“Permission to Narrate” (1984) is an essay by Edward Said about how Israel’s war on Lebanon in 1982 was talked about in the West, particularly in America, about how Israel could do terrible things to the Palestinians and yet not be condemned in a way that stuck.
In the war Israel bombed Beirut to bits. It helped its allies, the Phalangists, kill over 2,000 Palestinian men, women and children at Sabra and Shatila. It was Israel that killed over 20,000 Arabs that summer – compared to the 290 Israelis that the Palestinians had killed since the Six-Day War in 1967.
None of these facts were hidden, yet it is the Palestinians who were seen as the terrorists while the Israelis were merely acting out of self-defence. It is Israel that is seen as the champion of humanism, civilization, democracy and all that.
How can that be?
Said says it comes about through two levels of censorship:
- Silencing of certain opinions: American publishers, especially the larger ones, will see anything that puts Israel in a bad light as Jew-hating, as anti-Semitic, and refuse to print it. The range of respectable opinion about Israel in America is much narrower than in France or even Britain. And when anti-Israeli opinion does see the light of day, it is shouted down as – anti-Semitic. Even many anti-apartheid and anti-nuclear activists, who knew full well how bad Israel was, kept their mouths shut. When John Chancellor of the American “NBC Nightly News” arrived in Beirut in July 1982 and saw the destruction he told millions of television viewers back home that Israel was “savage” and imperialistic – yet a week later he took that back as a “mistake”.
- Lack of counter-narrative: When all you hear is one side of the story you do not see how the facts could support a completely different storyline. The main facts, after all, were not and could not be hidden. But when the facts do not fit a storyline, they are regarded as exceptions. So Sabra and Shatila become strange exceptions. So too the bombing of Beirut. So Israel keeps its claims of being a civilized country. The Palestinians, meanwhile, are written off as terrorists since their actions make little sense.
The counter-narrative in this case is the history and future of the Palestinians as they themselves see it. Despite all the books, pictures, film and news stories about the war, that story hardly ever got told to American audiences. So much so that even Noam Chomsky, who probably had a better command of the facts than anyone, did not seem to know it. That meant he could not make complete sense of what was going on. It also meant he never questioned important parts of the Israeli narrative.
To be fair, Chomsky himself should have known better – especially since he named his book about the war “The Fateful Triangle” (1983). While he went through American and Israeli sources in depth he did not do the same with Arab sources.