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May 31, 2012 12:43 pm

The Guardian’s Harriet Sherwood: Reinforcing Stereotypes About Israeli Jews

avatar by Adam Levick

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Harriet Sherwood. Photo: www.a2.twimg.com.

Fresh from her blatant lie about the number of Palestinians in Gaza disabled by IDF military operations (which even the Guardian acknowledged has absolutely no basis), Harriet Sherwood turned to the issue of recent tensions in Tel Aviv over the influx of illegal migrants in her article titled “Levinsky Park Migrants live in fear after Tel Aviv race riots“ of May 29th, which builds on a familiar Guardian narrative: Israeli racism.

The theme of Sherwood’s report is made clear by the following text early in her report:

“Beneath the restless boredom [of migrants’ lives], there is a new mood: wariness. Since an anti-migrant demonstration last week turned ugly and violent, these men – many of whom fled in fear from their homes in sub-Saharan Africa – are fearful once again. The display of naked racism in what is routinely described as a diverse and liberal city also shocked many Israelis.” [emphasis added]

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“…dark-skinned men were threatened.”

Sherwood continues by describing the experience of illegal African migrants:

“Once on Israeli territory [a trip often facilitated by Bedouin smugglers who force the African migrants to pay exorbitant fees], migrants are detained while their identity and country of origin is checked. Most are then given “conditional release” and put on buses to Tel Aviv, where they are dropped in Levinsky park and left to fend for themselves.”

In fact, although such migrants of course encounter many difficulties, there are quite a few Israeli NGOs (Amutot עמותות) which provide them with much-needed services, such as: African Refugee Development CenterAid Organization for Asylum Seekers and RefugeesHotline for Migrant WorkersKav LaOved,Mesila, and Physicians for Human Rights.

Sherwood continues:

“According to Israel’s population and immigration authority, 62,000 people have crossed the southern border since 2006. “

No context is provided by Sherwood as to what precisely caused the influx.

According to a New York Times report from 2011:

“The influx of Africans [to Israel] began in 2005 after the Egyptian police attacked Sudanese refugees who were camped out in Cairo and demanded asylum. More than 20 people were [murdered], and word spread that Israel would provide them a better welcome and more job opportunities.”

Here is the original account of the Egyptian racist brutality, per a NYT report on Dec. 30, 2005:

“Egyptian riot police rushed into a crowd of unarmed Sudanese migrants early this morning, killing at least 23 people, including small children, after the group refused to leave a public park it had occupied for three months hoping to pressure United Nations officials to relocate them. [emphasis added]

They started hitting our heads with the sticks and dragging us,” said Napoleon Robert Lado, a leader of the group. “They dragged me when I was trying to help a woman who fainted to stand up. They dragged me and I was stepping over the old people and women and children. I was screaming and trying to step away, but could not.”

By nightfall, Muhammad Khalaf, head of the area’s emergency department, said there were 23 dead, 7 of them children, 8 elderly, and 7 more women. Human rights organizations said that others died after being taken to police camps and being denied immediate access to health care.”

A Sudanese woman is beaten by Egyptian riot police.

Back to Sherwood: this is by far the most gratuitous quote in her report:

“Many in [Tel Aviv’s] Levinsky park simply feel they have swapped one kind of oppression [in Sudan] for another [in Israel]. “They don’t like black people in Israel,“ said Aldheer Ahmed, 45, from Darfur.” [emphasis added]

A reporter can contextualize and frame a story in a myriad of ways. Essentially, a “straight” news story is laden with editorial decisions about which quotes to use, how to turn phrases, which photograph best illustrates the story, how precisely to word the headline, which facts to highlight, etc. – all of which lead the reader to the desired narrative.

Quite simply, Harriet Sherwood chose to use that quote from one Sudanese migrant – which serves to advance her desired theme of Israeli racism – and chose to bury any exculpatory evidence which could serve to accurately contextualize the incident.  Mr. Ahmed is a black Sudanese and was quite possibly fleeing persecution at the hands of (anti-black) racist Arab Sudanese in the North, just as his fellow countrymen had fled brutality at the hands of racist Arabs in Egypt, where many had originally attempted to flee to safety.

But the broader story about Israel’s record on the issue of race – one never reported in the Guardian – is that you’d be hard pressed to find a country which risked so much to rescue thousands of Africans from danger (Ethiopians Jews, during Israeli orchestrated, large-scale secret air-lifts in 1984, 1985 and 1991). Thousands more were brought to Israel in other ways including government-run covert operations, exchanges for arms and open immigration.

Today the Ethiopian community in Israel numbers nearly 120,000.

New Ethiopian immigrants reach Israel during Operation Solomon in 1991

Similarly, the suggestion that Israel doesn’t like dark people would come as news to the roughly half of Israeli Jews who are ‘Jews of color’ – that is Jews from the Middle East, North Africa, South and Central America. Israel is not, and never has been, a “white” country.

Jews have come to modern Israel from 103 countries and speak more than 70 different languages. In my ulpan class (intensive Hebrew) alone, there were Jews from Ethiopia, Peru, Brazil, Chile, Venezuela, Russia, Belarus, Moldova, the UK, Italy, Germany, and the U.S.

In addition, other nationalities represented in this global melting pot of Israel are Morocco, Yemen, Iran, Algeria, Tunisia, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Georgia, Turkey, Libya, Syria, India, Pakistan, Poland, Romania, Canada, Austria, Bulgaria, Greece, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, South Africa, and many others.

Journalists have considerable power to dispel or propagate prejudices.  As such, Harriet Sherwood’s reports (and those of many of her Guardian colleagues and ‘Comment is Free’ commentators) continually serve to reinforce facile, lazy, intellectually unserious (often toxic) stereotypes about Israeli Jews.

If doctors must swear upon a Hippocratic Oath, which demands that they first ‘do no harm’, it seems fair to expect that journalists, whose prose colours the perceptions of their readers, should be expected to avoid “feeding the baffled, frustrated and bewildered [who] seek a grand, simplifying hypothesis that can bring [an] ordered explanation to a confusing world.”

The question regarding to what degree the Guardian’s negative coverage of Israel is informed by antisemitism is an extremely important one, but it is also at times difficult to quantify with the necessary empirical rigor and can sometimes even serve as a distraction from concerns just as vital in understanding the institution’s malign obsession.

What strikes me most about reading the Guardian’s Israel section, especially as a citizen of the state now for over three years, is how little resemblance their reports and commentary bear to the country in which I live; the place I call home.

No matter how long their stay in the region, reporters like Sherwood necessarily carry their political baggage to each assignment – reporting phenomena in the Jewish state colored by a predetermined binary antagonist-protagonist paradigm.

Antisemitic? At times yes, at times no.

Prejudiced, in the broader sense of the word? Yes, by definition.

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