Ph.D. Octopus

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The Best Journalist on Israel-Palestine: Khaled Abu Toameh

with 4 comments

by David

Khaled Abu Toameh

In light of the discussion generated my last post on the Harvard conference on a one-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (on this blog and my Facebook page), I decided to write a very short post about the person who I think is the best journalist and best source on Israel/Palestine: the Palestinian-Israeli Khaled Abu Toameh. I saw him speak in Israel back in early 2006, I was impressed when someone asked him about the peace process and he replied: “Peace process? What peace process?” I’ve tried to follow his work ever since, and though I followed it much more closely a few years ago than I do now, it’s still more relevant than ever.

As his Wikipedia page notes, Toameh was born in Tulkarem, in the West Bank, but grew up in an Arab village in Israel proper. He is an Arab Muslim, of Palestinian ethnicity, with Israeli citizenship. He calls himself an “Israeli-Arab-Muslim-Palestinian.” He became controversial writing for the right-wing Zionist paper The Jerusalem Post, who seemed to love him because he was hyper-critical of the ultra-corrupt Palestinian Authority, even more so than he was of Hamas. Toameh was and is a vital source for the conflict between the PA and Hamas, which has occasionally turned into a civil war involving violence, atrocities, and torture on both sides. Many in the PA hate and even think of him as a traitor, but he is extremely effective at talking to high level officials and getting a sense of the Palestinian street.

Here is a list with some links to his most recent pieces.

Though he is clearly cynical, and no supporter of right-wing Israeli governments, Toameh seems to endorse a two-state solution and appreciates his Israeli citizenship. Some quotes from his Wikipedia page:

On his vision of peace:

If there is a Jew who would like to live in Palestine he is welcome, and if there is an Arab who would like to live in Israel he is also welcome. In an ideal situation, peace means that people can live wherever they want. (2010)

On living in Israel:

Israel is a wonderful place to live and we are happy to be there. Israel is a free and open country. If I were given the choice, I would rather live in Israel as a second class citizen than as a first class citizen in Cairo, Gaza, Amman or Ramallah. (2009)

On Arabs in the Israeli Knesset using the term “apartheid” to describe Israel while in South Africa:

And then they come here to tell us that Israel is a state of apartheid? Excuse me. What kind of hypocrisy is this? What then are you doing in the Knesset? If you are living in an apartheid system, why were you allowed, as an Arab, to run in the election? What are you talking about? We do have problems as Arabs with the establishment here. But to come and say that Israel is an apartheid state is a big exaggeration. I am not here to defend Israel, but I think that Knesset members like this gentleman are doing huge damage to the cause of Israeli Arabs. I want to see the Knesset member sitting in the Knesset, in Jerusalem, and fighting for the rights of Arabs over there.

Obviously Toameh is not the be all and end all of truth regarding the conflict. But he is provocative and provides novel insight and information and is essential reading for anyone concerned with the region.


Written by David Weinfeld

March 4, 2012 at 14:37

4 Responses

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  1. First of all, the term “apartheid” is most often applied in this context to the West Bank Palestinians, who are not citizens of any country and have lived for more than four decades under Israeli military occupation with no rights. Anyone who suggests they should be allowed to vote in Israel is roundly denounced. You don’t address them here, but that’s what people like Jimmy Carter, Desmond Tutu, Ehud Barak, and Ehud Olmert are talking about when they use the word “apartheid”.

    Second of all, Toameh is criticizing the elected representatives of Israeli Arabs, who presumably use terms like “apartheid” because they accurately reflect the feelings of their constituents. Toameh dissents, which is absolutely his right. But as a Jewish writer and supporter of Israel, when you laud Toameh as “the best journalist and best source” on this conflict for saying these things, you sound like those white Republicans who are always telling the vast majority of black Americans to listen to Clarence Thomas or Herman Cain or Shelby Steele.

    Who are you to tell Israeli Arabs they should be more concerned about democracy in Egypt than their own second-class citizenship? It’s condescending in the extreme. Should black Americans be more concerned with human rights in Africa than their own civil rights at home?

    David Klion

    March 4, 2012 at 16:33

    • Hi David, thanks for taking the time to read and comment. I appreciate your concerns and will do my best to address them.

      I’ll start by simply saying that I don’t think “who are you tell” arguments are very convincing. I’m a person, just like you. We’re all entitled to our views, and those views are shaped by our experiences, but if we only allow certain people to express themselves on particular topics, we’re going down a slippery slope I’d rather avoid.

      I think you are right to distinguish between Palestinians living in the occupied territories and those in Israel proper. While I flinch from the word apartheid to describe the condition of the former, I don’t really mind it: the conditions are horrific and as I’ve stated in countless posts, I support a just two-state solution where Israel gives back all those territories (or makes appropriate swaps).

      As for the comparison between Toameh and Steele or Cain or Thomas, I think that’s unfair. Again, we should evaluate the merits of what is being said. Herman Cain is an idiot. Steele and Thomas take fiscally conservative views that I strongly disagree with. But when people like Bill Cosby express what are sometimes regarded as socially conservative views regarding Black parenting and individual agency, I think it’s important to listen and there is some value to what is being said, even if I also recognize the structural racism in the US.

      Similarly, I think what Toameh says is extremely valuable. I think his point above about apartheid was that rather than travel to South Africa to complain that Arab Knesset members should stay in Israel and fight against the discrimination that Toameh has repeatedly recognized.

      Also, Toameh is valuable because of the access to sources he has, his reporting on the corruption of the PA. I’m reminded of a story my father told me, when he saw the late Edward Said speak at McGill in the 1990s. He said that if you had come in late to the talk, you would have thought it was a Likud MK speaking because all Said did was trash Arafat for being horrible and corrupt and selling out his own people, which is a critique that Toameh has been leveling for years.

      Indeed, in the midst of the recent Palestinian Civil War, as I mentioned earlier, Toameh was often more critical of the PA than Hamas, who at least are less corrupt, provide more services to the people, and are more honest. I’m not a fan of Hamas at all, but I think Toameh’s perspective is extremely useful, and very different than than what you typically get from the Jerusalem Post or Ha’aretz, which is why I like him. He’s far less predictable than the rabid right-wingers we’re used to in the US or the reflexive left-wingers like Amira Haas and Gideon Levy, both of whom I also admire.

      And as for your last question, I don’t really know how to answer that. People should be concerned with whatever they want. I think Toameh would not argue that Palestinian citizens of Israel should not fight discrimination at home. He’d argue, and did argue the exact opposite. What he would say is that they should have some perspective as to the benefits they enjoy in Israeli society as oppose to whatever citizens of Egypt or elsewhere may have. Similarly, I think Blacks in the US should fight racism at home while recognizing that their lives are better than those of most Blacks in Africa. Similarly, I think gays and lesbians in the US should continue to fight for their marriage rights in America while also recognizing that they have it better than gays and lesbians in authoritarian theocracies. And middle class and poor Americans should be angry and radicalize and join Occupy Wall Street, while recognizing that they have it better than starving children in the developing world. I think this point is obvious and uncontroversial. Fight discrimination and exploitation and injustice at home, do so radically, but maintain perspective nonetheless.

      David Weinfeld

      March 4, 2012 at 17:35

  2. I am disturbed by this article’s failure to mention Toameh’s institutional affiliations. He is linked to several hard right/neocon think tanks, and to the official Hasbara machinery. Such commitments complicate the picture you paint of Toameh as an independent/heterodox voice on Israel/Palestine affairs.

    Also disturbed by the freewheeling use of the imperative “should” in your discussion of the political activities of various subaltern and oppressed groups. The consideration of contemporary African American politics, in particular, strikes me as arrogant and under-nuanced. Also fails to consider in whose interest, and via what sources of funding, conservative voices emerge in as mass media representatives of African American politics. In neither the conversation about race in the U.S. nor the discussion of Israel does a spontaneous “free market of ideas” characterize the sending and receiving of messages.

    Finally: it is important, when considering the deployment of “apartheid” as a rhetorical device in political struggles to examine the ways in which aggrieved groups call on the experience of those who suffered under South African white supremacy. As far as “bottom-up” political analysis goes, insisting on the difference between the limited and variable citizenship rights of Israeli Arabs and the “social death” of apartheid’s victims is not particularly useful. Rather than pedantically hectoring groups in struggle regarding the limits of a chosen historical parallel, we might inquire whether there is an experiential basis for a given empathetic affinity. I think that it is entirely sensible that the experience of precarity and of the arbitrary extension of citizenship rights, to say nothing of the regular racism experienced in Israel by those who look and sound “Arab,” might well call to mind “apartheid.” Likewise the experience of many African Americans in today’s hyper-carceral and racist U.S. On this point, Jacques Ranciere has written recently some profound observations on the anti-democratic consequences of the policing of historical experience in the name of prohibiting putatively reckless comparisons. It is certainly true that even a cursory glance at the history of the US left–and particularly its civil rights/anti-racist wing–demonstrates that at every turn protestors drew enormous moral authority from such reckless comparisons (think, for instance, of the NAACP’s fight against “Hitlerism” in WWII-era Alabama, or the importance of conversations about the desire to avoid being “Good Germans” in the mobilization of the white New Left in the fight against Jim Crow in the 1960s).

    I write this largely in solidarity with your stated commitments, but I question your interpretation of the current crisis, your veneration of a highly questionable intellectual, and your broader take on how scholars in the humanities (and historians more specifically) might best reflect on social movements in motion.

    Kurt Newman

    March 4, 2012 at 21:32

    • Hi Kurt. Thanks for the great comment. It’s true that Toameh is affiliated with some right-wing think tanks, but I think there’s a bit of chicken and egg thing going on here. They like him because of his willingness to criticize the PA and signed him on. I agree that these affiliations in theory can complicate things, this is especially true in the case of things like climate change, or other scientific issues, I think. Here, however, I think Toameh’s journalism is honest and unique and have no reason to believe otherwise. Again, I evaluate the product.

      In reading Toameh, I very rarely (if ever!) see praise of the Israeli government. Indeed, when I heard him speak, and he was cynical about the “peace process,” it was because Israel continued to build settlements even while they negotiated with the PA. But his beat is covering the Palestinian institutions of authority, the PA and to a lesser extent Hamas. And that’s why he so often writes of PA corruption. And can any honest person not admit that the PA sensationally corrupt, or at least was especially under Arafat and Abbas (Fayyad has made improvements in the West Bank for sure).

      In terms of the term “apartheid,” that’s really not a big issue for me, as I said earlier. If using it is something that brings solidarity to Palestinians, in the West Bank or Israel proper, and helps end the occupation, so be it. As an academic I think it’s important to think about the similarities and differences between different cases, like Israel and South Africa, but politically this sort of objectivity matters less. Your historical analogies here about Civil Rights/WW2 are good ones. But I don’t really think I’ve been “pedantically hectoring” anyone though (I write a small blog read by very few), and Toameh wasn’t either. He was talking about real politicians who were out complaining in South Africa rather than actually working on helping their constituents. And in that sense I think he was right on.

      As for my use of the term “should,” I think you’re right again. I should have used “could.” That was mostly the product of writing a relatively quick response to a response to a blog post. I’m not the moral arbiter of anything, and people “should” do whatever they want, as I said earlier. But I do think that one can fight oppression while maintaing a balanced perspective about one’s own situation. I see this all the time in the case of GSOC, the graduate student proto-union at NYU of which I am a member. I think we have every right to fight for more rights, but I also try to maintain some perspective and humility about it: we are not factory workers in sweat shops, we are hyper-educated people, usually from the middle class, being paid to research, write about, and teach something we love.

      So thanks again for comment, but I really don’t think Toameh is questionable at all. I think he’s really important and frankly not read enough at all. And I also disagree with your view about scholars and historians: I think as scholars and historians, we have an obligation to be objective (I’ve written about this in the past). If in our personal/spare time we want to be activists, we of course can shed that objectivity. I do agree that it’s not our place to judge whether it’s morally right for groups to use the term apartheid, for example, but it is our obligation to make these objective comparisons and contrasts to better understand and teach these phenomena.

      David Weinfeld

      March 5, 2012 at 12:31

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