the Isreali government that members of one race will have their homes removed to make way for settlements of members of the other race.
    *It is a policy of the Isreali government that members of one race be blocked access to certain areas, be unable to use certain roads, be held up at checkpoints and have their motives for travel scrutinised.

    The Isreali government practises apartheid in every respect by which apartheid has been defined and condemned by the international community. There is no difference, except in the specific races involved.

    The thing I don’t understand about your position is that you admit the atrocities, You can clearly see what is going on, and presumably you are intelligent enough to see what happened in South Africa as well. You can see the same things are done. The same programs are carried out. The same rationales are used. The same racist colonial history is present. The same comments are made by the ones in power.

    Even historically, Isreal is intimately connected with apartheid. Apartheid in South Africa was justified by white South Africans feeling like they were in some kind of danger from black South Africans. Black South Africans were actively displaced from their land, to make way for white South Africans, just like in Isreal. And Isreal’s foreign policy was to support the cause of white South Africans under apartheid – Isreal supplied them with weapons and generally had friendly relations with apartheid South Africa.

    It doesn’t seem accidental when two governments which carry out the same policies provide material support to each other. I mean, when America supports Saudi Arabia, it’s somewhat hypocritical. But one can’t even say that it was hypocritical of Isreal to support South Africa when they did – nothing the white South Africans did would have been unheard of in Isreal or Palestine. It was perfectly in line with their own policies, both then, and now, even as we type to each other.

    In fact, I have no doubt that in apartheid South Africa, white South Africans tried to confuse the issue by throwing their hands up and saying things like “Oh, it’s complicated”, “Oh, it’s a complex history”, “Oh, there are grievances on both sides.”

    Why do you balk at applying the same name to the same things?

    then what about this – here he is attempting to deny Milosovich’s genocide. Awful.

    I don’t know much about the situation in Yugoslavia, but I do know that everything else I’ve read of John Pilger accords both with my memory of the way news was portrayed as it happened and with sources independant of Pilger.

    The person you linked does not seem to address the claims that John Pilger makes in the original article that it claims to be addressing.

    He writes “If one were to accept Pilger’s figures of 4,000 dead in the Kosovo conflict, this puts Milosevic’s killing of Kosovo Albanians on a scale very similar to that of the British and Australian destruction of the native Tasmanian“, when only a few paragraphs earlier he admitted that Pilger says that the death toll includes “both civilians and combatants and members of all ethnic groups“. He writes “This … is something of an upward revision for Pilger, who as recently as a year and a half ago was claiming that the total death-toll in Kosovo was ‘only’ 2,788,“, when the very article he links to has Pilger saying that this is the count, including “combatants on both sides and Serbs and Roma murdered by the Albanian Kosovo Liberation Army“, from only the ‘mass graves’ found one year after the event.

    Oh, and thats another thing. The article you linked me too is clearing using a straw man tactic. Their entire thrust is that Pilger is supposedly saying that 4000 deaths are not as bad as 10,000 deaths. Well, obviously they’re not – but more importantly, thats not even Pilger’s point – which is about the use of lies in official estimates.

    The source you linked me to was internally contradictory (!!) – and you just cite it, saying “oh, cluck cluck, how awful of Mr Pilger”. Did you even read it?

  5. Dave, it’s nice of you to go to the bother. If I tell you that there are very few readers here, will you take your efforts elsewhere?

    Dave, you’re all heart for Palestinians aren’t you? Where’s your heart for embattled Jews? Hey? This turn-on-turn-off fawcett approach to the bleeding heart makes me want to spit. It makes me really irate. It’s a distraction from the Palestinians and the Arab Israelis who *do* need people on their side. It makes Jews in Israel and elsewhere realise that you are not serious (even if you weren’t a Pilger apologist). Israel exists because of antisemitic laws dating from god knows when, pogroms yanking Jews out of their newly integrating Enlightenment, the Holocaust, and the response of the world in the years directly after the Holocaust, giving displaced Jews to believe that they were never going to be safe anywhere they did not have their self-determination and their weapons. You want me to talk about the Palestinians, Dave? And when exactly are you going to talk about the Jews?

    Well, you’re going to say I’m creating a smokescreen aren’t you. A straw man – of course you are.

    Firstly, they are citizens of the same country, because Isreal still does not support true self-determination in Palestine, and because Isreal essentially controls the West Bank and Gaza.

    You are right about the settlements but the Israeli presence in the WB is not an annex (there are exceptions around the route of the wall and they stink). It’s an occupation – a grim, humiliating occupation enforced with the threat of violence. And as an occupation, it’s not the whim I somehow think you’re going to try to pass it off as. It’s a response to security fears. You know that clerical fascists Hamas and Hisb ut Tahrir are growing in influence. They have it in for non-Muslims, gay people, the free press, and the left. When you incorporate these things into your arguments and stop parading John Pilger around as some sort of voice of truth when he is merely an articulate tub-thumper and no good to anybody whatsoever.

    As for the Greater Surbiton link that leads to your charge of internal contradiction, have you ever heard of people revising their web pages without using strikethrough? I have. And what you are doing is playing the same numbers game Pilger tried to play. And what you are in effect saying is that Marko Atilla Hoare, who has no axe to grind but who had cornered Pilger on a matter of genocide denial, is less to be believed than that piece of work?

    Don’t bother commenting again, I won’t be posting it.

  6. Oh, I forgot. Israelis law doesn’t discriminate on grounds of race. If it did then the Arab Israelis would be in the same boat as the Palestinians. It’s true that Arab Israelis are often socially excluded, particularly the bedouin. But their rights are enshrined in law, as the rights of minorities are enshrined in British law. As in Britain the exclusion of minorities in Israel is institutional rather than legislative. My sole and only point here is that it’s not fucking apartheid, so give up and find a better analogy, or better still just talk about this particular injustice on its own terms and stop trying to brainwash people with references to gold standards of evil like apartheid. Or Nazi. Or the Warsaw Ghetto.

  7. People in Europe should give up on the antisemitism and hatred of the jews…it is getting tiring that they would let the old hatred show their ugly faces again…
    As for Pilger my opinion is that he has no interest in the truth but in demonize Israel…..
    What I would like to know is why Israel elicts this kind of response from white males around the world when they are absolutelly anesthethised when it comes to North Korea, Sudan and other injustices…
    Maybe it is because Israelies are so smart…I don’t know…just know that all this hatred on the part of whites is kind of hard to stomach!!

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