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John Pilger on Israel/Palestine: a critical analysis of his views and sources.


The Australian-born journalist John Pilger is recognised internationally as a vigorous advocate of left-wing causes. Included within this perspective is his strong support for the Palestinian struggle against Israel. Pilger's discourse is generally delivered in black and white terms--Israel as the bad oppressor and the Palestinians as the oppressed victims--terms which leave little room for the complexity of the conflict.

This paper critically analyses both Pilger's one-sided viewpoint, and the frames and metaphors he uses to construct his arguments. Particular attention is drawn to the way he humanises the Palestinian struggle by interviewing ordinary people rather than official leaders or sources, whilst in contrast he stereotypes Israeli actions by always citing Israeli government leaders and officials. In addition, he avoids discussions with balanced peace activists such as Sari Nusseibeh and Amos Oz who are critical of extremists on both sides of the conflict.

John Pilger's view of Israel/Palestine is based on the binary opposites of good and bad nations. The Israelis-except for a small number of token good Jews-are universally depicted as evil and immoral oppressors engaged in human rights abuses and war crimes. In contrast, the Palestinians are portrayed as defenceless and innocent victims. Pilger's caricatures deftly avoid the complexity of the conflict, and the existence of moderates and extremists on both sides of the fence. His aim is not to support compromise or reconciliation, but rather to impose pariah status on one particular nation.

Pilger claims that the western media is biased in favour of Israel, and that this bias reflects pressure from pro-Israel lobby groups. Hence he argues it is his duty to rectify this balance, and to inform the world of what he considers the fundamental injustice that the Palestinians have experienced at the hands of Israel and their western supporters. In doing so, Pilger uses a number of journalistic techniques to reframe the debate (Lakoff 2004) in the Palestinians' favour.

The analysis which follows is based primarily on Pilger's own output on Israel/Palestine--specifically his 2002 documentary, his four books which present his views on this topic, and his writings published in the weekly British journal, New Statesman, since the beginning of 2002. I also refer briefly to secondary sources where relevant.

Pilger's reporting

John Pilger has been reporting on Israel/Palestine for the UK media since 1966 (Hayward 2001:156). His construction of Israel appears to have been significantly influenced by its overwhelming victory in the 1967 Six Day War, and its associated alliance with America. Many on the younger or New Left drew parallels between Israel's actions towards the Palestinians and the American intervention in Vietnam, and viewed Israel as a creation and tool of American imperialism. In contrast, many of the older Left continued to be influenced by memories of Nazism and the Holocaust in defending Israel's existence as compensation for Jewish experiences of oppression and genocide (Mendes 1997:116).

This generational change was reflected in the difference between Pilger's views and those of Martha Gellhorn, the famous US war correspondent (and socialist) who seems to have acted as somewhat of a mentor to Pilger. Gellhorn, who was Jewish and came of age in the 1930s, was a lifelong supporter of the State of Israel. She reported on Israel's victory in the Six Day War with overwhelming enthusiasm, and expressed little sympathy for the defeated Arab armies, or the Palestinian refugees (Rollyson 2001:222-225).

In writing a preface to Pilger's Distant Voices, Gellhorn herself commented: "We agree on every political subject except Israel and the Palestinians. John was born in October 1939, an infant in Australia during the Second World War. He was eight years old when the Jews of Palestine, who had accepted the UN Partition Plan, were forced to fight practically with their hands to survive the first combined Arab onslaught and declared their state. Perhaps nobody can understand Israel who does not remember the Second World War and why the nation came into being" (Gellhorn 1994:xiii).

Pilger seems to have held early pro-Israel sympathies based on an "empathy and admiration" for the "humanism" of the Haganah (Pilger 2006a:61-62). But in contrast to Gellhorn, he quickly revised his views and concluded that the Arabs had stronger historical claims to Palestine, and the creation of Israel had unfairly dispossessed the indigenous inhabitants (1986:357 & 361; 2006a:62, 134).

Pilger adopted what I have termed an anti-Zionist fundamentalist perspective. This perspective regards Israel as a racist and colonialist state which has no right to exist, and should instead by replaced by an Arab State of Greater Palestine (Pilger 2007c). It is akin to religious fundamentalism because adherents hold to a viewpoint opposing Israel's existence specifically and Jewish national rights more broadly which is beyond rational debate, and unconnected to contemporary or historical reality (Mendes 2006:142-143). Hence Pilger has often used the term "Occupied Palestine" or even just "Palestine" to categorise what he considers the illegitimacy of Israel even within the pre-1967 borders (Pilger 1986:365; 2004b; 2006a:9). He also endorses calls for an academic boycott of Israel (Pilger 2002c; 2007c) which is based on the racial or ethnic stereotyping of all Israeli Jews as an oppressor people.

Pilger's anti-Zionist fundamentalism is reflected through a number of reporting frames or themes. They include:

1. Palestinians as ordinary human beings & victims

Pilger has consistently sought to humanise the Palestinian struggle by reporting the views of ordinary people including particularly the residents of refugee camps. One of his first ever interviews was with Ahmed Hamzeh, a resident of the Kalandia camp near Ramallah. Another interview was with Mohammed Jarella, a Palestinian who worked for the United Nations Refugee Welfare Agency. Pilger evocatively described the poverty, humiliation, and poor health experienced by the camp residents (Pilger 1986:354-357; 2006a:64-66).

Pilger identified so strongly with the Palestinians that he even participated in a cross-border terrorist raid by members of the Palestinian Front for the Liberation of Palestine. The raid ended with the death of one of the participants, and Pilger's description of his funeral (1986:365-368). On a later occasion, he memorably took a refugee from the 1948 war to visit his former home in the Israeli city of Jaffa (1986:369-371).

Pilger regularly documented the suffering of Palestinian children as a result of Israeli military actions. One report described the horrendous injuries inflicted on children during the first intifada (1994:509-510). More recent reports describe the suffering of children in Gaza including death, malnourishment, and other forms of mental and physical trauma (2006b; 2007a; 2007b).

In his documentary, Pilger interviews eight ordinary Palestinians including two female residents of Gaza, a mother who lost her newborn baby as an alleged result of Israeli road blocks, three doctors including a psychiatrist, the brother of the first female suicide bomber Wafa Idris, and Dr Mustafa Barghouti from the Union of Palestinian Medical Relief Committees. All of the respondents confirm the framing of Palestinians as victims by referring to Israeli attacks on civilian life and culture, land confiscations, checkpoints, the blocking of ambulances, the destruction of produce and industry, and particularly the traumatisation of children.

Pilger as narrator asks in reference to Wada Idris: "What makes an ambulance volunteer and a carer become a suicide bomber?" This frame allows Pilger to reinforce his argument that Palestinian suicide bombings are simply acts of desperation by a powerless people confronted by a powerful and inhumane oppressor (Pilger 2002a; see also 2007b).

Pilger is careful to avoid interviewing Palestinians whose views may suggest an alternative interpretation of Palestinian violence as emanating at least in part from ethnic and religious prejudice and hatred. He does not speak with representatives of Hamas or Islamic Jihad who advocate the expulsion of all Jews from Israel/Palestine. He does not talk to armed Palestinians who have perpetrated or organised suicide bombings. And conversely nor does he speak with moderate Palestinians, such as prominent academic Sari Nusseibeh, who are critical of extremism and violence on both sides (Nusseibeh 2007). He is also careful not to conduct joint interviews with moderate Israelis and Palestinians (for example Yossi Beilin and the other joint convenors of the unofficial Geneva Peace Accord) who might emphasise a common opposition to violence and extremism, rather than the preferred frame of the oppressor and the oppressed. And he avoids speaking with any representatives of the Palestinian Authority who may undermine the framing of Palestinians as solely weak and powerless victims of Israel.

To be sure, many of Pilger's reports expose legitimate concerns about Israeli human rights abuses. But Pilger never balances his presentations by reporting on Israeli children or other civilians who had been killed or injured or traumatised by Palestinian suicide bombers or rockets. His compassion appears to be limited to one side of the conflict.

2. Stereotyping Israelis as racist oppressors

Pilger has rarely attempted to present the full social and political diversity of Israeli society. In his early reports, Pilger did at least speak to ordinary Israelis, but seemed intent on essentialising their views and attitudes. They were depicted as a harsh people living in a fortress-like Sparta who either ignored the Palestinians, or held racist views towards them (Pilger 1986:360-363).

Later reports narrowly cited the views of extremist settlers and their religious arguments for seizing Palestinian territory in the West Bank and Gaza Strip as if their opinions were representative of most Israelis (1994:510; 2002a). This frame reinforced the argument that the extremist settlers and their occupation of Palestinian land was the root cause of the conflict. In his documentary, Pilger allocates the longest amount of time to an interview with Dore Gold, a hardline adviser to the then Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. Gold predictably defends each and every Israeli policy (Pilger 2002a; Pilger 2006a:129-137). But Pilger does not interview any of the large majority of ordinary Israelis whose views lie between the extremes of the pro-settler right, and the peacenik Left. Apparently, he could not find any Israeli mothers or doctors or psychiatrists to match those Palestinians he interviewed in the Occupied Territories.

Pilger rarely acknowledges that Israel has real enemies, and that any nation state has a right to defend its borders and civilian population against attacks by neighbouring armies or terror groups. Rather, he seems intent on portraying Israel as a brutal, aggressive state engaged in endless unprovoked attacks against the Palestinians and neighbouring states. He argues that Israeli counter-terror operations have involved the deliberate targeting of innocent civilians, and are therefore no different to terrorism (Pilger 2002a).

Some of his early reports discussed Israeli military actions against defenceless Palestinians. The latter were subject to collective punishment in having their homes destroyed as punishment for anti-Israeli political activities. Pilger exaggeratedly suggested that these actions were similar to the collective punishment that Jews had often experienced at the hands of their persecutors (1986:358). The implication appeared to be that the destruction of Palestinian homes-however brutal-was the equivalent of the age-old massacres carried out by fanatical Christians against Jews who were allegedly collectively responsible for the death of Christ.

Later discussions are even more one-sided. Israel is described variously as a state "whose aggression in the Middle East is unequaled" (1994:149), "whose international lawlessness is a registered world record" (2006c) that uses systematic murder and torture (2002d), and as a "rogue regime that practices racism and ethnic cleansing" (2005). As with most anti-Zionist fundamentalists, Pilger rejects any nuanced political or ideological distinction between left and right Zionists or Israelis. Rather, all Zionists are bad, and "liberal or left Zionism is as virulent and essentially destructive as the Likud strain" (2004a).

Pilger also uses selective interpretations of history to reinforce this frame, and relies heavily on partisan Palestinian or pro-Palestinian writers such as Noam Chomsky, Edward Said, Nur Masalha, Robert Fisk, Ilan Pappe, Alexander Cockburn, Avi Shlaim, and Israel Shahak (Pilger 2006a:140, 320-328). Israel is described simply as a creation of Western imperialism (Pilger 2004a), rather than as a refuge for Jews fleeing persecution in both Europe and the Middle East.

Israel's history is depicted as a long record of violence and terror. He labels three former Israeli Prime Ministers-Menachem Begin, Yitzhak Shamir and Ariel Sharon-as terrorists (2002a). He claims that Israel was "established by means of the expropriation and expulsion of an entire people" (Pilger 2006a:140; see also 7677), but makes no mention of the broader political and military context of the Palestinian refugee tragedy including the war initiated by the Palestinians and the surrounding Arab states in an attempt to destroy the newly founded state of Israel at birth (Morris 2004). Many of the historical facts he cites are true, and may be inconvenient for partisans of Israel. But nowhere does he document or condemn the long history of Palestinian terror and violence against Israeli civilians. His moral censure applies only to one side.

3. A small number of token good Jews uphold the "humane" basis of Judaism

Pilger coopts a long and unfortunate radical Left tradition whereby a small number of unrepresentative token Jews (sometimes called Uncle Toms) are opportunistically encouraged to exploit their own religious and cultural origins in order to vilify their own people. This tradition has recently come to the fore in the UK where a small number of Jews have played a high profile role in advocating an academic boycott of Israel (Hirsh 2007:109-110, 120).

Pilger consistently uses terms such as "the best traditions of Jewish humanity" (Pilger 2002a; 2002c; 2007) or "decent, reasoning Israelis" (Pilger 2002e) to imply that the only good Jews are those who share his simple view of the conflict as powerful Israel oppressing powerless Palestinians.

One example of a good Jew was the prominent Israeli human rights advocate, Dr Israel Shahak, whose writings extend beyond a mere critique of Zionism and Israel to Jews per se (Shahak 1994:6566). Pilger gave Shahak a regular platform to accuse Jews of lacking ethical principles, and Israel of prioritising Jewish rights over the human rights of others (Pilger 1986:363-364; 2006a:105-106). Pilger also speaks regularly to far Left journalists Gideon Levy and Amira Hass, and academic and boycott advocate Ilan Pappe. All three sources present one-sided critiques of Israeli history and actions (Pilger 2002c; 2004a; 2006a:68-70, 106-107; 2007).

On rare occasions, Pilger reported the views of Israeli peace activists such as Rami Elhanan from the Parents Circle or Bereaved Families for Peace, and refusenik soldiers such as Sergeant Ishai Rosen-Zvi who refuse to serve in the Occupied Territories. But his agenda was not to promote their calls for Israeli-Palestinian peace and reconciliation. Rather, he opportunistically exploited their often justifiable criticisms of Israeli military and political actions in the Territories to reinforce his argument that the brutality of the Israeli occupation was the sole cause of the conflict (Pilger 2002a; 2002e; 2006a:96-105).

4. Balancing media bias

Pilger alleges that the western media is biased in favour of Israel because it does not share his one-sided support for the Palestinians, and that it is his duty to rectify this balance (Pilger 2002e; 2006a:136, 143-147; 2007c).

In support of this argument, Pilger cited a study of the British media by the Glasgow University Media Group which argued that different language is used to construct Israeli and Palestinian actions, motivations, and violence. The study suggests that this language serves to favour the Israeli view of the conflict (Philo and Berry 2004; Pilger 2002d). But other studies of particular media organisations such as the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) by pro-Israel advocates have drawn very different conclusions (Davis 2003). The complexity of this debate was recognised by the BBC which appointed an ombudsman for Middle East matters, Malcolm Balen, to investigate allegations of BBC bias against Israel (Sadeh 2007). The nature of this investigation suggests a greyer picture as opposed to Pilger's black and white interpretation of media coverage.

Pilger argues further that this alleged media bias can be attributed to aggressive and intimidatory pro-Israel lobbying campaigns (Pilger 2005; 2006a:137-140; 2007c). He refers specifically to criticisms by pro-Israel advocacy groups such as Honest Reporting of his 2002 documentary, and claims that organised rightwing extremists directed abuse and death threats at his producers (Pilger 2002e). These claims may or may not be true, but again Pilger's analysis is unbalanced. He assumes wrongly that only rightwing extremists were upset at what even he acknowledges is a one-sided pro-Palestinian film (2006a:136), and neglects to mention counter media lobbying campaigns from Arab or Muslim groups. He also ignores other more complex factors that may explain the nature of the media's coverage of the Middle East, including genuine public support and sympathy for Israel.

5. Drawing analogies with the Holocaust

Pilger argues that memory of the Holocaust is a strong factor underpinning western support for Israel. He also notes correctly that some Israeli leaders including Menachem Begin have abused this sympathy by comparing Palestinians with the Nazis as a means of demonisation (Pilger 2006a:110-111). Such comparisons arguably trivialise the Holocaust (Cypel 2006:421-422).

But Pilger is similarly keen to suggest a direct analogy between the Holocaust and Israel's oppression of the Palestinians. He cites Archbishop Tutu as asking "Have Jews forgotten their collective punishment so soon?" (Pilger 2002a). He suggests that "Goebbels would have approved" of the BBC's coverage of the 2002 siege of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem because the report failed to systematically condemn the Israelis as brutal oppressors (Pilger 2002d). He argues that an Israeli attack on Gaza constitutes a "final solution to the problem of the Palestinians" similar to the "Nazi strangulation of the Warsaw ghetto" (2006b; see also 2006c), and that Israel is perpetrating a "genocide" in Gaza (2007). He describes the Gazan breakout into Egypt as "a heroic spectacle unlike any other since the Warsaw Ghetto uprising" (2008). Such offensive language is intended both to demonise the Israelis, and to diminish the extent of Jewish suffering in the Holocaust (Hirsh 2007:72, 96).

6. Western policies are unduly influenced by a Jewish cabal or conspiracy

Pilger resents the support provided by some Western governments-particularly those of the USA and UK-for Israel, and their refusal to adopt his one-sided pro-Palestinian perspective. Hence he argues that their policies are skewed by influential Jewish lobbyists.

For example, he claimed that the pro-Israel policies of the Blair Government in the UK were influenced by the appointment of Michael Levy, a Jewish businessman and New Labour fundraiser whose son worked for the Israeli Justice Minister, as the government's "special envoy" to the Middle East (Pilger 2002b). Pilger's comments seemed to incorporate anti-Semitic conspiracy theories around alleged Jewish wealth and influence (Harrison 2006:39-40).

They also implied wrongly that all Jews were hardline supporters of the Israeli occupation. In fact, Levy has a long history of promoting Israeli-Arab dialogue and negotiations, and appears to be strongly committed to a two-state solution (Shindler 2007:230; Triesman 2002). His son Daniel is an advisor to Yossi Beilin, the former Israeli Justice Minister and more recently leader of the left-wing peacenik Meretz Alliance. Daniel Levy played a significant role in drafting the unofficial Geneva peace accord that Beilin signed with Palestinian leaders (Beilin 2004:190, 235, 255-260).

Pilger also claimed that the British Foreign Office Minister (Under-Secretary of State) Ben Bradshaw was an active member of Labour Friends of Israel-a lobby group demonised by some on the anti-Zionist Left (Ahmad 2005)-and that this allegedly sinister association explained his defence of British military sales to Israel (Pilger 2002b). However, Bradshaw denied that he was or had ever been "a member of Labour Friends of Israel" (Bradshaw 2002).

Presenting false or contentious arguments as fact

On occasions, Pilger appears to have deliberately bent the truth to suit his political agenda.

For example, he completely distorts the peace negotiations that were held at Camp David in July 2000 by claiming that the Palestinians were only offered less than half of the West Bank-what he calls "a group of colonies with borders patrolled by military bases" (Pilger 2002a; see also Pilger 2006a:107-108). Yet even strong critics of Israel acknowledge that Ehud Barak's offer at Camp David was unprecedented including significant concessions around accepting a division of Jerusalem, agreeing to eventual Israeli withdrawal from the Jordan Valley, endorsing the principle of swapping Israeli territory for annexed areas of the West Bank, and recognising Palestinian rights to an independent state. The land offered comprised 91 per cent of the West Bank, although this figure didn't include the annexed suburbs of East Jerusalem (about four per cent of the West Bank), or the ten per cent area of the Jordan Valley which would be held by Israel for another ten to twenty-five years (Lustick 2002; Mearsheimer and Walt 2007:104). At the very least, the Israelis made a reasonable proposal which went some way (but perhaps not quite far enough) to meeting minimum reasonable Palestinian aspirations.

Pilger also claims that Hamas is committed to recognising Israel despite its founding charter calling for the abolition of the Jewish state (2006b; 2007a; 2007b). But he ignores substantial evidence to the contrary, including detailed research by a leading Palestinian journalist which suggested that Hamas would never recognise Israel, or agree to make peace with Israel (Chehab 2007:36-37, 203).

Pilger distorts the context of Israel's invasion of the West Bank cities in April 2002. According to his version, the Israeli government was simply looking for a pretext to take action, and implicitly welcomed the Palestinian suicide bombings that provided their public justification (2002b; 2003:146-147; 2006a:73-74). This argument ignores the horrendous impact of the bombings on Israeli society. Nowhere does Pilger refer to the gruesome details of the suicide bombings in March 2002 that killed over 60 Israelis. Included was the major attack on the Passover Seder at the Park Hotel in Netanyah that killed 22 people and injured over 140 (Horowitz 2004).

Pilger also repeats allegations of a cold-blooded massacre of Palestinian civilians in the refugee camp at Jenin (Pilger 2006a:7071) despite significant evidence to the contrary (Horowitz 2004:177181), and claims falsely that half the Palestinians killed in the intifada are children (Pilger 2007b). In fact, the Israeli human rights organisation B'Tselem states that only about one-fifth of the Palestinian civilian deaths in the last eight years (4462) are children (Horowitz 2004:878).

In addition, Pilger grossly exaggerates the level of British support for an academic boycott of Israel. For example, he claimed that the boycott proposal was supported by the UK Independent Jewish Voices group. Their founding statement which called for an end to the Israeli occupation of the Territories and a negotiated peace between Israelis and Palestinians, was endorsed by 528 signatories. He also alleged that the membership of the National Union of Journalists had voted for a boycott, but that the vote had been overturned by an unrepresentative National Executive Council (Pilger 2007c). In fact, IJV do not collectively support the boycott, and many of the signatories of their founding statement are strong opponents of an academic boycott. In addition, the NUJ vote in favour of a boycott involved only a small and unrepresentative delegate meeting, and provoked a negative outcry from hundreds of members (Pike 2007).


John Pilger is a passionate advocate for the underdog, and believes that the Palestinians are the victims of a historical injustice. This interpretation leads Pilger to simplistically construct the Israeli/ Palestinian struggle as one of oppressor and oppressed, rather than as a national conflict involving right and wrong on both sides.

As we have discussed, Pilger uses a number of reporting frames and themes to promote his pro-Palestinian agenda. These frames are intended to marginalise more complex and nuanced interpretations of the conflict. Overall, Pilger appears to condemn any Israeli actions to protect their citizens. In contrast, he implicitly justifies any Palestinian acts of violence as a reasonable response to the injustice they have suffered.


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Author:Mendes, Philip
Publication:The Australian Journal of Jewish Studies
Date:Jan 1, 2008
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