Bishara controversy exposes flaws in American media and Israeli Democracy

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Ray Hanania’s Column

When Azmi Bishara visited Chicago May 12 to address a dinner hosted by the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, few American media wasted their time covering his remarks.

In fact, the only newspaper to pay attention was the Chicago Sun-Times,  the sister publication of the Jerusalem Post and that earlier this year was the target of an Arab community boycott.

Most Chicago media, including national media based here, ignored the visit. Most of what he said was, apparently, not newsworthy.

After leaving Chicago, Bishara traveled to Syria. There, he made the same comments and even met with local representatives of anti-Israeli organizations including Hizbollah.

Although the visit did not receive mush coverage, his comments became the center of a political storm in Israel where. Learning of what he said, several Israeli leaders protested and demanded that he be arrested.

What Bishara had to say was important, but like most Palestinian leaders who speak out on Middle East issues, their comments are ignored and not treated with respect by the media.

The only reason his comments are of interest now, is that they have come under the criticism of Israeli leaders.

In other words, the real media interest is not really Bishara’s observations, but rather, the views and feelings of the Israelis.

Bishara’s message in Syria was the same message he delivered in Chicago and to other audiences. He supports the right of Palestinians to resist and unite against the “war-mongering government” of Ariel Sharon.

The comments themselves are quite tame, compared to how most Arabs view Sharon, a settler fanatic in the eyes of Palestinians who many blame for the 1982 massacres at two refugee camps in Southern Lebanon.

Bishara also praised Hizbollah for “forcing an end to the Israeli  occupation of Lebanon.” Many Israelis also supported the Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon, an occupation that lasted some two decades.

Right-wing fanatic Israeli leaders have called for Bishara to be imprisoned, and even some have called for him to face the death penalty for “treason.” Most want him stripped of his position as an elected member of the Israeli Knesset, mainly to shut him up.

So-called moderate Israelis — if they really exist any longer — have
even criticized Bishara, challenging his right to “free speech.”

The Bishara controversy raises two serious issues.

The first is the manner in which the news media covers the Middle East conflict.

Israeli leaders who come to Chicago, for example, receive near complete coverage of their speeches and activities. In contrast, most Palestinian leaders are ignored.

Last week, PLO Foreign Minister Farouk Kaddoumi visited Chicago. He received coverage in the Sun-Times, NPR and CNN, mainly because it was his first-ever public appearance in the American midwest.

The other issue I have is with the concept of so-called Israeli Democracy.

Israel’s asserts itself as the “only real Democracy in the Middle East.”

What concerns me most is how Israel applies the basics of Democracy. What Democracy seriously opens a criminal investigation into the public remarks of an elected politician engaged in a public debate about the most public of controversies, the current violence in the Middle East?

Apparently, Israel’s version of Democracy is far from how Democracy is defined in other countries.

Bishara was the same news story in Chicago as he was in Syria, but only if you believe that the Palestinians have a right to express themselves. Apparently, the only time the Palestinians are a story is when they are accused of violence or the Israelis believe their comments should be covered.

The same situation exists in the West Bank and Gaza Strip where I recently visited. Israeli claims that Palestinians provoked violence by throwing stones at fully armed Israeli soldiers is the constant common denominator of media coverage.

The truth, however, is that most Palestinian clashes with Israeli soldiers are either provoked by better armed Israeli settlers or by the Israeli military.

Bishara is one of a handful of Palestinians serving in the Knesset. He holds Israeli citizenship and lives under Israeli control in Nazareth. That makes his opinions unique.

You would think that a person who lives in Israel, who holds Israeli citizenship, and who serves as a legitimately elected member of the Israeli legislature would have the right to express his views, no matter how critical they are of their government.

But if that were really true, today’s conflict in the Middle East between Palestinians and Israelis would have been resolved long ago.

(Ray Hanania is a Palestinian American writer based in Chicago and a regular contributor to MMN. His columns are archived on the web at www.hanania.com)

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