Tuesday, October 29, 2013

The Unpalatable Truth About Martha Gellhorn 6

"I know now that there are things for which I am prepared to die. I am willing to die for political freedom; for the right to give my loyalty to ideals above a nation and above a class; for the right to teach my child what I think to be the truth; for the right to explore such knowledge as my brains can penetrate; for the right to love where my mind and heart admire, without reference to some dictator's code to tell me what the national canons on the matter are; for the right to work with others of like mind; for a society that seems to me becoming to the dignity of the human race."

Dorothy Thompson, 1937

 "What then should we be? That each will answer for himself. But for myself I say: Though stripped of every armor, be a warrior - a warrior of the spirit, for what the spirit knows."

Dorothy Thompson, 1955


And so to my concluding post on this subject. I began with the question: Isn't it time to rename The Martha Gellhorn Prize for Journalism? Needless to say, I believe it is.

Also needless to say, I base my case on the fact that Martha Gellhorn failed, and miserably so, the pre-eminent litmus test for journalistic integrity in our time, namely, Palestine or Israel - which side are you on?

So what to call it then? Keeping in mind that the prize is awarded to "journalists whose work has penetrated the established version of events and told an unpalatable truth," I'd be inclined to name it (if not after my all-time favourite choice, J.M.N. Jeffries) after the great American journalist Dorothy Thompson (1893-1961).

Dorothy who? I hear you all chorus. Unfortunately, for most of us today, Dorothy Thompson's is a long forgotten name. That wasn't the case, however, in her heyday. For a background sketch, try this from the dust jacket of Peter Kurth's invaluable 1990 biography, American Cassandra: The Life of Dorothy Thompson:

"For 3 decades, amid the sweeping events of the first half of the twentieth century, no journalist was more controversial, more opinionated, more irreverent, or more quoted than Dorothy Thompson. At the pinnacle of her career, Thompson's thrice-weekly news column, 'On the Record' - one of the longest running news columns ever - reached millions of people around the globe. She was heard by millions more in her regular radio broadcasts. She was satirized by Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy in Woman of the Year, and in 1939, in a Time magazine cover story, was called the most influential woman in America next to Eleanor Roosevelt."

For most of her life, Dorothy Thompson was, in fact, an uncritical supporter of the Zionist movement, largely because, like so many other Western intellectuals of the time, she was focused more on the struggle against fascism in Europe, including the appalling resurgence of state-sponsored anti-Semitism under the Nazis in pre-war Germany, than on the crimes of British imperialism in faraway Palestine or elsewhere.

Writes Peter Kurth:

"[S]he had been, up through the end of World War II, one of Zionism's most profoundly moving spokesmen. In May of 1942 she had appeared as a keynote speaker at the Biltmore Hotel in New York, where an international conference had been called to agitate for unrestricted Jewish immigration to Palestine. There is no question that Dorothy, up to that point, was wholeheartedly sympathetic to the Zionist movement and convinced (as later she was not) that the Jews were 'a separate people'... that needed to be dealt with as such after twenty centuries of persecution and oppression. 'The whole anti-Semitic movement is full of fetish and black magic,' Dorothy had written in 1943. 'It is a kind of modern witchcraft. Back of this black magic is the fact that the Jews do lead an abnormal life. They are a cohesive people without a place on earth of their own. That fact gives them, in the superstitious mind, an atmosphere of doom. An atmosphere of doom produces an atmosphere of fear.' And a state of their own, 'built by themselves and expressing their own peculiar culture and way of life,' might liberate the Jews from their status as outsiders. It would end the 'ghost story' of the Diaspora. It would allow any Jew, anywhere in the world, to make a choice: to become a member of the Jewish state, or to surrender his Jewishness (as distinct from his religious practice) once and for all to the country of his birth.

"Indeed, it was with an eye to the assimilation of the Jews that Dorothy had first thrown her support behind political Zionism. She had been assured 'time and again' (and for the first time in London, in 1920, during the Zionist conference that launched her career) that the Jewish state in Palestine would encompass 'in equal partnership' the indigenous population of the region, and that 'actively dissident Arabs,' if there were any, could be transferred 'to other parts of the vast Pan-Arab Empire, which covers a territory as large as large as the United States.' Ignorant of Arab culture, badly informed about the history of the Middle East, Dorothy had not then imagined that a Palestinian shepherd would care very much whether he drew water from a well in Bethlehem or in Fez. Later she would deeply regret the cultural and racial prejudice that had allowed her to regard 'the Arabs' as interchangeable bodies, indistinguishable one from another and superfluous in the face of Western plans, but even at the height of her devotion to Zionism she never suspected that whole populations (nearly a million people, by most estimates) would be uprooted from their homes in Palestine and driven into exile.

"'I should be opposed to it if I were a Jew,' Dorothy had warned, 'with the undimmed memory of the dispersion of my own people in mind. I should not want any Arab to sit beside the waters of Babylon and weep because he remembered Zion.' Her first trip to Palestine in 1945 had convinced her that Zionism was not the 'liberal crusade' she had thought it to be, 'that the Zionist leaders envisaged,' as she put it, 'not a small state of Jews who chose to live in Israel, but a Zionist state destined to become the leading power in the Middle East, as the ward of world Jewry whatever their citizenship in other countries [might be].' Dorothy was very much upset by Jewish terrorism in the quest for statehood. She was 'shocked beyond measure' when Menachem Begin, one of the leaders of the Irgun group that was responsible for the massacre of more than 250 Arabs at Deir Yassin, was accorded a hero's welcome by the Jews of New York, and when Ben Hecht, Peter Bergson, and other leading Zionists 'put on a show in Madison Square Garden' and 'slandered Great Britain' by displaying the Union Jack topped with the Nazi swastika. The failure of Israel, after 1948, to agree to the fixing of its borders, to heed the call for the internationalization of Jerusalem, or to provide any relief or compensation for the Palestinian refugees led Dorothy to conclude that Zionism was 'an aggressive, chauvinistic movement' and that the State of Israel was 'an expansionist power' - 'a creation of the United Nations decision made against the opposition of the whole Arab and Moslem world.'

"Ultimately Dorothy was more worried about the effect of Israeli propaganda on American foreign policy than she was about the righteousness or iniquity of Israel itself... She was ahead of most of her colleagues in journalism in considering the problem of Israel at all (beyond merely hailing its creation as a humanitarian enterprise or, like Walter Lippmann, arguing that the Western allies ought to 'impose peace' on the Middle East through the establishment of a joint Israeli-Palestinian confederation). But just as Dorothy was one of the first - and only - American journalists to speak out in defense of the Arab nations, so was she the first and most prominent American journalist to be smeared with the label of 'anti-semite'." (pp 423-425)

I'll finish specifically on the issue of the Palestinian Arab refugees of 1948, the ones so venomously slandered by Gellhorn. As it happens, the first ever documentary film in English on the subject of those refugees, Sands of Sorrow (1950), produced by the Council for Relief of Palestine Arab Refugees, was introduced and closed by Dorothy Thompson. Here is her moving introduction:

"I'm Dorothy Thompson and I have been asked to introduce Sands of Sorrow because I've recently returned from visiting the scenes of the picture you are about to see. Of course, the impression left on my mind by these wretched casualties of political change is much more distressing than the film. For no film can convey the icy winds from Mt Hermon as they blow upon flimsy, floorless tents in Syria or the rains that turn dwellings into mud holes in the rainy season in Lebanon. Nor the defeated feeling even of those who are trying to help, but this film tells part of the story that, until now, has hardly been told at all outside the Arab world."

This is light years away from the propagandist bile of Martha Gellhorn.

Re the name change, I rest my case.


Andy Ramon said...

To quote you:
"the pre-eminent litmus test for journalistic integrity in our time, namely, Palestine or Israel - which side are you on?"
You fail the test completely for a very simple reason. The test is not being on somebody´s side, it is about being objective. If you are on somebodys side to begin with, you can´t.
You analysis and comparison of Gellhorn/Thompson works the same way: anything supporting the arab version of event has to be true, anything refuting is is zionist propaganda.
The problem is there are more indepentent figures supporting Gellhorns version than Thompsons. Though the historical truth has to be somewhere in the middle...

MERC said...

Two things, Andy.

1) There is nothing on this blog which is not backed up by the historical record, chapter and verse, as you would have noticed if you'd read more widely in it. 2) Please feel free to name those "independent figures."