Former CIA analysts
On October 20, BILL and KATHLEEN CHRISTISON spoke in Montpelier, Vermont at the first of several public forums scheduled in connection with an exhibition of Palestinian art, entitled Made in Palestine. Their presentations appear below. Sponsored by Vermonters for a Just Peace in Palestine/Israel, Made in Palestine is the first survey exhibition of contemporary Palestinian art in the United States. The exhibition is on display at the T. W. Wood Gallery on the campus of Vermont College of the Union Institute and University from October 18 through November 20. Originally shown at the Station Museum in Houston during 2003, the exhibition had a brief run in San Francisco in April 2005, but curators have had trouble finding other venues for this powerful and therefore extremely controversial expression of Palestinian political and cultural identity. Further information on the exhibition can be found on the website of Vermonters for a Just Peace in Palestine/Israel, www.vtjp.org.
Bill Christison: The exhibition of Palestinian artwork that we are honoring today is directly related to the present terrible suffering of the Palestinian people.
A few months ago, the CounterPunch online magazine published an article on this exhibition as it opened in San Francisco. (“Made in Palestine: The First Exhibition of Contemporary Palestinian Art in the United States Arrives in San Francisco,” by Rob Eshelman, April 8, 2005.) Among other things, the article described briefly how Israeli occupation authorities try to prevent articles manufactured in Palestine for export from being labeled as “Made in Palestine.” The Israeli government would rather see just a “Made in Israel” label. But the occupation authorities are not always successful, and sometimes products do get through sporting a label that says Palestine. This article contains a delightful short paragraph that is worth quoting:
“Made in Palestine. The prohibition of those words appearing on products cuts to the core of the Palestinian struggle — an Israeli occupation that attempts to thwart any assertion of a Palestinian history or identity. But [when it happens,] the production of these goods, with their prohibited label intact, also shows the steadfastness and inexhaustibility of the Palestinian people. ”
Remember these words — steadfastness and inexhaustibility. However terrible the situation of Palestinians is today, the steadfastness and particularly the inexhaustibility of the people are traits that will continue to sustain their hopes — and there is no evidence that Palestinians will lose those hopes either in the near or in the more distant future. As the article in CounterPunch points out, this exhibition of Palestinian artwork, just opening here in Vermont, is appropriately and somewhat defiantly titled, “Made in Palestine.”
All of us who are lucky enough to spend some time examining these artworks and learning about the artists should be asking ourselves a couple of broader questions about Palestine itself. Why should that small part of the world known as Palestine have any importance at all to Americans? And why do some people, including Kathy and me and those who organized this exhibition, believe that Palestine is actually more important to the U.S. than most Americans think it is?
The simplest answer to both of these questions is that present U.S. policies toward Palestine — policies of almost total support for almost anything the government of Israel wants — are just plain immoral, terribly unjust and oppressive to the Palestinians. These are shameful U.S. policies. The U.S. government and Americans in general should not need to spend even a minute looking for answers beyond this before concluding that we should change our policies to ones that are just and moral.
But in the skeptical, cynical, and allegedly pragmatic world we live in today, most of us seem to need arguments beyond justice and morality before we are willing to change policies that the U.S. has espoused for years. To repeat, we really should not need pragmatic arguments if we believe that what’s right is right and what’s wrong is wrong. But let’s try on — just for size — one particular pragmatic argument. Maybe it will help us accept the more idealistic arguments.
Here’s the pragmatic argument. Without a just and moral resolution of the Israel-Palestine issue, it will be impossible to eliminate or even reduce the amount of terrorism against the U.S. and its allies — even if the U.S. were to withdraw all its forces from Iraq, and even if the U.S. and Israel were to refrain from any further aggressive acts against Iran or Syria.
This last statement needs to be emphasized in the strongest possible terms. Both Kathy and I believe that George Bush’s so-called “war on terror” will never end unless the U.S. first accepts, and compels Israel to accept, a just and moral resolution to the Israel-Palestine issue.
The two of us just got back from the Middle East at the end of September. In the last three years, we have made four visits to Palestine. On each occasion, we have spent two or three weeks in the West Bank, admittedly not long enough to do more than scratch the surface of learning how Palestinians spend their day-to-day lives. But even the very limited knowledge that we think we have acquired leads to one inevitable conclusion. Daily life has become worse than ever for average Palestinians over the past three years, and their situation today is beyond question the absolute worst we have seen in all our visits.
The Jerusalem representative of one of the U.S. Christian churches told us that the most appropriate statement he could make was that the U.S. and Israel have “raped” the occupied Palestinian territories. Almost universally, Palestinians with whom we spoke described Israel’s apartheid wall and fence, being built with U.S. acquiescence and aid, as the single worst recent development in damaging Palestinian daily lives. Equally important over the longer run, however, is the spoilage of the environment and the trash and garbage dumping that Israel has allowed its own citizens and companies to carry out in many parts of the West Bank. These developments cause gradually worsening health problems but, more importantly, are actually intended by Israel’s occupation authorities to encourage Palestinians to leave the West Bank. In this case too, the U.S. stands by and does nothing to discourage such Israeli actions.
The problem right now, of course, is that in this period when Bush is in some political trouble here at home, and when Democratic Party leaders are demonstrating, in a typically cowardly fashion, that they do not wish to act as a true opposition to Bush, Ariel Sharon, the head of the Israeli government, knows he can get away with almost anything. He does so now with more impunity than usual, because his unilateral and really quite minor “disengagement” in Gaza has gained him an unaccustomed, and unwarranted, degree of popularity around the world.
What can we do about all this? Well, not being humble people, we are going to present a few ideas that some of you may buy, but others among you probably will not. In our view, we have to start making big, really big, foreign policy changes in the U.S. Small changes will no longer do. So we are just going to dive in and make our suggestions. Some of you may think they are utterly unrealistic. But please, do not allow so-called realism to kill your ideals, or ours. Come up with your own suggestions, if you think that yours will be more likely than ours to make real progress toward your ideals — which in many cases, we’d guess, are probably similar to our own.
The first suggestion from us is very general, but very important. The U.S. Government has to learn how to say, “We’ve made big mistakes and we’re sorry.” And then we have to change — actually change — our foreign policies, practically all of them.
The second suggestion is related to the first and is almost as general. We should throw out present U.S. policies on appeasement and isolationism, and start a fresh and brand-new discussion of just how much appeasement and isolationism might be desirable policies for the U.S. to espouse. The “a” and the “i” words are almost universally considered bad words by most Americans today. We need to change that — appeasement and isolationism should become good words again. In particular, we should be clear that nothing is wrong with “appeasing” other nations, or becoming more “isolationist,” by changing past policies when those past policies have been wrong. The only question worth debating is specifically how, and how much, should one change the past policies. The entire U.S. foreign policy bureaucracy needs at the very least to stop hanging itself up by refusing even to consider changing present strictures against appeasement and isolationism that date back to pre-World War II days.
Now let’s move on to more specific policies.
Our third suggestion is that the U.S. start immediately making the necessary changes we’ve already called for on the Israel-Palestine issue. More on this later. Kathy’s going to discuss it at length. Making U.S policies toward Israel and Palestine just and moral is, to the two of us, the absolute number one priority of the specific policy changes that the U.S. should make. Otherwise we will never resolve much of anything in the Middle East.
Our fourth suggestion is also for a very specific policy change. It is that the U.S. should end its monumental hypocrisy on nuclear weapons. The first part of the change that is necessary here is that unless and until the U.S. is willing to eliminate its own nuclear weapons, Americans should accept, very publicly, that other nation-states around the world have just as much right to nuclear weapons as the U.S., Israel, Russia, China, England, France, India, Pakistan — and yes, even North Korea. Specifically, the U.S. should not continue to expand the varieties of weapons in its own nuclear arsenal, and acquiesce in Israel’s doing the same, and at the same time refuse to let the independent government of Iran develop its own nuclear weapons.
Many of the world’s governments might appear to accept such U.S. hypocrisy, but that hypocrisy will guarantee an expansion of hatred against the U.S. among Islamic peoples of the world and bring nearer the day when Islamic governments that now accept U.S. hegemony will be overthrown. In the eyes of most Muslims and many other people too, Iran, with a population of over 65 million, has as much right as Israel with a population only one-tenth as large to have nuclear weapons. Continued U.S. hypocrisy on this issue only makes further global nuclear weapons proliferation more likely, and brings us all closer to a new and disastrous world war.
The best hope the world has of avoiding such an outcome is for the U.S. to begin honest and serious multilateral negotiations aimed at eliminating nuclear weapons everywhere, and perhaps, as a first step, working to create a nuclear free zone in the entire Middle East, including Israel.
Incidentally, here’s an interesting bit of information some of you might like to hear about if you don’t know it already. The city of Albuquerque in Kathy’s and my own state of New Mexico apparently has more nuclear weapons stored in it than any other city of the world. The Brookings Institution estimated in 2002 that 2,510 were stored in Albuquerque at that time, and there is no evidence that this number is any smaller today. We really do not know how reliable this estimate is, but the Brookings Institution has a slightly better reputation these days, with us anyway, than most of the U.S. think tanks. Some people knowledgeable on the nuclear proliferation issue have told us that they do not believe the Soviet Union ever stored so many weapons in one place. Maybe the fact that several places near our home in New Mexico could be prime targets either of nuclear terrorists, or in a “hot-war” nuclear exchange, makes us worry about this problem more than most people would.
There is another bit of information about the nuclear history of the U.S. that we all should be aware of. This is the fact that in the past 15 or 20 years new historical research has shown, quite conclusively in my opinion, that the U.S. decision to use nuclear weapons against Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 had more to do with U.S. policy toward the Soviet Union and Europe than with the war against Japan. This research also suggests very strongly that bombing Hiroshima and Nagasaki was not necessary to avoid the casualties that it was thought might result from an invasion of Japan. The work of the historian Gar Alperovitz is absolutely vital to read in this regard. The importance of his work (and that of others) is that if their conclusions are correct, and I think they are, these unbelievably horrendous acts of terrorism against Hiroshima and Nagasaki were not acts that a sensible person could believe produced beneficial results for the U.S. — results that could be considered worthwhile when measured against the massive killings and agony that resulted from the acts themselves. All of this is a further reason why the U.S. should reverse its present nuclear policies and work seriously to prevent the use of such weapons by anybody, anywhere in the world. [NOTE: Gar Alperovitz’ principal book on this subject is The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb, originally published in hardcover by Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., New York, in 1995.]
There’s a final comment to be made here tying global nuclear weapons problems back to U.S. relations with Israel. While it may still be possible to argue over whether Israel was one of the causal factors in the Bush administration’s decision to invade Iraq in 2003, it is crystal clear that Israel would be a causal factor of any war against Iran or covert actions to overthrow the government of that country, that the U.S. might launch. In fact it is very possible that Israel might be the actual instrument for carrying out such actions against Iran.
The fifth and last policy change we want to suggest here concerns U.S. policies on killing. It is not just in Palestine that American foreign policies have reached a new low in terms of the magnitude of injustice and immorality the U.S. is carrying out around the globe. The U.S. has been killing or condoning the killing, and torturing or condoning the torture, of largely innocent people for far too long — in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Palestine. If you want, you can go farther back in history, through Vietnam, Indonesia, Hiroshima, all the way to the Philippines at the end of the 19th century and American Indians even earlier, and find more killings and torture that are the responsibility of the United States. Many Americans would never spend time thinking about U.S. policies on killing, just as many Americans would never spend time thinking about the U.S. as a colonial power. (Do many Americans, for instance, ever stop to think that the very existence of Alaska and Hawaii as actual states of the United States is an obvious example of U.S. colonialism?) But of course the U.S. in reality is today the world’s supreme colonial power and the world’s supreme killing power.
Let’s make another point about the killing and torture of innocent people around the globe today. Modern high-tech media make it far easier for people everywhere to see and understand who is killing whom in the world these days. The sheer magnitude of the killings that most people see as being caused by the U.S., and the widespread apathy others believe they observe in the reactions of many Americans to these killings makes American policies on killing seem truly evil to much of the world’s population.
That last statement — that “much of the world’s population” sees U.S. policies as evil, certainly does not mean that we have a precise number of people in mind or that we have actually counted them. Admittedly we have not. But numerous polls have been taken in the Middle East showing that the U.S. is widely hated for its policies, and not for other reasons. We’d be willing to bet anyone in this room that there are far more people in the world who despise the U.S policies that result in killings and tortures and who hate the U.S. government for causing them, than there are people who fit Bush’s definition of hating the U.S. because they hate all the freedoms that he alleges U.S. citizens possess.
We do not really need to discuss this at any length. The U.S., as a matter of national policy, just has to stop the killings and tortures. The vast majority of these events simply do not occur in situations where legitimate national defense can be claimed as the reason. Torture in our view can never be claimed as a legitimate defense against an enemy, and at least since the Vietnam War, the two of us, who spent a number of years in Vietnam, do not accept any claims that killings by the U.S. have been a legitimate defense of anything. They are instead a part of the U.S. policy of expanding its empire.
This has to stop. Empire-building should never be an excuse for killing and torture, although that is precisely what is happening today. But let’s not just stop it. Let’s not just go after a few low-level killers and torturers. Let’s go after and drag into the highest courts we can find those top-level U.S. leaders who created a supportive atmosphere for, and then condoned and encouraged, the killers and torturers.
Thank you. I’ll turn you over to Kathy now.
Kathleen Christison: While Bill and I were recently in Jerusalem and the West Bank, we spent one evening at dinner with a small group of officials of the International Monetary Fund, the IMF, and in the course of the evening we had a couple of brief and fairly dismaying conversations. Two of the guests were visiting IMF firemen — one Irish, one American — who were there for just a two-week stint working with the Palestinian Authority. It was clear that they knew, I would say, absolutely nothing in-depth about the situation, although it’s not clear that they really recognized their ignorance.
Both were hung up on terrorism, but the most disturbing conversation came when the American guy said, as a matter of absolute fact, “The basic issue in the conflict is Israel’s right to exist.” To my chagrin, I did not rise properly to this provocation. I countered, accurately enough, that the Palestinians had indeed recognized Israel’s right to exist way back in 1988 and again in 1993 when the Oslo agreement was signed. But what I should have said was something like this: “Israel’s right to exist is most certainly not the basic issue in the conflict. The Palestinians’ right to exist is the basic issue. Today, the root of the conflict is Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territory: the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem. And if you want to go back to the beginning, the basic issue is Israel’s dispossession of the Palestinians in 1948, and Israel’s failure ever to recognize the Palestinian right to exist.”
My point here is that this man’s easy assumption that Israel’s existence is the central issue in the conflict, his fixation with terrorism against Israel, and his general failure to understand anything about Palestinian needs or anything at all about the Palestinian perspective — all these assumptions, which are generally shared by most Americans, from the man in the street to policymakers, constitute a monumental misconception surrounding the conflict. The widespread tendency always to view Israel’s rights and Israel’s interests as paramount, to view the issue only from the Israeli point of view, never from the Palestinian perspective, has constituted a fundamental misconception about the conflict from the beginning and a fundamental obstacle to every attempt to resolve it.
You can call it a mindset or a prism or a set of assumptions or, the term I usually use, a frame of reference. What all of these terms signify is the particular framework, the particular set of boundaries around thinking, that defines how we look at this Palestinian-Israeli issue. And, with this conflict perhaps more than with any other, the frame is badly tilted, the prism is totally Israel-centered, and it is getting more so. Scientists, political scientists as well as neuroscientists, who have studied patterns of thinking say that it is extremely difficult to change imbedded thinking. The fundamental structure of thought is deeply lodged in the brain and doesn’t change simply by hearing contrary facts. If facts don’t fit in with preconceived thinking, they’re simply rejected — which is why you can show an Israeli supporter a map showing factually where Israeli settlements break up Palestinian territory and where the wall intrudes on Palestinian villages, and be told that you are simply “bashing Israel.” Everyone — ordinary Americans, the media, and policymakers — simply ignores facts that don’t fit with preconceived notions.
This is a situation in which facts do not matter. The image of Israel as an overwhelmingly strong military power does not fit with the common image, with which we’ve all grown up, of Jews as innocent victims, always under siege; the image of Israel as oppressor of Palestinians does not fit with the image we all know of Israel as a moral power; the notion of Israeli soldiers as killers doesn’t fit the concept of “purity of arms” that we’ve all been told is instilled in the Israeli military. No part of the Palestinian narrative fits with the accepted, politically correct public mindset.
Palestinians disappeared from the international political radar screen immediately after Israel’s creation and their dispossession in 1948, and they remained off as serious actors, serious participants in the determination of their own fate, for nearly half a century, until the peace process of the 1990s. There was a decade or so in which they were at least paid attention to — relatively favorably at first, during the height of the peace process, and then extremely unfavorably after the collapse of the Camp David summit in 2000 and the start of the intifada, but today Palestine has again almost totally disappeared from everyone’s field of vision.
Antiwar activists are concentrating on ending the war in Iraq, and even those inclined to notice what’s happening in Palestine-Israel won’t criticize Israel’s occupation or stand up for Palestine for fear of being branded anti-Semitic. Most mainstream churches, with one or two notable exceptions, are similarly fearful. (Bill and I had an experience early this year in which the representative of the New Mexico archbishop on a Jewish-Catholic dialogue forum, a priest, publicly absented himself from a talk we gave to a Council of Churches group because he thought our views would offend his Jewish colleagues. In other words, he wouldn’t even allow himself to listen to one perspective on the situation.) Progressive groups like Tikkun have essentially turned away from the Palestinian-Israeli issue, and have always in any case been fairly timid about criticizing Israeli policies.
At the other end of the political spectrum, Christian Zionists have become the most fervent supporters of Israel’s right wing and of Israel’s refusal to relinquish control of the occupied West Bank and Jerusalem. And, of course, the pro-Israel lobby — AIPAC and the major American Jewish organizations — is more strident and more belligerent than ever in the effort to defend Israel and silence the Palestinian narrative. No politician anymore dares to speak out against Israel’s policies and U.S. support for them, and on this issue more than any other it is utterly impossible to distinguish Democrats from Republicans. Outside pressures on the U.S. are also totally ineffectual: no European nation will stand up to the U.S.; no nation anywhere else cares.
So, as time passes and other large events — hurricanes and wars and tsunamis — intervene, Palestine recedes ever farther into the background and is ultimately forgotten altogether. Even well meaning people, well meaning activists, look it as an old story, so difficult to resolve, so politically dangerous, so easy to push aside. The result is a pervasive silence about Palestine and its fate.
The media, the mainstream media in the U.S. and in Europe, constitute the principal instrument in shaping and maintaining the frame of reference through which we all view Palestinians and Israelis-a frame of reference totally centered on Israel and its needs, totally ignorant of the Palestinian narrative, of Palestinian needs. Here’s one small example: Amira Hass, correspondent for the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz and almost the lone media voice telling the true story, reports that when she asked a European journalist a couple of months ago why this other journalist did not write about the separation wall being built around the East Jerusalem suburb of Anata-which is a truly strangulating portion of the wall-the answer was that the journalist’s editors were interested only in the then-impending Gaza disengagement because it was action-packed and exciting; the editors were tired of the “repetitious details” of the damage the wall is doing. Repetitious details. Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who have had their homes demolished, their lands confiscated, their orchards and olive groves bulldozed, who have been separated by the wall from their jobs, their farmlands, their schools, their medical and other social services, have now become, in the eyes of the media, just so many repetitious details.
The media are totally silent on the almost daily Israeli killing of Palestinian civilians, including children-in sniper shootings, in missile attacks, under bulldozed homes, “collaterally” in targeted killings of militant leaders. These killings will be denied by supporters of Israel, but they have been described in the Israeli press, they’ve been detailed by scores of Israeli soldiers themselves in a series of testimonials called “Breaking the Silence,” and they’ve been noted by international and Israeli human rights groups. The killings take place in an atmosphere of what Human Rights Watch recently characterized as total impunity. Media silence and the western indifference that this silence spawns help create this atmosphere, in which Israeli soldiers have license to kill almost whenever they please.
Studies of U.S. and British media coverage show repeatedly that Palestinian civilian deaths receive little media attention while Israeli deaths get disproportionate coverage — leaving the impression that Israelis are dying at rates far higher than Palestinians, when in fact throughout the intifada Palestinian deaths have consistently outnumbered Israeli deaths by three or four times. Few media consumers know the true story of these disproportionate Palestinian deaths.
A recent in-depth study of British television treatment of the conflict showed similar distortions. The study examined both the content of broadcasts and the impact of coverage on audience understanding and attitudes. The study was published last year as a book, entitled Bad News from Israel, by two Glasgow University researchers. In an article describing the book, a former BBC Middle East correspondent, Tim Llewellyn, wrote that British radio and television coverage of the intifada was “in the main, dishonest-in concept, approach and execution.” Llewellyn, who reported from the Middle East for ten years for BBC, endorsed the book’s conclusions by observing that in his experience “the broadcasters’ language favours the occupying soldiers over the occupied Arabs, depicting the latter, essentially, as alien tribes threatening the survival of Israel, rather than vice versa.”
The authors of the book studied British television broadcasts for two years and found that Israelis were quoted or appeared in interviews more than twice as often as Palestinians; that news broadcasts provided no historical information on the origins of the conflict or on the Palestinians’ dispossession in 1948; that the occupation — the word “occupation” itself, as well as the concept of Israeli control over Palestinian territories — was never mentioned in broadcasts; that Israeli settlements and other features of the occupation such as land confiscations were never described as having a role in imposing the occupation and Israeli control over Palestinians.
The researchers’ survey of television-watching audiences in Britain found widespread ignorance and confusion about the conflict. Gaps in audience knowledge exactly paralleled the gaps in news coverage. Most viewers, not knowing the history and only rarely if ever hearing the word “occupation” used, did not know who was occupying whom. Only an astounding ten percent understood that Israel is occupying Palestinian territory and not the reverse, and most thought the Palestinians always initiated the fighting. As the BBC correspondent Llewellyn concluded from the study’s findings, the result of television’s “distorted lens,” as he called it, is that “the Israelis have identity, existence, a story the viewer understands. The Palestinians are anonymous, alien, their personalities and their views buried under their burden of plight and the vernacular of ‘terror.'”
And here we have the crux of the problem. You hear these revelations with some despair. How is a frame of reference so longstanding, so set in concrete, so much a part of the mindset of the public and the media and politicians ever to be changed? Some serious analysts have talked about trying to reframe the debate. Jeff Halper is an Israeli anthropologist who founded and heads the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions, a marvelous anti-occupation NGO that opposes Israel’s policy of wantonly demolishing Palestinian homes in the Jerusalem area, helps rebuild homes when possible, and charts the entire phenomenon of Israeli expansion across the occupied territories, from house demolitions to land confiscations, settlement construction, road construction, construction of the separation wall, and so on. Jeff has been writing imaginatively for some time on how to reframe the conflict so that it will be generally viewed as a human rights issue in which two peoples have interests and needs, rather than as an issue in which Israel has exclusive rights, in which only Israel’s interests are recognized and only Israel’s right to exist is considered.
Jeff tells a little story of how he recently devised a sort of mnemonic or sound bite to describe his position in his effort at reframing. He was in Washington, DC, about to address a group of busy legislators and legislative aides. He only had a brief time to speak, and he was desperately searching for some formula that would capture what he was trying to get at without having to go into reams and reams of detail about the situation.
You’ve undoubtedly heard about the popular new book by the Berkeley linguist and reframing guru George Lakoff, who’s been giving advice to Democrats on how to combat the Republicans’ lock on the media and on public discourse over domestic issues. He talks at some length about how conservatives have been able to shape public thinking through sound bites, so that a conservative can go on television and say “tax relief” and everyone knows what he means, whereas a Democrat would have to go into several paragraphs to describe his position and why he might want to change the Republican’s position.
This is the kind of thing Jeff Halper was looking for: a brief, easy-to-remember, easy-to-understand sound bite that would stick in people’s craws so that whenever they thought about the issues involved in Palestine, they’d remember the critical points. He was walking around downtown DC and kept seeing signs for CVS drug stores, which Jeff said seem to be on practically every street corner in Washington. And it suddenly came to him. CVS became for him an acronym for Control, Viability, Sovereignty, the criteria by which any peace plan must be judged: any plan for a Palestinian state would have to ensure that it gave the Palestinians real control over their state; the state would have to be truly viable, not broken up into disconnected segments like the old South African Bantustans; and Palestinians would have to be able to exercise true sovereignty, meaning they, not Israel, would have control over their borders, their airspace, their foreign and domestic policies. This doesn’t describe the whole situation, but it hits the most important highlights in a quick, appealing way that people are likely to remember.
I haven’t done much thinking myself on how possibly to reframe the debate, but I recently wrote an article (“Don’t Think of a Jewish State! Can Palestine Be Put Back in the Equation?, CounterPunch August 26, 2005) in which I borrowed from George Lakoff to define the one aspect that I think most hangs us up on the wrong issues in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and most diverts our attention from what should be the heart of the conflict. Lakoff’s book is entitled Don’t Think of an Elephant!, by which he means that the Republican message, the elephant, overwhelms us and takes over public thinking, to the exclusion of any other line of thought, and that, in their efforts to formulate a winning strategy, Democrats should be original, come up with their own ideas and language and specifically avoid debating on the conservatives’ terms. My thought is that framing a new way of thinking about the Palestinians should involve treating the notion of Israel as a Jewish state in the same way as Lakoff advises the Democrats they should treat the Republican elephant: that is, discard it as our starting point, work around it, don’t even consider it as central to our thinking, get away from our hang-ups on this as the central, sacrosanct aspect of all discourse on Palestine and Israel. Don’t think of a Jewish state!
I don’t mean that we should necessarily advocate the end of Israel as a Jewish state, just that this need not be the essence of our discourse — so that people like the IMF man we met in Jerusalem will no longer be able to turn every discussion into a plea for Israel’s existence and an accusation against the Palestinians, rather than a discussion of the equal right of both Israelis and Palestinians to a national existence. Like the Republican elephant and the conservative frame of reference, the sacrosanct notion of Israel as a Jewish state and the fact that every reality of the Arab-Israeli conflict revolves around guaranteeing Israel’s continued existence, overwhelms and fills public thinking in the United States so that all other possibilities are secondary and are always judged in relation to how they might somewhere, somehow affect Israel’s security and survival. The point of a reframing would be to open public thinking to other possibilities, such as recognition that Palestinian rights in Palestine — the right to genuine independence, to the sanctity of homes and personal property, to a life free of human rights abuses by an occupying foreign power — are as important in a just world as Israel’s right to exist.
The fact that this IMF guy, and most other Americans, are able to maintain their fixation on the supposed threat to Israel’s existence, even in the face of clear evidence of how the Palestinians are suffering daily under Israel’s occupation, is a clear indication of how overwhelming the notion of Israel as a Jewish state is in American public discourse, just like the elephant. Americans on the street, in the media, in Congress, and in government all share this misconception, and we need, I think, to get over it.
All that said, I’m really afraid that any such effort at reframing is basically a hopeless task, at least in time to stop Israel’s advance and help the Palestinians in a meaningful way. The Israel-as-Jewish-state frame, built up over decades and based in great part on compassion for Jews as a persecuted people, has such a firm hold on public sympathies and on the media that it is utterly impossible to break into the media, an essential conduit, to change the message. Ultimately, the media are the only vehicle through which the thinking of antiwar activists, church groups, Zionist and non-Zionist progressives, politicians, including Congress and the administration, and the general public might be changed.
But the media will not cooperate. The media don’t report the literally months of protests that have been staged at the little West Bank village of Bil’in, three-quarters of whose land is being confiscated for construction of the wall and for a neighboring Israeli settlement, despite the fact that the protests are non-violent — something everyone demands of the Palestinians — and regularly draw hundreds of people, including Israelis. The media don’t report on the tiny Palestinian villages that have literally been totally destroyed in the interests of Israeli expansion. The media don’t report in any depth on the destruction and the disruption to hundreds of thousands of lives caused by the wall and by settlements. The media don’t ever give an overall picture of what the Israeli advance across the occupied territories means to Palestinian lives and to the Palestinian nation. As we’ve seen, the media don’t even use the word “occupation.”
We’ve all heard the old puzzle about whether a tree falling in the forest makes any noise if there’s no one there to hear it. These days, I think we need to ask whether that puzzle applies to the Palestinians — whether Palestinians suffering oppression under Israeli rule in the West Bank and Gaza and Jerusalem really suffer if the New York Times doesn’t report it. Or any other newspaper or TV network either. The answer to the puzzle, of course, is yes, they certainly do suffer, but if hardly anyone notices, their suffering will not end anytime soon. This is an urgent problem: with each passing day, I believe, the possibility of a meaningful two-state solution ever coming to be recedes farther into the realm of the impossible, it becomes more and more physically impossible, because of Israeli encroachment, to establish Jeff Halper’s CVS solution: a Palestinian state that has real control, is viable, and exercises true sovereignty. But unfortunately, although the situation is urgent, there are no urgent solutions.
In Palestine, Bill and I talked with a lot of Palestinians about optimism, and we talked about hope. Literally no one is optimistic — optimistic that the occupation will end anytime soon, that the settlements and the land confiscations and the wall will end in the foreseeable future, or that there will be a Palestinian state tomorrow or the next day. But there is a great deal of hope, as opposed to optimism: hope based on the belief that Israeli society will somehow change itself, possibly implode, because it is artificial or because it is founded and sustained on injustice, and ultimately hope based on the certainty that, through all the trouble, the Palestinian people will endure. Although I am very, very pessimistic about the political future, I do understand the difference between optimism and hope, and I most definitely do share the hope that most Palestinians seem to live on.
Essentially, this is a struggle for Palestinian identity, a struggle against a century-long effort by Zionists and Israelis and Americans to deny that there is such a thing as Palestinians, that there is “a people,” a Palestinian people, and to turn Palestine into a wholly Jewish land. It’s a struggle for the right to have a narrative. And in those terms, given that objective, I’m hopeful. This exhibit — “Made in Palestine” — is the perfect expression of this fight for identity and for the right to a narrative. There will always be a Palestine, I think, even if it is not an independent state, even if it is occupied and dominated by another people. And there will always be a Palestinian people. This is what this exhibit demonstrates so vividly.
Bill Christison was a senior official of the CIA. He served as a National Intelligence Officer and as Director of the CIA’s Office of Regional and Political Analysis. He is a contributor to Imperial Crusades, CounterPunch’s history of the wars on Iraq and Afghanistan. They can be reached at email@example.com.
Kathleen Christison is a former CIA political analyst and has worked on Middle East issues for 30 years. She is the author of Perceptions of Palestine and The Wound of Dispossession. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org