Danny Schechter: Ariel Sharon: The Collision of Memory, Myth and Media

Roundup: Talking About History

[News Dissector Danny Schechter edits Mediachannel.org. His latest books are "The Death of Media" and "When News Lies." See newsdissector.org/store.htm for more information.]

Ariel Sharon has been a warrior all his life so his post-surgical fight for life is nothing new. Reports that he had died were quickly supplanted by news from the operating room that the tank-like former tank commander turned Israeli Prime Minister was hanging on like some modern day Sampson although still gravely ill with millions praying for his recovery.

Few contemporary figures inspire the kind of debate, hate and adoration that he attracts.
His life has been wrapped in media mythmaking on all sides.

This is a challenge to the news world that always has to navigate through the mine fields of misinformation, myth and memory. Say something negative, and you can be labeled insensitive to a dying man or, worse, a hater, even an anti-semite. Say something positive, and you can be accused of being blind to what many say are war crimes, some of which he admitted in moments of macho bravado and unexpected candor.

In the White House and among Sharon's many supporters, including today's TV cheerleaders-he is viewed as pro-peace moderate who outgrew his reputation as "the Butcher of Beirut" for his role in l982 in the slaughter of Palestinians in Beirut, crimes acknowledged by Israeli investigators on the Kahan Commission who held him "personally responsible."


He is a survivor but not in the Holocaust sense. He has come back from many crises and attacks for everything from persistent excessive brutality to corruption in his family and political campaigns. "As a soldier and a statesman, he was loved and hated, promoted and demoted," waxes Yoel Marcus nostalgically in the Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz. "One day he was 'king of Israel' and the next he was 'a danger to the state.' The man who was deemed unfit to be defense minister went on to become the 'father of the nation.'"

But like the character Avner, the Israeli hit man pictured in Steven Spielberg's Munich, he was more complicated as is the situation in Israel which is so often pictured in our media only as a monolithic nation with a government that represents all of its people and acts on its behalf.

Many in other parts of the world see the United States that same way as if President Bush fully represents our deeply divided nation even as public opinion turns against the war and his policies.

There are many Americas just as there is more than one Israel but our media reduces conflicts there, Bush-like, into a black and white, good guys vs bad guys paradigm, as in 'you are either with the terrorists or us.' The TV networks usually only report on the personalities who hold political power paying little attention to who and what they really represent. In Sharon's case, he has been more consistent in his agenda over the years than not.

The media focus on the "Great Men" (and occasionally "Great Women") of politics leads to less reporting on institutions and interests: civil society and even corporate power gets ignored. In the Middle East, that means only rare attention paid to Israeli peace movements and joint Israeli-Palestinian peace projects. A truth that is rarely explained is that Israel, and for that matter Palestinian politics, are fragmented into competing factions and ideological postures. There are more than two sides on both sides.


So how should Sharon be regarded? As a warlord or a statesman? As a fanatic or visionary leader? Or should we just be silent about his life now that it is at risk?

To listen to Pat Robertson and many on the far right, Sharon sold out his own holy cause. In his view, God struck him down for giving back Gaza, a territory illegally occupied and often terrorized by the Israeli military for decades.

My former colleague, Jeannette Friedman, a fervent supporter of Israel who disliked Sharon's withdrawal from Gaza is more generous, writing: "His life and the history-and the land-of Israel are intertwined, each having a lasting effect on the other. No matter what side of the fence you are on-Labor or Likud, Peace Now or a member of a religious party, Ariel "Arik" Sharon's dedication and love for Israel is unquestioned."

That may be true from a nationalistic perspective, but that is certainly not the way the Arab world and many in Europe -- sees it - and not in small part because of the apartheid-like fence Sharon insisted on building to separate Israel and Palestinians. Why are there constant references by "experts" and pundits to a "peace process" that has, in truth, been stalled if not moving in reverse?

Critical perspectives on Sharon are mostly absent in mainstream media discourse except in the writings of veteran British journalist Robert Fisk who covered the Middle East for a quarter of a century.

He is not persuaded that Sharon ever changed his real colors or his attitude. In his massive new book, The Great War For Civilization: The Conquest of the Middle East, Fisk writes:

"Š it is as a war criminal that Sharon will be known forever in the Arab world, through much of the Western world, in fact - save, of course, for the craven men in the White House and the State Department and the Blair Cabinet - as well as many leftist Israelis. Sabra and Chatila was a crime against humanity. Its dead counted more than half the fatalities of the World Trade Center attacks of 2001Š

"Ever since he was elected in 2001 - and especially since his withdrawal of settlements from the rubbish tip of Gaza last year, a step which would, according to his spokesman, turn any plans for a Palestinian state in the West Bank into "formaldehyde" - his supporters have tried to turn Sharon into a pragmatist, another Charles de Gaulle. His new party was supposed to be proof of this. But in reality, Sharon had more in common with the putchist generals of Algeria."

Is this view too harsh? Should old memories be forgotten as in the language of the New Year's 'let bygones be bygones?' Must we just erase the crimes of the past in our reporting as we rev up the tributes that are certainly being prepared in the event of Ariel Sharon's final departure?


Not all Israelis will be joining the likely celebration. The Israeli writer David Grossman explains: "Ariel Sharon is a man of potent primal urges, of violence, of combat, cunning and brilliance. He is a sharp manipulator, brave and corrupt. He has swung like a mighty pendulum between construction and destruction. He has blatantly ignored limits, whether international boundaries or the boundaries of the law."

For many Palestinians, there is no "new" Sharon. "Everybody knows that Ariel Sharon had a dark past," writes former PLO rep Karma Nabuksi in the Guardian. " For us Palestinians, for me as a Palestinian, he is our dark present. The entire destruction of the fabric of our civic and political society over the past five years has had the looming presence of Sharon at its black heart." Hamas and the Islamic Jihad are far more hostile in their condemnations.

These views of Sharon are likely to disappear in much of the media when and if he dies, like the way criticisms of Ronald Reagan were sanitized in the media marathon of tributes following his passing. Even though truth never really dies, it can be hidden and avoided for years. History has always been rewritten and popularized by winners, or, as it is today, by disinformation specialists, spin-meisters and news executives.

Often when you try to debate Israeli policies, emotionalism overcomes insight on all sides because the response is often finger pointing and "Yes, but what aboutŠ. (You can fill in the blank.)" Ears close as partisans cling to their pain preferring diatribes to dialogue. All offer up their different maps and memories of atrocities or oppression to rationalize predictable positions.


This conventional media discourse misses deeper dimensions of the problem. Is Israeli society only to be discussed by our media in terms of its military leaders and security concerns? What about its founding values and culture? As Sharon fights for life, something more profound may be dying in Israel, says one American who has lived there for many, many years-the compassion of the Jewish people.

Larry Derfner wrote about this in the Jerusalem Post on December 22 last year.

"When I came to this country 21 years ago, being a socialist - as distinct from being a communist - was a solidly Israeli thing to be. The prime minister at the time, Shimon Peres, made a point of describing himself as one. Israelis weren't saints, they weren't monks - they envied the wealth and comforts of Western Jewry. But fighting this envy was the pride they took in the lack of pretension and nonsense in their way of life, and the contempt they felt for the shallow, selfish lives of wealthy Jews abroad.

"Yeah, well, times have changed, haven't they? Today Diaspora Jews and Israelis are of like minds, all going for the gelt, all looking out for No. 1, all agreed that the poor will always be with us, so let's maybe throw them a bone (and put up a plaque). Most important, we are all agreed that the world is divided into the haves and have nots, and we - Jews of the Diaspora and Israel together - have become the natural allies of the haves, and the natural enemies of the mobilized have nots.

"And it's not just the Palestinian issue or radical Islam that divides world Jewry from the Third World. It's also the assimilation of American Jewry into the conservative economic and political establishment of their country, and Israeli Jewry's identification and connection with it. You can add the Russian Jewish oligarchs to the mix. You can also throw in the leadership of Jewish organizations across the Diaspora, which are basically plutocracies - societies ruled by the rich.

"Together, we are the voice of world Jewry. And as the saying goes, where you stand depends on where you sit."

Larry Derfner may not have heard about the pithy terror warnings posted in the subways of New York that say "If you see something, say something." Yet he is saying something about something no one is talking about but that is relevant as we hear all the speculation about the future of Israel and the news bulletins on what may be the mighty Sharon's last stand in the holy land.

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