Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Book review: My Life as a Traitor

Review appeared in abridged form at the Post weekend edition as "Political memoir of no presumption" on March 6, 2008

A blindfolded 20-year-old girl is pushed into an interrogation room in Teheran's notorious Evin prison. She can't see her interrogator; she can only smell him. For the next 39 days she endures beatings and humiliations for daring to organize student protests; when allowed to "rest" in her minute cell, she recollects her upbringing in a loving, liberal middle-class Teherani family, sharply contrasted with the suspicious surveillance state outside, and her journey from "pink shoe sensibility" - the muted protest of a girl not allowed to display outward signs of loveliness - to growing political involvement along with an infatuation with a student leader by the name of Arash Hazrati. She is released in the end, thanks to the advocacy of a previous love interest, a man close to the regime; later on, she escapes to Australia.

This, in a nutshell, is the plot (readable on the dust jacket, so it's no spoiler) of My Life as a Traitor, by Zarah Ghahramani, co-written with journalist Robert Hillman. Readers of any prison memoir are normally tempted to compare it to masterpieces of this chilling genre, like "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich" by Solzentisyn and "Journey into the Whirlwind" by Evgenia Ginsburg, or Julius Fučík's tragic "Notes from the Gallows" It seems best, however, to approach this literary foray with a fresh mind.

Ghahramani has not been through the years of horror that precede the "One Day" (which, as we remember, was a "good day" in his wretched life), neither did she acquire the staunch ideological and literary armor of the author of "Journey" prior to her trials. Above all, she thankfully spends just over a month in prison, while the protagonists and authors of those and other classics survive there for over a decade (except for Fučík, murdered by the Nazis in 1943). Tentative, unassuming and delicate, My Life as a Traitor has the distinction of being an honest memoir. This is how a political novice of a student would feel if she were cut off from friends and family and tossed into the grinding wheels of a bureaucratic system that sees her as little more than a malfunction to be dealt with. Physically, Ghahramani escapes relatively lightly; she is "only" beaten twice, she is not tortured (not by today's hazy standards), she is not shot, she is not raped. But the sheer helplessness, the complete uncertainty of her immediate future and the isolation are powerful enough.

Which is important, as Ghahramani does not pretend to be a hero. When she breaks, she breaks; cautious at first, defiant now and then, when physical pain arrives she begins to answer whatever she is asked, comforting herself that the very questions indicate that her fellow protesters confessed as quickly. But while painfully honest about her own fragility and helplessness before the machine she's thrown into, some discrepancies and question marks remain.

At one point, she talks about a filmmaker opposed to the regime. She wisely declines to state his name, but in the very same sentence she freely gives the title of his film. More disturbingly, perhaps, we learn nothing about what happens to Arash: Does he survive? Does he escape Evin? And what happens to Ghahramani's family? Do they stay in Iran? Does her father, a one-time soldier of the shah, suffer the consequences? While none of us who did not suffer the same ordeal as Gahrahmani should cast a stone at her, the integrity of the narrative demands greater clarity.

A feature which makes this book stand out among the recent flood of Iranian dissident testimonials, is thtat brutalized though she is at the hands of the theocrats, Gahrahmani does not hurry to place blame at the door of Islam as a religion or culture, or of Iran as a country.

"Had I grown up in a fundamentalist Christian state or an orthodox Jewish state I would have faced the same problems," she muses early in the book - and takes good care to explain insidious aspects of the Iranian Republic through recent and shameful examples from Western history. In her many departures from the prison narrative, she provides fascinating insights into the cultural riches and complexities of Iran (insights that occasionaly smell of textbooks, though - the patient tone of recapping some fundamental basics is obviously intended for the propaganda-soaked Wester reader). She speaks of the intertwining layers of its culture, the relationships between religions, the customs, the poetry; but also the scale of state intervention into people's lives, from the forced and somewhat touching formalities of courtship to the horror of women self-immolating to escape forced marriage; She relates at length the monstrosity of the Iran-Iraq War, with Iraqi missiles exploding in the streets, tearing down neighborhoods, and rituals of mourning imposed forever on widows of those lost to war, and she grants us a beautiful introduction to Zoroastrianism, laying special emphasis on Humata, Hukhta, Hvarshta - good thoughts, good words, good deeds, something that nurtures her opposition to the Savonarolan zealotry of the regime and helps her retain sanity through her ordeal. All these are features of Iran that are never seen in Israel, where any "color" pieces of the country are normally set around the plight and position of the Jewish community in the country.

But, above all, it is the images of her parents, of her family, of her friends, of the intellectual life she engages in, that remind us that under the frozen surface of any totalitarian regime there always remain small oases of humanity, friendship, criticism integrity and love - powerless for the time being, but outliving the system in the end.

While making no allowances for the pettiness and brutality of the regime, My Life as a Traitor offers us an introduction to a much more complex, fascinating and human Iran than the hostile, monolithic entity we've come to know from the Israeli media - a picture which, strangely enough, is drawn almost entirely from the mullahs' own state television. It is a book that will resonate with anyone who knows no other home than his or her country, but never felt quite at home with its particular regime.

It is also a powerfully honest book, for it recounts not only the author's humanism and determination, but her weakness and breaking points as well. Israelis will benefit if this book is ever translated into Hebrew.

My Life as a Traitor
By Zarah Ghahramani and Robert Hillman
Farrar, Straus and Giroux in the US, Bloomsbury in the UK
256 pages; $23 / £7.80

National student federation head quits amid misconduct accusations

Printed in the Jerusalem Post, February 28 2008

National Student Federation chairman Itay Shonshine, who ran a 36-day student strike in universities and colleges last spring, announced his resignation on Sunday.

In a three-page letter to his colleagues, he said a leader "has to know when to move on," and cited harm to his studies as the primary reason for the move.

But federation activists said a far likelier motivation was a motion by the leaders of the student unions that make up the federation to demote him over allegations of severe misconduct and mishandling of student funds, as well as dissatisfaction with his leadership of the strike.

According to the activists, who spoke to The Jerusalem Post on condition of anonymity, Shonshine was presented with an ultimatum on Sunday - either an immediate resignation, or a forced removal on Monday morning.

National Student Federation leaders have been trying to depose their once-firebrand leader for close to a year. There was frustration over the end of the strike, which saw the students go back to university in return for promises from the Finance Ministry to "consult" them over any tuition increase, a promise that was broken in November.

While federation activists spoke of internal intrigues and backdoor politics that "wouldn't have shamed a medieval court," the union leaders had less personal issues.

A Ma'ariv expose last month uncovered a string of accusations against the federation chief, including trying to sell the student-owned ISSTA travel agency to tycoon Arkadi Gaydamak (while using his lawyer flatmate as a private mediator at an expected fee of $1.5 million), appointing his personal accountant to perform an internal review at ISSTA, and giving the Student Federation's lawyer's son NIS 400 for his bar mitzva - using the checkbook of the College of Management student union, which he chaired at the time.

Shonshine denied all the allegations, and federation activists lodged a complaint with the police's Fraud Investigation Unit. The complaint is being processed, and an official investigation has yet to begin.

Speaking to the Post, Shonshine denied all allegations and played down his decision to stand down. "I did not resign, I just decided to shorten my term and advance the elections. I was a chairman for two years, and achieved everything I could as a chair of the federation - politically, socially, in the media, and more. Then there is the issue of my studies, which I want to complete. I also intend to run for the Petah Tikva municipal council, and it would be unethical to be politically active on two different fronts."

Shonshine denied the existence of an ultimatum. "There was no such thing, just talk by some opposition activists. The overwhelming majority of chairmen and students still support my leadership," he said.

He went on to call the police complaint "nonsense" and attacked the Ma'ariv journalist who wrote the expose. "What people don't know and Ma'ariv doesn't tell them is that Youval Lidor was a spokesman for the federation four years ago. He is still in contact with several factors in the organization, and he should have told this to his readers."

Lidor, who served as the federation's spokesperson in 2000, said the allegations were "absurd" and that he did not care to comment.

Ma'ariv also declined to speak on the issue.

Lebanese speak to the 'Post' about their divisions

Printed in the Jerusalem Post on February 15, 2008. First time vox-pops from Lebanon appeared at the Post in quite a while...

On a day on which two large gatherings [Imad Mugniyeh's funeral and the Rafiq Hariri memorial - DR] highlighted the divisions in Lebanese society, many Beirut residents stayed at home, voicing their disillusionment and frustration with Lebanon's ongoing crisis.

"I went to the [Hariri] rally last year, and I participated in the Cedar Revolution," an architect told the The Jerusalem Post. "I thought that this way my country can be truly free. But now it's politics of division, not diversity.

"My Lebanon is the Lebanon of culture, of investment, a place of dialogue between East and West - a Lebanon of freedom. When you're walking in Beirut, you can go to one street and hear English, take another street where they speak Arabic, and get to a street where everyone speaks French. This is what I love about my country. Instead we get this 14th of March [Alliance] to 8th of March rift. One side is sponsored by the Saudis, the other is sponsored by Iran. Where is Lebanon in all of this?" the architect asked.

The March 14 was the date of Lebanon's 2005 Cedar Revolution, which attempted to overthrow Syria's presence in Lebanon, while the 8th of March Power is a name for the pro-Syrian coalition in the Lebanese parliament.

Asked about the possibility of widespread violence erupting once again, a Lebanese journalist said: "It is already cold civil war. Perhaps we never went out of the old one, and the Syrian occupation was just an anesthesia. "We released the old demons without having been able to reform our political system."

"I am not concerned about any of them, none of them represent the true Lebanese will," said another Lebanese journalist. "I don't understand what freedom the 14th of March Movement is talking about, when all of them are servants of the Hariri family, themselves servants of the Saudis.

"And the 8th of March Power, even if they do have real popular demands, are still too close to the Syrian regime. Where is the real Lebanese voice between these two? Absent. Better to stay home and catch up on some deadlines," she said.

Left wingers rally for Gaza and Sderot

Printed in the Jerusalem Post, January 26, 2008

More than 1,000 people took part in a demonstration organized by a coalition of left-wing groups at the Erez border crossing on Saturday, in solidarity with Gazans and Sderot residents, under the slogan: "Stop the siege on Gaza: A demonstration for Gaza and for Sderot."

A convoy of about 100 cars and 25 buses brought protesters to the crossing with northern Gaza in the late morning; a large number of soldiers and police were present, but the demonstration proceeded without incident.

A rally under the same slogan was being held by Gazans inside the Strip.

Speaking by phone to the demonstrators on the Israeli side, Dr. Iyad al-Sarraj, head of the Palestinian Community Mental Health Program, said: "We are joining hands today in the pursuit of peace, justice and security for all - security for Palestine, security for Israel, security for Gaza and security for Sderot."

The last speaker at the rally was 17-year-old Shir Shudzik, from Sderot. Standing on top of a truck loaded with donated supplies and speaking through a megaphone, she said: "I've lived for the last seven years under the threat of the Kassams. It's exhausting. Every time I go to a train station or to a supermarket, and I hear the PA system switching on, I jump, because it sounds like the beginning of the rocket alarm. But I know I'm not alone in this situation, that people are suffering even worse on the other side."

"I don't trust neither my government nor Hamas to bring peace. But the fact that we are here together, Arabs and Jews, might be a beginning and it brings me hope."

While the organizers originally intended to hold the two demonstrations side by side on both sides of the security fence, this was prohibited by the army due to security considerations.

The Israeli convoy carried food purchased by participants, which they intend to send to Gaza in the coming days in coordination with authorities.

"Civilians on both sides are victims of the conflict and we deplore any action against [them]," said Adam Keller, one of the organizers. "We call for an immediate cease-fire between Hamas and the Israeli government, which was proposed by Hamas several times, and we call for an immediate end to Israeli incursions and Palestinian shootings."

"I believe in nonviolence. I have always publicly opposed suicide bombings and rocket fire," Sarraj told The Jerusalem Post. "I believe that the people of Gaza could stop the rocket fire by popular pressure, but the siege is making the militants much more popular, because we are all thrown together as victims."

Discussing Sderot residents, Sarraj said: "Every drop of blood on either side is sacred. Jewish blood is the same as Arab blood. I hope that very quickly people on both sides will be allowed to live in peace."

[Note: The printed piece had some more pars, taken from an AP report about protest elsewhere in the Middle East]

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

"The Great News Blockade"

A short piece I did for the wonderful Index on Censorship. Original here. Russian version here and also here. Funny thing is it was supposed to have been an exposé, and the censorship got eased up just as the article went to "print" - after I spent two days pestering the censor and the spokespeople of the IDF for their comments. Hope you enjoy.

The Israeli government yesterday lifted some restrictions on the reporting of an air force raid on Syria. But the embargo on the story was extremely inhibiting for journalists, writes Dimi Reider

As Israelis tuned in to hear about what seemed, for a few terrible days, the opening shots in a long-anticipated war, reporters on the Knesset beat scrambled urgently for information. Ehud Olmert appeared in view, projecting his usual elastic confidence. ‘Prime Minister,’ shouted the reporters, ‘what is your comment about the Syrian claim of an Israeli infiltration?’ The prime minister didn’t even slow down. ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about,’ he said, and disappeared behind the meeting-room door. For the next few days, this would be the only official comment the citizens would have on an incident that could have plunged their country into another war.

Three weeks on, there is still very little knowledge of what actually occurred in north-west Syria, or why. Aside from a couple of comments from low-ranking politicians and a heap of rumours, all the information we Israelis got came with the talisman prefix of ‘foreign sources claim’. Veteran columnist Gideon Levy bitterly complained in a Ha'aretz op-ed: ‘We can rely on friends like the United States: our faithful ally has once again come to our assistance. Were it not for the American media, we would know nothing whatsoever about that mysterious night...’

The stoic silence of Israeli leaders, usually notorious for their verbosity, may not be as remarkable. The politicians, the disgruntled officers, people’s friends and cousins in the intelligence service and all the usual sources appear to operate normally. Rather, what seems to be taking place, is classic, tight-screwed censorship. As of the night of the attack, a strict injunction order was imposed on all Israeli media, under the Emergency Regulations of 1945 - British WWII orders granting the state extensive powers, which continue to exist side by side with normal statutory law. Any material, including translations from foreign sources and op-eds relating to the attack, was faxed for censorship prior to going on paper or online. Some things got through; many things did not.

‘This is infuriating,’ said one prominent columnist, who preferred to remain unnamed. ‘If they want to keep officials in the government, the army, even the judiciary quiet - fine. The real problem begins when they are shutting up people trying to voice opinions. I’m not allowed to say whether I think what Israel did in Syria is right or wrong. I’m not even allowed to say whether there is anything to be right or wrong about.’

‘The newspapers, as far as I’m aware, have not tried to appeal to the courts to lift the censorship - or even for permission to inform their readers that it’s actually there. The media is not keen to get sued every other day, and the censors are not too fond of court appearances; so a kind of a working relationship takes place. I don’t remember the military censors being significantly challenged on any point in recent years.’

‘The Israeli media already knows what happened,’ says military expert Dr Reuven Pedatzur of Tel Aviv University. ‘They can’t write anything, because the censorship is very strict. I have no explanation for why it is so tight - normally Israel likes to brag about its military - but it’s very obviously there. If you read the papers carefully, you can see they’re dropping clues.’

One such article, by Amir Oren, Ha’aretz">appeared in Ha’aretz. Blaming Ehud Barak’s well-known fondness for silence and secrecy, he wrote: ‘...With a single order strictly enforced over civilians and soldiers alike, the entire country has become Sayeret Matkal [the General Staff’s elite special-operations forces that Barak once commanded]. [...] Ironically, Israeli military censors claim that it is the very credibility of the Israeli press and its reporters in the eyes of hostile regimes that vindicates preventing the press from publishing views - not facts.’

Speaking to Index, Mr Oren sounds just as circumspect, saying he does not wish to detail beyond what he had written in the article. Asked whether there is a sweeping injuction on the subject, he replies: ‘Injunction orders nowadays have a final clause prohibiting their own publication; I can’t really answer that.’

The Israel Defense Forces declined to comment on this story.

Friday, September 28, 2007

An interview with Johann Hari

Johann Hari is perhaps unique in British journalism in that he is as vehemently despised both on the traditional Right and the traditional Left. The assignment on City's "Radicalism" course was to interview a radical journalist. With a biweekly column in a national newspaper, appearances in lucrative outlets abroad and an impressive list of prominent interviewees - Tony Blair, Hugo Chavez and the Dalai Lama, plus a handful of luxurious awards to his name - Johann Hari is hardly your typical, Bethnal Green, fortnightly -xeroxed-A5-rag kind of a radical. But not unlike George Orwell, Hari had maintained a political course of his own, challenging dogmas on left and right - to me, this is radical enough. The interview took place in Hari's flat near Brick Lane market; a new concrete appartment block off a side street. The video-intercom maybe standard, but the lift which requires a four-digit code just to go up is slightly odd. The flat itself is piled with books; on the wall, a vampirish Saddam Hussein is glaring from a rug apparently copied from a red-eyed photograph; just beneath him, the TV is blaring out Big Brother, appropriately enough.

Considering your unusual position for someone widely regarded as a radical, perhaps we should begin with the ultimate problem of any radical journalist - how to avoid being marginalized.

There is definitely a dose of that, but then again, radicalism is a relative concept. Most of the positions I take are within the mainstream of British and European public opinion. The difficulty is, though, that often, the press is so skewed towards serving the interests of the powerful and the Right that people get a completely distorted sense of what is "central ground". If you look at the opinion polling, the majority of people in Britain believe in, say, not renewing Trident or much more drastic redistribution of wealth from rich to poor or all sorts of things that are considered kind of radical leftwing positions, but they're actually completely mainstream positions.Hugo Chavez is considered radical, but actually some seventy percent of the Venezuelan people vote for him. I think there is certainly a danger that there are certain positions that are hard to articulate on certain newspapers. But I'm very lucky in the Independent. The "Indy" is a place where I really can say what I want. I can't imagine ever writing anything where they would say you can't say that.

But on the other hand, the "Indy" has probably the smallest readership among the national dailies.

Its true, and I could not work for the Times and say what I say. But I'm not going to stop saying what I say in order to work in other newspapers. So there is definitely a challenge to that. And also, there's a problem with so many people that start as left wing journalists. If anything I've become more left-wing in the five years I've been a journalist. An awful lot of journalist are on the opposite trajectory. So really distinguished left-wing journalists, do things like Nick Cohen did. And I like Nick, I like him as a person a lot, and I still think he has some valuable things to say, but I think he's just gone too far..

"Did a Hitchens"?

I know Christopher Hitchens and I love him, but I disagree with the trajectory he's taking . I'm just writing a big piece, actually, for an American magazine called "Dissent" about this, how there were three readings to the pro war left. One was the reading of Islamic fundamentalism which said that Islamic fundamentalism is profoundly antithetical to the values of the left and all left wing people should oppose it. I completely agree with that. The second was a reading of the left, which is to say the role of the left is to show solidarity with suffering strangers wherever they are. But the third and disastrous reading – I think those two readings were boarderly persuasive – the third reading was a reading of neo-conservatism, which was to say that neo-conservatives were sincerely interested in spreading democracy, and that they where, as Nick notoriously put it, fighting the last battles for them. I just think you just can't sustain that in relation to what actually happened. The last battles are not fought with cluster bombs, IMF structure adjustments, and mercenary armies that operate above the law.

You famously supported the invasion of Iraq at the time, also citing similar reasons.

You see, I visited Iraq and made a lot of Iraqi friends. Before I went there, my position was, basically, the common one on the Left – Iraq has nothing to do with 9/11, the WMD arguments are transparently absurd - indeed if they had WMD that would be a very good reason not to invade - and that George Bush can't be trusted to do anything. After I went to Iraq I came to the conclusion, on the basis of speaking to Iraqis, that the majority of Iraqis would rather take their chances with an Anglo-American invasion, terrible as that was going to be, than with the certainty of Saddam and his sons ruling for generations. And that turned out to be true, in the sense that when there were opinion polls after Saddam fell, they showed that the majority of Iraqis did want the invasion to go ahead. Even though they were very worried and they thought it was about oil, they thought it was about Israel, they thought it was about all sorts of things, they still wanted it to go ahead. Even the guy in the famous Abu Graib picture, with the leash – he said after he was released, "yeah, I have supported the invasion". What was disastrous in the position I took is that I grossly underestimated and got wrong that an invasion motivated primarily by the taking over the oil supplies was ultimately going to be a vicious imperial occupation, as indeed it turned out to be. The mistake Nick and Christopher Hitchens had made and I never made was to assume almost that the American Army had become the armed wing of the Amnesty International, and was motivated by benign causes. I never thought that, but I thought in choosing between two bad options, the American invasion was the better one. It turns out that that was a terrible misjudgment. I mean, to give you just one example, I think the catastrophes of the military occupation are quite well known but one of the really underrated things about all this is how bad the economic occupation has been. I mean, Joseph Stiglitz, the Nobel Prize winning economist, put it very well. He said, "Its like they looked at post-Soviet Russia and thought 'that worked really well, lets do that!'". The only problem is they didn’t go far enough. You know, they imposed upon Iraq a program of such extreme economic readjustment that you've got now a situation where you've got in most parts of Iraq eighty percent unemployment. Well, if we had eighty percent unemployment in Britain with a relatively stable democratic tradition, we would have bombs going off. So to do it in Iraq, was just madness, and I think almost everything else stems from that disaster.

Correct me if I'm wrong, but you did credit Tony Blair's decision to join the war with some good intentions.

Yeah, and I think that's true. I think for Tony Blair the absolute formative intellectual foreign policy experience is Kosovo. The paradigmatic example of Blair's good intentions, that they existed to some degree was Sierra-Leone. Sierra-Leone – no one has yet been able to find an explanation for why Britain acted in Sierra-Leone other than the fact that British troops happened to be there and Blair said "Oh, we could stop these disgusting hand-chopping folks taking over the country with relatively little cost," only one British solider died, I mean obviously its horrific for the British soldier's family, but more people would have died had there not been that intervention. And even Noam Chomsky accepts that that was a humanitarian intervention.

Chomsky did rather furiously respond to your interpretation of his position..

He still didn't deny that he thinks it was a humanitarian intervention. It was a very strange response I thought…It was so abusive, wasn't it? I mean, it was bizarre. But back to Sierra-Leone, and I think that that emerged with the experience of Kosovo. I've yet to hear a persuasive explanation of why Blair did Kosovo, other than that he was appalled by the inactivity of the British Government. Well, actually, the inactivity is not really the word for it: Everyone says that the British government didn't do anything in the Balkan's all through the Nineties, while, actually, we did do something, we effectively helped the Serbs murdering everyone else, because we imposed an arms embargo. If you surround a serial killer's house and impose an arms embargo, you're helping the serial killer cause the victim doesn't have an axe to hit back with. This went even to the point where the Bosnian government considered taking the British government to the World Court for denying them the right to self-defense, and quite rightly, if they were effectively accomplices to a genocide.
Let's look at the alternative explanations given to Blair's action in Kosovo. Harold Pinter has given the most facile, he says, "Blair likes killing children," which is just silly. The second is the Chomsky explanation, that NATO needed a new purpose for his fiftieth birthday, and this is why he did it. I don’t find that persuasive. It would have been very easy for Blair to continue the strategy that the British government had taken, of basically blocking it off and pretending it didn’t happen. I think broadly Blair thought, you know, this is an opportunity to do some good in a very complex world. And broadly, although, the situation in Kosovo is certainly extremely problematic - we've seen the kind of ethnic cleansing of Serb civilians to a very significant degree since the war ended, which is horrific. There are suddenly a hell of a lot problems in Kosovo. But back then it ended with, you know, civilians cheering, refugees going home, and Blair thinking 'Well, that worked well'. And I think he took that mental template and applied it to Iraq, not realizing that Iraq was such a drastically different situation. And I'm not saying that Blair wasn't also to some degree implicated in the much worse motivations for the war. At the very least he willfully deluded himself.

Coming back to journalism - you say that your writing is more about reflecting a prevailing public sentiment rather than trying to change it.

But it does produce a sort of change, because hearing a view expressed in the newspaper makes people realize they're not crazy.I certainly remember that my family who did not consider themselves very political used to get quite a right-wing newspaper. And I remember thinking, as I read as a kid, 'Oh, that must be what you're meant to think then'. Hearing a view expressed, makes you realize that actually it's legitimate. And the more times people hear it, the more they realize it’s a realistic option .

The Independent, on the other hand, has a very clearly defined and a very certain kind of readership. Is there much of a point voicing those opinions for the already strongly opinionated?

It's difficult because one of the questions for a journalist, generally, is are you trying to influence the public so that they will in turn influence power or are you trying to directly influence power yourself. My feeling is that if you see yourself as a power-player, and you'll get a lot of journalists who do that, you've got yourself a recipe for disaster. It just corrupts you. I try to meet politicians as little as possible. Because generally when I like Labor politicians, or Liberal-Democrat politicians I find it much harder to be nasty about them, so I try to just not meet them anymore. So, you know, there is a kind of soft corruption of journalists who believe they have access to power and therefore can sway it, and therefore enter into this very complex nexus. From my experience, what you get from access to politicians is very limited anyway. They can't tell you something that you can't find out by just reading the official documents. So I just try to avoid that whole game. You know, I mean, I really agree with I. F. Stone and all the stuff he says about, you know, you just find out from reading the documents, from reading the stuff.

Do you think there is a point in trying to return to a very kind of loud, populist, screamer-headlines leftist journalism?

I think we underestimate the intelligence of people generally. And I always try to write in a simplest style as possible. One of the other curses of political journalists is they end up writing for an elite. There's a famous story about one of the BBC's economics editors, who had a column. A reader wrote to him and said, "I couldn't understand what you were saying", and he wrote back saying "since you are neither the Prime-Minister, the Chancellor of the Exchequer , nor the governor of the bank of England, you were not one of my target readers, and therefore it doesn't matter to me that you didn't understand what I said".

It's like the reverse of "the girl that works at "Boots""…

Exactly. Both my parents left school when they were fifteen and never went back into education. I always ask myself, could my mom and dad understand what I was saying if they read this? And even really quite complex ideas can be expressed in a fairly straightforward way. So I think you should always be as populist as possible. I've never understood why the world populist is used as a term of abuse. The Populist movement in the 1890's was one of the greatest movements in American history. So I think we should reclaim populism.

How would you estimate the general condition of the British press in terms of the scope of opinion it allows? Alexander Chancellor recently spoke at a panel at SOAS to suggest the fact of himself writing in the Daily Mail is a token of the media's liberality..

If anything, we overestimate the liberality of the British media. The Daily Mail is a very good example. The Daily mail really is, and I don't mean this as an insult to Russian people, really is as strictly controlled as Pravda. There is nothing that goes into the Daily Mail that does not confirm to the very extreme, very creepy world-view of Paul Daker, which is wholey divorced even from the reality even of Middle England. I mean, this is, there's this myth - i think Paul Daker said it, "politicians fight elections every five years, I fight one every day", millions of people agree with what I put in my paper, and so on. It's just not true. If you look at the people who read the Daily Mail, it's people like my mom, who could not disagree more with the Daily Mail's politics, but she buys the Mai because she likes the women section. The idea that people buy tabloid newspapers for their political views is a misconception. But so is the idea that the British press is liberal. Harold Wilson's press secretary expressed it very neatly when she said, "the liberal press in Britain bends over backwards to include the voices of the Conservatives and to be nice to the Right, and so does the right-wing press". In the Independent we have our range of right-wing voices, which I think is commendable. The Telegraph doesn't have, you know, someone like me. The left wing press bends over backwards to be fair, and the right wing never does. Now, if most newspapers are owned by right-wing billionaires, don't be surprised if they end up writing like right wing billionaires think. The Independent is a very honorable exception - we are owned by a billionaire who does appear give us some kind of editorial freedom - a very significant degree of editorial freedom, actually. But that is very rare. I think Chomsky's model of corporate propaganda is to a large degree true.

There are some things that the fascination they hold for the right wing press is to me bewildering - for example, all those homophobic columns at the Sun...

This is interesting, because it's actually changing very quickly.. I remember reading homophobic stuff when I was a kid, just as I was gradually realizing I was gay, and it was naturally very dispiriting. Now it's a lot less - also, because, I think that unlike the US, Britain doesn't have a very wide homophobic constituency. Even right-wing Middle England people have gay cousins, have gay kids, and don't necessarily want to read about gay-bashing all day long.

So who does Richard Littlejohn write for?

Well, Richard Litteljohn has a mental disorder. He is profoundly mentally unwell. No normal heterosexual man thinks of gay sex as compulsively. Richard Littlejohn thinks about gay sex more than I do, and I'm gay! You know? He's got a serious problem. There is this very right wing fringe that thinks that gay people are an archetype of everything that's gone wrong with the world, but if you look at the opinion polls, 80% of the people in Britain supported civil partnership. When it comes to homosexuality, this is an amazingly liberal country. And the right wing press is picking up on that. In the last ten years, the Government had basically introduced almost full gay equality in Britain, and the opposition to that was very limited. Even the most right wing parts of the press like the Telegraph and the Mail didn't put up that much of a fight, because they knew they lost. And besides, the British Right doesn't have this frenzied, foaming religious character that much of the American Right has.

* * *

Why the extraordinary security in the lift and at the door?

Oh, that's because the lovely flat above mine once housed those three lovely brazilian girls who turned out to be running a brothel. I always thought they dressed a bit strangely for the London climate, but they were very nice. I personally do have an emergency button in the flat though, because of all those death threats..

How serious does it get?

I always work on the assumption that if they say they're going to kill you, they're not going to kill you. I mean a murderer will hardly ring you up to warn you in advance! So I just tend to ignore it, you can't just sit there cowering in fear all the time. They get quite serious though and I get a lot of them. They started sending dead animals to the Independent at one point, it was really awful.

Any particular threats that stand out in mind?

There are those really elaborate ones where they tell you exactly how they're going to kill you: I'm going to kidnap you, take you to the middle of the ocean, take the skin off of you and dip you in the water - it's like aww, you really put some thought to it, didn't you? It's touching, almost.

Drawing on that, would you care to reflect on the basic kinds of pressure on a journalist? Let's say, official censorship, corporate censorship, readers' pressure and self-censorship?

In terms of official censorship, there is virtually none in Britain, unless you breach the Official Secrets Act. Corporate censorship is more complicated, but then again, the Independent happily takes on corporations, so I never get this thing of "ooh, don't write about Nike". Where it does get in the way is in the libel laws, and we are very lucky to have this superb team of lawyers working for the Independent. From my limited experience of working with American press it's amazing how easy it is over there. I think we need privacy laws but much easier libel laws. The readers - well, the only thing readers can really do is threaten to kill you. My dad, incidentally, always becomes incredibly proud of me when I get death threats, because I never was much of a macho kid in school. Whenever someone is saying something my dad is going "Ah, my son, they are trying to kill you! I'm so proud!". He found a website called "Shoot Johann Hari", and he was really pleased. Sometimes you get death threats when writing about, say, Islamic fundamentalists wanting to kill gays - and in that case it's "thank you, you've proved my point". I think if I had children, I would be more intimidated. In terms of self censorship - if I was not very secure at the Independent, and I am, I understand how I would always have my eye on "where else would I go to work?". Because the more radical you are, the more you rule yourself out of various places of employment. There was a period when I was in favor of the invasion of Iraq, and people misjudged me and though I was lot more right-wing than I was, and I would get occasional offers from quite right-wing outlets, and you think to yourself "no, you don't understand - I couldn't be me and write for you". But I can understand how it can be very tempting to people, and there are many journalists who are much more liberal than their public face. I think corporate censorship and self-censorship are densely interconnected. I think people censor themselves because they internalize what is sayable.

There is one area of criticism which is particularly difficult to get across - that of the State of Israel. It's not at all as powerful here as it is in the States, but...

There is far less criticism of Israel in the American press than there is in the Israeli press. I mean this is just bizarre. If you look at Jimmy Carter - I mean, Carter is just such a moderate - he's just fed to the wolves for writing a really straightforward book. What's astonishing about large parts of the American Right which support a Likkud view of the world (I wouldn't say support Israel - I support Israel in terms of wanting it to be peaceful and happy alongside a happy and peaceful Palestine), this faction is so dishonest. Say, for example, Jimmy Carter writes a book titled "Peace not Apartheid", and makes it very clear - I think on the first page of the book - that the term "apartheid" is applied not to Israel itself, but to the Occupied Territories. They just ignore that! And off they go, "how dare he say that Israel is an Apartheid state?!". He's not talking about this, he's talking about the Occupied Territories! I wrote a piece when I was in Gaza and the West Bank last, talking about some of the women who have given birth at checkpoints and whose babies died. I interviewed a woman whose son died at a checkpoint. Her village was gated by the Israeli military. She wasn't allowed out, they said you've got to stay here until 6am, she went to give birth and the baby died. And just the lies that were told about this story! One of the websites, WorldNetDaily, very popular in the American right published something by its founder who told an outrageous lie. He said "Johann represents this as a story of that woman whose baby died - well, she was trying across the border into Israel to get into an Israeli hospital only because the Palestinian hospitals are so terrible - of course they're not going to let her in. But this isn't even what had happened, he obviously doesn't know anything about the West Bank, nobody would even dream of doing that - she was just trying to get to a hospital inside the West Bank. Or a guy in the Jewish Chronicle - I quoted a completely innocent UN statistic that was even reported on Fox News, that 38 women and babies have died in the last four years at checkpoints. The Jewish Chronicle guy goes, "Johann Hari's view of facts is very slippery. For example..." and he gives this statement. So he wrote saying that ll my facts were wrong, and the only example that he gave was that fact - which was right! I mean, couldn't he have Googled for a bit? Another website put up an "alert" about me describing me as a supporter of Islamic fundamentalism. I'm sorry? I'm completely opposed to Islamic fundamentalism, I wrote so much against it I'm constantly being smeared as an Islamophobe. I get death threats from these fucking people. It's incredible the way people that try to criticize critics of Israel seem to just float free of any facts at all.

How about co-opting, absorbing dissent into the system as safety valves, as it were?

Well, I think Chomsky would say that, that if you allow a small degree of dissent you actually make your system a lot stronger. This is probably true to an extent. But I don't think you need to underestimate the value of gradual reform. For example, there are still horrific inequalities in the States - young black men's life expectancy in Harlem is lower than in, say, Nairobi. But on the other hand, young black men are no longer blocked from going into bars, or banned from voting. There is the argument that the Conservative Party and the Labor Party are one and the same thing, there isn't a cigarette paper between them, and all the rest of it. I think they are fare too close together - I'd like a much more radical Labor Party - but this is simply not true. John Lennon had a good line about it - he said, are just a few inches between the political parties, but a lot of people live in those few inches. And if you think of the kind of government Cameron would have if got in power, well, he would probably abolish family credit of the kind that my sister gets, which allows her to take her kids on a holiday once a year, and for a lot of people it's living in poverty or not. So for a lot of people this is a major difference, and it's insulting for them to say that it's not a difference. Gradual reform has its place. Obviously, when you have insufficient traction in a system, you need to have more radical reform, and the position should always be trying to get there constitutionally, gradually, as best as you can.

But in terms of media, there is still the feeling that 70% or so of the media are vaguely to explicitly supportive of the current course...

Oh yes, more than 70%. A lot of the British press is very much skewed towards the Conservative Party, to the point where they find David Cameron, who is actually very right wing, too liberal.

So how do you challenge that?

You can have very simple laws, for example, that would allow one organization to only run one newspaper or one TV channel. The consolidation is very dangerous. But this is a genuine and difficult question - how do you democratize the media? it's really hard, and there are very few models to show you how you can do it better, other than having very strict rules on who can own, having as strong diversity as possible, protecting things like the BBC and making sure they stick to the things they are meant to do, rather then becoming as right wing as they are now. Publicly owned broadcasting is a good model, but it's really hard to come up with one solution. I mean about my work - some of my left wing friends will say, you became a part of the system, a safety valve. But then you ask - what's the alternative, to have no one in any newspaper, arguing for nuclear disarmament, arguing for keeping us the right side of two degree centigrade so that we don't end up in an absolutely horrific nuclear warming situation, to have no one arguing about the grotesquely super-rich in Britain or writing about the war in Congo. How does it benefit anyone, not having any of this reported? It's not going to bring the system crashing down if me and George Monbiot go on strike, sadly.

How do you view "radical" papers, like the Socialist Worker?

The Socialist Workers Party is a cult, sadly enough. Again, they are doing some remarkably good work - they are trying to keep asylum seekers from being deported, and this is fantastic, but unfortunately they are a deranged cult. I much prefer the Alliance for Workers Liberty, who are smaller but not insane. I mean it's self-discrediting politics to hark back to Lenin. It's just grotesque. Lenin and Trotsky were deranged gangsters who built a tyranny. The whole idea that the problem comes with Stalin is just not true. Niel Harding, the great scholar of Leninism, said that Leninism would have found its Stalin sooner or later. So any valuable critique they make, and they do make a lot of valuable critique, just gets lost in this stupid harking back to the early Soviet Union.

And then there is George Galloway...

George Galloway is a psychopath - I'm not sure I can say this legally. George Galloway is a profoundly evil man. The role of George Galloway is primarily to discredit the Left in the eyes of anyone who bothers to listen to him.This is a man who, when asked whether Saddam Hussein was hated by ordinary Iraqis, said "not at all, not at all". This is a man who describes Hussein's genocide of the Kurds as a "civil war". This is the man who blamed Salman Rushdie for getting people trying to murder him. He also describes the day the Soviet Union fell as "the worst day of his life". Unfortunately, he's my bloody MP. Just don't engage with him, don't give him the attention he wants. He's not worth it.

What do you think of the journalism school system? Up until quite recently it was still cadetship, and many journalists even today don't go to journalism school - yourself, for instance.

I generally don't agree with journalism schools. I think the one valuable thing they teach which I wish I had is shorthand. Other than that I think that people who went to journalism schools wasted their time and money. I don't know about the specific City course but I've never really met anyone who went to a Journalism course and genuinely benefited from it. I think that generally you'd be better off spending a year learning another language, or history. In a way, the skills of journalism are very general skills that an intelligent person can pick up in a few months on a job. But even so, at the moment, we have this very major structure problem in British journalism: just to get started you are expected to work for up to six months, unpaid, in the middle of London. This automatically rules out most people. I was in a very lucky position when I graduated, because my family would quite simply laugh in my face if I said, I would live for a year for nothing. I was lucky because I contacted the editor of the New Statesman when I was a student, and said - look, you believe in left wing principles, my dad's a bus driver, I don't have the money to start out - give me a job. Nothing very fancy, but enough to live on, and I promise I will write loads of stuff for you. And he said yes. But in most cases, if you are guaranteeing that most young journalists are children of the rich, well, you naturally discriminate in favor of the people who are already quite right wing - obviously there are shining exceptions, but most of them are people who are quite happy with the status quo and want to preserve it. This is just a scandalous problem we have in the British media, which is actually very bad for the media itself - children of the very rich don't tend to get insights into how ordinary people live, so you get a very divorced media. There's a big problem there.

What do you make of citizen journalism, cellphone reporting, blogging and so on?

I think the problem is you've got to have filters. The newspapers filters are partly those of quality, and partly those of "do conform to the views of our corporate advertisers". So in self-published journalism you do away with the second filter but not really with the first. And what you get sometimes wonderful stuff, and sometimes it's the pure, unfiltered bloke-in-the-chip-shop "I saw this happen". It's not very interesting. I think citizen journalism is at a very early stage. There are certainly amazing not-for-profit outlets. If you watch Amy Goodman on Democracy Now, they are among the best news sources in the world: accessible, populist, but also absolutely factually impeccable. This is professional citizen journalism. But I think the idea that now that everyone have a mobile phone with a video camera on they can be journalists - that's not going to work.

Can journalism today really cause dramatic change, more than the occasional "sleaze assasination" of individual politicians?

I think that basically yeah, whether it's the Pentagon Papers...

The Pentagon Papers were forty years ago...

Well, yes, fair enough I guess. But you can still change public opinion by enlarging and informing it. Take global warming, for example. Global warming is quite a complex subject, and quite difficult to get our heads around - what, we're changing the weather- it sounds bizarre. I think journalism made a lot of difference on this. Even media moguls like Rupert Murdoch have been forced to accept the reality of this. A tipping point comes when even the Right has to accept some things. The certainty, at any rate, is that if we don't write then certainly nothing will happen. What we write may or may not make a change, but if we stop...

Coming back to the influence of journalism, especially radical journalism - you make it sound a little like one option is not writing at all, and the other is writing more or less within the status quo - so how do we move on?

But in this status quo things can change so quickly! If you told my grandfather that his grandson will be able to be openly gay, to be married to another man - it would have seen the most ludicrous thing from a bad book of science fiction! And yet here we are, it happened. Pe ople can force things onto the news agenda. There is a right wing filter, sure enough, but you can push things past it. One very good example is the misnamed anti-globalization movement. They literally forced the IMF and the World Bank onto the news agenda, before that they were just taken for granted as parts of the international architecture. Now they are seriously contested, due to all those "ordinary", average citizens, who went out and just made a fuss about it. Major changes can still be forced by ordinary people.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Our very own Nazis

This is the first installment for what will hopefully become a weekly analysis column on the Lebanese website Libnanews. The French version is here (you might need to scroll down a bit).

Israel will probably never escape its consciously cultivated image as a social and political experiment, a semi-voluntary ant farm. This is ironic, as the country was ostensibly established to provide a persecuted people with normality. It was to be a country among countries - a first among equals, some optimists even dared to claim. Along with a parliament, streetlights, businessmen, vanquished oil dreams and a dubious alliance with a superpower, Israel also acquired less enviable characteristics of a "normal" state: a hushed-up ethnic cleansing, a secret police with torture chambers, an alternatively circumspect and gang-ho press. Last week my country's normality went up a notch, when the police uncovered the very first gang of Israeli Neo-Nazis.

A number of days ago, just as the country was getting ready for the autumn holidays season, the police announced it had arrested a gang of youths from the town of Petah Tiqwa (an urban hellhole so boring and obscure that there are a hit song and a T-shirt doubting its existence). Those young people, immigrants from the former Soviet Union all, have occupied their plentiful spare time by attacking homeless people, drug addicts, and religious Jews; there had been videos circulated of them assailing defenseless individuals in a horrible, jackal-like manner, kicking them down to the ground, stamping, spitting. What attracted the attention of the media and outraged the country was the fact that they saw themselves as nothing less than Nazis. They all read, or tried to read, "Mein Kampf"; their ringleader, a nineteen-year-old nicknamed "Nazi Elijah", urged them for ideas to celebrate the Fuehrer's birthday, filmed them giving the Nazi salute, and stated that until he kills off "everyone" he won't "calm down".

The Israeli media went into hysterics. Video clips of the beatings were scrolled repetitively, as if it was a first report from a terror blast rather than confiscated footage of something that happened weeks ago. Studios equipped themselves with generals, policeman, politicians, Holocaust survivors, school friends, neighbors; in the middle of it all, the Chief Inspector of the Israeli police came on screen to inform us that there were "lots" of neo-Nazis still on the lose in Israeli cities. The journalists concentrated on the historical allusions of the bullies; no one bothered, for instance, to check the crime rate among young people in Israel in general (and alienated young immigrants in particular), or even inquire after the health of the victims. Characteristically, the response of the establishment to this manifestly anti-democratic cluster was even more anti-democratic: the Minister of Interior, a veteran Likkud populist, announced that he will "look into withdrawing the teenage Nazis' citizenship".

So what is the reason for this mysterious anomaly? To begin with, it is no anomaly at all; on the one hand, urban violence in Israel is nothing out of the ordinary, just like in any post-industrial society. On the other hand, Israeli public sphere, ethos, hopes and fears are all heavily saturated with negative and positive racism: towards old-timers (prudish), towards immigrants (Moroccans are loud, Yemenites are cheap, Russians are drunk, Ethiopians are primitive, and so on), towards Europeans (anti-semites), towards migrant workers (lazy Gentiles), and, of course, towards Palestinians and Arabs.

As for the story of this particular group, it is yet another story of immigrant alienation with a uniquely Israeli twist. The Israeli nationality, a concrete and distinct reality though it may be today, is an amalgamation of immigrant groups; furthermore, it is a society that sustains itself not on birth rate, but on constant influxes of immigration. The first and foremost impetus for this policy is cheating in the demographic game: the official Israel is obsessed with the possibility that one day the Arab population of Israel proper would outnumber the Jewish one, and then outvote it / overtake it / butcher it and throw all Jews into the sea. Since immigrants are brought in primarily to serve the country's abstract needs, as demographic cannon fodder, very little attention is paid to any notion of cultural tolerance or respectful integration. The reality for most young people who came to Israel at an early age, especially those from the former Soviet union, is that of alienation: alienation from a society that wouldn't let them belong, yet expects them to kill and be killed for it, in the army; a longing for a Europeanized culture that ejected them; a contempt for the Levantine "loudness", "dirtiness", "ignorance" of Mediterranean Israel. Many overcome this division, integrate, marry in, take hebrew names, teach their children only the local language; many others don't, and they are left out to rot in derelict apartment blocks that resemble the British ones in hopelessness and ugliness, but lack the supportive community networks council estates sometimes construct. The Petach Tiqwa group comes from that second category. To all the usual signals of alienated, unemployed young people in an urban environment - alas, signals as brutal as anywhere in London, Bangkok, Berlin, Moscow or New York - they felt the need to inject a ramshackle ideology which is the perfect antonym and most importantly, perfect insult, to the society they came to hate. They are probably not alone, but they hardly constitute any kind of a real threat to Israeli establishment or society.

However, this story also poignantly brings up the centrality of the Holocaust to Israeli public consciousness. Israel never hesitated to use, and some would even say abuse, the memory of the Holocaust for its political aims - be it externally (everyone who criticizes Israel is an anti-Semite), or internally (whatever we did and are doing to the Palestinians pales in comparison to what was done to us). The Jewish year of 5677, which ended on Wednesday, had seen the shadow of the Holocaust creep up on the Israeli public in several unpleasant, unmonitored, and hitherto unexpected ways. First, it was the scandal with the pitiful condition in which the remaining refugees of that horrific era live in Israel; alone, penniless, forsaken by state and society. Then came the still ongoing scandal of the Darfur refugees: built on the premise of harboring a persecuted people, with a population raised on textbook stories about rejected Jewish refugees, Israel is now deporting the few Darfurians that make it to its borders back onto their deaths. And now urban alienation and terrible mishandling of immigration presented Israel, state of the Jews, with a group of teenage Nazis, all of whom had been considered Jewish enough to settle here.

On one level, it is a tragic and outrageous story of a group of young people, brought and brought up here for no reason they could see or care for; alienated, unemployed, petty criminals who stuck to whatever gave them pride, and whatever would insult the society the despise the most. On another level, it is another symptom of how quickly the foundation myths, notions and taboos of the Israeli society are disintegrating.