Sunday 17 June 2012

John McCarthy: well-meaning but wrong

John McCarthy seems like a nice chap. I quite like his travel programme on Radio 4 on Saturday mornings, and he has that air of affability and basic decency characteristic of the more liberally-minded members of the English upper middle classes. And he seems admirably unbowed by his hellish experience as a hostage in Lebanon.

So I was disappointed to hear him talking, on this morning’s Andrew Marr Show, about his forthcoming documentary on 'the Palestinians of Israel’(sic). Of course, I haven’t seen the programme, or read the accompanying book, but from the few things McCarthy said by way of introduction, I could tell that this was an intervention with a very definite agenda.

For a start, there’s that jarring title: not the Arabs – the usual term - but the Palestinians of Israel. Not the Palestinians of the West Bank, or Gaza, but of Israel. This seemed to be a political, and deliberately provocative choice. To me, it suggests that Arab citizens of Israel are not simply an ethnic group among others but one with nationalist claims to the land in which they live. It’s an odd term, because there never was a country called ‘Palestine’, and Israeli Arabs have never lived in a country with that name: except in the sense that it was a province of the Ottoman Empire, and then a British Mandate – and in that sense, the Jews of Israel have as much claim to be called ‘Palestinians’ as their Arab neighbours. To which we must add the undeniable fact that the main reason there is no state called Palestine is that the Arabs rejected the two-state solution offered to them in 1948, preferring a war to deny the Jews their right to a homeland, a war they have continued and renewed at intervals ever since. 

And maybe it’s just me, but to call the Arabs of Israel ‘Palestinian’ also suggests that you think the land is somehow ‘really’ theirs - is really somewhere called ‘Palestine’ - and is yet another example of well-meaning (?) western liberals effacing the existence of the state of Israel. It’s almost as odd as it would be to call the Jews who live in Arab countries ‘Israelis’: but then, of course, many Jews became Israelis precisely because they were expelled from their homes in Arab countries such as Iraq, and those who remain in countries like Egypt and Tunisia are feeling particularly vulnerable right now, with the rise in antisemitism and religious intolerance following last year’s revolutions. Not to mention the chilling promise of some Palestinian leaders to ensure that any future Palestinian state is Judenrein.

I may be wrong, but it doesn’t sound like you’ll hear much about Arab antisemitism and the threats to Israel’s existence in McCarthy’s documentary. On Marr, he talked about the image Israel has as the Middle East’s only true democracy, and how his findings about the treatment of its ‘Palestinian’ population undermined that claim. But Israel’s democracy, which affords democratic rights to all its citizens, regardless of ethnicity or religion, is a matter of fact, not conjecture. As is the poor democratic record of literally every Arab and North African state. Israel is by no means perfect, but when (say) European states have shortcomings in their treatment of their minority populations, their democratic legitimacy is not usually called into question.

At the same time, I wonder whether McCarthy’s programme will introduce us to the Arab judges, politicians and soldiers who serve their country (Israel) loyally? Or talk about how the lives of Arab women, or Christians, or gays, are infinitely more free than they would be in any Arab or Muslim country? Or balance its discussion of the lives of ‘Palestinians’ in Israel with the experience of Palestinian refugees in Arab countries such as Lebanon or Syria, not to mention those countries’ callous failure to allow those refugees to settle permanently, so that they can continue to be used as a political tool to ‘shame’ Israel.

Finally, when Andrew Marr asked John McCarthy what he thought were the current prospects for the peace process, the latter thought the outlook was negative. Why? Because of Netanyahu’s ‘right-wing’ government. Now, I’m no fan of Netanyahu, and certainly not a right-winger, but surely the more immediate threats to peace in Israel/Palestine come from the continuing rocket attacks from Gaza, the tearing-up of existing peace agreements and warlike noises from the emerging parties in the new Egypt, not to mention the rejectionist propaganda spewing out of the PA-controlled media in the West Bank?

Against this hostile background, Israel’s treatment of its Arab citizens, while not perfect, is surely to be commended rather than condemned. How many other countries in the region can claim to grant members of ethnic and religious minorities comparable rights? And when will we see well-meaning western liberals making high-profile documentary films about them?