Revisiting “The Other Exodus” in Europe’s Media: from Childers to Black

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Forty years ago an Irish journalist, Erskine Childers, wrote a memorable article entitled, “The Other Exodus” in the London weekly The Spectator (12 May 1961). It provoked a bitter controversy that continued well into August 1961. Two key points lay at the core of Mr. Childers’ investigation. First, that the Palestinians did not leave their homes at the orders of Arab leaders, as professed by Israel. And secondly, that “official Zionist forces were responsible for the expulsion of thousands upon thousands of Arabs, and for deliberate incitement to panic.”

At the time of its writing, The Spectator was owned by the distinguished British scholar Ian Gilmour now (Lord) director of the Middle East International. Unlike many of the mainstream newspapers and magazines, it used to publish the views of writers across the political spectrum, including Zionists and anti-Zionists alike. Today, things have changed drastically. Since its take-over by the Canadian media magnate, Conrad Black, The Spectator’s reputation as a symbol of critical inquiry and free speech has become a relic of the past. The new proprietor, who also owns the Daily Telegraph in Britain and the Jerusalem Post, abhors any opinion that questions Israel’s maltreatment of the Palestinian people. Hence, when one of the magazine’s lead writers, Taki Theodoracopulos, recently penned a piece expressing dismay over “those nice guys who attack rock-throwing youths with armour-piercing missiles,” he incurred the unbridled wrath of Mr. Black who condemned his article as “almost worthy of Goebbels.”

As the expulsion of 805,065 Palestinians had brought shame “beyond all brief description” to Childers and other Westerners decades ago, so too Israel’s repression of resistance in the occupied territories and refusal to allow Palestinian repatriation has today stirred the consciences of lead columnists in the European media. Notwithstanding traditional tendencies to confine the Palestinian issue to the more obscure columns of their newspapers, British journalists have since September 2000 been forced to give the issue more prominent coverage. With respect to The Spectator, it was, of course, the least expected to publish anything remotely critical of Israeli policies. Under its current ownership it has shown an insatiable appetite for the racist stereotypes of Palestinians, which have been a hallmark of recent disclosures by senior Israeli politicians, rabbis and U.S. Congressional leaders, even though the Palestinian Arabs are themselves a Semitic people.

Turn the aggressor into victim

Even in the face of slurs such as “vile and primitive,” “snakes and scorpions,” the Palestinians never accepted the inferior status ascribed to them by the Occupying Power. Strengthened by the violence of their colonizer, they have, instead, rebelled against all attempts to deny their humanity and freedom. From the earliest days of exile to the present, they were enlightened by the fact that no measure of force or deception could legitimize Israel’s occupation of their homeland. Similarly, they are neither deterred nor disheartened by the international media coverage that seeks to portray Israel as an innocent victim threatened with destruction and not as an Occupying Power that refuses to relinquish territories acquired by force.

When Childers wrote about “The Other Exodus,” his was an attempt to break the immoral silence on the Palestinian Catastrophe in the Western media. A few years earlier, in 1954, a conference organized by the International Press Institute in Zurich recorded that when it came to the Arab-Israeli conflict, the press displayed a level of apathy that was unthinkable in its coverage of other issues. Nowadays, the challenge facing writers is not just to break that wall of silence. It is, more importantly, one of telling the truth about Palestine. All too often they are caught between the two contradictory demands of telling the truth on the one hand and covering up the lie on the other. A classic example is the claim that there would have been no refugees if the Arab States did not attack the Jewish State on 15 May 1948, even though 800,000 Palestinians were already expelled before that date.

Commenting on the role of truth in the anti-colonialist struggle, Frantz Fanon, the West Indian veteran of the Algerian war of liberation, observed, “In every age, among the people, truth is the property of the national cause�Truth is that which hurries on the break-up of the colonialist regime; it is that which promotes the emergence of the nation; it is all that protects the natives, and ruins the foreigners.” In the Palestinian context, telling the truth is not, however, the sole responsibility of the media. Decision makers who buried their heads in the sand for years like the proverbial ostrich must also act decisively to stop the inhuman conduct of Israel’s military occupation. While many choose to express their horror in private, a courageous minority believe it is their duty to speak out, even if it means breaking ranks. Denmark’s Foreign Minister Mogens Lykketoft demonstrated this last March when he gave notice that he would raise the question of imposing sanctions against Israel when the European Union foreign ministers next meet.

For all its worth, isolated outbursts of indignation or donations of emergency aid would not deliver the suffering humanity in Palestine. They must be converted into real policies that reflect Palestinian hopes and aspirations�to be free of foreign domination, to regain control over their own land and its resources, and to determine their future as a reunited people without external interference. How many times has it been said of the colonized that they prefer hunger with dignity than bread eaten in slavery?

There is no benevolent occupation

If ever there was any doubt in international public opinion about Israel’s intentions in the past, there could be no excuse for such illusions at present. Not contented with the gains of military conquests in 1948 and 1967, the Jewish State is now making a final onslaught to secure maximum advantage at the human level. The fate of the Palestinians who remained in what became Israel is no better than those who were made internal refugees in the West Bank and Gaza or the millions languishing abroad. In a country that enjoys one of the highest living standards in the world, one in every two Palestinians in Israel lives below the poverty line. Though comprising 20% of the country’s population, they receive a paltry 0.5% of the national budget. Over the last six years unemployment among Palestinian academics has risen by 88%. Surely it cannot be an accident that there are only four Palestinian Arab employees in the Israeli Ministry of Trade out of a total of 540; or that 23 of the 26 towns with the highest unemployment rate in Israel are Palestinian. If this is not apartheid, then what is?

Even with these built-in disabilities, Israeli policy makers still view the Palestinians as a threat. Former Defence Force intelligence supremo, Shlomo Gazait warned of the “demographic danger” caused by Israelis’ inability to match the higher reproduction rate among Palestinians. Addressing a Jewish Agency Zionist Council conference last March, Gazait said, “The demographic danger is the most serious danger facing Israel today. If we don’t come to our senses on this issue and don’t take proper steps immediately, then within one generation, or at most two, the State of Israel will cease to exist as a Jewish Zionist State.” The best way to confront this situation, he advised, was to abandon all pretenses to democracy and establish a “dictatorship for a couple of years.”

Back in Europe, a leading German newspaper, Sueddeutsche, published an article on 4 April by a prominent Middle East specialist, Dietur Wild, recalling opinions expressed by the Israeli leftist, Haatis Ruliif, ten years ago during the first intifada when she said that “the only way out of the current crisis is the way of disaster, and perhaps it is necessary that we commit suicide as was done in East Germany.” Wild analysed the notion of national suicide against the background of changes in Israel’s political map. He pointed out that the Zionist alternative to Europe’s Jewish problem has itself ended in failure since Palestine has proven not to be a place of safety and security for the Jews. In the end, Wild concludes that the intifada may not only lead to Israel’s loss of its image of invincibility but even to its actual defeat at the end of the day.

Desperate solutions for desperate people

Wild dreams? Perhaps not, especially after Sharon has, on his part, called for a return to the policies of Ben Gurion. This was his message to Israelis at a recent function in honour of former presidents and prime ministers. From a Palestinian point of view, such an eventuality can only mean one thing: giving more teeth to the draconian basic laws like the Absentee Property Laws, Law of Return and Nationality Laws, all of which seek to solve Israel’s demographic problem through the dispossession and permanent exile of Palestinians. Having tried these methods and failed, other elements in the establishment prefer even more drastic measures, including the forced restriction of the birth rate among Palestinians. Chairman of the Arab Council of Science, Medicine and Technology, Subhi Shalash, has already accused Israel of using debilitating gases in the occupied territories to prevent procreation among Palestinians.

These are desperate people living in desperate times. They are prepared to adopt the most desperate of methods to achieve their objectives. That Israelis should resort to a discredited former general to lead them out of the current quagmire is evidence enough. But if he could not break their will 50 years ago when he was in the prime of his youth and the world’s media was prepared to turn a blind eye on his outrages, it is highly unlikely that he would ever succeed today. Not in an age when war criminals are called to book by a world conscience that has grown weary of human suffering.

Israel may delay the liberation of Palestine but it cannot stop it. Decolonization is always successful. No people are ever satisfied with the humiliation and indignity that accompanies the loss of their homeland. They always prefer the glory and honour that come with its liberation. Of course there will be many more losses before this chapter of colonial rule is closed. Zionist occupation will become more brutal, bloody and desperate. There will be more massacres, dislocation, and expansion of settlements, albeit under the guise of “natural growth needs,” to quote Foreign Minister Shimon Peres. But as Dietur Wild pointed out in Sueddeutsche, Israel is no longer what former U.S. Vice President Walter Mondale claimed it to be: a carrier of American planes that cannot be sunk. The future is bleak for the Jewish State. Wild says it will certainly lose the coming war because “whereas it became accustomed to victories over regular Arab armies, this is not the case with armies of stone-throwing youths.” The message to world leaders is clear and simple. There could be no peace in our region until you deal with our conflict as a problem to be solved and not as a means to economic gain and strategic advantage.

The author is a researcher at the Palestinian Return Center, London, and editor of its Return Review.

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