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: