A politically-guided tour

In the following article, Peter Wertheim, the Executive Director of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry, responds to a recent example of media bias against Israel.

An article featuring Israel and the West Bank entitled “Hope in a Divided Country” by Sandra Hall appeared in the “Traveller” section of Sydney’s Weekend Herald and Melbourne’s The Saturday Age (October 17-18): http://www.traveller.com.au/on-tour-in-israel-and-palestine-beyond-the-borders-gk49lk

Generally, articles about travel can be relied upon to tell us why we would want to visit a particular place, what to see there and what to do. Israel is certainly a spectacular country beloved by tourists for its wide array of amazing sights, history, peoples and experiences. It is without a doubt worthy of such an article, but that is not the kind of article Ms Hall has written.

According to Ms Hall, she went on “a study tour” run by “a British journalist” who is able to call on “a comprehensive range of contacts among journalists, former diplomats and political consultants”. From the tenor of Ms Hall’s article, it appears that the tour is certainly “comprehensive” in the sense of presenting its customers with the gamut of perspectives and arguments that are critical of Israel. But if you are looking for an analysis that presents Israeli perspectives with anything like the same “comprehensive” thoroughness, you won’t find it in Ms Hall’s article.

Sandra Hall was a film critic for The Bulletin before joining the SMH in 1996. Most of her work is as a media and entertainment writer. However, because she went on something called a “Political Tour” of Israel and the West Bank, and a very one-sided political tour at that, Ms Hall cannot seem to resist adding her own gratuitous political commentary. If she had wanted to write a political opinion piece, then it should have been presented as such up front, instead of masquerading as a travel article. The tour group does not bother to hide its overtly political agenda, so why does Ms Hall?

It would also have been desirable if Ms Hall had done a little research about the relevant history, instead of simply accepting at face value what she was told by her tour guide, his mates and a handful of carefully selected locals. Some examples follow.

• Ms Hall recounts some anecdotes alleging mistreatment of Palestinian residents of Hebron by their neighbours, described as “Jewish settlers”, although in one anecdote the wrongdoers are not identified but just implied, with a metaphorical nudge and a wink, to be the same nasty people. She tells us that these “Jewish settlers” are “possessed of an unshakeable conviction that they have a God-given right to be here in Hebron”. Omitted from her narrative is the fact that Hebron is one of the four cities in the Holy Land that have been inhabited by Jews continuously for three millennia. (The other three are Jerusalem, Safed and Tiberias). History, not just religion, gives them the “right to be here in Hebron”.

• The article mentions, in passing, “the Cave of the Patriarchs, one of the country’s holiest shrines”. In fact, the Cave of Machpela (Hebrew for ‘Cave of the Double Tombs’) is the principal reason for Hebron’s fame. According to the Hebrew Bible it is the burial-place of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs of the Jewish people, Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca and Jacob and Leah. It was a holy site for the Jewish people for 1500 years before the advent of Islam. The Quran too accepts that the site is the burial-place of Abraham, who Muslims regard as a prophet. So since the seventh century the site has been holy to Muslims too. Ms Hall’s article is silent about this. Nor does it tell us that a house of worship is built over the site, or about its history. Until 1967, when Muslims controlled the site, Jews were barred from entering the place of worship. If any Jew went closer to the entrance than the seventh step leading to it, it was a capital offence. In contrast, since Israel took control of Hebron in 1967, both Jews and Muslims have been permitted to pray there. One half of the building is a mosque and the other half a synagogue. For 10 Jewish holy days each year, Jews have exclusive use of the site, and for 10 Muslim holy days each year, Muslims have exclusive use of the site. The history of Israel’s magnanimity in sharing the site, compared to the Muslims’ exclusivity, belies much of the message in Ms Hall’s article.

• One cannot understand the need for Israel’s security measures in Hebron without recalling the Hebron massacre of 1929, when local Palestinians were incited to attack and massacre their Jewish neighbours, despite the two communities in Hebron having co-existed peacefully for centuries beforehand. As is the case right now, the Hebron massacre illustrates how easily Palestinians are whipped into a frenzy of violence by their leaders on the basis of entirely fictitious allegations. No mention is made of that history either in Ms Hall’s article.

• Ms Hall makes much of Israel’s ‘separation barrier’. She mentions that a section of it was built in 2003, but is silent about why it was built. More than 95% of the barrier consists of a wire fence. The remainder consists of a concrete wall. The walled sections were built on sites from which Palestinian snipers used to take pot-shots at Israelis during the second Intifada. The wall put an end to that. The barrier as a whole put an end to Palestinian suicide bombers from the West Bank entering Israel and causing murder and mayhem.

• More fundamentally Ms Hall does not seem to get why there is a conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. The usual apologia for the Palestinians attributes the conflict to “the occupation” and “the settlements”. But the conflict pre-dates 1967 when “the occupation” and “the settlements” began. The conflict even pre-dates the establishment of Israel in 1948, and the Balfour Declaration in 1917. The actual root cause of the Israel-Palestinian conflict is the unwillingness of many Muslims, including most Palestinians, to accept the notion that Jews are a people with the same right of self-determination as other peoples; their refusal to acknowledge that the Jewish people and the Hebrew language and culture are indigenous to the land; the Palestinian insistence that the entire land belongs exclusively to them; their denial that the third-holiest site in Islam (the Temple Mount in Jerusalem) is also the holiest site of another religion (Judaism), whose adherents reject the notion of Muslim supersession-ism. The violence of the past two weeks and the last 140 years is encouraged by purveyors of rumours who have both Jewish and Palestinian blood on their hands. It is rooted not in Israeli settlement policy or “the occupation”, but in the Palestinian and general Arab and Muslim worldview that dismisses the national and religious rights of Jews.

I have nothing against anyone writing an opinion piece to try to convince us of his or her point of view, as long as it is presented that way, and not insidiously disguised as a travelogue.

About the Author
Julie Nathan is the Research Director for the Executive Council of Australian Jewry, the peak representative body of the Australian Jewish community, and is the author of the annual ECAJ Report on Antisemitism in Australia.