If it had only happened once that National Geographic published a
photo-laden article on the Middle East espousing anti-Israel themes, its ten
million subscribers could assume the piece was a regrettable aberration. But the
venerable magazine has clearly fallen into a nasty pattern.
A 1992 article entitled "Who Are The Palestinians" launched the
trend with a revisionist history in which Palestinian Arabs were said to be the
descendants of Canaanites, and Jews were erased from the region's ancient
record. The Jews of modern Israel fared no better, being cast as interlopers and
exploiters. Articles in 1993 and 1995 purveyed related themes with Israel
portrayed in one case as exploitive in its use of water resources and in another
as unjust to the Arabs of the Galilee.
1996 has already brought a bumper crop of similar articles to the
traditionally apolitical publication. April's "Three Faces of Jerusalem,"
July's "Syria Behind the Mask" and September's "Gaza, Where Peace
Walks A Tightrope" all manage to project a message of Israeli wrongdoing,
exploitation and intrusion.
Alan Mairson's Jerusalem article is a muddle of personal prejudices, errors
and omissions. Most glaring is the author's exclusion of any reference to the
unique and preeminent ties of the Jewish people to the city. Instead he offers
the themes of anti-Israel propagandists that the ancient connection of the Jews
to the land of Israel ended thousands of years ago, to be resumed in modern
times by dispossession of native Arabs. Thus, readers meet an Israeli Jew who
survived war-torn Europe and whose arrival in Israel, it is said, must
inevitably have trampled Arab rights. The crude linkage scorns fact and promotes
the false allegation that Palestinian Arabs paid the price of the Nazi Holocaust
against the Jews.
Unmentioned is the tenacious and nearly unbroken presence of a Jewish
community in Jerusalem through millennia, a community that dwindled or
flourished with the ebb and flow of foreign conquerors. Nor does Mairson tell
readers that, other than a short-lived Crusader state, only the Jews have
repeatedly established an independent nation there, with Jerusalem as the
capital. Nor does he inform readers that Jews have comprised a plurality or
majority in the city since the first censuses were taken in the early part of
Just as the past is misrepresented, there is no sense conveyed of the unique
expressions of devotion by the Jews toward Jerusalem, whether in the
thrice-daily prayers uttered through millennia by the religious or in the loving
restoration of the city by municipal leaders, architects and citizens in the
years since Israel was reborn as a modern state. The beauty of Jerusalem is
noted, but nowhere does Mairson point out that under centuries of Islamic
dominion preceding the Jewish restoration, the city was a destitute and
neglected backwater. The author leaves unidentified those responsible for the
renaissance, with no mention of, for example, the planting of nearly eleven
million trees around Jerusalem, the protection of religious sites or the
refurbishment and preservation of antiquities.
Instead, as Mairson paints the picture, Jews are a largely malign and
problematic presence, especially if they are religious. Orthodox Jews are
presented as repellent disrupters of normal, secular life. In one passage a "young
man with glassy eyes and a green knit skull cap" intrudes on a happy scene
of picnicking Jerusalemites when he sets up a table with prayer implements. The
offense? To encourage passersby to pray.
Mairson makes clear this sort of activity is only part of the menace posed
by devout Jews, whom he describes ominously as "an increasingly powerful
community" producing large families and making demands on the municipality.
Particularly deceptive is the author's inflated emphasis on a tiny, fringe
group, the Temple Mount Faithful whom he casts as a threat to Muslim holy sites
on the Temple Mount.
The author, who identifies himself as Jewish, conveys in detail his
discomfort with religious observance among the Jews, but is deferential to
Christian and Muslim devotion. Wajeeh Nusseibeh, for example, is identified as
the descendent of a Muslim line going back to 715 "not long after the
Prophet Muhammad is said to have received the wisdom of the Koran from Allah.
Nusseibeh," Mairson adds respectfully, "lives his life by that wisdom."
Muslim religious intolerance, surging Muslim population growth which
surpasses the Jewish rate in the city, Arab pressures on the municipality, Arab
abuses against non-Muslims that, before 1967, decimated the Christian population
of East Jerusalem, are all erased in Mairson's skewed portrayal of the city.
Less dramatically distorted but insidious as well was the story on Syria by
noted author, Peter Theroux. While he offers glimpses of the hostile public
attitudes among Syrians toward Israel, he completely obscures essential facts
of history and geopolitics. No fewer than half a dozen pages contain references
to the Golan Heights and Israeli possession of the land, but not once does
Theroux indicate to readers that Syria lost that territory as a consequence of
decades of unprovoked aggression launched from the Golan against Jewish
Other violent policies of the regime are unmentioned as well. There is
nothing about Syria's inclusion on the US State Department's list of nation's
sponsoring terrorism - more than half a dozen terrorist organizations find safe
refuge there. Nor is there a single reference to Syrian occupation of Lebanon
and its promotion of a drug trade there that spills into American cities. Syria
is, in Theroux's rendering, a colorful, liberalizing nation, whose misfortune it
is to have Israel on its southern border.
National Geographic's twenty-five page story on Gaza in September
continues the theme of Israeli malfeasance and culpability, this time in cruder
form by photographer/writer Alexandra Avakian. Once again, Israel is cast in the
role of oppressor opposite the blameless Palestinian victim. Regrettably,
readers are also referred to the magazine's new internet Website where further
misinformation on the subject is appended and where lesson plans are actually
provided so that teachers can pass the magazine's nonsense about Gaza on to
Avakian ascribes all the miseries of life in Gaza to the twenty-seven years
of Israeli occupation, and to current Israeli policies, stressing the allegedly
malign impact of the new government of Benjamin Netanyahu. Nothing is said of
the much more horrendous conditions that prevailed in Gaza before 1967. Nor is
the current reality honestly portrayed.
Yasir Arafat is described as struggling with every breath to make life
better for his people. Avakian writes: "[Arafat] works incredibly long
hours - often until three or four in the morning - tending to the details of
government. His transition from guerilla fighter to peacemaker has not been
easy; recent events have made his position more difficult as he mediates between
an increasingly desperate populace and Israel's new hard-line government."
Not a word here of what his restive Palestinian subjects call the "Gazan
Occupation," referring to Arafat's harsh and lawless reign over them.
Nothing of the ruthless suppression of dissent, including the repeated detention
and torture of Gazan psychiatrist and human rights activist, Iyad Sarraj, by the
Palestinian Authority or of the silencing of all journalistic criticism. Not a
mention of Arafat's squandering of aid money on networks of oppressive militias
and a sprawling bureaucracy, funds that might have been turned to job
Israel is held culpable for the general suffering, including for the
degraded water conditions, the crowding, the psychological pain of children and
on and on.
The proliferation of biased, anti-Israel articles in a supposedly
non-political publication such as the National Geographic may be a
symptom of the specific views of current editors at the publication or it may be
an indication of the degree to which anti-Israel attitudes have become
established throughout diverse parts of the media. Whatever the explanation,
perhaps a revolt by concerned subscribers would send a salutary message that
National Geographic should stick to what it knows and avoid partisan
Middle East politics.