November 12th, 2010 at 8:26 am Arsen Ostrovsky
A few days ago, I was fortunate to attend a talk by Israeli Arab journalist Khaled Abu Toameh in Jerusalem.
Toameh gave an incredibly wide ranging talk about the peace process, the double standards rife in the West and the media when it comes to coverage of the Middle East and his perspective as a Muslim Arab of Palestinian descent living in Israel (and you thought you had identity issues!).
Toameh has been working as a journalist for almost 30 years now, covering Palestinian affairs, focusing predominantly on the West Bank and Gaza, including for the Palestinian press under the PLO and for various international media outlets in the US and Europe. He is currently at the Jerusalem Post writing on Palestinian issues. Toameh is also an Israeli citizen living in Jerusalem. In other words, he is aptly qualified to comment on the issues of his discussion.
However, if you expected Toameh to jump on the anti‑Israel bandwagon with the familiar cries that Israel is an un‑democratic apartheid state responsible for all that is wrong including the bubonic plague or to have a single‑minded focus on the occupation, you would have been sorely disappointed.
Instead, he spoke openly, courageously and in his words, said it "as it is". Asked what he thought was the essence of the conflict, Toameh said it was not about money or even settlements, as many so called pundits often imply, as a precursor to blaming Israel. Rather, his answer was very simple: "This conflict is about Israel's very existence in this part of the world."
But before you get any conclusions, Toameh is not a card carrying Zionist or as somebody once asked him "when did you get on the Israel lobby payroll". In his own words, he says:
I'm not pro‑Israel, I'm not pro‑Palestinian and I'm not pro‑American. But as a journalist, I'm pro the facts and pro the truth.
Here are some of Toameh's illuminating comments:
I asked Toameh how, as an Arab Muslim Israeli, he responds to accusations that Israel is an apartheid state.
Israel is not an apartheid state. But there are problems and some discrimination with the Arab minority inside Israel. If Israel were an apartheid state, I, for example, would not be allowed to work for a Jewish newspaper or live in a Jewish neighborhood or own a home. The real apartheid is in Lebanon, where there is a law that bans Palestinians from working in over 50 professions. Can you imagine if the Knesset passed a law banning Arabs from working even in one profession? The real apartheid is also in many Arab and Muslim nations, like Kuwait, where my Palestinian uncle, who has been living there for 35 years is banned from buying a house. The law of Israel does not distinguish between a Jew and an Arab.
As for the uniqueness of the Israeli media in the middle East, Toameh added:
Israel is a free and open country with a democracy, that respects the freedom of the media. You can basically write any anti‑Israel story and still walk in downtown Jerusalem or Tel Aviv without having to worry about your safety. Anyone can be a journalist in Israel.
Toameh says he finds it ironic that as an Arab Muslim living in this part of the world, the only place he can express himself freely is in a 'Jewish newspaper', noting that:
We don't have a free media in the Palestinian area, we didn't have one when I was working there in the late 70's and early 80's, we didn't have one when the PLO came here after the signing of the Oslo accords and we still don't have one under Fatah and Hamas.
But what about the media's need for an anti‑Israeli angle on stories? Toameh says that when he tried to alert many of his foreign colleagues that Palestinians were dying because of an internal power struggle or gross corruption by Arafat and the Palestinian Authority, their reflex response was:
Where's the anti‑Israel angle to the story? Give us an anti‑occupation story. Make our lives much easier. An Arab killing an Arab, that's not a story for us.
Toameh notes that the same foreign journalists would then ask him: "are you on the payroll of the Israel lobby?" Do they [the Jews] pay you to say these things against Arafat and the PLO?' Toameh's response to them:
what do the Jews have to do with this? I'm telling you what the Palestinians are saying about there being corruption in the Palestinian Authority. I'm even telling you that the PA is saying that the PA is corrupt.
It is a sad reflection on the state of society, and in particular, the media industry, that not only are they not sufficiently concerned or outraged at the death of Arabs by Arabs (which coincidentally has claimed many more lives than the Israel ‑ Palestinian conflict), but that they will only muster even an iota of concern if they can put in an 'anti‑Israel' angle.
On the proposed loyalty oath as well, Toameh offered a pragmatic response: "I have no problem with it because it applies equally to both Jews and non‑Jews alike."
One of the biggest and most intractable sticking points has consistently been the Palestinian demand for a right of return, which Israel will not agree to because it would mean the death knell of Israel as a Jewish state.