November 5, 2013
Should a publication that seeks to foster "a new conversation about Israel and Palestine" perpetuate Nakba denial and tolerate discourse that excuses or denies sexual assault?
On Friday 1 November, Peter Beinart’s Open Zion blog published an article by Anna Lekas Miller about the background and current situation of Rasmea Odeh, who was arrested in October by the US Department of Homeland Security for alleged immigration fraud.
Lekas Miller’s article itself is an example of fair reporting, and Odeh’s own voice is heard through her testimony that was published in the Journal of Palestine Studies in 1980. Odeh’s conviction is presented in the context of Israel’s military occupation, documented use of torture against Palestinians and unfair military courts.
However, the article has been decorated by some awful racist and sexist features coming directly from the blog’s staff and the community that participates in the discussion on the site.
Within the article page, a stock photograph of Odeh’s birthplace, the Palestinian village of Lifta, carries the caption:
A general view of the abandoned Palestinian village of Lifta, near Jerusalem on February 10, 2012. (Ahmad Gharabali / AFP / Getty Images)
I found the original caption provided by Agence France-Presse in the Getty Images database:
A general view shows the Palestinian village of Lifta, which was abandoned during fighting in the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, near Jerusalem on February 10, 2012. In an unprecedented decision by an Israeli court, Palestinian refugees from Lifta have succeeded in preventing the destruction of their village and building residential and commercial complexes on the site.
The word "abandoned" in both versions of the caption is incorrect, because the inhabitants fled violence during the Nakba – the ethnic cleansing of 750,000 Palestinians beginning in 1947-48 – and Israel has prevented them from returning only because they are not Jewish.
Killings around Lifta started at the end of 1947. On 28 December 1947, members of the Zionist militias the Stern Gang and Irgun murdered at least five Palestinians in a machine gun attack on a coffeehouse in the village. By this time, people in the village were already fleeing under threat of the violence already occurring nearby.
Most of the village had left by January 1948 when Lifta fell to the Stern Gang and Irgun. Survivors who had remained and resisted were forced into East Jerusalem and the West Bank. The roofs on Lifta’s houses were broken to prevent the original inhabitants from attempting to return to them.
Today, refugees from Lifta continue to tend the cemetery in the village and spare no effort to fight Israeli development projects that would wipe Lifta from the map.
Lifta is not abandoned. The residents were expelled by force and are denied their right to return. This misrepresentation of Odeh’s Palestinian history by Open Zion staff amounts to Nakba denial.
Victim blaming and denial of sexual assault and sexual torture
Open Zion staff do not moderate the comments on their blog, which is a shame because as a result of this neglect, their pages are filled with slander, racist and sexist attacks on their own contributors and on the subjects of their articles.
Like so many other online communities attached to mainstream media, sexist attacks on women and racist attacks on Arabs and Muslims are common. In the case of Rasmea Odeh, the comments from some long-standing members of their community of readers have been predictably hateful.
Comments from "cervelovan" appear on articles going back weeks (it’s not possible to search Open Zion comments), and on Lekas Miller’s article, this person writes:
I don’t believe this for even one second. A big part of it is that I know how the IDF operates, but the methods she describes are very common in Iraq and Syria, so she describes methods she knows about. False, false, false.
Another persona named "Bar" has been commenting at Open Zion for a very long time and their comments can be found on almost any article. "Bar" doesn’t believe Odeh’s story and even raises doubts about the existence of Palestine.
In another comment, "Bar" suggests that Odeh cannot be trusted because she is "a potential terrorist for an anti-Israel cause," a vague and awkward turn of phrase that hints at anti-Palestinian prejudice.
Other comments on the article share these same features: victim blaming and denial. Only one comment, from Peacequi, shows any capacity to believe Odeh’s testimony of sexual assault:
Yes, we don’t have all the facts. But I for one tense up and fill with sadness to read her account. I don’t swing into hasbarah mode devoid of empathy for people. If I find out she was the bomber, I’ll feel differently about her fate though not about the torture.
Sexual violence within the Israeli army and against Palestinian civilians has been documented and resisted for decades. Multiple accounts of the Deir Yassin massacre include mentions and descriptions of rape and other sexual assaults perpetrated by the Irgun and Stern Gang against women and girls in that village.
In the present day, Palestinian child prisoners are routinely threatened with rape. Palestinian activists also report threats of rape when they’re arrested and interrogated for protest actions.
Open Zion has reported on the subject of sexual assault and rape in Israel society, including the army.
It’s not surprising that the most extreme reactionary commenters in Peter Beinart’s online community would deny a woman’s experience of sexual assault. Is it appropriate for Open Zion to host comments that deny a woman’s own testimony of sexual assault and perpetuate rape culture?
A "new conversation about Israel"
Open Zion was founded in March 2012 coincident with Beinart’s book The Crisis of Zionism on the premise that it would stimulate new conversations about Israel and Palestine. A few Palestinian writers such as Maysoon Zayid and Yousef Munayyer have become regular contributors to the project.
More than once, Open Zion has misreported on issues related to Palestine and solidarity activism. The mission is decidedly Zionist, but I pay attention because some contributions are worth reading.
If someone had asked me whether they should respond to an inquiry from an Open Zion writer or be quoted in an article, I would have answered that it depends on the author. Now I would be unable to give the same advice.
Even if the Open Zion contributor can be trusted to represent someone’s words and story, the editors and the community there will deny your history, abuse your narrative and call you a liar. Why should our community be exposed to this violence?