He Gets It, But He Still Doesn't Get It: Reading Ethan Bronner in Athens

If you share in the project of reforming U.S. foreign policy so that it reflects the values and interests of the majority of Americans, then you care about the New York Times. Because of its role in influencing the coverage of other corporate media, the Times is a key gatekeeper shaping not only what the broad majority of the American public know about what our government is doing in the world, but also in determining to what perspectives about these policies the broad American public is exposed.

As a corollary, if you care about reforming U.S. policy towards the Palestinians' quest for self-determination, then you care about Ethan Bronner, because Bronner is the Times' Jerusalem bureau chief.

It was thus with keen interest that, as a passenger waiting in Athens earlier this week to board the U.S. boat to Gaza, The Audacity of Hope, I read Ethan Bronner's "news analysis" Sunday of the Gaza Freedom Flotilla, "Setting Sail on Gaza's Sea of Spin."

Bronner's job as a "news analyst" is, of course, not merely to put forward his own personal prejudices. As an individual human being, he is certainly entitled to his views. But as a news analyst, in addition to offering his own perspective, he has a responsibility to give a fair and coherent account of the views of different actors, rather than construct a caricature of one of the actors so that he can then dismiss them. Unfortunately, it's the latter that Bronner's piece ultimately does.

Bronner's piece is a tragic performance in the gap between the understanding that it grasps and the understanding that it manages to hold. It is one thing to be innocently ignorant. It is quite another to march right up to the Tree of Knowledge, pull down a ripe fruit, chew it thoughtfully and then spit it out because you don't like the taste. But this, sadly, is what Bronner's piece ultimately does.

Bronner's piece begins with great promise:

Some see a parallel with the Exodus, the ship filled with Jewish refugees that tried to break the British blockade of Palestine in 1947 and helped sway world opinion toward Zionism.

It's a singularly potent analogy. Arguably, in the entire history of Zionism, there is no more sympathetic image than the voyage of the Exodus. To be crude, in terms of American public opinion, if The Audacity of Hope equals the Exodus, then "we win." Bronner recounts:

In July 1947, when Britain ruled Palestine and the number of Jews allowed in was severely limited, the ship, with 4,500 Jewish refugees from Europe, tried to get through. British forces boarded it, killed three people, wounded dozens and essentially destroyed the ship as it listed in Haifa harbor. The British ultimately sent the passengers to Hamburg. The sight of thousands of Jewish refugees shipped to Germany soon after the Holocaust sparked international outrage and sympathy for the Zionist cause, a key goal of the trip.

Bronner then quotes a mainstream American-Israeli historian to bring the analogy home:

"The Exodus showed that if the British are callous enough to send Jews back to Germany, the only ones who should be in charge of the fate of the Jews are the Jews themselves," observed M. M. Silver, an Israeli historian and the author of "Our Exodus." "Palestinian forces are trying to make the same point through the flotilla, that Israel has no right to control the fate of Palestinians."

As a participant in the flotilla, I only have one dispute with Professor Silver's characterization of my motivation: the subject of the sentence is wrong. The sentence should read: "Advocates of Palestinian freedom are trying to make the same point through the flotilla, that Israel has no right to control the fate of Palestinians." The phrase "advocates of Palestinian freedom" correctly describes the organizers and passengers on the flotilla. This category certainly includes Palestinians, but it also includes, for example, African-American writer Alice Walker (passenger on The Audacity of Hope) and Israeli-American linguistics professor Hagit Borer (passenger on The Audacity of Hope.)

Notwithstanding that dispute, it cannot fairly be said that Bronner's piece has not exposed its readers to a more or less accurate portrayal of the motivations behind the flotilla. Yes, absolutely, we are contesting specific Israeli government decisions about who and what can go into and come out of Gaza and by what means. But, as important as this contest is in its own right, it is a corollary to a more fundamental contest: in Professor Silver's formulation, we assert that Israel has no right to control the fate of Palestinians.

Unfortunately, having tasted of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, Bronner's piece spits it out.

Bronner hammers the flotilla for transporting "humanitarian aid," which he correctly - but vacuously - says is not what Gaza needs. Indeed, Bronner quotes in support of his point the Israeli human rights group Gisha, which has campaigned against the closure of Gaza:

"The focus on humanitarian aid by both flotilla organizers and the Israeli government is infuriating and misleading," Gisha, an Israeli human rights group focused on Gaza, said in a statement. "There is no shortage of food in Gaza, but economic recovery is blocked by sweeping restrictions."

Gisha went on to say, quite rightly:

The continued ban on export, construction materials, and travel between Gaza and the West Bank contradicts the 2010 Israeli government decision to facilitate economic recovery in Gaza. At least 83% of Gaza's factories are either closed or working at a capacity of 50% or less, according to the Palestinian Federation of Industries. The manufacturing sector cannot recover under the present Israeli ban on export; not a single truck has been allowed to leave Gaza since May 12. Even during the winter agricultural season, when Israel allowed the export of agricultural produce, the quantities were economically negligible: an average of two trucks per day, compared to the 400 trucks a day agreed upon in the 2005 Agreement on Movement and Access.

Israel has banned completely goods destined for Israel and the West Bank, even though prior to 2007, 85% of the goods leaving Gaza were sold to Israel and the West Bank.

Sari Bashi, Executive Director of Gisha, says it is infuriating that residents of Gaza are being deliberately reduced to recipients of humanitarian aid. "The problem in Gaza is not a shortage of food but rather a violation of the right to productive, dignified work. There is just one solution that will respect the rights of Gaza residents to freedom of movement and livelihood while protecting Israel's legitimate security interests: Israel must lift the ban on construction materials, exit of goods and travel between Gaza and the West Bank." [emphasis in original.]

But in criticizing "flotilla organizers" for a "focus on humanitarian aid," Gisha was responding not to the actual flotilla organizers as they exist in flesh and blood, but to the flotilla organizers as portrayed by others, including Mr. Bronner. Having spent the last two weeks with "flotilla organizers," having attended many press conferences, having served on the media team of The Audacity of Hope, I never saw anyone "focus on humanitarian aid." (Indeed, The Audacity of Hope carried no "humanitarian aid" - it carried letters of solidarity from Americans to the people of Gaza.) Rather, I saw flotilla organizers and passengers focus on what Professor Silver correctly perceived: Israel has no right to control the fate of Palestinians, an axiom to which opposition to all the Israeli government restrictions on the Palestinian civilian population of Gaza - on imports and exports, on travel for work, study, and medical care, on fishing and farming - is corollary.

I saw people wearing t-shirts that said, "We sail until Palestine is free." I didn't see anyone wearing a t-shirt that said, "We sail until Israel allows more humanitarian aid into Gaza."

However, it may well be the case that correct words are insufficient here. Indeed, Ethan Bronner managed to write a "news analysis" that slammed the "focus" of "flotilla organizers" without naming or quoting a single one of them. We go to sleep and we awake, and Ethan Bronner is still the Jerusalem bureau chief of the New York Times, so it is logical to ask: could a future flotilla arrange its symbolism in such a way that even Ethan Bronner would be incapable of misunderstanding? What would such a Dream Flotilla look like?

Maybe it would look like this: pushing against every aspect of the Israeli blockade of Gaza at once. Such a flotilla would have some ships going in, and other ships coming out, carrying Palestinian exports. Still other ships would fish 20 nautical miles from Gaza's coast, as promised in the Oslo Accords, rather than the three nautical miles currently allowed by unilateral Israeli restriction. Other "ships" would farm to Gaza's border with Israel, defying the unilateral Israeli "buffer zone." Other "ships" would carry Palestinians from Gaza needing lifesaving medical treatment to Palestinian hospitals in East Jerusalem, in defiance of Israeli restrictions. Other "ships" would carry Palestinians from Gaza to study at Palestinian universities in the West Bank, in defiance of the restrictions of the Israeli occupation.

Maybe then, Ethan Bronner would understand. But just to make sure, perhaps this Dream Flotilla should set sail in September, when the Palestinians are pressing their case at the United Nations for recognition of their independent state - a push that has at its core a very simple precept: Israel has no right to control the fate of Palestinians.

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