Paul Auster’s blindness to assault on journalists, free speech

The author’s recent comments on Israel and free speech overlook the fact that its record is not much better than  Turkey’s. But like many intellectuals in the West, Auster insists on compartmentalizing Israel and ‘Israel-as-Occupier.’

By Anat Matar

What is behind Paul Auster’s blindness when he asserts that “free speech exists [in Israel] and no writers or journalists are in jail”? Before we tackle this question, we need to know the facts –for which it turns out that Paul Auster is not the most reliable source.

In a Haaretz piece entitled “Paul Auster to Erdogan: Unlike Turkey, Israel still has free speech,”Auster cites the worldwide association of writers known as PEN, and its data concerning journalists in Turkish prisons. For some reason, he does not bother to check statistics provided by Reporters Without Borders, whose most recent report was released just two weeks ago. That report placed Israel in two frighteningly low positions in its annual index of press freedom rankings. Out of 179 countries, Israel is placed 92nd, but it also makes a second appearance in spot number 133 – this time as the entity that rules the West Bank. Two reasons are provided for the first ranking, relating to Israel itself: the threatened prosecution of Haaretz’s Uri Blau and the approval of amendments to the “Libel Law.” However, no reasoning is provided for the second, lower, ranking. I will therefore endeavor to fill this void.

A close scrutiny of the periodic reports issued by Reporters Without Borders shows that last November, the organization expressed its concern over the wave of arrests of West Bank and East Jerusalem journalists. Among others, these included the arrest Isra Salhab, presenter of a TV program about Palestinian prisoners, and the extension of the detention of Walid Khaled, editor of Filisteen newspaper. In an August report, the organization listed, among other names, the arrests of Usaid Abd Al Majid Amarana of Al-Aqsa TV, Amar Abu Urfa of the Shahab news agency and Al-Quds TV presenter Nawab Al-Amer.

Arrests of and injuries to journalists and photographers at the weekly Friday West Bank demonstrations are common. This week, journalists were arrested during the Nabi Saleh protest, and a photojournalist was injured during a protest at Kadum. Reporters Without Borders has strongly condemned the violent manner with which Israeli forces treat journalists, mentioning, among others, two photographers -Mahib Al-Barghouti, and Hazem Bader – who sustained injuries to the face and legs while working. Bader, an Associated Press photographer, was arrested while covering a demonstration at the village of al Tawani, when a stun grenade exploded in front of him. He is still suffering from multiple burns. Al-Barghouti was recently wounded while covering the weekly protest in Bil’in. Two bullets penetrated his leg, despite the fact that he was in a different location and at some distance from the other participants of the demonstration.

The Committee to Protect Journalists sent a strongly-worded protest letter to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu about a month ago, protesting Israel’s violent approach to journalists covering the events in the West Bank. This note also contained a great deal of facts and figures on the administrative detentions, physical assaults and persistent harassment of journalists on the job.

One could keep compiling such data, and add the arrest and imprisonment of writers – Ahmed Katamish, presently under administrative detention, is one well-known example – but that is not my intention here. My aim, as noted earlier, is to endeavor to pinpoint the origin of Auster’s blindness. In the Reporters Without Borders rankings, Turkey does appear further down the list than Israel, at position No 148. But does a difference of 15 spots between the respective spots of Israel/the Palestinian territories and Turkey justify Auster’s contrasting attitudes? Of course it doesn’t.

The point is that Auster, like many other intellectuals in the West, ignores everything that happens outside Israel’s formal borders – as though anything related to the never-ending Occupation has no bearing on the essence of Israel’s identity as a liberal and enlightened country. The same tendency is what is always behind those who play innocent, denying the existence of apartheid here. As we have seen, even the Reporters Without Borders ranking creates an artificial distinction between Israel and Israel-as-Occupier. It’s true: if you resolutely ignore what is happening in the blood-stained front yard, you can truly rejoice at the freedom characterizing what’s inside the palace, where Auster hangs around when he visits the Holy Land.

Anat Matar is a senior lecturer at the Department of Philosophy at Tel Aviv University, and a longtime anti-occupation activist. She presently sits on the steering-committee of Who Profits? – Exposing the Israeli Occupation Industry, and is the chair of the Israeli Committee for the Palestinian Prisoners. She recently edited, along with Adv. Abeer Baker, a collection of analyses and testimonies about Palestinian political prisoners, entitled Threat – Palestinian Political Prisoners in Israel. This article originally appeared in Hebrew in Haokets. It was translated into English by Sol Salbe.