Tuesday, 10 November 2009

Open Letter to Editor of Varsity

CU Israel Society has complained to Varsity about the printing of the following: http://www.varsity.co.uk/news/1483 which featured on the front page of their last edition (Friday 6 Nov 2009).

Dear Editors,

This week Varsity ran a simply diabolical leading article (Choir’s Planned Israel Trip Causing Discord) regarding the Palestine Solidarity Campaign’s (PSC) resistance to the planned Clare College Choir tour of Israel. What began as a legitimate news story, sadly descended into a highly politicized diatribe, granting a platform to outspoken Israel-baiters, and calling into question the integrity of your entire publication.

In her one-sided and factually incorrect ‘article’, Helen Mackreath (your Senior Reporter), has revealed either the political stance of ‘Varsity’ on this most complex issue, or her own journalistic inadequacies. Politically partisan positions have a prominent place in Varsity, it is called the Comment Section.

The piece gave a one-dimensional presentation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Israel, a democratic Jewish state, which grants equal constitutional rights to the myriad of other nationalities, religions and ethnicities that make up her population (Muslims, Christians, Bahai, Druze, etc), was labelled a “regime”. I am sure I don’t have to point out that ‘regime’ is an extraordinarily sinister and loaded description of a country that has been recognized as a democratic sovereign state and UN member since 1949.

Likewise, the 2008 Gaza conflict was described as an, “onslaught on the trapped population of the Gaza Strip, in which 1,400 Palestinian people were massacred.” The words ‘onslaught’ and ‘massacre’ are hugely provocative, woefully insensitive and downright offensive. I find it shocking that Ms Mackreath is willing to make such judgments whilst clearly failing to contextualize the conflict. The slanderous use of the term ‘massacre’ in relation to the actions of the IDF, whom were (apparently unbeknown to Varsity) fighting a wholly justified war against Hamas (a terrorist organization with no regard for civilian life), is at best ignorant, and at worst malicious. Am I right to conclude that Ms Mackreath (and indeed Varsity) see Israel as having no legitimate right to existence or defence, and as such sees any Israeli military action as an atavistic sadomasochistic pastime? Israel does not ‘massacre’. Does Varsity contend otherwise?

Similarly factual inaccuracies are present in the lines, “Israel invaded the West Bank and Gaza Strip during the Six Day War………and has continued a policy of military occupation…ever since.” Anyone with even a facet of knowledge relating to the history of 1967 will present a more nuanced picture of preventative war in the face of Syrian and Egyptian aggression, whilst the fact that Israel unilaterally disengaged and withdrew from Gaza in 2005 is entirely omitted. I find it baffling that a front page news piece on political resistance can reveal such latent inaccuracy and misrepresentation. Is Varsity unaware of the prehistory, or does she chose to ignore it and apply it selectively? If the former is true, CU Israel Society would be more than happy to provide balanced classes on the Israel-Palestine conflict.

The planned performances of Christmas Oratorio in Israel should be welcomed as constructive inter-faith work from Clare College. Instead, for some unfathomable reason, the article failed to focus on the positive aspects that this tour would bring to a troubled region. Sensationalism is obviously contagious. Why for example did the article focus on the contentious history of Karmeil at the expense of Haifa and an exploration of exemplary co-existence? Why does Mackreath not find it relevant to note that the cancellation of this trip is ultimately a step in the wrong direction? The answer is simple. In prostituting Varsity out as a mouthpiece for the PSC, a one sided narrative was bound to ensue. Not only did Mackreath’s article focus on the ugliest side of Israel, it conveniently ignored issues that PSC would rather keep out of the discussion (Hamas’s persecution of Christians for example). Thus Varsity missed the opportunity to present a more balanced picture of Israel and Palestine, and rather than raising the status of important, valuable and productive inter-faith work, she chose to toe a PSC line which drags such schemes through the mud, and calls for a complete cultural boycott.

The piece did highlight strong political action, if not - when read in its wider context - intentionally or unintentionally endorse it. Palestinian artists academics……..calling on the international community to cease working with Israeli organizations that accept funding from the state.” Friends of mine who are hyper-critical of Israel could not deny that this felt like a positive suggestion in the context of the skewed piece that it concluded. For those who unconsciously made that connection, it is worth noting that a thorough boycott of Israel would mean all computers with intel mirco-chips and micro-processors would have to go. As would Windows XP, Vista and Office, along with instant online messaging and firewalls which were first created in Israel. Any country who has received free Tsunami detectors from Israel will need to return them to the “regime”. An academic boycott would be quite damaging too as the percentage of Israel’s citizens with Ph.D.’s is higher than any other country. The list goes on, but the point is clear.

If it was your intention, I should congratulate you, as you have on the front page of Varsity tacitly shown your support for ‘Boycotting Israel’. Intentional or not, it is not a wild interpretation. Does Varsity really believe boycott to be morally palatable? I am left to conclude so.

This journalism is slanted, contentious, cursory, selective, misinformed and highly politicized in that it offers the PSC an uncontested platform from which to peddle a demonizing narrative. By failing to juxtapose radical PSC viewpoints with a more widely ascribed to, middle ground, Varsity has offered support to the PSC campaign and all the baggage of boycott, demonization and vitriolic anti-Zionism that comes with it.

Had this been a comment piece, I would not be writing. Had anyone from the CU Israel Society been asked to contribute to help paint a more nuanced picture, I would not be writing. Yet this front page so called ‘Report’, not comment, presents a lightly veiled PSC manifesto whilst offering no criticism of its one sided divisiveness and leads me to conclude that it must represent the political affiliations of Varsity.

In alleviating the concerns of myself and many others in the Cambridge community, could the editor confirm Varsity’s political position; clarify the factual inaccuracies and the misleading direction of the article in the next edition; and perhaps allow for a more balanced response from the Israel Society.

Yours sincerely,

Jake Witzenfeld
CU Israel Society, President

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