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Paul Auster's blindness to assault on journalists, free speech

The author’s recent comments on Israel and free speech overlook the fact that its record is not much better than  Turkey’s. But like many intellectuals in the West, Auster insists on compartmentalizing Israel and ‘Israel-as-Occupier.’

By Anat Matar

What is behind Paul Auster’s blindness when he asserts that “free speech exists [in Israel] and no writers or journalists are in jail”? Before we tackle this question, we need to know the facts –for which it turns out that Paul Auster is not the most reliable source.

In a Haaretz piece entitled “Paul Auster to Erdogan: Unlike Turkey, Israel still has free speech,”Auster cites the worldwide association of writers known as PEN, and its data concerning journalists in Turkish prisons. For some reason, he does not bother to check statistics provided by Reporters Without Borders, whose most recent report was released just two weeks ago. That report placed Israel in two frighteningly low positions in its annual index of press freedom rankings. Out of 179 countries, Israel is placed 92nd, but it also makes a second appearance in spot number 133 – this time as the entity that rules the West Bank. Two reasons are provided for the first ranking, relating to Israel itself: the threatened prosecution of Haaretz’s Uri Blau and the approval of amendments to the “Libel Law.” However, no reasoning is provided for the second, lower, ranking. I will therefore endeavor to fill this void.

A close scrutiny of the periodic reports issued by Reporters Without Borders shows that last November, the organization expressed its concern over the wave of arrests of West Bank and East Jerusalem journalists. Among others, these included the arrest Isra Salhab, presenter of a TV program about Palestinian prisoners, and the extension of the detention of Walid Khaled, editor of Filisteen newspaper. In an August report, the organization listed, among other names, the arrests of Usaid Abd Al Majid Amarana of Al-Aqsa TV, Amar Abu Urfa of the Shahab news agency and Al-Quds TV presenter Nawab Al-Amer.

Arrests of and injuries to journalists and photographers at the weekly Friday West Bank demonstrations are common. This week, journalists were arrested during the Nabi Saleh protest, and a photojournalist was injured during a protest at Kadum. Reporters Without Borders has strongly condemned the violent manner with which Israeli forces treat journalists, mentioning, among others, two photographers -Mahib Al-Barghouti, and Hazem Bader – who sustained injuries to the face and legs while working. Bader, an Associated Press photographer, was arrested while covering a demonstration at the village of al Tawani, when a stun grenade exploded in front of him. He is still suffering from multiple burns. Al-Barghouti was recently wounded while covering the weekly protest in Bil’in. Two bullets penetrated his leg, despite the fact that he was in a different location and at some distance from the other participants of the demonstration.

The Committee to Protect Journalists sent a strongly-worded protest letter to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu about a month ago, protesting Israel’s violent approach to journalists covering the events in the West Bank. This note also contained a great deal of facts and figures on the administrative detentions, physical assaults and persistent harassment of journalists on the job.

One could keep compiling such data, and add the arrest and imprisonment of writers – Ahmed Katamish, presently under administrative detention, is one well-known example – but that is not my intention here. My aim, as noted earlier, is to endeavor to pinpoint the origin of Auster’s blindness. In the Reporters Without Borders rankings, Turkey does appear further down the list than Israel, at position No 148. But does a difference of 15 spots between the respective spots of Israel/the Palestinian territories and Turkey justify Auster’s contrasting attitudes? Of course it doesn’t.

The point is that Auster, like many other intellectuals in the West, ignores everything that happens outside Israel’s formal borders – as though anything related to the never-ending Occupation has no bearing on the essence of Israel’s identity as a liberal and enlightened country. The same tendency is what is always behind those who play innocent, denying the existence of apartheid here. As we have seen, even the Reporters Without Borders ranking creates an artificial distinction between Israel and Israel-as-Occupier. It’s true: if you resolutely ignore what is happening in the blood-stained front yard, you can truly rejoice at the freedom characterizing what’s inside the palace, where Auster hangs around when he visits the Holy Land.

Anat Matar is a senior lecturer at the Department of Philosophy at Tel Aviv University, and a longtime anti-occupation activist. She presently sits on the steering-committee of Who Profits? – Exposing the Israeli Occupation Industry, and is the chair of the Israeli Committee for the Palestinian Prisoners. She recently edited, along with Adv. Abeer Baker, a collection of analyses and testimonies about Palestinian political prisoners, entitled Threat – Palestinian Political Prisoners in Israel. This article originally appeared in Hebrew in Haokets. It was translated into English by Sol Salbe. 

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    1. DTA

      I was raised in Turkey and I am not saying Turkey is problem free. But Paul Auster in his claim last week was really a perfect example of hypocrisy at its worst as he was citing Israel’s press and human rights to Turkey as a problem free model.

      Thank you for this article Anat Matar.

      Reply to Comment
    2. Passerby

      Reporters come to Israel, and specifically the territories, to cover the conflict knowing it’s an easy gig. Low hanging fruit. They know they can report whatever they like, however negative it might be, about Israel and then do it again and again without anybody putting any limit on their freedom to do so. Many, and perhaps most, foreign journalists collude with the ongoing Palestinian demonstrations against Israelis that are nothing more than media-oriented activities, and Israel does nothing to them.

      Here: http://vimeo.com/26672512

      and here: http://vimeo.com/29280708

      I don’t know why some of the Palestinian reporters you’ve mentioned have been arrested. The first name I looked up, though, Ahmed Katamish, is apparently more than just a “writer.” He’s also a leader of the PFLP.

      Really, as someone who publishes in a magazine that attacks Israel daily with complete freedom and impunity, it’s hard to fathom how you can compare Israel to Turkey when it comes to freedom of the press. And it’s not just inside Israel, but also inside Judea and Samaria where all the Palestinian news outlets publish and report as they see fit…except for anything critical of the PA.

      Reply to Comment
    3. Bill

      Auster doesn’t know much about Israel within the Green Line either, since he makes the classic mistake of ill-informed Americans in calling it a “secular state.”

      Reply to Comment
    4. Jazzy

      Pieces like this don’t do any good for Palestinian free speech, but they do provide nice excuses for illiberal Islamists like Erdogan, who promote antisemitic ideology, deny Sudan’s genocide, and threaten ethnic minorties (Armenians) with wholesale expulsion. While violence and intimidation towards Palestinian journalists is certainly bad, it is the byproduct of the occupation, not the encroachment of illiberal forces on liberal elements of an otherwise functioning society. The Israeli government isn’t really in a position to prevent demonstrations from taking place, or to prevent Palestinians or other journalists from showing up and mingling with protesters. Erdogan is, however, in a position to stop ordering people to arrest liberal journalists. Let’s be realistic: even Turkish liberals who care about Palestinian free speech probably resent pieces like this one.

      Reply to Comment
    5. Danny

      Paul Auster is an ignorant moron who fully enjoys the blatant fawning over him of characters like Peres and Netanyahu. Nothing more or less need be said about him.

      Reply to Comment
    6. DTA

      @Jazzy: You are missing the point. This article is not about defending Erdogan’s policies, but is a criticsm of Paul Auster’s ‘blindness’.

      Reply to Comment
    7. Jazzy

      DTA: while I don’t think the author intended to defend Erdogan, her comparison has the effect of relativizing his behavior (this is exactly how he responded to Auster himself) to the benefit of illiberal forces in Turkey, but without providing any benefit to Palestinian free speech, for reasons I’m already explained. This is far from missing the point, unless you’re the kind of person who only cares about what Israel does wrong. If that’s the case, any discussion about everything wrong that isn’t Israel’s fault is missing the point.

      Reply to Comment
    8. DTA

      @Jazzy: Note that the authors says: “In the Reporters Without Borders rankings, Turkey does appear further down the list than Israel, at position No 148. But does a difference of 15 spots between the respective spots of Israel/the Palestinian territories and Turkey justify Auster’s contrasting attitudes? Of course it doesn’t.”. This observation is already very critical to Erdogan and clears the authors point of any whitewashing, well at least in my opinion.

      Reply to Comment
    9. snowcat

      Auster needs to do more research about Israel, but he is not completely wrong. If Anat Matar was a senior lecturer in Turkey, would she be brave enough to write a piece on Erdogan’s blindess? If she does, she’ll be very lucky to keep her job and not get arrested as part of “ergenekon” case. But she would not get away with nothing, she will be charged with ‘assaulting the personal rights’ of the prime minister. This is not a case of pot calling kettle black. Erdogan’s government doesn’t respect freedom of speech, plain and simple.

      Reply to Comment
    10. Piotr Berman

      Israel has much to be proud of. However, sometimes similarities to Turkey are so striking that one should not get too carried away with the notion of superiority.

      For example, imagine a young female member from a party that represents an ethnic minority trying to make a speech in the Parliament saying something contrary to the belief of the majority and the chamber exploding in a pandemonium. Valiant efforts of the security personel save the women from being beaten up. Turks did it first.

      Another example is the issue of incarcerating very large numbers of children from an ethnic minority for throwing stones. I was positively impressed by the fact that Turkish parliament actually debated how to cut the sentences and treat the children better. But the numbers suggests that the problem is quite a bit worse in Turkey.

      Quite seriously, Turkey is not a benighted dictatorship but a country that has both accomplishments and blemishes and which shows a zigzaging kind of pregress in many directions, including free press. It is exactly a kind of place where respectful dialogue can be very helpful.

      Reply to Comment
    11. zayzafouna

      for all the negative publicity recently, Syria is freer than israel. Id rather live in Syria than isreael

      Reply to Comment
    12. Passerby

      Indeed, Zayzafouna, if you read this magazine you might actually get that impression. And not just Syria, it seems that Iran, Egypt, Jordan and the Emirates are all lovely, peaceful and free places to live. And, of course, much superior to Israel in their freedoms.

      Reply to Comment
    13. AYLA

      What’s disturbing about Auster’s assertion is his timing, given that there have been new levels of threat to Israel’s free press in the last year or two alone. Also, as always (dear Auster and many commenters…), we’re supposed to celebrate that we have more democracy than our neighbors (whether or not this is true is besides the point)? Last I checked, we are responsible for ourselves, and our own society. Do criminals in court get to say, Well, someone else committed a worse crime? In any given circumstance, there are always people doing better and worse than you. At the end of the day, it’s between you and God, or you and the Universe, or you and yourself; whatever speaks to you. Lately, Israel is moving in a backward direction in regard to freedom of the press, a dangerous trend for any society; this is not the time to laud.

      Reply to Comment
    14. Nemala

      @zayzafouna – Good news: your wish is granted. publish your name and address.

      Reply to Comment

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