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Pappe on the Australian Media Circuit – the Fallout

September 30, 2012 – 9:29 am11 Comments

By Andrew Wirth
The Ilan Pappe circus has come and gone. The media were never going to succeed in any kind of critical engagement with him, even if they wanted to (and by and large they didn’t). He is an urbane, softly spoken academic and a critic of Israel- how could he go wrong? Irving Wallach made an effort at response on Q&A, but as so often occurs in this debate, he attempted to counter slogans with argument, which has little traction in a battle of sound bites.

What really prompted this piece was listening to Geraldine Doogue interview Pappe on breakfast radio. Doogue has always struck me as taking an informed, intelligent, critical and nuanced approach to her subject matter (Life Matters, Saturday Extra and various specials on spirituality) and does not appear to be especially ideologically driven. But while discussing Zionism with Pappe she appeared to be surprised, perhaps shocked, to hear Pappe’s assertion that most Israeli Jews are Zionists. “Really?” she blurted. It was as though the term Zionist had become for her so laden with negative connotations that she assumed most “normal” Israelis would reject it (as one would expect modern Germans to reject their nation’s Nazi past). I suspect she would not react this way to the suggestion that citizens of any other country identify with their nation’s history, culture and aspirations. The next day she interviewed Benny Morris.  She did attempt to extract a critique of Pappe’s position from one of Pappe’s old sparring partners. But while Pappe is a smooth, skilled politician/advocate, Morris is not as effective a communicator, and came across as blunt and abrasive.

The attempt to provide balance in this second interview was welcome, but ironically this adversarial process is part of the problem of Israel’s representation in the media. Israel’s portrayal is almost always about trouble and confrontation, and Israel is seen only through this prism. There is an implicit invitation to judge and condemn one side or another: Jew v Palestinian, ethnocentric nationalism v universalism and human rights or, on this occasion, Pappe v Morris. It is akin to representing Australia through Reynolds v Windshuttle or Pauline Hanson versus anyone with a conscience, the treatment of our Indigenous population, the Cronulla riots, the White Australia policy, the asylum seeker debate or the Northern Territory intervention. All these stories are true but partial, and provide a terribly skewed perspective on “ordinary Australians”. I would be surprised if many people chose to identify with this image of Australia- but this is not the essence of Australia. Our media present us with post- and anti- Zionists, aggrieved Palestinians and ideologically driven settlers, and not much in between. Where is the portrayal of the “ordinary Israeli” who simply wants a normal life, and like-minded diaspora supporters? This is a humanizing voice that we really don’t hear in the media.

Which brings me back to the issue that was most concerning for me in Doogue’s interview- her shock at the proposition that most Israeli Jews might consider themselves Zionists. Just as there are many visions of Australia- from Pauline Hanson’s to Tim Costello’s, there are many strands to, and visions of Zionism. Zionism as the notion that Jews are a cultural/ethnic/national group with a legitimate aspiration to national self-determination is not in its essence racist or militaristic. Although I doubt Doogue would articulate such a view if asked to provide a definition of Zionism, one suspects that she has internalized a negative, pejorative sense of Zionism, which lay behind her shock on hearing that most Israeli Jews so identify. When the better of our journalists cease being aware of the sub-stratum of assumptions and emotional responses that inform their use of the language in which this complex story is told, how can fair debate proceed? Israel is not just losing the political conversation– it is losing the language.

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  • frosh says:

    Firstly, I would concur that Geraldine Doogue is amongst the best (if not THE best) interviewer in the Australian media landscape. On matters related to Jews, I have found her to be, if anything, philo-Semitic (and certainly never anti-Semitic or anti-Israel). I had not previously heard that interview with Pappe until now.
    In contrast to Doogue, there are many of her colleagues who I would argue suffer from a type of latent anti-Semitism or otherwise are antagonistic to the State of Israel. When their bits and pieces of their antagonism is revealed, these days, I barely bat an eyelid.
    However, as you have stated, it should set off alarm bells that someone like Doogue might have that reaction re Zionism, while recognising that her reaction does not reveal hostility to Israel, but rather, but likely a misunderstanding of the term Zionism.  
    Any suggestions on what can be done to wrestle back control in the language wars? 

  • Jewcyinfidel says:

     @frosh Change the language. Become an Israelist rather than a Zionist. If they start to slander that, then change it again to something else. Eventually the cost of constantly having to re-print slogans and posters and keep up to date with the latest name should be enough to deter people from it all.

  • Maybe someone should send Doogue the Jewish continuity report from the Gen08 survey which did quite a good job in examining community attitudes to Israel. At the time, and as expected, it received criticism for definitions and questions (which will never satisfy everyone). However, labels aside, it shows how deeply connected many Australian Jews are to Israel.

  • andrewwirth says:

     @davidwerdiger David, the main point was not the statistical validity of the assertion that most Israeli Jews (or Australian Jews) identify as Zionist – it was about what the word Zionism has come to mean to the media.

  • ThisOngoingWar says:

     @frosh Geraldine Doogue is of course not the problem but a symptom. The problem is the onslaught of a cognitive war about which most people on Israel’s side know nothing. Failing to see this is significant part of why Israel’s advocates are doing so badly.

  • ThisOngoingWar says:

     @frosh Typo correction: Geraldine Doogue is of course not the problem but a symptom. The problem is the onslaught of a cognitive war about which most people on Israel’s side know nothing. Failing to see this is ** a ** significant part of why Israel’s advocates are doing so badly.

  • Harold Zwier says:

    Andrew, I presented a session at Limmud Oz in 2010 with the title Zionism, Zionist, anti-Zionist, Antisemitism: Language wars in the diaspora. My conclusion was similar to yours.
    ‘Classifying a Zionist as someone who broadly supports Israel’s right to exist carries with it the implication that there is an equally valid position of denying Israel’s right to exist. While black and white positions make political debates easy to articulate, they offer no possibility of dealing with real life complexity. If the word “Zionist” has become another way of saying “friend/good” from a Zionist perspective, “enemy/evil” from an anti-Zionist perspective, and “supporter of Israel’s bad treatment of Palestinians” in the wider disinterested community, then Zionists have lost control of their most important asset – their name.’

  • frosh says:

    I also note that, in the interview the article above links to, Pappe labelled himself as a “non-Zionist”
    Clearly, he would be better labelled an anti-Zionist.  
    See http://galusaustralis.com/2009/08/1529/non-zionism-an-under-recognised-non-position/
    In the same way, I could be labelled a non-Italian, but not an anti-Italian (heaven forbid!).
    I could also be labelled a non-Christian, but not an anti-Christian, since for one thing, I don’t go around espousing hostile positions on Christianity.  There are thousands of other examples that demonstrate this linguistic convention.
    It seems Zionism is one of the few identities, acticities, or philosophies where being actively hostile to that identity, activity, or philosophy is frequently described merely as non-… rather than anti-….

  • andrewwirth says:

     @Harold Zwier Harold, I don’t think its all that useful defining a Zionist as someone who “broadly supports Israel’s rich to exist”- lots of BDS people would claim that they support Israel’s right to exist- but Israel as nothing other than a name attached to a piece of land is neither here nor there (well actually it’s there). I think the important debate is not about a right to exist but rather about the character of the state. But I do agree with the last part of your quote. Harold, do you think it matters that Zionism has come to be an odious term? Does it matter what the “wider disinterested community” thinks?

  • letters in the age says:

    Geraldine is also one of the nicest and most decent journos around

    Very well respected

  • Peter says:

    I am not Jewish but support Zionism – a rarity I suspect. I am shocked how little average Australians know about the history of modern Israel. My assessment is that for pretty much the first 30 years of its existence, the balance of power was with Israel’s very hostile neighbours who wanted to wipe Israel off the face of the earth. It was miraculous that the nation survived 1948. But try to convey that history in a sound bite.

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