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May 2002 • Vol 2, No. 5 •

Fear and Learning in America 

By Robert Fisk


Osama bin Laden once told me that Americans did not understand the Middle East. Last week, in a little shuttle bus shouldering its way through curtains of rain across the Iowa prairies, I opened my copy of the Des Moines Register and realized that he might be right. “Big Hog Lots Called Greater Threat Than Bin Laden,” announced the headline. Iowa’s 15 million massive pigs, it seems, produce so much manure that the state waterways are polluted. “Large-scale hog producers are a greater threat to the United States and U.S. democracy than Osama bin Laden and his terrorist network,” says Robert F. Kennedy Junior, president of a New York environment group. “We’ve watched communities and American values shattered by these bullies,” Kennedy said. I took out my pocket calculator and did a little math. Cedar Rapids, I reckoned, was 7,000 miles from Afghanistan. Another planet, more like.

I’ve been traveling to the United States for years, lecturing at Princeton or Harvard or Brown University, Rhode Island, or San Francisco, or Madison, Wisconsin. God knows why. I refuse all payment and take just a business-class round trip from Beirut because I can’t take 14 hours of screaming babies in each direction. American college students are tough as nails and bored as cabbages, and in some cities—Washington is top of the list—I might as well talk in Amharic. If you don’t use phrases like “peace process,” “back on track,” or “Israel under siege,” there’s a kind of computerized blackout on the faces of the audience. Total Disk Failure. Why should my latest bout of Americana have been any different?

Sure, there were the usual oddballs. There was the old Black guy whose first “question” on the Middle East in a Chicago University lecture theatre was a long and proud announcement that he hadn’t paid taxes to the IRS since 1948—a claim so wonderful that I forbore the usual threat to close down on him. There were the World Trade Center conspiracists who insisted that the U.S. government had planted explosives in the twin towers. There was the silver-haired lady who wanted to know why God couldn’t be made to resolve the hatred between Israelis and Palestinians. And a Native American Indian in Los Angeles who ranted on about a Jewish plot to deprive his people of their land. A bespectacled man with long white hair in a ponytail shut him up before declaring that the Israeli-Palestinian war was identical to the American-Mexican war that deprived his own people of... well, of Los Angeles. I began to calculate the distance between LA and Jenin. A galaxy perhaps.

American journalists lobotomizing their stories.

And there were the little tell-tale stories that showed just how biased and gutless the American press has become in the face of America’s Israeli lobby groups. “I wrote a report for a major paper about the Palestinian exodus of 1948,” a Jewish woman told me as we drove through the smog of downtown LA. “And of course, I mentioned the massacre of Palestinians at Deir Yassin by the Stern Gang and other Jewish groups—the massacre that prompted 750,000 Arabs to flee their homes. Then I look for my story in the paper and what do I find? The word ‘alleged’ has been inserted before the word ‘massacre.’ I called the paper’s ombudsman and told him the massacre at Deir Yassin was a historical fact. Can you guess his reply? He said that the editor had written the word ‘alleged’ before ‘massacre’ because that way he thought he’d avoid lots of critical letters.”

By chance, this was the theme of my talks and lectures: the cowardly, idle, spineless way in which American journalists are lobotomizing their stories from the Middle East, how the “occupied territories” have become “disputed territories” in their reports, how Jewish “settlements” have been transformed into Jewish “neighborhoods,” how Arab militants are “terrorists” but Israeli militants only “fanatics” or “extremists,” how Ariel Sharon—the man held “personally responsible” by Israel’s own commissioner’s inquiry for the 1982 Sabra and Chatila massacre of 1,700 Palestinians—could be described in a report in The New York Times as having the instincts of “a warrior”. How the execution of surviving Palestinian fighters was so often called “mopping up.” How civilians killed by Israeli soldiers were always “caught in the crossfire”. I demanded to know of my audiences—and I expected the usual American indignation when I did—how U.S. citizens could accept the infantile “dead or alive,” “with us or against us,” axis-of-evil policies of their President.

And for the first time in more than a decade of lecturing in the United States, I was shocked. Not by the passivity of Americans—the all-accepting, patriotic notion that the President knows best—nor by the dangerous self-absorption of the United States since 11 September and the constant, all-consuming fear of criticizing Israel. What shocked me was the extraordinary new American refusal to go along with the official line, the growing, angry awareness among Americans that they were being lied to and deceived. At some of my talks, 60 per cent of the audiences were over 40. In some cases, perhaps 80 per cent were Americans with no ethnic or religious roots in the Middle East—”American Americans,” as I cruelly referred to them on one occasion, “white Americans,” as a Palestinian student called them more truculently. For the first time, it wasn’t my lectures they objected to, but the lectures they received from their President and the lectures they read in their press about Israel’s “war on terror” and the need always, uncritically, to support everything that America’s little Middle Eastern ally says and does.

There was, for example, the crinkly-faced, ex-naval officer who approached me after a talk at a United Methodist church in the San Diego suburb of Encinitas. “Sir, I was an officer on the aircraft carrier John F Kennedy during the 1973 Middle East war,” he began. (I checked him out later and he was, as my host remarked, “for real.”) “We were stationed off Gibraltar and our job was to refuel the fighter jets we were sending to Israel after their air force was shot to bits by the Arabs. Our planes would land with their USAF and Marine markings partly stripped off and the Star of David already painted on the side. Does anyone know why we gave all those planes to the Israelis just like that? When I see on television our planes and our tanks used to attack Palestinians, I can understand why people hate Americans.”

In the United States, I’m used to lecturing in half-empty lecture halls. Three years ago, I managed to fill a Washington auditorium seating 600 with just 32 Americans. But in Chicago and Iowa and Los Angeles this month, they came in their hundreds—almost 900 at one venue at the University of Southern California—and they sat in the aisles and corridors and outside the doors. It wasn’t because Lord Fisk was in town. Maybe the title of my talk—“September 11: ask who did it, but for heaven’s sake don’t ask why”—was provocative. But for the most part they came, as the question-and-answer sessions quickly revealed, because they were tired of being suckered by the television news networks and the right-wing punditocracy.

Never before have I been asked by Americans: “How can we make our press report the Middle East fairly?” or—much more disturbingly—”How can we make our government reflect our views?” The questions are a trap, of course. Brits have been shoving advice at the United States ever since we lost the War of Independence, and I wasn’t going to join their number. But the fact that these questions could be asked—usually by middle-aged Americans with no family origins in the Middle East—suggested a profound change in a hitherto docile population.

Towards the end of each talk, I apologized for the remarks I was about to make. I told audiences that the world did not change on 11 September, that the Lebanese and Palestinians had lost 17,500 dead during Israel’s 1982 invasion—more than five times the death toll of the international crimes against humanity of 11 September—but the world did not change 20 years ago. There were no candles lit then, no memorial services. And each time I said this, there was a nodding of heads—gray-haired and balding as well as young—across the room. The smallest irreverent joke about President Bush was often met with hoots of laughter. I asked one of my hosts why this happened, why the audience accepted this from a Briton. “Because we don’t think Bush won the election,” she replied.

Jewish settlements were not up for negotiation.

Of course, it’s easy to be fooled. The first local radio shows illustrated all too well how the Middle East discourse is handled in America. When Gayane Torosyan opened WSUI/KSUI for questions in Iowa City, a caller named “Michael”—a leader of the local Jewish community, I later learnt, though he did not say this on air—insisted that after the Camp David talks in 2000, Yasser Arafat had turned to “terrorism” despite being offered a Palestinian state with a capital in Jerusalem and 96 per cent of the West Bank and Gaza. Slowly and deliberately, I had to deconstruct this nonsense. Jerusalem was to have remained the “eternal and unified capital of Israel,” according to Camp David. Arafat would only have got what Madeleine Albright called “a sort of sovereignty” over the Haram al-Sharif mosque area and some Arab streets, while the Palestinian parliament would have been below the city’s eastern walls at Abu Dis. With the vastly extended and illegal Jerusalem municipality boundaries deep into the West Bank, Jewish settlements like Maale Adumim were not up for negotiation; nor were several other settlements. Nor was the 10-mile Israeli military buffer zone around the West Bank, nor the settlers’ roads, which would razor through the Palestinian “state”. Arafat was offered about 46 per cent of the 22 per cent of Palestine that was left. I could imagine the audience of WSUI/KSUI falling slowly from their seats in boredom.

Yet back at my folksy, wooden-walled hotel, the proprietor and his wife—Peace Corps volunteers in the Kennedy era—had listened to every word. “We know what is going on,” he said. “I was a naval officer in the Gulf back in the Sixties and we only had few ships there then. In those days, the Shah of Iran was our policeman. Now we’ve got all those ships in there and our soldiers in the Arab countries and we seem to dominate the place.” Osama bin Laden, I said to myself, couldn’t have put it better.

How odd, I reflected, that American newspapers can scarcely say even this. The Daily Iowan—there are no fewer than four dailies in Iowa City, press freedom being represented by the number of newspapers rather than their depth of coverage—had none of my hotel landlord’s forthrightness. “The situation in the Middle East is one that many Americans do not adequately understand,” it miserably lamented, “nor can they be reasonably articulate about it.” This rubbish—that Americans were too dumb to comprehend the Middle East bloodbath and should therefore keep their mouths shut—was a pervasive theme in editorials. Even more instructive were the reports of my own lectures.

The headline, “Fisk: Who really are the terrorists?” in the Daily Iowan last week at least caught the gist of my message, and included my own examples of American press bias in the Middle East, although it failed on the facts, wrongly reporting that it was the United Nations (rather than the far more persuasive Israeli Kahan Commission) which concluded that Sharon was “personally responsible” for the Sabra and Chatila massacre. The Des Moines Register’s account of one of my talks was intriguing. It concentrated on my interviews with Osama bin Laden—which I had indeed mentioned in my lecture—and then referred to my account of how an Afghan crowd beat me up last December. I had told the American audience that the Afghans were outraged by U.S. bombing raids that had just killed their relatives around Kandahar and how important it had been to include this fact in my own report of the fray—to give context and reason to the Afghan attack on me. The Register used my words to describe the attack but then itself made no mention of the reasons. Long live, I thought, the Iowa City Press-Citizen, whose own headline—“Middle East reporter slams media”—got the point.

It’s not that Iowans have any excuse to be unaware of the Middle East. In the small town of Davenport, Israelis have been trained in the systems of the Apache AH-64 attack helicopters used to assassinate Palestinians on Israel’s wanted list. According to one local journalist, several Iowa companies, including the regional office of Rockwell, have been involved in military contracts worth millions of dollars with Israel. CemenTech of Indianola supplies equipment to the Israeli air force. The day I arrived in Iowa City, John Ashcroft, the U.S. Attorney General, was telling Iowans that a hundred foreign nationals “from countries known as home to terrorists” had been interrogated in the state. Another hundred were likely to be “interviewed” soon. There was no editorial comment on this.

So Iowa University classes were absorbing. One young woman began by announcing that she knew the American media were biased. When I asked why, she said that “it has to do with America’s support for Israel...”and then, red-faced, she dried up. Not so the student in Rex Honey’s global studies class. After I had outlined the military trap into which the Americans had been lured in Afghanistan—the supposed “victory” followed by further engagements with al-Qa’ida and then, inevitably, daily battles with Afghan warlords and sniping attacks on Western troops—he put his hand up. “So how do we beat them?” he asked. There was a gentle ripple of laughter through the room. “Why do you want to ‘beat’ the Afghans,” I asked? “Why not help them build a new land?” The student came up to me afterwards, hand outstretched. “I want to thank you, sir, for all you told us,” he said. I had a suspicion he was a military man. Are you planning to join the army, I asked? “No, sir,” he replied. “I’m going to join the Marines.”

I advised him to stay clear of Afghanistan. In its own way, the American national press was doing the same. Two days later, the Los Angeles Times, in a remarkable dispatch from its correspondent David Zucchino, reported on the bitterness and anger among Afghans whose families had been killed in United States B-52 bomber raids. The recent American battle in Gardez, the report said, had left “bitterness in its wake”.

If only the same bluntness was applied to the Palestinian-Israeli war. Alas, no. On the freeway past Long Beach on Friday, I opened the LA Times to be told that Israel “mops up [sic] in the West Bank,” while the syndicated columnist Mona Charen was telling readers in other papers that “98 per cent of Palestinians have not been living under occupation since Israel pulled out under the Oslo accords” and that the Israeli Prime Minister at the time, Ehud Barak, had offered Arafat “97 per cent of the West Bank and Gaza”. This was 1 per cent higher even than the statistic from “Michael” on WSUI/KSUI radio. Arafat—”this murderer with the deaths of thousands of Jews and Arabs on his hands”—was to blame. The issue between Israel and her neighbors, Charen contended, “is not occupation, it is not settlements and it certainly is not Israeli brutality and aggression. It is the Arabs’ inability to live peacefully with others”.

Maybe California is organically different from the rest of the United States, but its journalists as well as its students seemed a tad smarter than the Midwest of America. The Orange County Register, a traditionally conservative newspaper in an area that is now 50 per cent Latino, has been trying to tell the truth about the Middle East and was carrying a tough feature by Holger Jensen, which warned that if President Bush didn’t rein in Sharon, the Israeli Prime Minister “will succeed where Osama bin Laden failed: forcing us into a war of civilizations against 1.2 billion Muslims”. When I lunched with senior editorial staff, they invited three members of the Orange County Muslim community to join them.

Cocktails with friends of the Methodist church revealed a sane grasp of the Middle East—one of them was deeply disturbed by a recent remark by Israel’s Internal Security Minister, Uzi Landau, who had said that “we’re not facing human beings, but rather beasts”. A black guest commended the UN secretary general Kofi Annan’s criticism of Israel. Yet when I flipped on Fox News, there was Benjamin Netanyahu out-Sharoning Sharon, declaring that Palestinian suicide bombers would soon be prowling America’s streets, meeting Congressmen to enlist their help in Israel’s “war on terror,” even while the U.S. Secretary of State, Colin Powell, was in Israel.

“Why Israel’s Mission Must Continue,” the New York Times’s comment page shouted on Friday. A long and tedious article on Israel’s crusade against “terror” by an Israeli army colonel, Nitsan Alon, included several of my favorite cop-out phrases, including the stock reference to “a large number of civilians” who were—yes—“caught in the crossfire”.

By the time I was addressing the more bohemian denizens of an art club in Los Angeles, the newspapers I was attacking were beginning to turn up. Mark Kellner arrived to report for The Washington Times. “He’s going to stitch up everything you say,” a friend remarked. “The Washington Times is to the right of the Republican Party.” We shall see.

But if my audiences had been largely made up of Americans without any Middle East roots, the same could not be said of Sunday’s cocktails at the home of Stanley Sheinbaum, the philanthropist, art collector and libertarian—we shall forget the period in which he helped to run the Los Angeles Police Department—where my little speech was to set off some verbal hand-grenades. Sheinbaum it was who met Syria’s President Hafez el-Assad at President Jimmy Carter’s request, arranging Assad’s extraordinary summit with Carter in Geneva. “Tell me something good about yourself,” he said to me. Have you heard nothing good from anyone else, I enquired? “Nope,” he said.

But I liked Sheinbaum, a crusty, humorous man in his eighties who encourages every liberal Jewish American to have his say about the Middle East. As the lunchtime fog embraced the rose gardens and villas and swimming pools and hills of Brentwood, up stepped Rabbi Haim dov Beliak to explain how he intends to close down the bingo and gambling operations of one of America’s greatest Jewish settlement builders. “Call me when you get back to Beirut—by all means write about it.” As we scoffed Stanley Sheinbaum’s strawberries and sipped his fine Californian red wine, another rabbi approached. “You’re gonna have some hostile people in your audience,” he said. “Just let them hear the truth.”

So I did. I talked about the cowardice of Secretary Powell, who dawdled his way around the Mediterranean to give Sharon time to finish destroying the Jenin refugee camp. I talked about the rotting bodies of Jenin and the growing evidence that back in 1982 Sharon’s troops handed the survivors of the Sabra and Chatila massacre back to their Phalangist tormentors to be killed. I said that Arafat was never offered 96 per cent of the West Bank at Camp David. I advised the 100 or so people in the room to read the Israeli journalist Amira Haas’ courageous reports in Haaretz. I talked about the squalor of the Palestinian camp. I talked of suicide bombings as “evil” but suggested that Israel would never have security until it abided by UN Security Council Resolution 252; that Israel would never have peace until it abandoned all of the West Bank, Gaza, Golan and East Jerusalem.

San Francisco demonstrators marching up Dolores Street April 20, 2002

“What you said made me so angry.”

“I find it very difficult to ask you a question, because what you said made me so angry,” a woman began afterwards. Why did I not realize that the Palestinians wanted to destroy all of Israel, that the right-of-return would destroy the state? For an hour I explained the reality I saw in the Middle East; an all-powerful Israel fighting an old-time colonial war. I talked about the 1954-62 Algerian war, its brutality and cruelty, the French army’s torture and killings, the Algerians’ slaughter of civilians, the frightening parallels with the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. I talked about the Palestinians who wanted, at the least, an admission of the injustice their people had suffered in 1948, adding that there were Palestinians aplenty who realized that financial compensation would have to suffice for most of those refugees whose homes were in what is now Israel. I talked about Sharon and his bloody record in Lebanon. And about the pressures of the Israeli lobby in America, the fear of being labeled an anti-Semite, and the feeble reporting of the Middle East.

A rabbi was the first to tell me afterwards that the Palestinians were victims, that they should be given a real state. An old lady asked me for the name of the best book on the Algerian war. I gave it to her; Alastair Horne’s “A Savage War of Peace.” A card was pushed into my hand. “Insightful talk!” the owner had written at the bottom and—hate though I do the word “insightful”—I couldn’t help noticing that the name on the card was Yigal Arens, the son of one of Israel’s most ruthless right-wing ministers, who had once informed me—in Beirut, back in 1982—that Israel would “fight forever” against Palestinian terror.

On the freeway to LAX afterwards, the terminals and control tower looming through the Californian haze, I looked over Saturday’s LA Times. A report on page 12 revealed that the BBC’s award-winning film on Sharon’s involvement in the Sabra and Chatila massacres had been dropped from a Canadian film festival after protests from Jewish groups. The organizers had explained that The Accused “could invite unwanted attention from interest groups”—whatever that means. But a paragraph at the end of the report caught my attention. “Sharon, who was the Israeli defense minister at the time, allegedly facilitated the assault on the Sabra and Chatila refugee camps...” There it was again. Allegedly? How many angry letters was that little lie supposed to avoid? Allegedly indeed.

But on reflection, I didn’t think the Americans I met would be fooled by this. I didn’t think my hotel proprietor would accept “allegedly.” Nor the old naval officer from the John F Kennedy. Nor the listeners to KSUI. Nor even Stanley Sheinbaum. Yes, Osama bin Laden told me he thought Americans didn’t understand the Middle East. Maybe he was right then. But not any more.

The Independent (London), April 17, 2002





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