Israel’s 50th, the New Historians and NPR

Israel’s 50th anniversary with its outpouring of media coverage has been a numbing reminder of journalism’s herd instinct, the tendency of reporters to imitate one another, repeating the same themes and citing the same experts. The line on Israel’s birthday has been that this is a time for some limited upbeat appraisal — the Israeli high-tech sector is extraordinary — but much dour reassessment of Israel’s past.

In this vein many reporters have quoted the "new historians," a self-styled group of Israeli writers who claim to have exposed the falsity of Zionist "myths" about the founding of the nation. Israel, according to writers such as Benny Morris, Ilan Pappe, Avi Shlaim and Tom Segev, bears little resemblance to the heroic image purveyed in history books. For these authors the Zionist enterprise is deeply flawed, if not rotten at its heart.

They claim, for example: the Jews were not a vulnerable, outnumbered force in 1948 but a cleverly organized, well-armed military that overwhelmed weaker opponents; the Jews expelled Palestinian Arabs from Mandate Palestine in a violent and calculated plan; the Jews did not face implacable Arab enmity, but passed up promising opportunities for compromise; Palestinian Jews deliberately turned their backs on European Jews in the Holocaust. And more.

All these assertions have been systematically examined and refuted in articles and books by Israeli scholars, including Shabtai Teveth, Itamar Rabinovich, Efraim Karsh and others, but the media have lionized the revisionists and their themes and virtually ignored the refutations and the authorities making them.

In the first weeks of April alone leading up to Israel’s birthday, dozens of articles cited the views of revisionists without any indication their claims have been discredited. Only one reporter, Nicholas Goldberg in Newsday, included the rebuttals.

He quoted Efraim Karsh, Chairman of the Mediterranean Studies Department at Kings College London and author of Fabricating Israeli History. Karsh’s research finds the so-called "new historians" have manipulated and misrepresented original sources, and in effect invented a history to suit their current political agenda.

Nowhere were these revisionist writers cited more deceptively than in an April 9 broadcast on National Public Radio. Correspondent Eric Weiner devoted a long segment to Deir Yassin, an Arab town overrun by Jewish forces fifty years ago to the day. Controversy has raged over whether Arab casualties occurred in the course of a military operation or as a deliberate massacre.

Although it is clear that Arab forces in Deir Yassin were attacking Jewish convoys trying to break the siege of Jerusalem, that the Jews counterattacked trying to dislodge those forces, and that Arab civilians were killed in the course of the conflict, Weiner offers not a word about these issues. Instead, in an unabashedly one-sided presentation he promotes Ilan Pappe’s version, that Jews massacred Arabs there. And he repeats Pappe’s outrageous claim that "massacres were part of a Zionist plan to forcibly expel or kill as many Arabs as possible."

In a particularly scurrilous segment Weiner interviews an Arab eyewitness at Deir Yassin who claims the Jews prevented the Red Cross from treating a badly injured Arab infant whose mother was dead. The NPR reporter offers no corroboration for the claim, nor does he challenge the speaker. Though there are Jewish eyewitnesses who would present the other side, Weiner fails to interview them.

In fact, counter-evidence in the Deir Yassin story has been offered repeatedly not only by Jewish but by Arab sources. For example, as the Jerusalem Report noted in an April 2, 1998 article:

In a BBC television series, "Israel and the Arabs: the 50 Year Conflict," Hazem Nusseibeh, an editor of the Palestine Broadcasting Service’s Arabic news in 1948, describes an encounter at the Jaffa Gate of Jerusalem’s Old City with Deir Yassin survivors and Palestinian leaders, including Hussein Khalidi, the secretary of the Arab Higher Committee (the representative body of the Arabs of British Palestine).

"I asked Dr. Khalidi how we should cover the story," recalled Nusseibeh, now living in Amman. "He said, ‘We must make the most of this.’ So we wrote a press release stating that at Deir Yassin children were murdered, pregnant women were raped. All sorts of atrocities."

A Deir Yassin survivor identified as Abu Mahmud, said the villagers protested at the time. "We said, ‘There was no rape.’ [Khalidi] said, ‘We have to say this, so the Arab armies will come to liberate Palestine from the Jews.’"

Weiner, in citing Pappe’s crude revisionist history, casts Pappe as a beleaguered reformer trying — thus far unsuccessfully — to introduce his enlightened version of history in the Israeli school system. Unmentioned are Pappe’s extremist political agenda as an activist in the Israeli Communist party and former candidate in the 1996 Knesset elections on the Communist party ticket. The party platform opposes the Zionist character of Israel and calls for resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict on the basis of formulas that would entail the dissolution of Israel.

It is unfortunate that a reporter for National Public Radio should offer his audience "news" more reminiscent of Hazem Nusseibeh’s self-confessed 1948 propaganda than of responsible journalism.

Speaking at a conference of Arab-Americans a year ago, NPR Foreign Editor Loren Jenkins assured the audience that 90% of the criticism received at the network faults the coverage for being "pro-Arab." He said the complaints are "overwhelming on one side." Needless to say, Jenkins did not address the bias and distortion in NPR coverage that are the basis of those complaints.

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