Tag Archives: hasbara

The right to resist is universal: A farewell to Al Akhbar and Assad’s apologists

“Syrian weapons are being used – most unfortunately – against our camp, while the rulers of Damascus continue to repeat that they are here in Lebanon in order to defend our camp. This is a murderous lie, a lie which pains us more than anyone else… But we wish to inform you that we will fight in defense of this camp with our bare hands if all our ammunition is spent and all our weapons are gone, and that we will tighten our belts so that hunger will not kill us. For we have taken a decision not to surrender and we shall not surrender…”

–open letter from the residents of Tal al Zataar refugee camp to the world, July 13, 1976

I recently learned of a major exodus of key staffers at Al Akhbar caused at least in part by disagreements with the newspaper leadership’s pro-Assad tendency. The revelation helps explain why Al Akhbar English now prominently features the malevolent propaganda of Amal Saad Ghorayeb and the dillentantish quasi-analysis of Sharmine Narwani alongside editor-in-chief Ibrahim al-Amin’s friendly advice for Bashar Assad, whom he attempts to depict as an earnest reformer overwhelmed by events.

When I joined the fledgling Al Akhbar English website last fall, I was excited to contribute my writing on the Israel-Palestine situation and US foreign policy to a paper that I considered one of the most courageous publications in the Arab world. At the time, the Syrian uprising had just begun, and apparently, so had the debates inside Al Akhbar, which reflected the discussions within the wider Lebanese Left. Almost a year later, the results of the debate have become clear on the pages of the paper, where despite the presence of a few dissident voices, the apologia for Assad and his crimes has reached unbearable levels.

I considered responding on my blog to some of the more outlandish ravings published at Al Akhbar, but eventually decided my energy would be better spent on covering the topics I knew best — and which I could discuss with the authority of journalistic experience. Meanwhile, my frustration and embarrassment mounted as one Ghorayeb screed after another appeared on the site, each one more risible than the next.

Following her vehement defense of the Syrian dictator’s use of surgery metaphors to refer to his security forces’ brutal crackdowns, Al Akhbar English featured Ghorayeb’s daftest work to date: an attack on Arab Third Wayers (supporters of the anti-imperialist, anti-authoritarian political tendency) in which she asserted that “the real litmus of Arab intellectuals’ and activists’ commitment to the Palestinian cause is no longer their support for Palestinian rights, but rather, their support for the Assad leadership’s struggle against the imperialist-Zionist-Arab moderate axis’ onslaught against it.”

Ghorayeb’s rant, rightly condemned by As’ad Abu Khalil as an “outrage,” was of a piece with the Syrian regime’s long record of exploiting the Palestinian struggle to advance its narrow self-interests. For me, it was the final straw. Had Al Akhbar’s editorial leadership provided a platform to Ghorayeb and other apologists because of the quality of their writing or because of their willingness to defend the regime behind the cover of leftist ideology? This had become a salient question.

I was forced to conclude that unless I was prepared to spend endless stores of energy jousting with Assad apologists, I was merely providing them cover by keeping my name and reputation associated with Al Akhbar. More importantly, I decided that if I kept quiet any longer, I would be betraying my principles and those of the people who have encouraged and inspired me over the years. There is simply no excuse for me to remain involved for another day with such a morally compromised outlet. And so, instead of preparing to throw up in my own mouth each time I click on one of the pro-regime op-eds appearing with regularity on Al Akhbar English’s home page, I am washing my hands of the whole operation.

I can not disagree with anyone who claims that the United States and the Saudi royals aim to ratchet up their regional influence on the backs of the shabby Syrian National Council while Israel cheers on the sidelines. Though it is far from certain whether these forces will realize a fraction of their goals, it is imperative to reject the foreign designs on Syria and Lebanon, just as authentic Syrian dissidents like Michel Kilo have done. Yet the mere existence of Western meddling does not automatically make Assad a subaltern anti-imperial hero at the helm of a “frontline resisting state,” as Ghorayeb has sought to paint him. Nor does it offer any legitimate grounds for nickel-and-diming civilian casualty counts, blaming the victims of his regime, or hyping the Muslim Threat Factor to delegitimize the internal opposition.

In the end, Assad will be remembered as an authoritarian tyrant whose regime represented little more than the interests of a rich neoliberal business class and a fascistic security apparatus. Those who have thrown their intellectual weight behind his campaign of brutality have cast the sincerity of their commitment to popular struggle and anti-imperial resistance into serious doubt. By denying the Syrian people the right to revolution while supporting the Palestinian struggle, they are no less hypocritical than the Zionists who cynically celebrate the Syrian uprising while seeking to crush any iteration of Palestinian resistance. In my opinion, the right to resist tyranny is indivisible and universal. It can be denied to no one.

Throughout the past weeks, as my sense of anguish mounted, I have thought about the bravery of the Lebanese leftists who fought beside the Palestinian fedayeen at Sidon, halting the US-approved Syrian invasion of Lebanon, which Hafez al-Assad had designed in part to break the back of the Palestinian national cause. And I recalled stories of the Lebanese activists who broke through the Syrian army’s blockade of Tal al Zataar to provide food and supplies to the Palestinian refugees defending their camp against imminent destruction. The long history of sacrifice and courage by the Lebanese and Syrian people in support of the Palestinian struggle — and in defiance of self-interested autocrats — crystallizes an important fact that should not have to be repeated: Palestine will never be free as long as the Arab world lives under the control of dictators.

At Al Akhbar English, Ghorayeb has attempted to advance the opposite argument: that supporting Assad regime is synonymous with support for the Palestinian struggle, and possibly more important. This is what prompted her to falsely claim that “Syrian officials do not meet with their Israeli counterparts,” ignoring the fact that Syrian and Israeli officials dined together at a 2007 commemoration for the Madrid peace talks, and that the Syrians offered the Israelis negotiations over the Golan Heights “without preconditions,” a position the regime maintained until as late as December 2009. Outside of negotiations with Israel, it is unclear what concrete steps Syria’s government was willing to take to regain the Golan.

In the same column in which she praised the Assad regime for blocking Syrian access to Israeli websites and for refusing to give interviews to Israeli reporters, she cited an Israeli professor and an article in the right-of-center Israeli news site, the Times of Israel, to support her points. Apparently the Syrian people must do as Assad says, but not as his apologists in Beirut do.

Besides exploiting the Palestinian cause, the Assad apologists have eagerly played the Al Qaeda card to stoke fears of an Islamic takeover of Syria. Back in 2003, Assad accused the US of deliberately overestimating the strength of Al Qaeda in order to justify its so-called war on terror. “I cannot believe that bin Laden is the person able to outmanoeuvre the entire world,” Assad said at the time. He asked, “Is there really an entity called Al Qaeda? It was in Afghanistan, but is it there anymore?” But now, in a transparent bid for sympathy from the outside world, Assad insists that the Syrian armed opposition is controlled almost entirely by Al Qaeda-like jihadists who have come from abroad to place the country under Islamic control. In his address to the Syrian People’s Assembly on June 3, the dictator tried to hammer the theme home by using the term “terrorists” or “terrorism” a whopping 43 times. That is a full ten times more than George W. Bush during his speech to Congress in the immediate aftermath of 9/11.

Echoing Assad, Ghorayeb has referred to the Syrian army’s pornographically violent crackdowns on what by all accounts is still a mostly homegrown resistance as “the regime’s war against the foreign sponsored terrorists and insurrectionists,” calling for “a security solution to root [them] out.” At the Al Akhbar’s Arabic site, Jean Aziz predicted a complete Salafi takeover of Syria if Assad falls. Meanwhile, Ibrahim al Amin claimed that the Syrian opposition “cop[ied] the modus operandi which was devised by the leadership of al-Qaeda,” then uncritically quoted an unnamed regime source who insisted that “a hardline majority of the armed groups have come to be led by non-Syrians.”  Similarly, Narwani assertedthat a shadowy 5000-man ultra-Islamist militia has been operating inside the city of Homs with “plans to declare an Islamic Caliphate in Syria” — Creeping Shariah! She based her remarkable assertion on a single conversation with an anonymous journalist.

In joining the Assad regime’s campaign to delegitimize the Syrian opposition by casting it as a bunch of irrational jihadis (ironically, they seem to have little problem with Hezbollah’s core Islamist values), Assad’s apologists have unwittingly adopted the “war on terror” lexicon introduced by George W. Bush, Ariel Sharon, and the neocon cabal after 9-11. Not only have they invoked the scary specter of The Terrorists (gasp!) to justify morally indefensible acts of violent repression, like pro-Israel hasbarists, they have resorted to rhetorical sophistry to dismiss the regime’s atrocities as necessary evils, unfortunate accidents (what al-Amin called “mistakes”), or fabrications of the regime’s opponents (see Ghorayeb on “unsubstantiated allegations of war crimes.”) I wonder, as I do with Zionist fanatics, if there is any limit to the carnage Assad’s apologists will tolerate in the name of the greater cause.

In the true spirit of the Israeli occupation, which refused to allow reporters into Gaza to document the horrors of Operation Cast Lead, and which has stripped journalists of their press credentials as punishment for their perceived “anti-Israel bias,” Narwani spent several thousand words breathlesslycomplaining about “Western journalists” who “head straight for the Syrian activist, the anti-regime demonstration, the man with the gun in a ‘hot spot.'” Narawani’s justifications for keeping the foreign press corps away from the scene of Assad’s crimes were disturbingly similar to those of Danny Seaman, the Israeli Government Press Office director during Cast Lead, who said, “Any journalist who enters Gaza becomes a fig leaf and front for the Hamas terror organization, and I see no reason why we should help that.”

Then there was Narwani’s attempt to spin the regime’s artillery assault on the neighborhood of Baba Amr. Her analysis, if you can call it that, immediately reminded me of US military propaganda following the attack on the Iraqi city of Fallujah, a “shake-and-bake” artillery assault that included the firing of white phosphorous shells on a city center in order to, as Ghorayeb might have said, “root out” the terrorists. “While the dominant narrative in the international media assumed an unprovoked army attack on a civilian population,” Narwani wrote of the indiscriminate assault that flattened the Homs neighborhood, “there remains little evidence to back this scenario, particularly after information emerged that the neighborhood was an armed opposition stronghold, most of the population had vacated the neighborhood in advance, and reports of activists exaggerating violence trickled out.”

Like the neocon chickenhawks who cheered on America’s invasion of Iraq from the offices of Washington’s American Enterprise Institute, none of Assad’s apologists appear to have done any journalistic fieldwork to support their opinions. Ghorayeb and Narwani seem to have confined themselves to Beirut, where Ghorayeb consults the writings of V.I. Lenin and Paulo Freire to back up her hallucinatory portrayal of Assad as a subaltern freedom fighter, while Narwani cobbles together a scattershot of YouTube clips and hearsay from journalists she hangs out with to justify the regime’s very own “war on terror.”

Al-Amin’s sourcing is even more dubious. In a column about supposed armed infiltration from Lebanon to Syria, for example, he cited “records of investigations with those detained for transporting and smuggling weapons and explosives…” Perhaps al-Amin could clarify his cryptic language. In particular, he might explain whether he was referring to notes of interrogations of imprisoned opposition members that he received from regime sources. If so, can he confirm that these interrogations did not involve torture?

My issues with Al Akhbar are not limited to its opinion section. A profile originally published at Al Akhbar’s Arabic site (later translated into English) of Bassel Shehadeh, the video journalist killed inside Homs, did not even bother to note that he was killed by the Syrian army — “bullets” were said to be the cause of his death. And it was the only coverage I could find about his death in the paper, which has too often presented events in Syria in curiously vague terms, especially when they concern the regime’s misdeeds.

According to a close friend of Shehadeh who was also covering the opposition in Homs and across Syria, “Bassel was an essential part of the Homs revolution. He was close to the leadership of the Homs resistance, and he lived on the front lines.” Before he decided to return to Syria to support the uprising, Shehadeh was a Fulbright scholar studying at Syracuse University’s fine arts program. He put his studies on hold to train activists inside the besieged city of Homs, believing all along that his history of good luck in the midst of danger would somehow protect him from death.

As a Christian who fiercely rejected sectarianism, Shehadeh’s very presence shook the Syrian regime. After he was killed, the army shelled the Christian neighborhood of Hamidyeh to prevent his funeral, then a gang of shabiha attacked a memorial service for him in Damascus that would have presented a rare display of Christian-Sunni solidarity. It was this sense of solidarity that appeared to threaten the regime the most. As Shehadeh’s mother reportedly said, “They feared him in life, and they feared him in death.”

A few years ago, while visiting the offices of the Nation Magazine, a publication I frequently write for, I reflected on what it might have been like to be working there during the 1930’s when its editorial leadership supported Stalin and willfully ignored his crimes. What were the internal debates like, I wondered, and how would I have reacted? The past few weeks at Al Akhbar have brought those questions back into my thoughts, and they are no longer hypothetical. The paper’s opinion pages have become a playpen for dictator enablers, but unlike the 1930’s-era Nation Magazine, there is less excuse for their apologia. Indeed, given the easy accessibility of online media produced by Syrian activists and journalists, there is no way for Assad’s apologists to claim they did not know about the regime’s crimes.

At this point, I have no excuse either. I am no longer a contributor to Al Akhbar. It is time to move on.

Giulio Meotti: Serial Plagiarist or Common Hasbarist? (Updated)

YNet's Giulio Meotti likes to cut and paste

YNet's Giulio Meotti likes to cut and paste

Update: Marc Tracy reports today that YNet and Commentary have severed their relationships with Meotti as a result of his plagiarism. Il Mondi Di Annibale, the Italian foreign policy site, has also taken Meotti to task. What will Meotti’s employers at Il Foglio do?

Meotti responds by accusing me of placing his life in danger, or at least causing him to “suffer.” But so far, any suffering that Meotti has endured has been self-inflicted. Meotti: “But this is a personal attack against my person and work of ten years, a demonization, a witch hunt against one of the last and few pro-Israel journalists in Europe. An attack in which arrogant and failed journalists didn’t hesitate to call me ‘hasbarist’ and ‘zionist’ in Arab newspapers. It seems that they don’t understand the consequences and the severe risks that an author like me in Europe can suffer because of their incitement.”

Italian columnist Giulio Meotti’s book, “A Second Shoah,” earned abundant praise from a Who’s Who of neoconservatism, from Victor Davis Hanson to Norman Podhoretz to John Bolton. George Weigel, the right-wing Catholic intellectual, hailed Meotti as a modern day Truman Capote, while the pro-Israel travel writer Michael Totten described the book, which contends that Israelis are victims of an ongoing Holocaust, as “very moving.” “We must be grateful to Giulio Meotti for his magisterial work,” wrote self-described Muslim apostate Ibn Warraq in the National Review.

This week, Marc Tracy at Tablet revealed several instances of plagiarism by Meotti, who is a columnist for YNet and the pro-Berlusconi Italian daily Il Foglio. According to Tracy, the plagiarism occurred in a recent piece by Meotti wrote contrasting Israel’s supposedly flawless record on gay rights with the record of the barbaric Arabs, who are portrayed through the increasingly popular pro-Israel tactic of pinkwashing as not culturally enlightened enough to enjoy their liberation. In the column, Meotti lifted entire paragraphs from writings by two fellow pro-Israel cadres, Jamie Kirchick and Brett Stephens.

Meotti’s penchant for plagiarism was not limited to a single column, however. Google a paragraph at random from any column and you are likely to find that he has lifted much of it, if not the whole thing, from someone else. Here are some examples (thanks to Michael Moynihan for pointing a few of these out):

On April 30, 2012, Meotti authored a column attacking advocates of the BDS campaign as anti-Semites and neo-Nazis. Meotti wrote:

Will the European Union, many of whose prominent members either participated or acquiesced in the destruction of European Jewry 70 years ago, put a stop to this obscurantist conspiracy of the grandchildren of those Max Weinreich called “Hitler’s Professors” to expel the Israelites (again) from the family of nations?

On January 3, 2003, Edward Alexander wrote in a column attacking BDS supporters:

More importantly, will the European Union, many of whose prominent members either participated or acquiesced in the destruction of European Jewry 60 years ago, put a stop to the conspiracy of these spiritual descendants of those Max Weinreich famously called “Hitler’s Professors,” to expel the Jews (once again) from the family of nations?

On May 12, 2012, in a piece assailing Islam as a genocidal religion of violence and hatred, Meotti wrote:

Islam’s supersessionary doctrine catalyzes destruction, oppression and hemorrhaging of Christians in eastern lands. While there were moments of laxity in applying this domination, Islam did not recoil from razing churches in ancient Damascus and slaughtering Christians in the Sub-Saharan plateau, inflicting atrocities in Aleppo or Mesopotamia.

Back in April, 2004, Mordechai Nisan wrote a remarkably similar column for the Jerusalem Post. It included the following passage:

Islam’s supersessionary religious doctrine catalyzed relentless destruction, oppression, and abuse of Christians in eastern lands. While there were moments of laxity and civility in applying the robust strictures of domination, Islam did not recoil from razing churches in ancient Damascus and slaughtering Christians in Mesopotamia, inflicting atrocities in Aleppo and exterminating Armenians in their homeland.

In an April 1, 2012 column attacking mainline Protestant church efforts to divest from Israeli companies — surprisingly the churches were portrayed as hotbeds of Jew hatred — Meotti wrote:

The Episcopal Church has two million members and 7,200 churches in the US and is part of the 77-million member Anglican Communion. Because of the relative wealth of its members, and its connections to the Church of England throughout the world, the Episcopal Church is in a strategic position to influence attitudes toward Israel on both a national and global scale.

Over five years earlier, in a September 6, 2006 piece for the pro-Israel media monitoring organization CAMERA, Dexter Van Zile wrote:

The Episcopal Church has approximately 2 million members and 7,200 churches in the U.S. and is part of the 77-million member Anglican Communion. Because of its presence in the U.S., the relative wealth of its members, and its connections to Anglicans throughout the world, the Episcopal Church is in a strategic position to influence attitudes toward Israel on both a national and global scale.

In an exceptionally bizarre attempt at hasbara, on May 3, 2012, Meotti asserted Israel’s cultural superiority by contrasting its alleged treatment of the handicapped with that of Arab societies. Meotti wrote:

The Weizmann Institute had led to the development of promising new therapies for acute spinal cord injuries. Indeed, the late actor Christopher Reeve described Israel as the “world center” for research.

This passage was lifted straight from a 2007 press release by the US-based Israel advocacy group, Israel 21c. The press release read:

Research by a professor at the Weizmann Institute has led to the development of promising new therapies for acute spinal cord injuries. The late actor Christopher Reeve described Israel as the ‘world-center’ for research on paralysis treatment.

Meotti is so bereft of originality that he even plagiarizes himself: He pasted a long section from a February 24, 2012 column about how “music can be a platform for anti-Semitism” into a piece he published two months later about anti-Semites in Hollywood working to destroy Israel.

The remarkable thing about Meotti’s plagiarism scandal is that it is not being treated as much of a scandal at all. Yedioth Aharanot, the parent company of YNet, has apparently not taken any punitive measures against Meotti. And neither Kirchick nor Stephens expressed any outrage about being plagiarized. Instead, Kirchick dismissed Meotti’s stealing as “a form of flattery” and Stephens, who also said he was “flattered,” said Meotti’s column “makes a point worth repeating.” Their startling reactions reflect a neoconservative culture in which the cause of Greater Israel supersedes everything else, from journalistic ethics to intellectual originality.

Because Kirchick, Stephens and Meotti draw their arguments from the same storehouse of recycled Likudnik hasbara, their columns are virtually indistinguishable and completely interchangeable. If any one of them disappeared, some other pro-Israel cadre could step into their shoes without anyone noticing. As Meotti demonstrated, it takes little more than cutting and pasting press releases from Israel advocacy groups to succeed in the world of neoconservatism.

This piece was cross-posted at Al Akhbar English

Another major conflict of interest for the NY Times Jerusalem Bureau

New York Times Jerusalem Deputy Bureau Chief Isabel Kershner is married to Hirsh Goodman, an Israeli citizen and prominent liberal Zionist intellectual. Goodman works at a military-linked Israeli think tank called the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS), where he serves as a senior research fellow in a position endowed by the billionaire Jewish philanthropist Charles Bronfman. On the INSS website, Goodman described his job as helping “Israel devise a strategy to impact positively on international and Arab public opinion and overall disseminate its message more effectively” — in other words, media spin. In a recent column for the Jerusalem Post, Goodman urged the government of Israel to treat threats to its image as acts of war, and to respond in kind.

An ethical reporter on a politically sensitive assignment might have avoided allowing intimate relationships they maintained with people at the center of the conflict to impact their reporting. But not Kershner. As Alex Kane just revealed in a devastating report published by the media watchdog FAIR, Kershner “overwhelmingly relies on the INSS for think tank analysis about events in the region.” According to Kane, Kershner has quoted her husband’s think tank a whopping 17 times — far more than any other comparable policy outfit. However, she has yet to publicly disclose her connection to the INSS and the media spin strategist who doubles as her husband.

The Times’ former Jerusalem Bureau Chief, Ethan Bronner, left his job last month after a string of humiliating scandals. First, the Times public editor called for his reassignment when he attempted to conceal from the public his son’s enlistment in the Israeli army. However, Times editor in chief Bill Keller rejected the recommendation. Bronner suffered further embarrassment when I exposed his business relationship with a pro-Israel public relations firm operated by an illegal settler. Once again, the Times editorial leadership let him off the hook.

Last month, at a farewell party for Bronner in East Jerusalem sponsored by the Palestinian Academic Society for the Study of International Affairs (PASSIA), international diplomats and members of the Israeli and Palestinian intelligensia grilled the outgoing bureau chief about his conflicts of interest. One Israeli journalist in attendance told me Bronner expressed no misgivings about his conduct, treating his questioners with a mixture of dismissiveness and smug condescension. After a group of young Palestinian intellectuals and activists stormed out in disgust, a South African diplomat reminded Bronner that he could not “determine his own objectivity.” The rancorous scene illustrated the deep stain Bronner’s legacy had left on the Times’ reputation in Israel-Palestine.

Though Bronner is gone, Kershner’s clear violations of Times ethical guidelines are likely to compound the damage to the paper’s credibility in the region. Will the Times ignore Kane’s reporting, exempting Kershner from rules other reporters are required to stringently observe, or will Public Editor Arthur Brisbane treat the revelations with the seriousness they deserve?

This was originally posted at Al Akhbar English.