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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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