Israeli Propaganda and Its Image in the West
There is no doubt that Israel is a Western creature par excellence. When the Zionist movement founded Israel, its leaders realized that the major Western powers such as Britain, France, and later the U.S. would be very important for its establishment and continuity. Hence, over the years, Israel has established organizations to assist in marketing not only its general policies, but also backing the occupation and settlement activities, and even racism, in Palestine.
In the beginning, Israel was largely successful. Major countries recognized it and strongly endorsed it at the expense of Palestinian Arab political and human rights in Palestine. Western support and embrace of Israel came in many forms; most notably, Israel succeeded in highlighting the suffering of the European Jews and the inhumane existential and psychological devastation caused by Nazism and anti-Semitism. Israel gained the sympathy of many Westerners who felt guilty about what had happened to the Jews in Europe.
This sympathy developed even further in the context of bad stereotypes of Arabs in the West, as it did not occur to many that Palestinians have a deep-rooted culture and history, and that their land is not as portrayed by the ultra-Zionist movement: empty, belonging to a people who do not deserve it, and other abhorrent allegations.
However, the determination of the Palestinian national movement and its activities throughout the twentieth century changed these stereotypes about Palestine and the Palestinians to a large extent. The movement gave Palestine a name, a reality, and made it part of the international debate on occupation and colonization. Palestine has become a moral symbol of struggle and the free world. Over time, Palestinians have gained a voice in the Western world and modern Western media, even if that voice is sometimes muted and not effective enough, but still it perseveres.
However, when we talk about Western media and its impact on Israeli propaganda, we are talking about a thorny and divergent issue since Western media is not a unified entity. There are numerous outlets and we cannot generalize to the point of being overly confident, although we can reach some main conclusions when considering the issue at hand.
There is a clear difference in Western media between its American and European segments. Both belong to worlds that run on capitalism and yet are different at the same time. American media seems more controlling and often stupid with respect to Israel. There is deep, blind ideological support for it, even for its most aggressive actions. Sometimes what American media outlets say – such as Fox News and others that belong to the right-wing parties – is worse than what the Israeli media says about Israel and its racist policies against Arabs and Palestinians, wherever they are, whether in Gaza, the West Bank, historic Palestine or the Diaspora.
In general, such media portrays the Palestinians as terrorists or “unnecessary” people. These media speak confidently about the merit of Israel’s policies, its democracy and its proximity to American and Western values. Regarding the Palestinians and their rights, Israeli media finds many mouthpieces in America, especially in the official press, both written and visual. When an American president speaks about any country in the Arab world, he puts Israel and its security at the heart of the matter. American politics normally shows the extent to which Israeli propaganda permeates Palestinian and Arab issues in the American public consciousness.
Israel’s claim that it is facing an ongoing existential threat is part of the American ideological rhetoric on the region. It goes so far as to accuse all who criticize Israel of being anti-Semitic, anti-Jewish, and other such false, inhumane accusations. However, some voices which do provide enough space for the Palestinian narrative have grown in America, such as the show “Democracy Now” and the newspaper The National, which have embraced some writings of Professor Edward Said, the exceptional Palestinian intellectual. These voices seem faint in comparison to the dominant ones backed by lobbies like AIPAC (which have extensive influence on official American policy). These outlets are important, and there should be a formal and informal Arab role in strengthening them.
In Europe, the matter is different. There is now a greater understanding and sympathy for the Palestinian cause, even if not yet to the necessary extent. In addition, the situation varies from country to country. Germany, for example, regards Israeli discourse in a positive light and does not dare criticize Israel in any concrete or sensitive way. Its media follows the same approach and promotes Israeli policies. For official and influential media in Germany, Israel is like a sacred bull due to the organic link in many minds between Israel’s survival and the odious crimes perpetrated by the Nazis. The guilt complex in German education and culture is linked to the crimes against the Jews in Europe.
This is not the case in Britain, where there is deeper, more objective analysis, and greater opposition to Israel’s rhetoric and its policies against the Palestinians. The situation looks the same in France, despite the presence of some influential Jewish European communities who have an impact on these countries’ media and their policies.
Many programs provide a platform for Arab intellectuals to talk about what is happening in the Middle East and Israel’s policy, and to challenge those who routinely speak on behalf of the Israeli government and smoothly disseminate Israeli propaganda without objection on many American channels. This situation also applies to the print media, as there are European writers who write fairly and humanely about the Palestinians, do not pay much attention to Israeli propaganda, and insist on Palestinian rights and legitimacy.
Hence, we can say with some confidence that Europe is usually open to the Palestinian discourse and Palestinian national rights, and there is greater criticism of Israel in many outlets, such as Channel Four in Britain and to some degree liberal newspapers like The Guardian and The Independent.
It is difficult to generalize. Israeli propaganda is alive in Western media, but not how it was in the past. In the past, Israel’s views were almost totally predominant and Arabs did not have a voice in the Western understanding of the Palestinian cause, including Palestinians’ rights on their land and to their land.
Israel has become concerned over the European media favouring the Palestinians, especially in times when Israel has shown great aggressiveness, such as during its war on Gaza in 2009 and 2012 and before that as well. In both cases, Israel appeared for what it is: a colonial, aggressive and occupying power. Consequently, embassies and affiliated pressure groups hurriedly harnessed Israeli propaganda tools to market Israel’s claim that it is the only democracy in the Middle East and the closest to the West in terms of values, in addition to using the Western discourse for the war on terror.
In general, Israel’s arguments did not seem to convince many citizens and media outlets in Europe. The European public is somewhat weary of Israel and its violent mentality that makes it resistant to peace and coexistence. Israel has proved this through recurring racist policies; the Wall dividing the West Bank from Israel proper stands as an ugly symbol separating people based on their ethnic and national identity. Many European television reports often show pictures of it, which, as we just pointed out is a vile colonialist symbol, and mention other examples of barriers such as the Berlin Wall and others that have divided people along racial lines.
The Palestinian people must continue to knock on the doors of the European media to spread their historical and political narrative that they are an oppressed people living under an illegal and aggressive occupation which violates international law. To do this more effectively, Palestinians and Arabs need skilled personnel who know the major European languages and cultures, and who know how to address and conduct interviews with Europeans in a logical, rational and humane manner. Sooner or later, the truth will be heard and the Palestinian people’s rights will prevail.
* Atef El-Shaer is a professor of Palestinian origin at the University of London. He is an expert in Arab studies, specializing in literature and culture and their relationship to politics.