Global Thinkers vs. Non: A Chat with Gideon Levy


By Belén Fernández

Two years have passed since Operation Cast Lead, Israel’s 22-day war on Gaza that began on 27 December 2008 and resulted in over 1400 Palestinian deaths. At the time, Haaretz journalist Gideon Levy noted the ironic application of the term ‘war’—defined by the Even-Shoshan dictionary as "an armed clash between armies, a conflict between state bodies (nations, states) in battle operations with the use of weapons and by force of arms"—to a situation in which only one of the sides possesses a state, an army, and a senior military officer who describes the conflict as "a superb call-up and training exercise".

Reviewing the various advantages of invoking the lexicon of war, Levy wrote:

“War makes it possible to mobilize, call to the flag and unite the ranks of the [Israeli] people, which most of the time are more interested in the seacoast of [the Turkish resort city of] Antalya than in any West Bank outpost. Only in war are we permitted to have media that sound more like the briefing room of the IDF Spokesman. In war, propaganda is all right. Using the word ‘war’ also validates war crimes, which might be prohibited in just a plain operation. If it’s war, then let’s go all the way: white phosphorus shells in the streets and artillery against population shelters; hundreds of women and children killed; strikes against rescue units and supply services. Hey, this is war, right?”

It is for his commitment to reporting the truth that Levy has been distinguished, along with his Haaretz colleague Amira Hass, as one of PULSE’s Top 10 Global Thinkers of 2010, compiled in response to Foreign Policy’s second annual publication of a farcical list of the Top 100 Global Thinkers. Other recent distinctions bestowed on Levy include being singled out for a sarcastic personalized greeting from former Israeli President Moshe Katsav at the Tel Aviv District Court the other morning, on the occasion of the Katsav’s conviction for rape. (See Levy’s response here: “Good morning to you too”, and “Take full responsibility for your deeds”.)

I spoke Sunday evening on the phone with Levy, who had spent the day in the West Bank—where Israel continues to pursue the decimation of the Palestinian Abu Rahmah family via tear gas and related paraphernalia. On the subject of the “brainwashing machinery” which propagates the Israeli conviction of a permanent monopoly on victimhood and which Levy has described as being “so efficient that trying [to undo it is] almost like trying to turn an omelette back to an egg” (see Johann Hari’s excellent interview in The Independent), Levy had the following to say:

“GL: [Brainwashing is] mainly taking place in the media and in the education system. And it’s an ongoing process. It [involves] adopting the language of the occupation, the laundering of words and perceptions. [As for] the way that the occupation is being covered in the media—mainly the way it is being not covered in the media—you can take the flotilla as an example, or you can take Operation Cast Lead as an example. The way these [events] were presented to Israeli public opinion was totally different than what the world saw.”

In other words, while the rest of the world saw IDF commandos attacking humanitarian activists on the Mavi Marmara last May, Israelis were encouraged to see the inverse relationship. While the rest of the world saw Palestinian civilians perishing at an alarming rate during Cast Lead, Levy points out that the death of an Israeli dog by Qassam rocket was treated as front-page news by certain Israeli media. (The Even-Shoshan dictionary should meanwhile consider refining its entries for “shock” and “anxiety” to specify that they are a strictly Israeli phenomenon, lest Arabs on the receiving end of white phosphorus assume they are also entitled to casualty-enhancing psychological suffering.)

I asked Levy to elaborate on the Israeli reaction to Cast Lead:

“Q: Did people feel that there was genuinely a threat emanating from Gaza and that this was genuinely a defensive maneuver, or did people assume that this was just the sort of slaughter merited by subhuman creatures who might at some point infringe on the comforts of Israeli existence? What was the reaction of the majority of the populace?

“GL: This was being checked in polls and it was very clear that there was overwhelming support for the operation. I think it was 89 percent… of Israeli public opinion which supported Cast Lead and supported its continuation and objected to stopping it. And you felt it everywhere, there was really—almost from wall to wall—support and also lack of tolerance to hear any kind of criticism.

“Q: But did the support result from a genuine conviction that Gaza did pose a threat to the Israeli state; I mean were people genuinely afraid?

“GL: [The fear] is genuine but it’s also being manipulated. There is a process of demonizing Gaza, which has been taking place for decades now, including in the months and the years before Operation Cast Lead, [when] the media was always [peddling] these descriptions about the Iranian weapons which are being smuggled in in the tunnels [from Egypt]… So for sure there was fear; Gaza was always perceived in Israel not as a place where people are living but only as a base for terror.”

These perceptions have been nurtured by Foreign Policy’s Global Thinker No. 33, The New York Times foreign affairs columnist Thomas Friedman, who loyally alerts his readership to the various crimes of Gaza such as Hamas’ failure to “turn it into Dubai rather than Tehran”. It is apparently not required by Global Thought to ponder whether Dubai itself would still function as a trade hub if it did not have control of its ports or if it was a location in which Global Thinkers advocated massive civilian casualties as a means of “education”.

Foreign Policy’s rationale for honoring Friedman is that he “doesn’t just report on events; he helps shape them.” Which is exactly the problem. (See Friedman’s encouragement to the IDF a few days prior to the deadly 2002 assault on Jenin:  “Israel needs to deliver a military blow that clearly shows terror will not pay.”)

Levy, on the other hand, is rejected by Global Thought because he would like for Palestinians not to be killed and because he relentlessly humanizes a population that is not meant to exist in human form. By transmitting the reality of, for example, the Palestinian Wahbas family whose lunch at home is interrupted by the arrival of an Israeli missile, Levy himself is effectively relegated to nonexistence by the likes of Foreign Policy.

Levy has argued that the failure of Cast Lead to provoke massive demonstrations in Israel, and the failure of Israelis to condemn atrocities being committed in their name, is indicative of the lack of a genuine Israeli peace camp and a genuine left wing. I asked him whether there is hope for a rectification of the situation. He responded:

“GL: No, I don’t see much hope, I don’t seen much room for hope. Because I don’t see any scenario in which any change would come from within Israeli society. There is no agency in Israeli society which can bring change now. Not civil society, not the media, not the political leadership. So I don’t see any hope for a change from within.”

This sober analysis is reflected in Levy’s New Year’s Eve dispatch for Haaretz entitled “The year of truth”, in which he demonstrates that Israeli democracy is as oxymoronic as Foreign Policy Global Thinkers and assesses 2010 as “the year we finally came out of the closet – no more saccharine phrases and hollow talk about justice and equality, no more flowery and superficial words about peace and two states.” A sense of optimism is nonetheless conveyed, but it derives from the idea that Israel has finally and definitively shown its true colors.

Levy’s book The Punishment of Gaza was published by Verso in 2010.

– Belén Fernández is an editor at PULSE Media and the author of Coffee with Hezbollah, a satirical political travelogue about hitchhiking through Lebanon in the aftermath of the July War. She contributed this article to Contact her at: [email protected].

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The Palestine Chronicle publishes news and commentary related to the Middle East Peace Conflict.

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