Land of milk and heroin — anatomy of a smear campaign

When baseless accusations are left unanswered, the risk is that they’ll become accepted as “conventional wisdom.” This is precisely what makes rhetoric the instrument of choice among Israel’s detractors, and it explains the modus operandi of such libels as the “Judaization of Jerusalem” or “apartheid.” And with a silent partner in the mainstream media that rarely prides itself on fact checking, who’s the wiser?

The McGill Daily, McGill University’s student newspaper, recently published an article masquerading as responsible journalism entitled “The Land of Milk and Heroin: The Politics of Opiates in East Jerusalem.”

“Before 1967”, the author declared “, the number of Palestinian drug users was reported as being in the mere dozens, and the Global Report on Drugs’ statistics showed no narcotics production or trafficking in the region. After the Six Day War and Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza strip, a different scenario emerged”. Which scenario? “Palestine TV” and the author’s intuition offer the answer:

“Many Palestinians”, the reporter Tamkinat Mirza declares, “accord with Palestine TV’s arguments that – beyond refusing to address opiate abuse – Israeli authorities are actually responsible for encouraging and facilitating heroin use among Arabs for political reasons… If off (sic) their opiate high, Palestinian youth may well mobilize to oppose Israeli occupation of the land, making it preferable to the Israeli’s for Palestinians to remain addicted…”.

The reporter offers more reliable “anecdotal reports” which inform us that  “ East Jerusalemites say that Israeli police only persecute (sic) those dealing to Israeli – rather than Arab – citizens” and cites Al Quds University and Al Jazeera respectively in claiming that there are 6,000 heroin users “in East Jerusalem alone” and 300 000 in Israel.

With a penchant for “anecdotal reports”, Mirza did not consult the Israel Anti-Drug Authority (IADA), so we did. According to the IADA, Israel’s heroin-using population is smaller than average among developed (OECD) countries, with approximately 15,000-20,000 heroin users; There is no difference between rates of heroin use among Arab or Jewish users in Israel, except for one: Arab women have a lower rate of heroin use than Jewish women. And when it comes to the drug trade, Jews and Arabs alike smuggle, deal, use and seek treatment or rehabilitation services anywhere in the country.

Dr. Walid Hadad, Arab Society Supervisor at the IADA, links drug use to social problems primarily resulting from Arab society’s transition from a traditional to a modern way of life.

While the author claims: “Israel seems to have absolved itself of responsibility for monitoring and regulating towns such as Al Ram” (in the West Bank), she does not mention that the IADA lacks jurisdiction in the areas governed by the Palestinian Authority.

Rather than “refusing to address opiate abuse”, the IADA tailors culturally-sensitive, Arabic language-run services available to Arabs. The IADA has a spokesperson to manage media campaigns for the Arab population and 20 coordinators across the country to develop and execute culturally-relevant intervention programming.

In other words, there is no verifiable evidence to suggest that Arab Israelis use heroin as a result of the “conflict”; there are programs in place to deal with drug abuse in the Arab population by the Israel government and heroin abuse is less pronounced in the Arab population.

When reporters repeat inaccurate, untrue or defamatory content, they assume responsibility for the content, as does the publishing organization. Yet, the McGill Daily stood by Mirza’s article in spite of the data that was made available to them. Surprisingly, our efforts to clarify the record with the publication of a rebuttal letter to this egregious piece in the Daily were met with conditions: Despite viewing the IADA’s statistics, the editor insisted that “all articles in the McGill Daily are put through a rigorous fact checking process”. We were told to remove references to assertions being “false and not well researched”. And, we were asked: “Do we know for sure that no studies have ever proven a link between conflict and drug use?”  Rather, wasn’t the editor aware that the burden of proof lies with the one accusing Israel of encouraging and facilitating Arab heroin addiction?

Six weeks after our initial letter submission, our letter was finally published, though only in the online version and school was out for the summer. This letter is notable for what it lacks:  the sharp criticism HonestReporting Canada (HRC) leveled at the author and the Daily for publishing a distorted report lacking any verifiable evidence.

Apart from being disingenuous, libels and conspiracy theories are obstacles to peace. But for those whose goal is to demonize Israel, that is often the point. Yet, it can be a two-way street. The McGill Daily’s reputation and credibility has suffered, as the “Politics of Opiates in East Jerusalem” meets the Politics of Naming and Shaming.

So much for responsible journalism at the McGill Daily.

About the Author
Quebec Regional Director of HonestReporting Canada, a non-profit organization which ensures fair and accurate Canadian media coverage of Israel