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Freedom of speech in the U.S. and Israel
By Dina Rashed

The U.S. has always been the bastion of free speech – or so it’s been claimed. Nevertheless, in the past few months, the American media has not lived up to the standards it claims to hold so dearly.

It is not an exaggeration that we get a more fair coverage of the ongoing events in occupied Palestine and Israel from the Israeli media than from that in America.

On multiple occasions, American papers have published reports on the uprising following their print by Israeli papers or broadcast by Israeli radio; and definitely not because of a lack of American reporters.

The coverage by Ma’ariv and Ha’aretz, two major Israeli papers, extended beyond the official Israeli position; they have printed reports on events, Op-eds, and columns that presented the other side of the story far better than prominent U.S. papers.

At the same time that syndicated columnists, like those of the New York Times and the Washington Post, kept blaming the Palestinians for the latest outbreak of violence between the Israelis and Palestinians, the Ha’aretz printed breaking stories of Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) soldiers who are not willing to use live ammunition and rockets against rock-throwing Palestinian civilians and children. The papers also questioned the pinpoint killing of Palestinian Authority and Fatah activists by Israeli forces, and the seriousness of the Israeli Premier’s intentions to come to a real peace agreement.

Besides publishing stories of opponents of the occupation who support a realistic and just path to achieving peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians, the paper even printed letters from Palestinians and Arab American Muslims. Its October 30th issue included a letter written by Palestinian American Ali Abunimah, a Chicago-based political activist, that read, "Israel is the military occupier. Israeli tanks are choking the life [out] of Palestinian towns and cities… not the other way around. Israel is the builder of settlements. Israel is the breaker of bones and the shooter of children. Israel is the one that turns on and off the flow of food and fuel."

Abunimah, amazed by the courage of the paper to print his opinion, said that there was some editing of his letter, but it was not unreasonable given its length. "I think the strength of the criticism still comes through. I doubt that an American newspaper would have printed the same letter," he said.

Meanwhile, Muslims and Arab Americans struggle almost daily with half-truthful, provocative editorials and columns that depict them in a very distorted manner. Robert Fisk, a veteran journalist on Middle East affairs and reporter to the British Independent who has been attacked on several occasions by Arab papers for his writings, said he is being vilified for telling the truth about the Palestinians. "Ignorance of the Middle East is now so firmly adhered to in the U.S. that only a few tiny newspapers report anything other than Israel's point of view. You won't find Chomsky in The New York Times. . . But the degree of abuse and outright threats now being directed at anyone – academic, analyst, reporter – who dares to criticize Israel (or dares to tell the truth about the Palestinian uprising) is fast reaching McCarthyite proportions," (Independent, December 13, 2000).

But for few exceptions here and there, mainstream American political discourse as set in U.S. papers has only spoken of "the besieged Israel facing Palestinian violence." Their language has included terms like "settlers" and "built neighborhoods" versus "occupants" and "occupying settlements." The use of the word "resistance" has hardly ever reflected (never mind questioned why) the reality that the Palestinians are only throwing stones.

It has been only since groups of the Israeli Left have started questioning the rationale behind Israeli settlements on occupied Palestinian land that a few news reports, and fewer analyses, have emerged within American media – and only to report on the reaction of the Israeli society to the uprising. American columnists still reserve from expressing their opinions or challenging the existence of such settlements.

Ma’ariv and Ha’aretz have openly published the opinions of Israelis such as Uri Avnery, well-known Israeli activist, former Knesset member, and founder of the Gush-Shalom (Peace Bloc), who has criticized and pinpointed the flaws of the peace talks and the proposals of the Israeli Premier.

Meanwhile, in the land of the free and the home of the brave, an American bi-monthly Jewish magazine, Tikkun, dedicated a great deal of recent print to discussing the peace process – featuring analyses of both the Palestinian and Israeli positions in the peace process. Following its November/December issue covering the Intifadah that questioned the status of the Palestinians under occupation, that of the Palestinian Israelis, and their integration within Israeli society, several subscribers and advertisers began boycotting the magazine. Its existence is now threatened and it may be forced to close its doors. Its editor, Michael Lerner who is a Rabbi himself, received numerous letters condemning his and other articles that criticized the Israeli government’s practices and atrocities – despite the fact that the magazine published criticism of the Palestinian Authority and Palestinian people as well.

"We have faced death threats, cancellations of subscriptions, and loss of donations – which now imperils our financial survival. Ironically, the substance of what we said in the November/ December editorial is now being repeated by columnists and journalists in Israel (though not yet by the people in the American Jewish establishment or the UJA/Federation-controlled Jewish weekly newspapers," stated the editorial in the magazine’s January/February issue.

Ha’aretz published a letter, in its issue dated January 17, 2001, written by an ex-IDF officer expressing his shock at how Israeli soldiers dragged a Palestinian teenager who had been shot, but was not yet dead, down the street to a settlement where residents rejoiced over him. The incident had been caught on camera and was aired on American news.

"It reminds me of cheetahs and hyenas, which kill and drag their prey. The problem is that these animals kill to survive. Our solders kill to maintain the occupation, an apartheid system. When the Arab crowd lynched our solders in Ramallah, it was [considered] criminal, and they were [considered] savage, and when our disciplined solders do it, it is [considered] heroism and civilized," the ex-officer who is currently residing in the U.S. wrote.

"I strongly believe that their blood is as red as ours and equally sacred. Our army's actions in the West Bank and Gaza amount to crimes against humanity. The Israel Defense Forces should investigate, in a fair way, and punish these soldiers before the world wakes up and puts most of us on trial for crimes against humanity."

Strangely enough, this ex-officer is currently residing in the U.S., but how many American papers were willing to print such a letter? Is democracy flourishing more in Israel – at least within its Jewish community – than it is in the U.S.?

Could the well-put statement by Charlie Reese in the Orlando Sentinel, "Palestinians won't get their independence until Americans get theirs," be true? 

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