Something that has alays struck me about discussions of Israel-Palestine is the way that pro-Israel people can claim confidently and vociferously that the British media is clearly biased against Israel, while Pro-Palestinian people can claim confidently and vociferously that the British media is clearly biased in favour of Israel. Odd, no? How does this come about?
Well, partly it may just be that people judge bias relative to what they consider ‘the truth’. If the truth is that Israel is reluctantly defending itself against unprovoked racist aggression, then news coverage that doesn’t suggest that is ‘anti-Israel’, while if the truth is that Israel is prosecuting a long-term campaign to destroy the possibility of a coherent political society in Palestine, then news coverage that doesn’t suggest that is ‘pro-Israel’. But I think there’s more to it than that.
I think British media coverage can appear ‘anti-Israel’ because it often criticises Israel or paints it in a bad light (e.g. Israel has dropped white phosphorus in a crowded urban area, this is against the law, oh no!), but being criticised isn’t the only issue. That same coverage can still appear ‘pro-Israel’ because it presents matters from an Israeli point of view.
What I mean by that is something like the following: Israel’s goals are presented, and are described as basically understandable (defense, security, destroy Hamas, whatever); its actions are then considered in terms of whether they will acheive these goals, and whether the costs are too high. Even when it is suggested that the actions will not acheive these goals, or will exact far too high a price, this is still very different from the way that Hamas’ actions are presented: their goals are either not explicitly mentioned, or are given as clearly unacceptable and rationally ridiculous ones. Their actions are not related to these goals, or judged in terms of their likeliehood of success, or the price they exact. When Israel kills a thousand, it is openly discussed ‘will killing this thousand people bring better prospects for peace? is it justified if it will?’, but when Hamas kills a dozen, this is simply presented as ‘these fanatics are dedicated to destroying Israel’ – what, a few Israelis at a time? Kill ten a year, and then in a few millenia, assuming no births, the state of Israel will be no more?
As a consequence, it is an acceptable position that if Hamas is weakened and/or destroyed, then there are better chances for peace, because Hamas “is” an obstacle to peace. Israel, on the other hand, is typically ‘urged’ to do this or to do that. What European or North American high-level politician would say “Israel must lose“, i.e. the weakening of Israel’s military capacity will bring peace nearer? What politician would say to Hamas “we understand your security concerns, and agree with your right to self-defense, but we disagree with the way that you use it”?
All-in-all and on the whole, with some exceptions, in Western mainstream discourse, Israel is spoken to more than it is spoken about, while Hamas is spoken about far more than it is spoken to. All-in-all and on the whole, with some exceptions, the mainstream discourse identifies with Israel and treats the Israeli government as a person, holding aims, pursuing them rationally, amenable to dialogue, while treating Hamas as ‘other’, a ‘thing’, an ‘obstacle’, that ‘cannot be negotiated with’, and acts not out of rational planning but out of ‘hatred’.
This then got me thinking about the way such patterns play out in the media more broadly. Over Iran or Russia, we can easily find ‘advice’ to Western leaders – what they should do to ‘deal with’ or ‘contain’ the possibility of these states doing something bad? Did we ever hear collumnists writing ‘advice’ for Russia about how to ‘deal with’ NATO encirclement, or for Iran, about how to ‘contain’ the possibility of the US or Israel doing something bad? It is taken for granted that the power of ‘non-Western’ countries is dangerous, and should be feared, while the power of ‘Western’ countries is not in itself dangerous – it is something that we can debate how to use.
This kind of collective identification with a certain nebulous Western governmental super-agent is probably a bad idea. On the one hand, it downplays the danger of Western power being used destructively (as it usually is used). It gives us a sort of illusion of control that isn’t warranted by our (i.e. ‘Western citizens’) actual ability to influence the actions of our governments. And on the other hand, it sort ‘demonises’ whatever ‘non-Western’ governments get identified as ‘enemies’ or ‘rivals’, and encourages us to see their mere possession of power (e.g. the mere capability of Iran to launch nuclear attacks) as something that needs to be fought against. Why do we feel that Iran’s possession of nukes is a risk that we can’t afford to take, and yet not really feel that the UK’s, or Israel’s, possession of nukes is remotely dangerous?
This also leaks into how we tend to think about solutions: “How can we solve the Israel-Palestine conflict?”
Who’s “we”, paleface?
Why not ask “how can Egypt and Iran solve the Israel-Palestine conflict?” “How can Indonesia and Australia solve the Israel-Palestine conflict?” Governments are generally the same.
In particular, this tends to fit with a certain ideological maneouvre: conflict is attributed to the ‘natives’, with their ‘religious fanaticism’ and ‘ancient tribal feuds’, who are presented as being unavoidably what they are: their role is fixed: the Protestants will keep killing the Catholics, the Catholics will keep killing the Protestants, it’s just how they are. ‘We’, on the other hand, have a choice – the fact that we have done X, Y, or Z in the past can be ignored, because we can now decide to take a different course – or at least, political commentators can recommend that we take a different course. As a result, the expression of power in far-away places is normalised and accepted.
Just as our economic system sometimes seems like ‘capitalism for the poor, socialism for the rich’, one might describe this ideological system as ‘materialism for the targets of imperialism, idealism for imperialists”.
The final thought I wanted to throw out on this subject was: where might this sort of tendency come from? It seems, after all, like a sort of ‘Stockholm Syndrome‘, for even if you don’t buy the idea that our government ‘oppresses’ us, it certainly is in a position of control relative to us. Of course, once you put it like that, it becomes easy to see why someone might want to identify with ‘the powers that be’ in this way: if you are always identified with whoever holds power, then you’re always the most powerful – indeed if we take it very crudely you’re (vicariously) omnipotent. Oh dear, I have bubonic plague – I am totally powerless against this impersonal force of nature. But I can restore my feeling of power, even if indirectly, by supposing that the force that has sent this plague is one that ultimately cares about me, one that is worthy of support and even love. I may remain powerless, but I know that my ‘father’, who cares about me, holds absolute power.
Which links this back to the Oedipus conflict, which I’ve been thinking about since reading a pleasantly Marxian-feminist take on it last week. Stripped of its sexual layers (which are important) it amounts to the following: growing children find a conflict between their natural hostility to power and the fact that power rules the world. If they continue to reject power, they will be denied entry into the world and access to its pleasures. To resolve this, they must shift their identification towards identifying with power, and redirect their desires outwards away from their immediate family and onto wider society. It should be obvious how a process of this sort would then set people up to buy into the sort of imperial mindsets I’ve described.
So in conclusion: shared roots to the mindsets of different forms of oppression, society of power produces a population of people who accept power, but only for ‘their’ rulers, etc. etc. Bring on the day when we see all governments the way we see Hamas.