CAMERA Op-Ed: National Geographic Loses Its Compass

National Geographic Editor-in-Chief William Allen must have wanted a virulent, anti-Israel article in his magazine. Otherwise, why enlist Andrew Cockburn to write “Lines in the Sand: Deadly Times in the West Bank and Gaza” (October 2002)?

Cockburn has a well-known resume. He is, for example, the author with his wife, Leslie, of Dangerous Liaison, The Inside Story of the U.S.-Israeli Covert Relationship. A 1991 New York Times review observed: “…their book, supposedly a history of the secret ties between Israel and the United States, is largely dedicated to Israel-bashing for its own sake.” The reviewer also deplored the shoddiness of “selective documentation and unattributed interviews.”

The ten-page National Geographic piece, filled with maps, chronologies and anti-Israel dogma, casts that nation as either overtly or indirectly guilty at every turn for the Arab-Israeli conflict, while Arab aggression is almost entirely omitted. The 1948 War in which 6,000 Israelis perished at the hands of five invading Arab armies is rendered by Cockburn as simply an escalation of a mutually-chosen clash. He writes that in May 1948 “an ongoing war between Jews and Palestinians was thereupon joined by neighboring Arab states.” The only victims of the war mentioned are Palestinian refugees.

A time-line paragraph referring to the same war claims Israel was “well armed and much better organized” and so “quickly gained the upper hand.” That, of course, would be news to the rag-tag army of Jewish recruits and Holocaust survivors armed for much of the war – if at all – with antiquated and improvised weaponry and facing British trained and led Jordanian troops, Egyptian tanks and Syrian artillery.

The Six Day War is, likewise, air-brushed with not a hint in the main text of the article about the magnitude of threat Israel faced. Cockburn writes “in the 1967 Six Day War, Israeli forces speedily overran Gaza and swept across the West Bank, establishing a new frontier for Israel on the Jordan River.” A time-line reference concedes that “Syria and Egypt appeared to be readying an attack on Israel,” but excludes mention of the Egyptian blockade of the Straits of Tiran, a casus belli.

There is, of course, no intimation that Arab nations convened shortly after June 1967 to issue their three “no’s,” refusing to recognize Israel, to negotiate with Israel or to make peace with Israel.

Nor, incredibly, is there any mention, either in the main text or the accompanying time-line, of the 1973 Arab invasion on Yom Kippur that nearly overran Israel. The time-line skips oddly from 1967 to 1978 and “Camp David I.”

The current terrorist assault by the Palestinians is presented just as dishonestly, with no onus assigned them for the launching of the violence or the savagery of the methods used. On the contrary, Palestinian premeditation and responsibility are hidden in the familiar cant of a “cycle of violence” and the “despair” of the Arabs.

The article is rife with outright error as well:

Cockburn writes that according to “a cache of letters” written by “Babatha,” a “second-century Jewish woman,” “Jews and Arabs” in ancient times “coexist[ed] without friction.” But Arabs arrived only five hundred years later, with the Muslim conquest of the seventh century.

Insistent on this theme of earlier, better times, Cockburn further claims “Jews, Christians and Muslims living in Jerusalem” enjoyed harmonious relations “just a hundred years ago,” until the allegedly pernicious “rise of nationalism.” On the contrary, accounts of life in Ottoman-controlled Jerusalem, such as that by diarist Mrs. Goodrich-Freer in 1904 refer to the singular “humiliations” inflicted on the Jews by Arabs, even though Jews were a large majority in the city. Jewish children could not walk unprotected to school, Jews were assailed with insults on the streets and Jews were compelled to pay large sums of money to pray safely at the Western Wall and to fend off plundering of their cemeteries and holy sites.

Equally careless with the present, Cockburn implies Israel steals Palestinian water. He writes that “a third of [Israel’s] entire supply was being drawn from aquifers under the highlands of the [West Bank] territory.”

In fact, these aquifers straddle the Green Line, but most of the water from them is stored under pre-1967 Israel, making it easily accessible only in Israel. The geographic reality – that water moves down the mountains toward Israel where it accumulates underground – is not a nefarious Jewish trick to seize water, but a matter of gravity.

The article continues with false accusations of impudent and illegal Jewish claims on Jerusalem, reckless land seizures and rampant, unlawful settlement-construction.

National Geographic magazine is part of an enormously prosperous “non-profit” enterprise with, as of 1999, a billion dollars in assets, and editors, officers and even trustees who collect Wall Street-size salaries. Perhaps some of these lavish resources could be redirected to basics such as fact-checking and upholding ethical reporting standards.


Originally appeared in the Jerusalem Post on October 11, 2002

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