Jonathan Cook: the View from Nazareth -

The propaganda machine


I published an article entitled Kosher in Tehran on the Guardian’s popular blogsite Comment is Free on 7 August 2007 (the same piece is archived on my own site as “Israel’s Jewish problem in Tehran”). Like most articles criticising Israel on Comment is Free, it — or rather I — was greeted with much abuse from the Israeli apologists who frequent the site. Which is one reason, I suppose, why it is worth publishing there. If the “hasbara” crowd are so determined to shout invective every time criticism of Israel appears on Comment is Free, then it is a sign either that the site is influential or, at the very least, that they think it is influential.

All of which encouraged me to air on the same site some simple observations about the purpose of hasbara and its effects on the freedom of journalists, particularly in the US, to publish news and views critical of Israel. That involved mentioning my own experiences at the hands of the Israel lobby and pointing out how a well-respected newspaper, the International Herald Tribune, caved in to such pressure. I do not believe my experience is unique, or special; in fact, I know it is not.

The results, again particularly in the US, are clear: the media is profoundly fearful of allowing articles seriously critical of Israel to be published, and any journalist who dares or manages to sneak such a piece past the editors is in for a career-damaging bashing afterwards. Obviously this is an assault of the highest order on freedom of speech in the West about our support for one country, Israel, and its involvement in regional confrontations that are increasingly having global consequences. It ensures that a whole realm of US-assisted foreign policy, conducted by Israel, is entirely off-limits to debate in the mainstream American media, even more so than US foreign policy itself.

(On a related side note: the original article mentioned here, “Kosher in Tehran”, was offered by the Institute of Middle East Understanding as an op-ed to all the main newspapers in the US. Every one of them rejected it. Interestingly, an obscure page on the website of Camera – a pro-Israel media “watchdog” group – that published attacks on me over two articles I published in the Tribune in 2003 and 2004 shot up the Google ranking on a search of my name. Does that mean US newspaper editors, unsure of who I was, checked first to see if the Israel lobby had had a problem with me in the past? We will never know, of course.)

Unfortunately, and with no little irony, the editors at Comment is Free excised the last part of my article, in which I discussed my own experiences, even if briefly given the length restrictions on articles. Exceptionally, therefore, I am archiving the submitted article rather than the published one. Anyone who wants to read the version on Comment is Free can do so here.

Anyone interested to learn more about my run-in with the Israel lobby can find Camera’s letter of complaint to the Tribune in 2003 and my response here. Camera targeted me again in 2004.

A pro forma letter by Abraham Foxman published on the Anti-Defamation League’s website, and criticising the 2004 aticle, is available in its archives.

My letter responding to the “largest mailbag in the Tribune’s history”, as the comment editor told me at the time, over the 2004 story can be found here.


The Propaganda Machine

The goal of hasbara is to disseminate good news about Israel, largely independent of whether the news is true or not – 20 August 2007

It is an honour of a kind, I suppose, to briefly have the most active thread on the CiF site. But not much of one when 95 per cent of the posts rarely rose above the level of vitriolic name-calling. The posters probably know that by now I am immune to playground taunts of “scum” and “Nazi”, but the abuse, I suspect, is meant more as a warning to others who might criticise Israel. Keep quiet — or else.

Volcanic outbursts of hatred on CiF greet anyone who objects to Israel’s policies: in my case, I sinned by pointing out that its leaders have turned the small community of Jews in Tehran into pawns in a struggle to persuade the world that Iran is a genocidal threat to world Jewry. My point was that Israel’s concern is entirely hollow. It simply wants to mobilise support for an attack on Iran, either by itself or the US.

Some posters to this site seem to be aware of the organised nature of these critic-bashing campaigns. They note that sites like rally the faithful to the cause. But most posters are probably not aware that Giyus and its ilk are only the tip of a much larger effort called “hasbara” by Israel and its supporters. Usually the word is translated as “advocacy for Israel”. I call it by its proper name: propaganda.

The main goal of hasbara is constantly to disseminate good news about Israel, largely independent of whether the news is actually true or not, in the hope that over time a benevolent image of Israel will be reinforced. Here’s an example: in 2000 there were many reports of an Israeli court ruling that supposedly ended the country’s system of land apartheid, a legally enforced territorial separation that keeps Jewish and Arab citizens apart in most of country. To this day apologists cite this ruling as proof of equality in Israel, even though the decision only applied to one Arab family, has yet to be enforced, and the Israeli parliament is currently passing legislation to make sure it never is.

But the charm offensive is only the upside of their work. The downside is, as CiF posters know well, a relentless campaign to target, discredit and silence critics of Israel. It can take many forms, not only name-calling. I was intrigued to see several posters thought I had no right to criticise Israel because my wife is an Israeli citizen, though — and this is presumably her and my offence — she also happens to be a Palestinian. They would have a field day — but fail to see their own double standards — were I to suggest that only non-Jews be allowed to apologise for Israel.

A few posters made what appeared to be a substantive point: why had I failed to note that, while today 25,000 Jews live in Tehran, another 80,000 have fled? But look closer and the case crumbles. The overwhelming majority of those 80,000 Jews left in the wake of the country’s Islamic revolution in 1979 — that is, nearly 30 years ago. They are irrelevant to current Israeli claims that the Iranian leadership wants to commit a genocide against the Jews. In any case, most of those fleeing Jews left because they were middle class and secular and saw no future in an Islamic Iran, despite the reassurances from Ayatollah Khomeini that they would not be persecuted. In other words, they left — like many other Iranians — for economic reasons, not political or religious ones.

Other posters simply lied, in the great tradition of hasbara. Several suggested I had written that Rafik Hariri was killed by Israel. I hadn’t, and you can check my website to be sure. I had also apparently written that the two Israeli soldiers captured in a Hizbullah operation last year were caught on Lebanese soil. Again a search failed to find the story. No matter. Truth is not what hasbara is about.

And if all this fails to discredit a critic of Israel, simply label him an anti-Semite, and the argument can be neatly closed. Game, set and match.

I am not sure if any other country or cause encourages this kind of mainly voluntary propaganda work, but I am sure that no other country or cause has the human resources that Israel can rely on to carry it out. There are thousands of people sitting at their computers ready to pounce at any sign of criticism. (I know there are this many because I have received abusive emails from them, unless it’s just a handful with thousands of different email addresses.) They do not need orders or much guidance. They do it because they love Israel and see it as part of their life’s work to protect Israel’s image.

Doubtless, they believe what they write too. If you have been raised to live in constant fear of anti-Semitism, and to see the anti-Semitic impulse lurking in the recessses of every non-Jewish mind (an observation that is often publicly made in the Israeli and American media but less often here), then what other motive could someone like me have but anti-Semitism for writing what I do. The logic is satisfyingly circular.

But CiF posters may be less aware of how the rest of the Israel lobby works. Giyus is, in fact, the most amateurish part of its operation. These are the “shock troops” on the front line. They overwhelm by force of numbers only. Far more effective are the lobby’s “snipers”. They pick off anyone the shock troops have failed to frighten off and whose voice might be heard in places where it matters: particularly in the American media and on US campuses. Tony Judt has recently felt their ire, as have Professors Walt and Mearsheimer.

(A separate lobby system, particularly AIPAC, is dedicated to intimidating elected American representatives. And other groups like MEMRI do their best to generate damaging information — some of it true, some of it not — about Muslims and Arabs.)

This obsession with preserving Israel’s image in the US is not surprising: the country’s fate as an occupying, military power in the Middle East will, after all, be decided in Washington. In the main, the professional Israel lobby cares little about what is said in the European media, although as British newspaper websites like the Guardian start to penetrate the other side of the Atlantic that is changing. There may yet come a day when we will miss the abusive Giyus crowd.

The professional Israel lobby have respectable names like Camera (the Committee for Accuracy in Middle Reporting in America), Honest Reporting and the Anti-Defamation League. They sound reassuringly even-handed. Don’t be deceived.

Camera has a section dedicated to “naming and shaming” some of the most influential journalists writing about the Middle East. You’ll find a page dedicated to the Guardian’s former Jerusalem correspondent, Chris McGreal, after he made the ultimate faux pas of comparing Israel to apartheid South Africa, a country he knows intimately. There are many who share the honour: the Independent’s Donald MacIntyre, Tim McGirk of Time magazine, Molly Moore of the Washington Post, Jim Muir and Kylie Morris of the BBC, Greg Myre and Neil MacFarquhar of the New York Times. And that’s just a fraction of the Ms.

Before, the giyus crowd get to work, let me also point out that once I too was on the Camera list, during a period when I contributed op-eds to the International Herald Tribune. On a couple of occasions the Tribune received the largest mailbags in its history in response to my commentaries. Another small honour, I suppose. There was no doubt the letter-writing was organised: the Anti-Defamation League’s head, Abraham Foxman, kindly provided less imaginative writers with a pro forma letter on the front page of its website denouncing me.

When I stood my ground, the Tribune decided I was too hot to handle. Many writers presumably just buckle under. A couple of entries on Camera is enough to make most US journalists extremely wary of a third “exposure”.

So how will this post be received? What strategy will be used to discredit me?

The professional hasbarists – the snipers — will probably ignore my post. Why stir over this single piece in a chaotic blog on the peripheries of American discourse. Better not to give me and my writing the oxygen of publicity.

What about the amateur hasbarists? Will they bite their lip? I doubt it. Anyone who tries to expose the workings of the Israel lobby is immediately accused of claiming that the Jews are an all-powerful cabal. (For the record, I’m not: I just believe people who have power tend to abuse it, be it the Israel lobby, the National Rifle Association or the US medical lobby.)

Nonetheless, the hasbarists will be itching to claim that my piece is another Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the notorious forged document that suggested the Jews were behind a worldwide conspiracy. Doubtless they will find other ways to discredit me too, ways I cannot even begin to imagine. Let them commence…

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