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An Open Letter to Mitch Potter, on Truly Disgusting Racism


Dear Mitch Potter,

It has been some time since you wrote me on September 10, 2006, in response to my blog post at killingtrain.com of July 28, 2006. You wrote me with serious concerns that I had maligned your reputation – attaching, in your words, a slur to your name, and doing so “cavalierly”. I should have replied sooner, and for that I apologize.

I cannot, however, apologize for what I called you, “a truly disgusting racist”. In fact, going over your work over the past six months, I have to add that you are lazy, a liar, and a cliché-ridden writer.

I looked at your work on the Israel/Palestine conflict, including the Lebanon war but excluding solely domestic issues in Israel, from June 29 2006 to December 18 2006. That is 44 stories.

If the stories are an indication, you were in the region from June 29 – July 25, then again from September 2-September 16, again from October 30 – December 18. During that six month period you filed 4 stories from Gaza and 4 from Ramallah. You filed one from Pesagot Settlement in the West Bank and another from Haifa. You filed the other 34 stories from Jerusalem. If, as you suggest, it was premature to call you a truly disgusting racist after reading one story in which you liken Palestinians to rodents, perhaps we can agree that 44 stories (over 80,000 words) is enough to start to discern patterns.

The strong language (“truly disgusting racist”) came to mind for two reasons after reading your article (“After Hamas, another Somalia?”, July 9, 2006). First, because I knew instantly upon reading it that you would never liken Israelis to rodents, nor indeed to any other kind of animal, and you did not ever do so in any of the 44 stories I read, though you did use many disparaging terms to describe Palestinians and Lebanese (I’ll return to that below). Second, and more importantly, because your flippant use of language throughout your reporting obscures Israel’s genocidal policies towards the Palestinians.

Disgusting racism: Obscuring the disparity, causes, and consequences

“Genocidal” is another strong word. It means, according to the UN Genocide Convention, attempts to destroy a group of people. Most people only accept the definition if it also includes attempts to physically destroy a group, not just to culturally destroy them and displace them. With the whole world, starting with Canada, assisting in Israel’s starvation of the Palestinians, while Israel casually (should I say “cavalierly”?) kills dozens of Palestinians every week, and given the direction of Israel’s political and military changes, I think the label genocidal applies. So does Ilan Pappe, a historian at Haifa University, and one of the diverse Israeli expert sources that are readily available that you don’t speak to, favouring a homogeneous group of military and strategic studies experts from think-tanks close to the state.

You were in Gaza in July 2006. To get there you would have had to go through various checkpoints and fortified walls, something most Palestinians are not allowed to do. You were in a place where, by now, probably the majority of children are chronically malnourished and will suffer long-term developmental problems because of it. The two references to Gaza’s children that I found in your stories, though, were as follows. First, you noted how, because Israel had destroyed all the electricity supply in Gaza, that “entrepreneurial street kids who normally can be found hawking gum yesterday switched to candles at Gaza City intersections” (“The war of nerves in Gaza”, June 30, 2006). Second, that after Israeli planes flew over Gaza to create sonic booms (a story I will return to) you could hear children crying, which was “hardly surprising, given that half of the territory’s 1.4 million Palestinians are 15 or younger.” (“Sonic onslaught in Gaza”, July 1, 2006)

At any time, you could have looked around and seen what some (no one you would talk to, perhaps) call the Apartheid Wall but which you referred to, when you wrote about it (before July 2006), as the “separation barrier” or the “security barrier”. Does being Middle East Bureau Chief mean you have some say over the selection of graphics? Could you have published maps of the wall and the checkpoints, the cantonization of the West Bank, the locations of the artillery strikes in Gaza, or the cluster bombs in Lebanon? Could you have published them alongside the locations where all the Qassams or Katyushas landed in Israel? Could you have published the lists and numbers of casualties on both sides?

All this might have given your readers a better chance to understand what Israel is doing. And what Israel is doing is controlling every detail of Palestinian life, including such details as whether a person will live or die, watch their child or parent live or die, be taken off to prison to be tortured, watch their child or parent be taken, be allowed to leave their home, be allowed to leave their town through a massive gate in the massive wall, be allowed to see a loved one, be allowed to see a doctor, have food or fuel or medicine. These details are missing from your stories. So is the agenda behind them missing, which is to take the land of the Palestinians, remove them from it, and destroy those who resist. Both the details and the agenda are things you are in a position to know. The consequences are so serious for so many (starving, murdered, terrorized) people that presenting the conflict as if there is parity, the way you do in some stories, or from the point of view of Israel, the way you do in others, is not innocent deception, but complicity in a major, ongoing crime. That is what is truly disgusting about what you have done.

Human rights organizations document the disparity. According to B’Tselem, from the beginning of the second intifada in September 2000 to the end of January 2007, Palestinians had killed 1020 Israelis, 704 of whom were civilians, 119 of whom were children. According to the PCHR, up until September 2006, when you sent me your email, Israel had killed 3859 Palestinians, 3069 of whom were unarmed, 724 of whom were children. It had completely demolished 2831 Palestinian homes and partially destroyed 2427. It had leveled 37 square kilometers (an area 10% the size of Gaza) and destroyed 677 industrial facilities.

You also must know that the disparity has grown in recent years. For the period during which I looked at your work (July 2006 – December 2006), Israeli forces killed 479 Palestinians, wounded 1650, and arrested 1570. By contrast, Palestinians killed 4 Israeli security personnel and 2 Israeli civilians.

In your two stories on Louise Arbour’s visit to the region on November 22 and 23, you framed the issue in a way that assumed parity even as you reported massive disparity, with paragraphs like: “As Qassams keep falling (eight more yesterday, landing without causing injury) and Israel Defense Forces operations against Palestinian rocket-launchers in Gaza intensify (five dead yesterday, two of them civilians) Arbour diagnoses the violent stalemate as an acute ‘protection-of-civilians deficit,’” and “One day after decrying ‘massive’ Israeli violations of human rights against Palestinian civilians, Canadian Louise Arbour got a close-up view of Israeli suffering yesterday”. Here you made sure to put the word “massive” in quotes, perhaps to ensure that you not be seen calling Israeli human rights violations “massive” (what would be “massive” in your opinion, I wonder?). You separated Arbour’s words from your own when she was calling Israeli human rights violations “massive”, but you were willing to paraphrase her giving advice to the victims: “To paraphrase Arbour’s approach, a different message to the Palestinians might be, ‘Behave like a state. Be legal. Respect and enforce the law, including international law against rocket attacks on civilians.’” How you or Arbour thinks that imprisoned Palestinians suffering periodic massacres who starve at the whim of an occupying power that periodically massacres them can “behave like a state” is unclear – but a lack of clarity about the situation is precisely what your stories induce. But the worst line in your stories on Arbour is your approving introduction to Arbour’s most repulsive statements: “in that spirit, she is not about to be drawn into debate about the uneven death toll of the continuing violence.” Mitch, the uneven death toll matters. It matters on its own merits, and it matters as a clue to the causes, effects, and possibilities for a solution to the conflict. Your presentation, your endorsement, of Arbour’s cowardly refusal to “be drawn into debate” about this basic and fundamental point, helps obscure clear thinking and understanding about what is being done to the Palestinians.

Presenting massive disparity in victimization and crimes as if there is parity helps the victimizers. Helping victimizers who are conducting a campaign of massacre and ethnic cleansing is disgusting racism.

Disgusting racism: The partisan use of language

Another element of your racism comes from your use of language.

You likened Palestinians to rodents, something I cannot let you off the hook for even when you accompany it with quotations from sociologists. Not when you never used any animal analogies about Israelis, and never would.

You describe the Palestinian capture of an Israeli tank gunner by saying they “seized” him (September 12 and November 9). But the 1019 people Israel seized to take off to prisons, many of whom were children, many of whom were tortured, were “arrested” or “detained”, never “seized”.

Further on your use of the word “seized”, you use it elsewhere to make reactions to Israel’s aggression and destruction sound opportunistic. Hizbollah “seized” the leadership (July 16, quoting Buttu) and “seized” the moment (July 14). Indeed, when Israeli shelling killed 7 members of the same family, Palestinians “seized on” this, too, to end a ceasefire (how awful of them to treat the massacre of a family as a sign of the end of a ceasefire).

When you describe Palestinians’ Qassam rockets, which you know and have stated are militarily ineffective and basically a gesture of defiance, you describe them as a “scourge” (November 26) and a “blight” (November 28). You never used such words for Israeli shelling, bombing, and gunfire, which regularly kill dozens of people. These you usually describe as “errant” (November 10 and November 23), although once, and only once, you used the world “horrific” (November 13) to describe the massacre of 19 people by shellfire you elsewhere called “errant”.

By far your most disgraceful use of language comes from the story (July 1) in which you make light of Israeli sonic booms to terrorize Gaza’s population, already starving in the dark. This is so repugnant that readers might not believe it unless quoted at length:

“Then, two teeth-rattling whumps course through your body at thousandth-of-a-second intervals, packing so colossal a wallop they simply defy description. Whump-whump. You, my friend, have just been carpet-boomed. Something in the neighbourhood of 139 decibels of wakey-wakey courtesy of your friendly, neighbourhood Israeli F-16 warplane… How to explain the oomph of a sonic boom in Toronto terms? Say that someone chops down the CN Tower and it lands beside your head. Say they chop down a second CN Tower and it lands on the other side a nanosecond later. And say that, at the very moment of impact, a cardiac surgical team shouts, “Charging to 120 – Clear!” and proceeds to defibrillate your torso…You laugh at the alarm clock on the bedside table, and your earlier worries you might sleep through its ring. Not to worry. Another F-16 should be by in an hour or so. And another after that.”

“Wakey-wakey”, “Oomph”, “Whump-whump”, “boom-boom”, and “carpet-boomed”, are how you write about the threatening actions of an air force that destroyed Gaza’s infrastructure, dropped 500-pound bombs into crowded apartment complexes, and has killed hundreds of people in the very zone from where you wrote your clever quips.

Compare this story to your piece on people in Haifa on July 15, who were going through “fretful days” because Hizbollah’s rockets, which you had described as “terrifying” (July 14) had fallen on them. You celebrated the “resilience of the thriving port city” and the “resilience” of its mayor. I saw no references to Palestinian “resilience” in the 44 stories of yours that I read. Nor did I see any reference to Israel’s sonic booms, to say nothing of its artillery and bombing attacks, being “terrifying”.

As for the mayor of Haifa, who in your eyes exemplifies Haifa’s resilience, you quote him saying about the Palestinians and Lebanese that “now we have the right to take them hostage. We have the right to destroy them.” You let this pass without comment, but you referred to Nasrallah’s speeches (July 16) as “invective rich” and “counterfactual bluster”.

On July 22, you explained an alliance between Hamas and Hizbollah by using a “timeworn Arabic adage, ‘Me and my brother against my cousin.’ What the Hamas-Hezbollah dynamic augurs now is the possibility of a religious realignment that could introduce the other half of that parable: ‘Me and my cousin against the world.’ Or, if not the world, Israel.“ Would it ever occur to you to explain Israeli politics or alliances by reference to timeworn Hebrew adages, or would that seem to you to be anti-semitic? It would, to me.

In the same story of July 22 you demonstrated your mind-reading capacities: “Hezbollah, with its daily shower of random rocket fire into northern Israeli towns and cities, is clearly intent upon killing civilians.” I saw no statement from you about what Israel’s intent was in all the massacres of civilians that have occurred while you have written about the conflict. As you may know (but haven’t yet reported that I saw), estimates of deaths in the Israel-Lebanon war of 2006 are that Israel killed over 1100 Lebanese, most of whom were civilians, and that Hizbollah killed 119 Israeli soldiers and 43 Israeli civilians. And yet, even now, I bet you are willing to stand behind your statement that Hizbollah was “intent on killing civilians” but that Israel was not. You are willing to impute motives and intent to some, but not others.

These are all signs of racism, and they are disgusting.

Laziness, lies, and clichés

It would be too much to expect you to cover the carnage proportionately by reporting on Palestinian suffering 80 times as much as Israeli suffering (of course 80 times underestimates the disparity, since Israelis control every detail of Palestinian life and use that control to abuse, humiliate, and degrade at whim). But rather than fail to capture this incredible disparity, you inverted the relationship and gave a disproportionate voice to the victimizers. In your 44 stories, you used about 170 sources. 100 of these were Israeli, 39 were Palestinian, and 31 were other (Lebanese, US, or European). To say you used 39 Palestinian sources overstates the case: You used two sources (Diana Buttu and Saeb Erekat) 3 times each, and another (Ghassan Khatib) twice: all three of these are on the same negotiating team and members of the same political faction. You have about a half-dozen other sources (businessmen Sam Bahour and Ali Abu Shahla, academics Naji Shurab and Nader Izzat Said, mental health spokesman Marwan Diab), and another half-dozen “man-on-the-street” interviews. The rest of the Palestinian voices in your articles come second-hand, from television or other media.

Your list of Israeli contacts seems much more impressive, by contrast, particularly in think tanks and universities. The majority of your stories, even on Palestinian questions, are anchored by analysts at Israeli think tanks (Shalem Center, Jaffee Center, Reut Center), by Israeli analysts writing in newspapers (Alex Fishman in Yediot Aharonot), or Israeli academics (at Tel Aviv University or the Hebrew University in Jerusalem). Most of your stories follow a predictable pattern: Some news reported from wire services or media, followed by some analysis by an Israeli columnist in Ma’ariv or Yediot Aharonot, concluding with some analysis by an Israeli expert at a think-tank or university. Recent stories following this pattern are December 18, December 15, December 1, and November 28. Your recourse to Israeli experts and Palestinians close to President Abbas, and the absence of government officials from Hamas, leads to an especially unbalanced view of the fighting in Gaza between Hamas and Fatah. Do you consider yourself to be part of the boycott against the government the Palestinians elected? You frequently mention how Hamas is supported by various Muslim countries, but I didn’t see (I may have missed) references to the supply of cash and weapons to Fatah in Gaza by the US. In the context of starvation, that supply and support makes the conflict in Gaza more of a proxy war than a civil war. But that perspective, widely understood by many Palestinians and Israelis, people both inside and outside the region, is unavailable to your readers. Because of you. At best, this is laziness. Regardless of cause, it has serious consequences.

Though most of your lies are by omission and were discussed above, the article by Daniel Freeman-Maloy, which I referred to in my original blog post shows one direct lie:

“On June 30… Potter made the following assertion: ‘Despite five days of international headlines there has been but a single death – that of kidnapped 18-year-old Israeli hitchhiker Eliyahu Asheri.’”

Freeman-Maloy pointed out that two children aged 2 and 17 had been killed on June 28 at Khan Yunis by unexploded shells. The New York Times caught these deaths, though you didn’t. On June 22, Israeli special forces assassinated a member of the al-Aqsa Martys Brigades in Ramallah. In the week June 22-28, Israeli forces wounded 6 Palestinians, including 3 children, according to PCHR. Asserting a single death was dishonest, given how much violence had been meted out to Palestinians over the summer. Not correcting it in light of information makes it a lie, the worse because several Palestinians were killed even as Canadians were reading your story of a single death.

As for your use of clichés, I have already pointed out how your story of July 1 made light of the terror of Israel’s sonic booms. But your writing is replete with clichés, of Palestinians “enflamed” with “militant rhetoric”, of Hizbollah “well-armed, well-trained and well-acquainted with the promise of martyrdom” conducting an “unprovoked kidnap raid”, of Hamas “sworn to Israel’s destruction”, of Israeli soldiers “getting their boots dirty”, Israelis worrying about “a thousand pound gorilla of a question”. All these clichés, and this is but a small sample, have the same effect: debasing the gravity of the situation, defiling and dehumanizing the victims, and confusing readers as to causes and possible solutions.

Why bother?

My original intention was to look at all of your work since the second intifada began. But I had neither the time nor the stomach for such an exercise, so instead I confined myself to the 44 stories you filed on Israel/Palestine over the past 6 months. I think we both know this was a fruitless exercise on my part in any case. Each of the things I pointed out, you will minimize, rationalize, or find some excuse for. I could tell you how to do your job better. I could give you lists of people, Palestinians and Israelis, you could interview to diversify your sources considerably, facts and arguments you could read, ideas you could expose yourself to so that you could decide where you stood and report both the range of views and justify honestly why you hold yours.

But we both know what would happen if you were fair: if you interviewed a more diverse set of sources, conveyed the massive disparities and the power interests at work, and showed something other than contempt for the lives and thoughts of Palestinians. We know that a person who was fair would not sit long as Middle East Bureau Chief for the Toronto Star, but would face pressure for being, in your words, “overempathetic to the plight of Palestinians” (Interesting that you used “plight” in your email to me. In the past six months you used the word “plight” three times, always to describe Israelis – air force commander Halutz, Israel in general, and tank gunner Shalit, never to describe Palestinians). That pressure would eventually cost such a person his or her job. And whatever you have done with it, no doubt it is a comfortable and interesting job. In the society we’re in, to get and keep such a job requires either overt or covert partisanship for the powerful. Your reporting is a mix of both, and neither you nor our society are going to change any time soon. My hope is not for you, then, but for your readers. I hope that some of them realize that going to you for information on the Israel/Palestine conflict is a good way to be deceived and confused, and that there are far better sources.

Sincerely,

Justin Podur


Mitch Potter’s letter:

Sept 10, 2006

Mr. Podur,

Whatever you may think of my work, how in good conscience do you come to brand me “a truly disgusting racist” in a public forum?

I have been called many things in my time in the Middle East — in fact, the dominant thrust of my critics after nearly five years of reporting from the region is that I am overempathetic to the plight of Palestinians. But “truly disgusting racist” is an altogether new low.

You completely misunderstand the intent of the phrase “lemming-like,” which in fact was written to remind readers of the terribly mismatched battles in Gaza, battles that I have written about repeatedly since 2002. It goes like this: whenever an Israeli armoured column so much as nudges the edge of a refugee camp, lightly armed gunmen from Izzidine al-Qassam Brigades, Al Aksa Martyr Brigades and as many as a half-dozen other groups at any given time pour forth to their almost certain death.

I have asked Palestinian militant leaders many times why they pursue this particularly self-defeating strategy of confronting Israeli tanks, when these very same groups have demonstrated a greater military sophistication in the planning and execution of certain other attacks, such as the June 24 tunnel-born raid that resulted in the capture of Israeli Cpl. Gilad Shalit.

The answer is that the reaction is by rote. Or, rather, lemming-like. When tanks are on the doorstep, emotion takes over, and many Palestinian fighters launch themselves spontaneously into the losing end of a decidedly unfair fight. Some Israeli military officials, in fact, have been quoted as calling these engagements “unfair” in Israel’s favour for that very reason.

According to sociologists I have spoken to and quoted extensively from Gaza (Google my article the “Lost Boys of Gaza” for context) the impulse is somehow connected to feelings of powerlessness. In other words, Palestinian fighters are drawn out not by the promise of certain death, but rather, the subconscious need to feel they are somehow taking control of a situation that has left their entire community powerless.

Sociologists also say a similar impulse contributes to the high casuality rate among Palestinian boys. In Palestinian society, as in the broader society of the Arab world, the father is the traditional symbol of power and authority. Yet many of the boys of Gaza appear to be turning away from their helpless fathers and instead identify more with the “father figure” of armed gunmen in their streets, who are the only ones to demonstrate strength. There are many terrible ways that children die by Israeli weaponry. But one of them, I believe, includes the fact that the children are drawn to being with the militants in the streets.

It is sick. And the sickness, in my view, is one of the by-products of multiple generations of Israeli occupation.

The reality of daily print journalism is that not every story comes replete with the context it deserves. There is neither the space nor the time. And the story you cite on your Blog could have benefited from more.

That said, I have written dozens of lengthy, contextual reports from Gaza, the West Bank and many points beyond that have an afterlife on the Web. I challenge you to find even one to support the slur you so cavalierly attach to my name.

Sincerely,

Mitch Potter

Middle East Bureau Chief

Toronto Star of Canada

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