The other night, after opening his MSNBC show with a segment on the racism of, Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling, Chris Hayes turned to Israel, recently identified by Secretary of State John Kerry as a country teetering towards apartheid. Kerry naturally, had to walk back his comment explaining that he should have used a different word but, if accidental, the slip was Freudian. Surely one of the United States top cabinet members is aware of the military checkpoints, the Jewish-only settlements, the massive separation barrier, and the rampant inequality. If Israel isn’t an apartheid-state then what is it? What word should have Kerry used to describe a system that effectively reduces an entire people to second-class citizens?
To discuss Kerry’s apartheid reference Hayes had one guest on: Josh Block, head of the Israel Project, and a former spokesperson for AIPAC. You may remember the name because he was fired from the Truman National Security Project in 2011 for smearing Israel-critics as anti-Semites. “Josh was removed from our community because he’s unable to differentiate between an honest debate and a personal attack,” Truman spokesman, David Solimini, told Salon at the time, “There is real anti-Semitism in the world and we can’t debase the term by using it for everyone who disagrees with us on Israel policy. There is a clear pattern here. Over time many of our community members had come to realize Josh isn’t interested in an honest debate.”
Block’s debate skills haven’t seemed to evolve since the Solimini analysis: he started out explaining how Israel was a “vibrant democracy” and questioned whether life in the West Bank was really even that bad. For his part, Hayes pushed back against Block’s statements. After all, Hayes is as left as it gets at the network. He’s even had Palestinian guests on previous segments. Within the context of the mainstream media he’s quite good. Additionally, he seems to understand the reality of the situation. In 2010, he went to Palestine and reported on it for The Nation writing that Hebron felt, “as if we were walking through a post-apocalyptic urban video game brought to life.”
Nonetheless, that’s a very steep curve to be graded on. Which is to say, beyond the context of the mainstream media, he’s not doing very well at all. As far as I can tell, he hasn’t had a Palestinian guest on since November of 2012, when Noura Erakat and Yousef Munayyer joined his program. In a blog post the day after the Block interview Munayyer wrote, “Why are Palestinians absent from the discussion in the U.S. mainstream on issues that impact them negatively and acutely? Lean in folks and get a good look, you might be left wondering whether Israeli apartheid laws are in effect in the U.S. mainstream media preventing access for Palestinians there too.”
We might also ask why nearly every criticism of Israeli policy from MSNBC, no matter how tepid, seems to be framed in a manner that lets Democrats off the hook. The lead-in, to the Block interview, was a montage of Israeli leaders who have used the word “apartheid” before. The implication, whether intended or not, is clear: John Kerry is saying something rational and the administration is attempting to move a constructive debate forward. Now here’s Josh Block, to talk about how Palestinians can apply for Jordanian citizenship. He represents the opposing point of view.
The contours of debate generated by MSNBC remain completely narrow. The single greatest impediment to Palestinian self-determination is the United States government. The Obama administration’s course remains, largely, the same as every previous President’s. As Josh Ruebner, founder of Jews for Peace in Palestine and Israel, has written, “Obama requested…record-breaking levels of military aid to Israel, which has now plateaued at $3.1 billion annually…Obama requested…ever-increasing levels of money for the joint research and development of anti-missile programs, which amounted to more than $1 billion during Obama’s first term. These supposedly ‘defensive’ weapons drastically changed Israel’s strategic thinking, making it virtually cost-free for it to go on the offensive against Palestinians…”
There is a growing movement attempting to highlight these facts and force Israel to observe international law. It’s called BDS and there are many activists willing to talk to the media about it; quite a few of them are Palestinian. Go figure.
Michael Arria is the author of the new CounterPunch book, Medium Blue: The Politics of MSNBC.