A BBC TV World News report today described the new Middle East peace envoy George Mitchell as an ‘Arab American’.
George Mitchell: 'Arab American'
It’s a bit of a stretch… True, Mitchell’s mother was an immigrant from The Lebanon. On the other hand, his father was American, apparently of Irish descent. Mitchell’s religion, according to the ever-reliable Wikipedia, is ‘Roman Catholic’.
So yes, Mr Mitchell is ‘Arab American’… if the BBC is desperate for a good news story to hand the Arab Street. The normal term for Americans of mixed ancestry, of course, is simply ‘American’.
On the other hand, Richard Holbrooke, the new envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, was described in the same BBC World Service report as ‘a former UN Ambassador’. Listening live, I heard him spoken of as ‘American’, plain and simple. And why not? Presumably that’s what Mr Holbrooke considers himself? After all, he was born and raised in America, his family is American and his loyalties are presumably to America.
Today’s Wikipedia entry categorizes Holbrooke, among other things, as a ‘Jewish American’. There is clearly a basis for this – insofar as Jewishness is a matter of ancestry, not religion. This is from the New York Times Magazine, back in 1995:
Holbrooke’s mother, whose Jewish family fled Hamburg in 1933 for Buenos Aires before coming to New York, took him to Quaker meetings on Sundays. “I was an atheist, his father was an atheist,” says his mother, a potter now married to a sculptor. “We never thought of giving Richard a Jewish upbringing. The Quaker meetings seemed interesting.
“Holbrooke’s father, a brilliant doctor born of Russian Jewish parents in Warsaw, died of cancer. There is a faded black-and-white photograph of the gangly teen-ager holding his father’s hand in the Scarsdale woods that seems to capture a closeness abruptly shattered. His father changed his name to Holbrooke when he arrived in the United States in the 1930′s.
Such, however, is the family’s loss of contact with its roots that his original name is unknown.”He was my father,” Holbrooke says, when asked how the abrupt death affected him. “He was my father. What can I say? I leave the psychoanalysis to others.”
Richard Holbrooke: 'American'
His marriage to Marton, however, has led him to look more closely at his past. She was born into a family of Hungarian Jews but raised to believe she was a Roman Catholic. Only in researching a book did she learn that one of her maternal grandparents had died in Auschwitz.
This shared experience is clearly important to them. She and Holbrooke are not religious, but there appears to be some nascent sense of Jewish identity, or at least sensibility, that binds them. They visited Budapest’s main synagogue together. She talks of “just melting into each other as we watched ‘Schindler’s List.’ “
Of course, how Mr Holbrooke self-identifies is up to him. The BBC is perfectly entitled to call him ‘American’. Why not?
But in that case, why call George Mitchell an ‘Arab American’ in the same report? What basis does the BBC have for believing Mitchell’s mother’s origins are more significant to him that his father’s? Why not say he’s a Roman Catholic? Or just an ‘American’, like Holbrooke?
The strategic use of a word or two matters a lot when conveying information to a busy audience, most of whom don’t do this kind of follow-up research. In its choice of words today, the BBC TV World Service conveyed the impression that the Obama/Clinton pick of emissaries is, if anything, biased towards the Arab cause (the tally being one ‘Arab American’ and another plain ‘American’). That, to coin the phrase, really is a stretch.
Obama at AIPAC: the imagery of one-sidedness
It’s also a stretch, in my opinion, to take too much comfort from ‘parsing’ Obama’s words like the Kremlin watchers of yore, although Jim Lobe does a good job of it and I hope his optimism is vindicated by events.
Chris Floyd is not wearing rose-tinted glasses and points out eloquently in Thus Sprach Barack: Pouring Acid on Gaza’s Wounds just how biased towards Israel Obama’s speech was, when taken literally. The Israel Lobby would go ballistic over a speech if the bias was the other way, even if a small town Mayor was the offending speaker. Perhaps friends of Palestine have lessons to learn from these guys? Is it time to take the gloves off?
In Australia, Martin Indyk has been a regular talking head on ABC TV since the time of the 1990/1 Gulf War. Born in Britain and raised in Australia, he’s spent most of the time since then in the USA and served as US Ambassador to Israel (fast promotion for a brand new US citizen).
Martin Indyck with Ehud Olmert: kindred spirits?
Mr Indyk has worked for – and with – various organiations in the US Zionist lobby since the early 1980s. It is misleading NOT to describe him as a committed Zionist. It is accurate to describe him as a Jewish Zionist. To be really specific, he’s a Clintonite Jewish Zionist (as opposed to a neocon Jewish Zionist).
Yet every time I’ve seen Martin Indyk on ABC Lateline, I swear he’s been introduced as ‘the former American Ambassador to Israel’. It’s not a lie, but it is highly selective with the truth.
I’ve written to the ABC to complain about this, but so far to no avail. I pointed out that when James Zogby appears on Lateline, he’s described as an ‘Arab American’ or an ‘Arab American Lobbyist’. So why not call Mr Indyk a Jew – or at least a Zionist Lobbyist?
Perhaps ten of us should complain next time? How about a HUNDRED?
Public broadcasters have a special responsibility to use terminology that isn’t loaded or inherently biased. After all, unlike the odious Fox News, they are not part of a corporate fiefdom. They are institutions funded by the public. Balance is the least they can give us back.
Tim Llewellyn: insider's perspective on BBC bias towards Israel
Last word to Tim Llewellyn, a former BBC Middle East correspondent (ironically, free to speak the truth only after leaving that position). He wrote Why the BBC ducks the Palestinian story in 2004. Here’s an excerpt. Sadly, it’s just as relevant nearly five years on (the footnotes are worth reading too):
Time and again, presented with an Israeli or some inadequately flagged American or other apologist for Israel, the presenter will accept the pro-Israel version of the truth at face value, respectful of an American accent, a well-dressed politician or an ex-diplomat (who is often nothing like as disinterested as it would appear), (5) while pressing hard on the recalcitrant Arab. (6)
(5) Two good examples of misrepresentation are those of Martin Indyk and, more especially Dennis Ross, both former US diplomats whom the BBC regularly trundles out to pontificate from apparently Olympian, though expert, detached heights about the Israel-Palestine crisis. It is never pointed out that both men are Zionists and former members of the powerful American Jewish lobby organisation, AIPAC.
(6) One outstanding example of this was the Newsnight of 30 November 2001, BBC2, when Jeremy Paxman gave the former Israel prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, an astonishingly easy ride then bullied the British Palestinian barrister – Michel Massih – an inexperienced TV broadcaster – with repeated rapid-fire accusations about suicide bombs and terrorism. The BBC bosses reprimanded Paxman. Paxman is not alone in this tendency to let Israelis get away with it but treat Arabs as if they are prisoners at the bar.
Click HERE to complain to the BBC