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 the century.
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 communities
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 children.
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 tortu
re 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 development.
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.