If Patrick Cockburn and Joe Sacco have one thing in common, it is their outspoken antagonism toward Israel. And despite this, or perhaps because of this, the New York Times enlisted the former to review the latter's new anti-Israel comic book, Footnotes in Gaza, which alleges massacres in Gaza by Israel at the time of the 1956 Suez crisis.
This strange choice of an anti-Israel partisan to review an anti-Israel book not only resulted in a glowing, uncritical and almost sycophantic review, but also prompts some serious questions:
Is it useful to readers, not to mention professionally ethical, to draft a political partisan in this way? Is the Times Book Review department oblivious to the extreme biases of the two writers or worse yet in agreement with them?
Cockburn's journalistic career includes writing for the Independent, a fiercely anti-Israel British newspaper, and for Counterpunch, an online publication with even more radical views about the Jewish state. Joe Sacco is the author of two comic books about Palestinians Palestine, and his recently published Footnotes in Gaza which take a dim view of Israel's policies in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
A Cover-Up of Bias
There is, however, a crucial difference between Sacco and Cockburn. While Sacco openly admits that he promotes the Palestinian point of view, Cockburn, in his Dec. 27 New York Times book review of Footnotes in Gaza, deceptively attempts to portray Sacco as an objective investigative reporter.
"I have my prejudices, and I have my preconceived notions, " Sacco once noted. "Like anyone does, like any reporter does, but I'm just sort of 'fessing up to it."
The nature of those prejudices is revealed in a recent Associated Press story about Footnotes:
Sacco himself admits he takes sides.
"I don't believe in objectivity as it's practiced in American journalism. I'm not anti-Israeli ... It's just I very much believe in getting across the Palestinian point of view," he said. ...
A scene in "Palestine" shows an Israeli woman asking: "Shouldn't you be seeing our side of the story?" Sacco's cartoon self replies: "I've heard nothing but the Israeli side most of my life."
That Cockburn gushes over Sacco's work is not surprising. Nonetheless, it is noteworthy that a review in the New York Times, regardless of who the reviewer is, would fail to inform readers of the important bias to which Sacco himself readily admits.
Cockburn, instead of candidly "'fessing up," strains to cast Sacco as an objective journalist. Footnotes in Gaza, he insists, is a work of "investigative reporting of the highest quality." He claims that the author's "pursuit of Palestinian and Israeli eyewitnesses as well as Israeli and United Nations documentation is relentless and impressive."
The Wall Street Journal gives a more honest description of Sacco's supposedly "relentless and impressive" pursuit of Israeli eyewitnesses:
Mr. Sacco drew on United Nations records and Israeli state archives, and he got accounts from about 70 Palestinians. He also interviewed Mordechai Bar-On, an Israeli politician and historian, and a former Israeli soldier who was part of the operation in Khan Younis.
This one Israeli soldier interviewed is apparently not Meir Pail, described by the Associated Press as "a leading Israeli military historian and leftist politician." Pail told AP that "There was never a killing of such a degree. Nobody was murdered. I was there. I don't know of any massacre."
And Sacco himself, again being more honest about his work than was reviewer Patrick Cockburn, describes his limited pursuit of the Israeli witnesses as follows:
RS: Did you make an effort to talk to Israelis, to get their side of the story?
JS: I got two Israeli researchers to go through the archives to see what they could find. Which turned out to be almost close to zero about the Khan Younis incident: the second incident, there is something about that. There was one Israeli soldier who actually wrote about this in the early 1980s. And he wrote about coming across, as he put it, a human slaughterhouse. He had died, but I managed to call his widow. And she gave me the number of a guy he mentions in the story, and I managed to track that guy down. He really evaded the issue he said he saw nothing himself.
Sacco Would Have Preferred Honesty About His Biases; The Times Should Have Insisted On It.
Joe Sacco once told an interviewer that he preferred the British style of advocacy journalism over the more objective-minded American variety. He said,
if you read someone like Robert Fisk, who is one of the Independent's journalists, you know his political viewpoints once you've read enough of him. So you can either trust, or read his work with a grain of salt, or swallow it fully, depending on what your own inclinations are.
Perhaps, then, Sacco would have preferred for the New York Times review to be honest about his viewpoints, and thus allow readers to decide how they should receive his narrative. But at the same time, perhaps we shouldn't be surprised by Cockburn's duplicity. One thing that's certain, though, is that New York Times readers expect serious critique from that newspaper's book reviews, instead of Cockburn's piece, which was part echo chamber, and worse, part coverup.
Because Hamas Says So...
Meanwhile, there is reason to be skeptical of some of the Palestinian sources mentioned by Sacco and Cockburn. One source, whose comments serve as the headline to the New York Times review, "They Planted Hatred in Our Hearts,'" is Abed El-Aziz El-Rantisi. The late Hamas leader's resume includes not only responsibility for attacks against Israelis, but also unabashed Holocaust denial, something which surely should have raised doubts about his credibility. (That Cockburn's review, and presumably Sacco's book, is essentially dedicated to promoting Rantisi's narrative of Israeli blame for the hatred felt by Palestinians, or in other words, that they peddle the excuses of a man who once promised that "We will kill Jews everywhere" raises some moral questions, too.)
The Incidents in Gaza
Additionally, questions about Cockburn's credibility arise from his account of what he describes as a Nov. 12, 1956 "massacre" in Rafah:
The episode in Rafah was more complicated and took place over the course of a day, when people were summoned to a school so the Israelis could determine if they were guerrillas or soldiers. Here there were many more survivors than in Khan Younis; they describe how some were shot on their way to the school and others beaten to death with batons as they entered the school courtyard.
A United Nations report from the time paints a dramatically different picture , in which panicked Israeli soldiers seek to defend themselves in the fog of war. After noting that the two sides had different accounts of the number of Gazans killed and other specifics about the incident, the report notes:
The facts appear to be as follows: Rafah is a very large camp (more than 32,000 refugees) and the loudspeaker vans which called upon the men to gather at designated screening points were not heard by some of the refugee population. Realizing this, an UNRWA official went personally to one section of the camp to inform the inhabitants of the Israel announcement. Moreover, sufficient time was not allowed for all men to walk to the screening points and get there before the designated hour. In the confusion, a large number of refugees ran toward the screening points for fear of being late, and some Israel soldiers apparently panicked and opened fire on this running crowd.
The UN report also describes serious discrepancies about the purported massacre at Khan Younis, noting that Israelis said they were fighting against resistance, while Palestinians insisted all resistance had ended. It does not support one view over the other.
Also: LA Times Book Editor Dubs Israel "The Colonizers"
In related news, the Los Angeles Times review of Sacco's book is, at least in one way, even worse than the New York Times review.
The LA Times piece, which was written by their own book editor, touches on criticism of Sacco's biases, but then quickly dismisses the criticism arguing that they are not so relevant and implying that one should be biased against Israel because it is a "colonizer":
The knock, of course, is that Sacco is in with the very people about whom he's reporting, which colors his perspective in unsettling ways. That's true, in one sense, but the take-away is more important than any bias and, regardless, his sympathies are not so easily categorized. Yes, he is on the side of the colonized over the colonizers ...
This inflammatory description of pro-Palestinian/anti-Israel bias as amounting to siding with "the colonized over the colonizers" suggests that the LA Times book editor himself has a disturbingly biased worldview when it comes to the Arab-Israeli conflict.