This letter’s audience is not Palestinians. This letter is meant for non-Palestinian Arabs, non-Palestinian Arab journalists, and non-Palestinian Americans.
My name is Cirien Saadeh, and I am a Jordanian-American journalist, but my maternal grandfather was born in Jerusalem in the 1930s and there is a small Palestinian village outside of Ramallah that bares my family’s last name. Some of my closest family members and friends are Palestinian through-and-through and at a recent graduation we sang “Wayn A Ramallah” with pride and grief in our voices. My personal roots in Palestine are things that I am just discovering over the last few years, and I am grasping on to those roots as olive trees root themselves to the land.
Before I get into this letter I want to disclaim something: I have Palestinian blood but I cannot claim a Palestinian experience, though I worry anxiously every time the violence escalates about family and friends that live in Palestine. I also recognize that there is deep tension between Jordanians and Palestinians, despite our deep intersections. I have been critical of Arab countries and populations in their dismissal of Palestinian resistance and I am also part of the problem. I say all this because if we cannot, as non-Palestinian Arabs, be honest about our role in the colonizing violence put upon Palestine and Palestinians, then we’re part of the problem.
The same is true for journalists and specifically for American journalists (I recognize the same is true for European journalists, as well). For the first time ever I saw the tide change in favor of justice for Palestine following the violence on Palestine in May 2021, though we’re also seeing system-wide failures in equitable, “objective,” “non-biased” coverage of Palestine.
I was really grateful to see a letter written by journalists (and signed mostly by journalists of color) for journalists, on the subject of Palestine earlier this month. I want to say honestly that I stand in solidarity with these journalists and would like to be a signatory. I want to note that this is not the first letter written recently by journalists on coverage of Palestine. The Board of Arab and Middle Eastern Journalists Association has also released a letter with guidelines for covering issues related to Palestine and Israel.
I also want to be clear in saying that this is a powerful step, and there is so much more work to be done.
I reached out to a few mailing lists I’m a part of to obtain further comments on the letter for this article and the responses I received highlight the complexities we’re facing as journalists and as Arabs. Several of the responses also spoke to the need to take our analysis as journalists deeper to a more critical conversation on the roots of journalistic failure in this coverage.
One response I received was from, Palestinian academic and former journalist, Dr. Toufic Haddad. Dr. Haddad reviewed the letter and called for us to re-frame and more deeply contextualize our coverage of the violence being perpetuated against Palestinians.
Dr. Haddad’s response has been edited for clarity and length:
First, I think when it comes to journalism, the principle of solidarity relates specifically to the dimension of attempting to ‘thicken’ or substantiate the specifically political features of a cause.
When a conflict like ‘Palestine-Israel’ gets to where it has – incorporating armed, institutional, civic, popular, and legal dimensions – it’s easy to get lost on the superficial level of the news beat while being selective about the ‘violent’ and diplomatic dimensions in one’s journalistic coverage. But solidarity entails building a more robust political argumentation around which other features of solidarity – material, institutional, movements etc. can eventually emerge or strengthen.
In this regard, journalistic coverage of Palestine is substantially remiss on important political dimensions to the conflict, which I think journalists should be prioritizing in the coming period.
Building political solidarity entails emphasizing through coverage the core structural dimensions to the conflict – which are inherently unjust, degrading, racist etc.; positing these as historically derived, and; underscoring how without redressal of these, the conflict will reproduce itself and even metastasize.
Of course the ‘open letter’ speaks to some of these features, but I wonder if it goes far enough.
Occupation and apartheid are nominal structural features (noted in the letter), but truth be told, they are both consequential to the conflict and not their root. The root of the conflict is the fact that Israel was and is a settler colonialist project and acts accordingly. Israel occupied the 1967 OPT because expansionism is inherent to settler colonialism itself, and in the Israeli case study specifically serves the purpose of enabling Israel to incorporate militarily strategic highland and ideologically significant areas (the ‘biblical heartland’).
It implements apartheid because the ideology at the heart of Zionism (its animating political ideology) believes in Jewish separatism and supremacy.
Both occupation and apartheid are hence consequences of something deeper and not the cause of the conflict. Such nuance must remain in the minds of journalists and editors in their coverage of the conflict and what contributes to its animating dynamics and the logic of its actors.
I would add that an important complementary dimension of this is the fact that this impetus (the settler colonial) is incomplete.
The ‘jewish democratic’ state – which Israel is so proud to assert and define itself as – is impossible without historical and continuous acts of ethnic cleansing (militarily or through bureaucratic means), and gerrymandering (with regards to Israeli-imposed physical fragmentation of Palestinian communities and their legal stratifications, all the while controlling the entirety of historical Palestine and the people within it).
This explains why Israel must eliminate the possibility of any significant Palestinian self-organization (be this the PLO or Hamas) because this forms a counter/competing hub/ project that negates the Zionist claim and can wage a fight back. Denigration of the latter as ‘terrorists’, ‘not a partner to peace’ and ‘divided’ becomes part of the logic of not recognizing another or its entitlements/rights, simply to gain time to continue colonization.
To sum up this first point, framing the conflict in settler colonial dimensions explicitly or implicitly should be an important feature of journalistic coverage, as it provides a robust framework within which the daily news cycle can be understood and what it takes to resolve the conflict. It also enables audiences to ‘not be taken for a ride’ by the superficial terminology that continually rears itself, specifically around ‘the peace process’, ‘security’, ‘right to self deference’ etc. Admittedly, journalists themselves will probably need to better study settler colonialism and its specificity, because it is less a visible feature to contemporary reality than it was in the post-war period when this ‘conflict’ was basically entrenched.
The second dimension that I think needs redressing regarding journalism and specifically that which might be regarded as solidarity journalism, is to debunk the simplified ‘two sides’ depiction of the ‘conflict.
Israel’s practices – historically and into the present – always relied upon extensive support from Western powers, and specifically for the last 50+ years, from the US. This comes in the form of both state sponsorship – be this military or civil aid, or economic subsidization of different orders, as well as civil (non-governmental) support – be this through different forms of pro-zionist organizations in the West – Jewish or Christian. Of course behind state sponsorship also lies huge and important military industrial dimensions backing US state support for Israel, which relates to the solvency of the US economy and all the peripheral dimensions of this.
Given the enormous support and subsidization and links between the US and Israel, it’s important that journalists desist from propagating frameworks that let the US off the hook in their complicity with what happens in Palestine. The US is a constitutive actor in the conflict and not a non-partisan peacemaker or ‘honest broker’. The more journalists can highlight this dimension and provide coverage of these linkages, the better. US journalists in particular have a responsibility to their readerships to expose and help isolate the particularly pernicious US contributions to Palestinian suffering and human rights abuse. This will enable their audiences to draw conclusions and seek to disclose where the lines of connection are between what happens in Israel/Palestine and what happens in the US, and to redress these accordingly.
When seen in this light, it becomes topical to observe how prevalent and skewed journalistic framings of the conflict are not always a product of naiveté but may in fact reflect something more ideological and strategic. Namely, superficial framings of the conflict help and which the open letter is trying to call out, covers and elides US involvement and culpability. We should be ‘honest’ about the fact that some media entities may in fact not be relied upon to take up this journalistic cause, because their parent companies may be directly linked or profiting from the situation. General Electric, which once owned significant parts of NBC and many other media outlets, also produces and profits from weapons production. We find this with many mainstream media orgs. The onus thus falls on independent media to play an active role in exposing these linkages because they are more free to do so.
Haddad (and myself to be frank) calls on independent media to take up the mantle of just reporting on the violence facing Palestine through Israel’s settler-colonial project. This is one area in which independent journalism can truly shine. I run a small community news organization in Minneapolis-Saint Paul, and I thought long and hard about what my small organization could do as the violence and recolonizing efforts escalated earlier this year. I reached out to Palestinian community members wanting to provide them with a platform to speak, but so many of them felt distrustful and fearful to have their names in the media. There is work to be done to better understand Palestine, Palestinian communities, and Palestinian culture. We in the media need to free ourselves of the stereotypes that guide so much of our reporting. For example, pink-washing of Israel has been used to legitimize the State of Israel’s politics and policies, while further invisibilizing Palestine and Palestinian struggles, but we keep falling for this fictional story in our reporting and we need to stop assuming that any pro-Palestine thought is anti-semitic. It is not. It is anti-zionist, but so many Jewish allies have been the first to say that Zionism is anti-semitic. We need to move away from the idea that to be Pro-Palestine is to automatically be anti-semitic.
I say this next bit not as an expert, but I think that part of why we don’t have deeply constructive reporting on the settler-colonialism that underlies Israel is that it would require the United States to look back at its own roots and to re-analyze the stories that American journalists by-and-large tell ourselves. We know, if only just through the urgent need to ban the teaching of Critical Race Theory happening across the country, that understanding our own roots is not something this country readily does.
All of this is to say that I was emboldened by the open letter, as a pro-Palestinian journalist and activist because I saw so many dozens of other journalists stand up in solidarity (despite my surprise in seeing that solidarity). Still, do I think the letter’s message will make it to folks on the ground in Palestine or even in just the states? No. Do I think that other journalists will pay attention? For the most part, no. Do I think the letter makes any sort of systemic difference? No.
Do I think it needs to make a systemic difference? No. Because seeing this letter exist gave me hope that at least a conversation is being had where I had never seen it happen before.
I am so grateful to the letter writers and signatories for having the bravery to speak up for Palestine when we see time and time again that Pro-Palestinian activists and organizers are consistently silenced. These Arab reporters, non-Arab POC reporters, and white reporters put their careers at risk to speak up for Palestine. They should be applauded for their courage and for moving forward a conversation that desperately needs to be had, and because of their first step, we can take the next ones.
Cirien Saadeh, PhD is an Arab-American community journalist, community organizer, and college professor teaching Social Justice and Community Organizing at Prescott College. Saadeh believes that journalism can be a tool that can be used to build power in historically-marginalized communities.