We’re pleased to be able to post this interview that the New York City-based writer Daniel Falcone conducted with JWE board member Richard Falk on October 18
- Can you talk about how misinformation and propaganda serves as an extra arm to overall the Israeli military policy?
Israel has long been a master of what is called in Hebrew hasbara, that is the spinning or manipulating of public discourse so that it either justifies what Israel is doing or diverts attention from the message of critics to the supposedly questionable credibility of the messenger. ‘The weaponizing of anti-Semitism’ is a cynical example of the deployment of hasbara stratagems designed solely to deflect criticism and shift the conversation. Smearing reputable critics and objective criticism of Israel by giving voice to irresponsible allegations of hatred of Jews that is known by the Zionist apologists to be untrue is reflective of the hasbara mentality. The hasbara mission is to shield Israel from its critics, regardless of whether the criticisms are accurate or not. The quality of hasbara discourse is not evaluated by their truthfulness, but solely by their effectiveness in changing the subject to an attack mode. Such diversionary maneuvers are undertaken whenever substantive arguments in Israel’s defense are weak or non-existent.
Asa Winstanley has written a powerful book on years of defamatory attacks on political figures or activist citizens who spoke positively about the Palestinian struggle in the UK and advocated that initiatives be taken to put pressure on Israel in influential opinion-forming venues or by way of activism as in the BDS Campaign. Winstanley compiles evidence showing that such tactics were being strongly encouraged by Israeli officials and even subsidized by government money. The book carefully narrates the well-orchestrated campaign to destroy Jeremy Corbyn as a credible political leader of the Labour Party by widely disseminating knowingly false intimations of antisemitism of his part. [Winstanley, Weaponising Anti-Semitism: How the Israel Lobby Brought Down Jeremy Corbyn, (OR Books, 2023)]. The only reasonable conclusion is that hasbara ethos, fully embraced by Israel’s political leaders and pro-Israel lobbying groups around the world is ‘anti-truth,’ and not just ‘post-truth’ in the pre-modern sense of relying on beliefs more than empirical evidence.
Perhaps, as formidable as are these actual attacks on individuals or institutions are the intimidating secondary impacts on the mainstream media and public atmosphere to the effect that any public manifestations of pro-Palestinian views and acts of solidarity will be stigmatized and harmful to individuals in the workplace or social settings. Many persons are made reluctant to take public stands critical of Israel because fearful of Zionist pushbacks. University administrators, at best a timid lot, withhold funds and even discourage the sponsorship of campus events opposed by unscrupulous pro-Zionist groups and individuals, including apolitical cultural gatherings deemed in some sense to be anti-Israeli or pro-Palestinian. It would seem that the motivations for such mounting such pressures is that cultural expression humanizes ‘the enemy’ and renders less tenable the use of the terrorist label to dismiss Palestinian grievances. Wealthy individuals are aware of this sensitivity, and exert donor influence to achieve desired results.
I have a young relative living in New York City who tells me that even her silence about current events in Gaza is interpreted by her Jewish friends as a covert criticism of Israel, and a colleague in the West who opposes what Israel is doing but keeps his mouth shut because it will hurt his career prospects. As much as we in universities complain, we generally do enjoy the benefits of academic freedom not available in the corporate world, and so we have mostly ourselves to blame for not acting as citizens of conscience who express their beliefs rather than keep our true views closeted.
These displays of the impact of manipulating the news are not just the spontaneous work of Zionist enthusiasts associated with NGOs and Jewish advocacy and lobbying organizations., They follow a deliberate effort by the most influential Israeli think tanks and the highest levels Israeli officialdom to influence and if possible, shape public discourse. When in 2001 the International Criminal Court’s decision authorizing investigations of Palestinian complaints about Israeli war crimes post-2014 the technical arguments advanced by lawyers on jurisdiction attracted far less public interest than the outburst by Netanyahu that the ICC decision was a display of ‘pure antisemitism.’ Israeli strategic think tanks have long understood that controlling the main arenas of public discourse are as important as battlefield results and military capabilities, and as Israel’s substantive claims have weakened over the years, hasbara has assumed an ever growing strategic importance in the management of Israeli foreign policy. This has become more widely appreciated in the one-sided presentations and reactions to the current orgy of violence in Gaza unleashed by Israel after the Hanas attack.
Three elements differentiate Israeli hasbara from standard forms of state propaganda in periods of intense conflict: (1) unscrupulous tactics to discredit views perceived as hostile consisting of lies, defamation, and subsidized campaigns; (2) greater sophistication, including seeking the deflection of criticism by recourse to false allegations rather than genuine efforts to defend policies under attack; (3) abundant public and private funding of Zionist anti-truth messaging, lobbying, and lawfare to win support and destroy adversaries.
Only during the height of the Cold War were criticisms of the American role in Vietnam met with discrediting responses that such views were tacit endorsements of Communism and disloyal. By and large, efforts to oppose the latter stages of the Vietnam War or to support BDS as part of an anti-apartheid South Africa campaign were opposed by conservatives as impractical or inconsistent with foreign policy priorities, but not giving rise to punitive witch hunts that have been the experience of critics and activists supporting non-violent pro-Palestinian. initiatives. Nor did the governments of South Vietnam or South Africa get seriously involved in shaping the public dialogue within the United States on nearly the scale or style that Israel and its civil society ardent and well-funded Zionist infrastructure have in the main urban sectors of the Jewish global diaspora.
- For those who rely on local and national news outlets, and for people who just started watching television coverage in recent weeks, how prevalent do you suspect the “both sides are at fault” account for the casual viewer with this war? And where can non-specialists go to find the context and explanations of the ongoing asymmetries with Gaza and Israel?
This is an important observation and question. In my mind to blame ‘both sides’ in contexts of asymmetrical responsibility such as exists between Jews and Palestinians is to consciously and unconsciously divert attention away from the essential hierarchical structure of oppression and subjugation, which is the core reality confronting Palestinians. This is especially true for Palestinians living under Israeli occupation since 1967 or in refugee camps, and to a somewhat lesser extent characterized the lives of Palestinians living as Israeli citizens within ‘the green line’ since 1948. Blaming both sides is also a comfort zone for those who feel insufficiently informed or uncomfortable about adopting a controversial position. It make a pretense of accepting the mainstream media orientation, which purports to be objective, proving it by the argument that both sides are to blame for the failure of the 1993 Oslo Diplomatic Framework to result in Palestinian statehood, the disappointment with the peace process in general, and even the outbreak of violence.
I find it to be an insidious line of argument or reasoning if applied to a grossly asymmetric conflict of the sort that has lasted a hundred years in relation to the contested future of Palestine as between the indigenous residents and the colonizing immigrants. It has falsely situated the locus of responsibility for a continuation of the prolonged tragic experience of the dispossessed and subjugated Palestinian people as well as facilitating Israel’s continuous settlement expansion, territorial ambitions, and contribute to the creation of conditions that over time have situated the attainment of Palestinian rights and aspirations well beyond horizons of realistic hope. It has been dramatically illustrated in liberal circles addressing the interaction between the Hamas attack and the Israel provocation and response. By characterizing Hamas as ‘terrorists’ with no credibility as representatives of the victimized Palestinian people, and Israel as the democratic government understandably overreacting in its Gaza attack in the spirit of a traumatized victim ‘both sides’ can be blamed, although in this instance in a manner perverse oblivious to the long Palestinian experience of Israeli state terrorism under the umbrella of its international role as Occupying Power.
To find accounts sensitive to the asymmetries between Israel and Palestine is not a simple matter. There are several authors who have distinguished over time between the two sides in terms of crucial issues. I would recommend the reports of UN Special Rapporteurs for Occupied Palestine, especially the two more recent ones, Francesca Albanese and her predecessor, Michael Lynk. Their illuminating reports can be found on the website of the UN Human Rights Council covering the last seven years. For more reflective perspectives it might be helpful to consult Richard Falk, John Dugard, and Michael Lynk, Protecting Human Rights in Occupied Palestine: Working Through the United Nations (Clarity, 20223). For a crucial depiction of historical background of the asymmetric and hierarchical relationship between the two peoples, I would highly recommend the writings of Ilan Pappé, The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine (One World Oxford, 2008); for a fictional depiction of this relationship see the writings of Susan Abulhawa, especially Mornings In Jenin (Bloomsbury USA, 2010).
- Could you explain the bombing of the Gazan hospital? Norman Finkelstein has cited the overwhelming evidence that points to the Israeli targeting of ambulances. What is your take on the hospital bombing?
Given the pattern of Israel’s indiscriminate and disproportionate bombing, as well as the targeting of UN buildings and medical facilities, including ambulances, it is only natural to assume that the bomb dropped on al-Ahli Hospital was part of an Israeli attack, a perception reinforced by Israel’s consistent reliance on faked evidence in the past to evade atrocity allegations. My inclination is to hold Israel responsible for such a hospital strike as its forced displacement and lack of respect for civilian innocent has pervaded its behavior since the Hamas attack, and created a situation where such incidents happen by accident or design. The issue of intentionality measures the depravity involved, but it does not by itself resolve issues of legal and moral responsibility.
As of now there is no definitive account of the facts surrounding the case. There are conflicting views, reflecting broader alignments, as to whether the damage was done by an Israeli bomb or a Hamas/Islamic Jihad rocket mishap. In such circumstances, we my never know for sure what caused the lethal explosion but does it really matter. If trains carrying Jews to Nazi death camps collided and killed many of the passengers would it be fruitful to inquire into whether the accident was part of the Holocaust or something else?
- What are your thoughts on proportionality as a guideline in war regarding this conflict? How many human rights violations has Israel incurred just in the last week in terms of the overall big picture? What does global opinion suggest about Israel’s actions in the conflict, all done in the name of self-defense?
This is quite a bundle of international law questions. The overarching claim of self-defense is both of questionable relevance to specific charges of war crimes or broad contentions of collective punishment, unconditionally prohibited by the 4th Geneva Convention Governing Belligerent Occupation. But there is a prior question about the legal applicability of ‘self-defense. From the perspective of the UN and international law Gaza (as well as the West Bank and East Jerusalem) are Occupied Territories subject to the constraints of international humanitarian law. Israel as the Occupying Power is entitled to take reasonable steps to main its security, but it has no right of self-defense against an administrative actor and political movement such as Hamas that is not the government of a sovereign state. Its October 7th attack on Israeli territory qualifies as terrorism, although as a political undertaking it possessed a hybrid character, as besides the criminality of its action it was a long provoked resistance to Israeli crimes associated with its failure to comply with the provisions of Geneva IV, including above all the protection of civilians living under occupations.
The legal constraint of proportionality and discriminate targeting are universally considered to be valid rules of international customary law but have functioned even in modern times more as admonitions than strictly implemented legal constraints. However, Israel’s persistent bombing of residential areas and civilian targets, given the precision of modern weaponry, seems to amount to war crimes, and as applied to the densely populated demography of Gaza deserves to be treated as a species of collective punishment, especially in conjunction with the blockade imposed after 2007. In the current phase of violence in Gaza the bombing is reinforced by the forced evacuation order applicable to half the population and by the siege order cutting the delivery of food, water, fuel, and electricity to the whole of Gaza, a policy widely viewed as ‘genocide,’ The accompanying language used by Yoav Gallant, Israel’s Minister of Defense, in decreeing the siege that described Palestinians as ‘human animals’ that deserve to be treated accordingly certainly strengthens and grounds the accusations of genocide. Leaving aside Gallant’s slurred reference to animals this is a clear instance of genocidal language, made more authoritative of the views of the Israell’s government as such language has been neither qualified or withdrawn.
The Israeli order of ‘forced displacement’ within 24 hours of 1.1 million Gazans from their place of residence in northern Gaza to the southern part of Gaza is itself a most serious example of collective punishment and a distinct wrong that constitutes a gross crime against humanity aggravated by being implemented under conditions of the siege and blockade.
- How aware is Israel of the varied perceptions of conducting this war and how does that factor into their decision making?
Israel has long been cynical and opportunistic in its approach to international law as has been the United States. Both countries invoke international law and moral outrage when it helps validate their bellicose allegations or justify their controversial behavior. Israel defies international law, or treats it as irrelevant, when it goes against its policies and practices, and refuses to act in compliance with international law or respect for UN authority. This lawlessness has been a prominent feature of its administration of the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and Gaza since the IDF arrived in 1967, most routinely through the continuous expansion of unlawful settlements and the imposition of multiple form of collective punishment, culminating in apartheid, and now with the siege, forced displacement, and systemic bombing of civilians and their places of shelter.
Until now it has managed to get away with such behavior mainly because it enjoys the unwavering political support of the United States, EU, and other countries, and has managed through its military prowess and political skill to neutralize criticism from most of its Arab neighbors, including many countries in the Global South. This normalizing dynamic, which has proceeded by way of pushing Palestinian grievances further and further into the background, has now been disrupted, perhaps irreparably. If Israel persists with its current policy in Gaza, demonstrations around the world will be enlarged and radicalized, exerting increased pressure on governments to take action, particularly in the Middle East, and risks of a wider war involving Iran will grow daily, with potentially disastrous consequences.
On October 18th Biden delivered a dangerously arrogant speech that overlooked numerous experiences of American frustration and political defeat since the Vietnam War, including Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, and Libya, and reaffirmed the global role of the United States as leader of the ‘democratic’ forces of good in the historic battle against ‘autocratic’ forces of terrorist evil, encompassing Hamas and Putin. With no show of humility ended his talk with these history-defying words reaffirming ‘American exceptionalism’ at one of its darkest hours : “In moments like these, we have to remind — we have to remember who we are. We are the United States of America. The United States of America. And there is nothing, nothing beyond our capacity, if we do it together.” Indeed, we do have to remember who we really are and realize that when we act together we may be the greatest danger the world has ever faced as when the U.S. Senate shockingly voted 97-0 last week to support Israel unconditionally as its genocidal actions against the people of Gaza continues to unfold.