The New York Times has apologized for printing an op-ed by Marwan Barghouti, in which the charismatic Palestinian Che-in-the-making was identified as a “Palestinian leader and parliamentarian.” It seems that by identifying the face of a thousand BDS banners as a “leader and parliamentarian,” which he is, and not also as a head of the Tanzim militia who was sentenced to five consecutive life sentences by an Israeli civilian criminal court for three terror attacks in which five Israelis were murdered during the Second Intifada, the Times op-ed page violated clear-cut rules of serious discourse. The offense was so profound, and the outrage so great, that Times Public Editor Liz Spayd felt obliged to weigh in on the side of a host of complainers and trolls, including Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who spend their time policing Times op-ed contributor bios.
In response, the Times has now bowed its head and appended a mea culpa to Barghouti’s article. “This article explained the writer’s prison sentence but neglected to provide sufficient context by stating the offenses of which he was convicted,” a new editors’ note appended to the bio now reads. “They were five counts of murder and membership in a terrorist organization. Mr. Barghouti declined to offer a defense at his trial and refused to recognize the Israeli court’s jurisdiction and legitimacy.”
On the face of it, this entire controversy is so idiotic as to be beneath notice, even for a person with way too much time on his or her hands. Acknowledging myself to be such a person, I am still determined to comment, because why not? It is impossible to overstate the danger to public discourse posed by the revised version of Barghouti’s bio, which should rightly alarm op-ed contributors from the Brookings Institution to the Hudson Institute, as well as senators, heads of state, and anyone who wishes to offer definite opinions about how to solve conflicts in the Middle East.
Imagine the consequences if offering equal time to the author’s detractors were to become the rule in op-ed bios: “Condoleezza Rice was a prime architect of the disastrous U.S. invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, which cost over $2 trillion and led to the collapse of state structures throughout the Middle East.” That’s fair, isn’t it? Or: “John Kerry is perhaps the single most pompous and least successful diplomat in modern American history.” True. Or: “John Podesta helped squander $1 billion on a losing presidential campaign against a frighteningly labile political neophyte, while falling for a phishing scam so primitive that any 11-year-old child would consign it to the trash.” Again, true. Or: “David Simon is a bleeding-heart liberal who went Hollywood after Season 3 of The Wire.” Or: “Michel Houellebecq is a sex pervert and an Islamophobe. He is French.”
Or, as might soon be the case: “Benjamin Netanyahu is the prime minister of Israel. His government has been charged with war crimes at the International Criminal Court in Geneva.”
The choice is clear: Either let authors compose their own bios, even excluding certain unpleasant facts, or else face the endless litigation of op-ed bios on social media and the resulting mass extinction of op-eds, as authors great and small flee from a form that was put on earth to allow bloviating fat-heads to primp and preen in the mirror before people start throwing stuff at them again.
By this point, I’m sure that I have very deeply offended and outraged some number of people, including terror victims and their families, op-ed writers, John Kerry’s wife, and fans of Season 5 of The Wire, who are running off right now to gin up more outraged outrage on Twitter, in the hopes of terrifying someone, somewhere, into profusely apologizing for something. So let’s have at it, then: What could be more outrageous, and despicable, and immoral, and offensive, than to compare Marwan Barghouti, a murdering Palestinian terrorist who is serving no fewer than five life sentences for his crimes, with upstanding Americans like Condoleezza Rice and David Simon, who, whatever their other faults, are products of our sterling democratic system that blah blah blah blah …
Do you hear that awful, repetitive, grating sound? It’s me, snoring. Social media is a perpetual outrage machine that feeds on the endless supply of outrage that it generates. It’s like a rendering of one of Leonardo da Vinci’s glorious dreams by R. Crumb.
And because I’m not on Facebook or Twitter, I can’t see anything you’re furiously typing right now with one hand while doing God knows what with the other. The only Twitter account I consult with any regularity is Kim Kardashian’s, because she makes money off it. Kim Kardashian is beautiful, in part because she is part of no one’s fake-o Astroturf-ing comms ring. She’s selling Kim Kardashian. I ignore the rest of you on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc. because you’re suckers—a good working definition of which is “people who regurgitate someone else’s paid messaging for free.”
How despicable and unfeeling of me, I know. How will the information economy, which runs on perpetual outrage, survive? Who will employ all those millennials? And how dare I treat such deeply serious, weighty subjects, which perpetually outrage all decent people—Middle East peace! Terrorism! Justice for Palestine! The survival of the State of Israel! The biased New York Times!—so blithely? Surely, someone can bring me up on charges of something, before a Committee of the Just at Oberlin or AIPAC or the CFR, especially after Benjamin Netanyahu just compared Marwan Barghouti to Bashar al-Assad!
Well, guess who chose to stand idly by while 500,000 Syrians were gassed, bombed and shot by Syria’s dictator, a sworn enemy of the State of Israel? It wasn’t Marwan Barghouti.
But what about the five Israelis that Barghouti killed in the three terror attacks that he was convicted of planning or otherwise participating in? Don’t their families and loved ones deserve even a small measure of justice from the Times op-ed page? Another question is, who asks questions like that? Only people who use words like “justice” and “loved ones” as cudgels in some mindless game of social media tic-tac-toe, without the slightest idea of what it’s like to see a human body that’s been blown into little flesh-pieces.
As a reporter who was in the West Bank during the Second Intifada, and who spent many hours interviewing people close to Marwan Barghouti, including his wife, as well as Israeli military intelligence agents and Shin Bet personnel who operated against Barghouti, I have zero doubt that the Palestinian leader encouraged, aided, and abetted what any Western court would reasonably define as acts of terrorism. Similarly, to state that Barghouti saw those acts, and the context in which they were planned and carried out, as attempts to fight a war using unequal means against a vastly more powerful nation while maintaining the position of his own faction in the Palestinian polity is not to judge the morality of his claims; it is the truth. To state that Nelson Mandela and Menachem Begin were also responsible for terror bombings that killed civilians is not to state that Barghouti is, therefore, Mandela or Begin, or that Palestinians are Israelis, or Israel is Apartheid-era South Africa. It is the truth. Not my truth, or their truth—it’s simply true.
How do I know that? Because I was there off and on for years, I saw it with my own eyes, I interviewed a wide range of people who were directly involved in the action, and I’m an actual, professional reporter. Many of us have found other jobs since Google and Facebook decided to “liberate” our “content” from the admittedly very stupid people who ran the companies we worked for, but that’s another story.
What is not true is the implication, now seconded by the Times op-ed page, that Marwan Barghouti was a terrorist leader, or even an especially prominent or capable organizer or planner of terror attacks at a time when bombings targeting Israeli civilians, and lethal responses by Israeli special units, were an almost-daily occurrence. It is fair to say that neither Palestinian attack planners and bomb makers on one side, nor the commanders of Israeli intelligence and special operations units on the other, would be likely to recognize the portrait of Barghouti as the Palestinian Assad or bin Laden. It is more likely that such a portrait would make both sides giggle. Marwan the brave! Marwan the martyr, who led the holy terror war against Israel from his home in Ramallah with his wife and his friends.
Similarly, Barghouti’s account of his abuse at the hands of his Israeli jailors and interrogators should be taken with a very large grain of salt, as every viewer of any police or counter-terrorism procedural on TV surely knows. But to suggest, with a straight face, as leading Israeli politicians like Yair Lapid and others have recently done, that it is impossible that any of Barghouti’s accounts of ill-treatment at the hands of his Israeli jailers are true is to argue in transparent bad faith. Having interviewed more than one Israeli security official familiar with the early phases of Barghouti’s interrogation, I have no trouble believing that physical force was employed against a man that the Israeli state would present in court as a terrorist mastermind—especially since the use of physical force against “ticking bombs” was standard procedure during the Second Intifada. That’s what happens when you blow up little kids at coffee shops and gas stations.
The attempt to paint Barghouti as an arch-terrorist and fabulist is cheap propaganda by an Israeli leadership that spends its energy trying to discredit New York Times op-eds, having long ago passed the point of utter cynicism about the realistic possibility of any solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In large part, that cynicism seems justified. The Oslo Accords have been dead in all but name for at least a decade. The “peace process” refers to a vibrant industry in the West that employs many people in Washington and Brussels, as well as in Jerusalem and Ramallah. It ensures lecture dates for Dennis Ross. So familiar is the term that John Kerry even assumed that the “peace process” was real. But it’s not.
What Israelis and Palestinians found out about each other 10, or 20, years ago is that the most far-reaching terms that one side is prepared to offer don’t come close to the most minimal terms that the other side might accept. All the posturing about where exactly boundary lines might be drawn in Jerusalem is simply a cover for a much more fundamental divide. If that divide didn’t exist, no one would give a hoot about 300 meters here or there. Poisonous rejectionism of the legitimacy of the Jewish state is a well-established political norm in the Middle East, which is a far more dangerous region today than it was in the 1990s—one in which state structures have collapsed and there is no great power that can credibly impose or guarantee a peace. Both parties believe that time is ultimately on their side.
In the meantime, Israel has found prosperity and a strong-enough sense of national solidarity and purpose even in the absence of peace, while the Palestinians have achieved neither, and keep digging themselves and their national aspirations ever-deeper into a dark hole. Even Shimon Peres, Israel’s self-styled eternal dreamer and man of peace, whom I interviewed last September shortly before his death, waved his hand and looked up at the ceiling in exasperation at my stupidity when I mentioned the word “peace.”
Because I’m not an op-ed writer or a peace processor, I am free of any obligation to pretend that I have the slightest idea of whether a just or workable solution to the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians is possible. I am free to be a human being, which means that I get to feel bad for every single person, Israeli or Palestinian, who lost a child or a parent or a brother or a sister to a bomb. Whether that bomb was strapped to the body of a fanatical or deluded teenager or was dropped from a modern aircraft on purpose or by accident, seems surpassingly unimportant, from the perspective of those who were killed or maimed and of their families.
As a human being, Marwan Barghouti bears the guilt of all the violence against other human beings that he encouraged and abetted. I also have little doubt that he wishes that history might have provided him with other, better options than leading hunger strikes in an Israeli jail. I am sure that Benjamin Netanyahu would say the same thing about some of his own daily routines. This is not to suggest any shocking equivalence between a convicted terrorist and the elected democratic leader of a sovereign nation. It is simply to state human facts about human beings.
It is also true that history likes throwing curve-balls. Ten years from now, the Palestinian people may have their own state, and Marwan Barghouti might be its elected leader. Someone might even make a movie about him, like Mandela. Or else he might turn out to be a footnote to Palestinian history, when the son of the Jordanian King Abdullah emerges as the Moses of his mother’s people and unites Palestinians in a Hashemite federation that includes Jordan, the West Bank, and east Jerusalem. Or, like the many other stateless peoples in the world, the Palestinians will continue to be the plaything of greater powers. Or the Palestinians will disappear. Or the Israelis will all become Canaanites. None of these outcomes is necessary, just as none is unthinkable.
What bothers me is all the noise being generated in the meantime by people who passionately argue in transparent bad faith with the goal of making reasoned disagreement impossible. I blame the social-media oligarchy, sure. Google, Facebook, and Twitter succeeded in their goal of destroying “old media,” which has been replaced by an unholy scrum of time-wasting morons and slimy political operatives. But I also blame Benjamin Netanyahu, Yair Lapid, and other people who should know better but still attach their names to this crap while aspiring to be recognized as leading political figures in a Western democracy. With no end to the conflict in sight, wisdom would seem to consist of extending the bare minimum of common courtesy and respect that makes it possible to take a fair measure of one’s current and likely future enemies, in the knowledge that anything is possible.
The New York Times has nothing to be ashamed of in printing Barghouti’s op-ed, or in the original wording of his bio. But by empowering trolls, they have, at least fractionally, pushed the chances of a better future for Israelis and Palestinians alike even further away. And history is a game of inches.
Marwan Barghouti may be a free man next year, or five years from now, or he may rot for the rest of his life in an Israeli prison—and there are reasonable arguments to be made on all sides. But there is no reason for his op-ed bio to languish in chains.
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