Balcony Over Jerusalem: A Middle East Memoir by John Lyons with Sylvie Le Clezio, HarperCollins (2017)
Of all the pillars that help hold up Israel’s special type of settler-colonialism and apartheid, one of the strongest remains the role of Western media in amplifying Israeli hasbara (propaganda). That pillar, however, is beginning to crack.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in the reflections of prominent Australian journalist John Lyons in his book Balcony Over Jerusalem, an account of his and his filmmaker wife Sylvie Le Clezio’s six-year stint in the city, from 2009 to 2015. There, Lyons was based as the Middle East correspondent of The Australian, one of the country’s leading newspapers.
There is much that is noteworthy in this book, such as Lyons’ detailed analysis of Israel’s various attempts at “social engineering.” This includes the multilayered, bureaucratic permit regime designed to stifle Palestinian resistance to occupation and ongoing land theft, buttressed by closed military zones and other means of land confiscation that dwarf the West Bank settlements themselves.
But what ultimately stands out in Balcony Over Jerusalem is the author’s examination of how the media portray Israel and how the government and the lobby groups that shield it from accountability attempt to intimidate reporters and distort their coverage.
“Honeymoon soon over”
The title is a reference to the balcony of Lyons and Le Clezio’s Jerusalem apartment, which overlooked occupied East Jerusalem and offered stunning views of the Old City, the Dome of the Rock, the al-Aqsa mosque, the Western Wall, the Mount of Olives and the Judean Desert.
Lyons acknowledges that he had long sought an assignment as Middle East correspondent, ever since covering the signing of the Oslo accords by Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization in the mid-1990s. Israel lobby groups singled him out as a rising star in Australia’s media, and he was invited to a junket in Israel, much like the way apartheid South Africa courted Western reporters in that era.
He accepted one such “study trip” but came away feeling he had not seen both sides. Although he admired much about Israel, he was determined to do his job as a journalist and provide balanced and accurate reporting.
Lyons was wined and dined by leaders of Australia’s Israel lobby before leaving his home country for Jerusalem. But, as he notes, the “honeymoon was soon over.”
For one thing, there was that balcony: from there he could not help but notice the house of a nearby Palestinian family whose three children walked to school each morning.
One day the Israeli army demolished the house, leaving only a stairway. Lyons visited the family and found the owner sweeping the steps. “It was one of the saddest things I’ve ever seen,” he writes. “A broken man sweeping his stairway to nowhere.”
One of Lyons’ first stories covered the occupation by armed settlers of the home of Palestinian travel agent Nasser Jaber, who had moved out of his house in Jerusalem’s Old City while it was undergoing renovation. The settlers changed the locks and disputed Jaber’s claim to the house.
Lyons’ account of the eviction drew the ire of the Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council (AIJAC), which began a campaign directed at his editors alleging inaccurate reporting. The Israeli embassy in Australia soon joined in.
The effort failed because Lyons’ reporting was airtight. But subsequently an anonymous Israeli journalist posing as an Australian reporter attempted to convince Jaber to say he had been misquoted in Lyons’ article. The same Israeli journalist also sought to involve the Australian TV program Media Watch to discredit Lyons’ reporting but without revealing her true identity – another effort that failed. Eventually the journalist was exposed.
Lyons’ conclusion about why this “dirty tricks” campaign unfolded is revealing:
“If a foreign correspondent writes about ‘Palestinians’ as a generic group there is no problem. But if a journalist gives a Palestinian a name as I did – an identity, an ambition, a profession, a life – it can bring down the wrath of Israel’s supporters.”
This is not the only way by which Israel sows doubt toward Palestinian claims.
A Palestinian family in East Jerusalem reported that someone had cut down an olive tree in their yard and wrote “price tag” in Hebrew, an attack common in the rest of the West Bank but, according to Lyons, less so in Jerusalem, and therefore newsworthy to the foreign media.
The Shin Bet, Israel’s secret police, soon took into custody a teenage member of the family and attempted to coerce a confession that he had cut down the tree and fabricated it as a “price tag” attack.
Lyons began to recognize this as “a pattern I had started to see of how Israel muddied the waters. It was much harder for the media to report that ‘Price Tag’ was spreading among Israeli extremists when a Palestinian youth was being interrogated for the crime.”
Looking back, Lyons realizes that it was his coverage of Israel’s treatment of Palestinian children that really drew the ire of the military, especially following the broadcast on Australian television of his documentary Stone Cold Justice, which Le Clezio produced, in early 2014.
An Israeli army officer met with Lyons to let him know in no uncertain terms that the military, which he said was extremely sensitive to foreign media coverage, was unhappy with his reporting. Thereafter, Lyons found he had less access to Israeli officials.
Lyons was not the only foreign correspondent who faced pressure either from Israel or its domestic lobby groups. His interviews with correspondents for The New York Times, The Guardian and Agence France-Presse, among others, all revealed similar tactics, such as pressuring a reporter’s editors and alleging factual errors.
Remarkably, the Times’ former Jerusalem bureau chief Jodi Rudoren told Lyons that in her view the Israeli occupation of the West Bank looked “a lot like apartheid.”
Moreover, she told Lyons, “the issue of apartheid is more relevant to how Arab Israelis are treated,” referring to Palestinian citizens of Israel. Yet readers of the Times never got an inkling of this perspective during Rudoren’s years of coverage.
Lyons believes Israel is currently winning the media war, despite an ever-worsening image abroad. But with the Internet and mobile phones readily available, he thinks Israel can no longer control the message, a claim that is borne out daily with social media postings by Palestinians suffering the cruelty of the occupation.
“Military occupations look ugly because they are ugly,” Lyons writes. “Israel’s reputation will bleed as long as its control over another people continues.”
He warns: “One day history will catch up with Israel.”
Rod Such is a former editor for World Book and Encarta encyclopedias. He lives in Portland, Oregon, and is active with the Occupation-Free Portland campaign.