Book review: Gideon Levy and the Western media elite

The small volume The Punishment of Gaza is a selection from Gideon Levy’s columns on Gaza in Israeli daily Haaretz since 2006. The dissident Israeli journalist reminds us that the brutal Israeli assault on Gaza has not been a matter of isolated wars of aggression, but an ongoing, long-term policy directed at the population of that small, refugee-packed fraction of Palestine.

Despite his ideological limits, Levy is a searing critic of Israeli brutality, as anyone who has read him will know. Right from the beginning, he named the last major Israeli massacre of Gaza “a war crime” — in his 27 December 2008 article “The Neighborhood Bully Strikes Again.” And he criticized it on moral grounds, not merely as the “mistake” or “blunder” that hypocritical Israeli pundits, masquerading as critics, would label it much later on.

At his best, Levy has a way with words that leads him to some brilliant indictments of Israel. He speaks of “the basic, twofold Israeli sentiment that has been with us forever: to commit any wrong, but to feel pure in our own eyes. To kill, demolish, starve, imprison and humiliate — and to still be right, not to mention righteous.” He describes how the 2008 feature film Waltz With Bashir, Ari Folman’s apologia for the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, “outraged” him on a second viewing: “Art has been recruited here for an operation of deceit” and, “this is not an antiwar film.” He also seems to implicitly support the movement to boycott Israel with statements such as “Israelis don’t pay any price for the injustice of the occupation, so the occupation will never end” and the piece “A Just Boycott.”

Yet reading Levy can be a frustrating experience. In a July 2006 piece about an attack on Gaza after the capture by Palestinian fighters of a soldier involved in shelling the Strip, Levy writes: “The legitimate basis for the [Israeli army’s] operation was stripped away the moment it began.” This is an odd and convoluted phrase. Why not just say it was illegitimate to begin with? But there is worse than that. In an article arguing for negotiations with Hamas, he describes the first Palestinian intifada as “unnecessary and cursed.” Palestinians would beg to differ — the popular uprising is widely regarded as a high point of legitimate and mostly unarmed resistance.

Even in “The Neighborhood Bully Strikes Again” Levy says of the winter 2008-09 massacre of Gaza that “Hamas brought this on itself and its people, but this does not excuse Israel’s overreaction.” As is the conventional Israeli-Western line, the Palestinians always “attack,” and the Israelis only ever “respond.” After Haaretz published Breaking the Silence’s interviews with soldiers testifying to Israel’s deliberate war crimes against civilians waving white flags in Gaza, Levy wrote that the army “has long ceased to be the most moral army in the world.” And yet he says nothing of the fact that this army he implicitly alleges was once “the most moral in the world” ethnically cleansed hundreds of thousands of Palestinian civilians in 1947-48.

There are other such criticisms to be made, as fundamentally, Levy’s perspective is an Israeli one — even a “patriotic” Israeli one, as he explicitly argues in one essay. I highlight these ideological limits, to make a wider point as my argument is not really with Gideon Levy (whose writing is probably the most critical of Israel that we can ever expect to appear in the Israeli media): there still seems to not be enough books on Palestine-Israel by Palestinians or other Arabs published in English.

Are British and American publishers still so afraid of false accusations of anti-Semitism when putting out works critical of Israel that they have to put up the ideological shield of the Jewish critic? Or is there still an undertone of racism — the colonial conviction that the Arabs are notorious liars so cannot be trusted as journalists or historians?

Perhaps things are changing. Ramzy Baroud recently had his My Father Was a Freedom Fighter published, and an English translation of Shafiq al-Hout’s memoir of his Palestine Liberation Organization years is forthcoming — both from Pluto Press. But if so, things are not changing quickly enough. Since Edward Said’s death, London Review of Books for example, seems to publish articles on Palestine-Israel almost exclusively by Israeli and/or Western writers, instead of Palestinians themselves.

Until the Western media can allow the voice of the oppressed to speak directly, without being constantly filtered through members of the oppressor society (even if they are allies such as Gideon Levy) then the chances of us getting a real picture of the history and current reality of Palestine are limited, to say the least.

As to whether or not you should buy this book: in all honesty, £8.99 or $15.95 is pretty expensive for a 148-page collection of essays that can be read for free on the Haaretz website. However, it is quite a good overview of Levy’s op-eds on Gaza from this period. A wider selection that included his writings on the second Lebanon war would perhaps have justified the price somewhat more.

Asa Winstanley is a freelance journalist based in London who has lived in and reported from occupied Ramallah. His website is www.winstanleys.org.

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