Written by Anne Caldwell
From the very beginning, this special issue was intended to question our academic and media narratives of the “Middle East” (or Southwest Asia) – the Levant and Palestine in particular. From the archives we utilise to the culture we analyse and the news media we consume, our understanding of South-West Asia and North Africa (SWANA) is not without its biases. This has never been clearer than in the current cultural clash over decolonisation, amplified in this moment by the crisis unfolding in Ukraine.
As we watch desperate people fleeing across the Ukrainian border, and the civilian population targeted, journalists and politicians alike seem moved in ways that similar scenes in places Syria and Gaza somehow did not provoke. Eleven years on, there are 13.5 million displaced Syrian refugees. While Western countries (rightly) open their doors to fleeing Ukrainian and Russian refugees, those same countries decried doing the same for refugees from Syria, let alone elsewhere in the “Global South” – Yemen, Ethiopia, Myanmar, Sudan, Eritrean, Honduras, etc. Yet, the reason given for denying some Ukrainian refugees the right to enter the UK has had little to do with far-right movements, like the Azov regiment, or fear of terrorism from “the heroic Ukrainian people”, but more to do with Russian troops “infiltrating Ukraine and merging into Ukrainian forces”. Syrian refugees, on the other hand, have been denied entry “on security grounds”. In other words, the fear of terrorism.
Indeed, the Western media has a habit of equating terrorism with those from SWANA or predominately Muslim communities. The New York Times in particular has been called out for their anti-Palestinian reporting, but it is not just media reporting. In May 2021, around 261 people, including at least 67 children, were killed and over a 1,000 injured during the Israeli bombardment on Gaza. Yet, unlike Russia, Israel experienced no quick retaliatory sanctions from the US or the UK. If anything, the opposite has occurred. There has been a surge of political support for anti-Boycott Divest and Sanction (BDS) bills in the US and one likely headed to the UK Parliament this autumn, as well as the further implementation of the IHRA definition in universities across both countries. Regardless of one’s opinion on BDS, or sanctions more generally, this disparity displays the inherent inequality in the implementation of sanctions and censors. Even as Israel itself eases immigration for Ukrainian refugees and editorials in the Jerusalem Post call for Israel to be a “safe haven for refugees”, Palestinians are still denied the “Right of Return”. It is more convenient for the West to forget that Palestinians constitute “one of the largest and longest-standing unresolved refugee crises in the world”.
As with everything, there is historical precedent for this paradoxical behaviour. The biases we are seeing now are the remnants of colonial rhetoric in the political and public sphere. The British took control of Palestine in 1917, and officially through the Mandate for Palestine by 1923. For some within the British government, Zionism was a way to civilise and “Europeanise” the former Ottoman territory. Indeed, even “consulting the wishes of the present inhabitants of the country”, over 700,000 Palestinians, was famously rejected by Lord Balfour. This mentality was reflected in print media of the time. Examining the relationship between the Guardian and Zionism in their respective works, David Ayerst and Daphna Baram noted that C.P. Scott, editor of the Manchester Guardian between 1872 and 1929, was deeply influenced by the Ashkenazi population fleeing Eastern Europe. Scott’s, and ultimately the Guardian’s, support of colonisation in Palestine boiled down to his familiarity with the Eastern European Jewish community in Manchester. As Baram put it, “He knew Jews and Zionists, and liked them; it is very likely that he had never set eyes on an Arab.” While the sentence is reductive, it is a reminder of how our biases are often determined by familiarity. When we hear the former deputy prosecutor general of Ukraine, David Sakvarelidze, comment that he is upset because these are “European people with blue eyes and blonde hair being killed”, we have to understand that this comment does not stand in isolation. That they are white, that they are European – this influences the more sympathetic way Ukrainians are perceived by Western powers.
For many even left-of-centre newspapers of the 1920s and 1930s, there was a European “Jewish correspondent” to cover matters relating to the new Mandate, but no Palestinian – Arab or otherwise – equivalent. Anti-colonial protests were re-framed as riots. The Arab population was viewed as illogical, uncivilised, and antisemitic. In 1920, the Graphic ran a spread praising the “up-to-date scientific methods” of European agriculturalists while referring to the Palestinian farmers as “primitive”. Echoes of this ring in the way we depict Palestine and other former colonies even today. There is a sharp contrast in how Ukraine is being portrayed versus other human rights atrocities, with the country being framed as more civilised than Afghanistan, Iraq or Syria. It is also why, for instance, foreign students from India or Nigeria are treated differently as they too attempt to flee Ukraine.
Deconstructing the narratives that have been built around whose pain is worthy of being written about is not a simple matter of inclusiveness. Even the language we use as academics impacts our understanding of a place. We think in terms of dichotomy – in Israel/Palestine it is a matter of Jew vs Arab, erasing entire cultures and ethnicities in their wake. Not all Palestinians are Arabs. There are Arab Jews, even Palestinian Jews. Even the term “Middle East” is a colonial hangover. As academics, we must remember that as uncomfortable as it is to admit, the very writing of history is a political act. Who is given voice and who is not; whose voice is amplified by courses, by funding, by departments, by faculty. Decolonisation is not just about making sure we recognise those who have been ignored throughout history with blog posts and special lectures. It is not enough that we properly represent the populations that we research and write about in our work or seminars. We must own our participation in these erasures, not as individuals, but as institutions of knowledge.
What is happening in Ukraine is a tragedy, it is horrific, and we should see it as such. As with many Jews in the West, it is an unsettling echo of my family’s own flight from Eastern Europe. It is worthy of media attention, worthy of political action, worthy of academic thought pieces. But so are many assaults on human rights that we, as a society, choose to ignore and to silence. We, as academic institutions, choose to ignore and to silence. As long as they are happening to Muslims or people of colour, we can turn a blind eye.
Over the next few weeks, this blog will be giving space to the conversation around decolonisation in cultural and media history. It will look at the way institutions, like the Palestine Exploration Fund, are looking to reframe their history in the public sphere to how cultural media, like newspapers or movies such as Dune, have impacted our understanding of the SWANA region and its people. While not directly focusing on wartime media, it is an ongoing discussion on the analysis of media in and of conflict zones – as controversial as that term is in Middle Eastern historiography and politics. This special issue was designed to participate in a broader conversation, and make those who are not historians of the region more aware of the discussions being had. Perhaps even more aware of the way in which we think about our own institutions and our own reading of the world today.
Anne Caldwell is a Teaching Associate at the University of Nottingham, where she lectures on European-Jewish relations. Her research focuses on Anglo-Zionist relations and British cultural media during the Mandate Period, with an interest in the intersections of ethnonationalism, mythmaking, and cultural media.