Friday, August 14, 2009

A Made-Up Quotation Shows The Craziness in Slandering Israel and Misunderstanding How Politics and Warfare Works

By Barry Rubin

One of the first signs we were heading into an era of insanity was when some years ago Ariel Sharon, before he became prime minister, said something like this: Israelis must understand that we aren’t the grasshoppers, the Palestinians are the grasshoppers.

Anyone who was interested in understanding the statement in context—or who knew much about Jewish history—understood that Sharon was referring to the famous Biblical passage about the spies and the land of Canaan. Most of the spies came back and offered a very pessimistic report, insisting that the Canaanites were so powerful that the children of Israel could never defeat them. Compared to them, they said—with two dissenting voices—we’re like grasshoppers.

In Biblical terms this is presented as a lack of faith in the deity. Archaeologists say, and this makes sense, that when the Israelites saw the guards standing on top of the walls of Canaanite cities, they looked like giants looking down at the seemingly tiny Israelites below, and hence the grasshoppers' reference.

So what Sharon was saying is: Don’t be afraid. We’re the stronger party and we’ll win.

What happened though was an international controversy calling Sharon a racist for comparing Palestinians to insects.

I had a parallel experience, albeit fortunately more restricted, when a somewhat cracked former diplomat gave me similar treatment for saying that Arafat paced his cabin at the second Camp David meeting like a caged animal. That actually was a direct quote from an interview with an American official, quite friendly to the Palestinians by the way, who was there.

So the way many people try to win an argument nowadays is to try to find a single sentence which can be taken out of context to condemn someone, thus allowing people to ignore hundreds of pages of evidence and logical argument.

In contrast when Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said—according to the official Iranian translation—that the Iranian regime was going to help wipe Israel off the map, there was a learned discussion, including an extensive New York Times article, about whether he actually said it and what it actually meant.

Double standard? You bet.

And does the mainstream media tell its readers/watchers/listeners about the daily stream of abuse coming at Jews--including as children of pigs and monkeys--daily produced by the media, schools, mosques, intellectuals, political groups and rulers of pretty much all Muslim-majority states? And is there any discussion of what this implies about their leading figures, the origins of terrorism and radicalism, or the low likelihood of real peace?

You already know the answer to that one.

In contrast, I’m not at all critical of a recent article in the Toronto Star on a similar matter, but just want to use it to explore this controversy.

The headline is “Damaging Israeli misquote finally corrected: Record set straight seven years after Israel's top soldier was accused of trashing Palestinians.” In 2002, Moshe Yaalon, then Israel’s army chief of staff, allegedly said:

"The Palestinians must be made to understand in the deepest recesses of their consciousness that they are a defeated people."

He didn’t say it. Only seven years later, after being reported in all the best newspapers, it is clear that the quotation was made up. And the Star deserves praise for highlighting this fact and correcting its previous error. If only all newspapers behaved that way today. The New York Times, the Chicago Tribune and The Boston Globe also printed retractions.

Where did this false quote originate? Apparently from Henry Siegman. Siegman is, despite being Jewish and--according to my sources--an ordained rabbi is a veteran Israel-basher. For some years he has been at the Council on Foreign Relations, America’s most prestigious international affairs organization.

Why is Siegman, who has no serious credential as a Middle East expert, a senior Middle East expert for the Council? Perhaps it has something to do with his being an Israel-basher. To my knowledge, Siegman has not apologized.

Let’s examine the quotation itself, however, false as it is. Basically, it is the kind of statement made by generals for centuries: We want the enemy to know that it has lost. Why would an Israeli think this? Not because he wants to subjugate the Palestinians and make them slaves, but because only if they really and truly know they cannot win militarily will they stop fighting and make peace.

And such a peace would be in their interest. Remember that when this statement was supposedly made, it was two years after Israel offered an independent Palestinian state with its capital in east Jerusalem. Yasir Arafat turned that down. Fighting continued, with heavy Palestinian as well as Israeli casualties, until 2005. Then it ended, mainly because Israel won so overwhelmingly on the ground.

This week, it is being reported that the West Bank economy is booming and Palestinians are better off. Politically, however, because of Fatah and Palestinian Authority intransigence, we are decades away from a full peace settlement.

So Palestinians—like the Germans and Japanese in 1945 realized it made sense to stop fighting—would be better off if they comprehended that they are not going to destroy Israel through fighting or drive it out of the West Bank or force it to give them everything they want without any concession on their part.

Presumably, according to the prevailing zeitgeist, it would have been better if Yaalon had said: Let's defeat the Palestinians to the minimal possible extent so that they will go on fighting for 100 years, destroy their chances for getting a state, wreck their infrastructure forever, and suffer many thousands of casualties in a futile attempt to kill us all.

In addition, of course, the controversy over the quote shows that the current elite culture thinks that victory is unacceptable for Western forces and won’t allow it for Israel. Wouldn’t, for example, the people of the Gaza Strip be better off if Hamas was overthrown there?

Of course, there are cases where an old-fashioned kind of victory isn’t possible due to political culture, terrain, and other factors. Take Afghanistan, for example, with Iraq lying somewhere in between.

Aside from all this, the things Palestinian leaders say about Israel on a daily basis or what is said in mosque sermons by officially appointed preachers, or in school textbooks, or in media are given a “pass” by the Western media, as the recent Fatah congress shows. No matter how violence-prone, "racist," disrespectful of the "other," or triumphalist, these statements are, it doesn't seem to matter.


Part of the answer is contained in the Star article's chilling quotation from Robert Thompson, an expert on media and popular culture at Syracuse University. While agreeing that newspapers should admit when they misquote someone, he concludes that even when they misrepresent the truth:

“It doesn't mean the argument collapses. The quote, for many people, was used to shore up something they feel very strongly about. It takes on a life of its own. It's almost irrelevant whether it was ever said."

In other words--and I don’t think Thompson is advocating this, just correctly observing—it doesn’t matter if people lie about Israel because they believe they know it is guilty and evil. Evidence has nothing to do with it. That’s a lot scarier than what Yaalon was supposed to have said.

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