Reporting from the perspective of 1948 – a profile of Jonathan Cook

Over a dozen innocent Palestinians had been killed by Israeli police, but The Guardian wasn’t interested.  

It was 2001 and Jonathan Cook, a foreign desk editor at the paper, had just returned from from Israel reporting that police in Nazareth had murdered 13 non-violent Arab protestors during the second intifada the year before. Cook expected his editors at the “leftwing” paper to jump at the story, but he was sorely disappointed. 

“I felt like I really grasped something,” says Cook, whose findings led him to conclude that the victims were unarmed and that police had essentially implemented a shoot-to-kill policy. His story went against the state’s official narrative — which was that armed Arabs in Nazareth had turned violent — but his conclusion was confirmed by a subsequent government inquiry. The Guardian, however, didn’t publish his investigation. 

Cook, who holds an MA in Middle Eastern Studies, had long felt that mainstream coverage of the region missed key aspects of the story. The Guardian’s rejection of the Nazareth story disturbed him more deeply. He decided the problem required an out-of-the-ordinary solution.   

“I suddenly thought I’ve got to do something radical here and go and test my views, immerse myself somewhere in the Middle East and really check if the problem is with me or with the newspapers.”  

So he left The Guardian for Nazareth, taking a year’s leave to report on Palestinians inside Israel, a group largely ignored by the mainstream. Ten years and three books later (Blood and Religion, Israel and the Clash of Civilizations and Disappearing Palestine), he’s still here, he says, because here is where the story is.  

“Being in Nazareth has allowed me to see things here in a different kind of light.”

  

According to Cook, reporters living in the Jewish-majority news hubs of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv tend to see the current conflict as starting in 1967 with the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. This perspective lends too much weight to “security concerns” and enables Israel to skirt its responsibilities to the Palestinians, he says. Living in Israel’s Arab capital Nazareth, however, opened Cook up to the historical dimensions of a conflict at least as old as 1948. That’s the point at which “the story” begins for Palestinians, who do not celebrate the 1948 War of Independence, but instead commemorate the Nakba, or “catastrophe.” 

“He’s pretty much on the button,” says veteran BBC journalist Bill Hayton, referring to Cook’s coverage of Israeli Arabs. Hayton, who made a film about the Bedouin of the Negev Desert for a 1998 edition of Simpson’s World on BBC World, says Cook’s focus on the Palestinian minority in Israel is “a good perspective from which to asses the various claims about Israel’s democratic identity.” 

“He [Cook] is looking at issues which are crucial to the region but largely suppressed,” according to Hayton. 

Working in Nazareth both during and after the second Intifada helped Cook see the big picture.  

“Most interesting to me was that what was going on in the Occupied Territories, which all the other journalists would say is the story, was just a reflection of things that were going on, or had gone on, here before,” says Cook, whose work on travel restrictions within Gaza was chosen alongside other articles on Israeli human rights abuses as one of Project Censored’s 25 most important censored stories of 2009-10. 

“Israel’s policies in the Occupied Territories were devised before the occupation began, in its treatment of Israeli Arabs, especially in terms of land confiscation and creating conditions to break down the community’s social fabric,” Cook says.  

“All of this was done inside Israel to an Arab population that posed no security threat, raising the question of whether many of Israel’s current policies towards the Palestinians are really security-related.” 

But major papers generally avoid this kind of narrative, according to Cook. Policies like that of the Guardian, which rotates Middle East correspondents after two or three years, hinders in-depth reporting, he argues. 

“I remember a foreign editor once saying that the reason [for the time limit] was that they [reporters] tended to ‘go native,’” Cook explains. “What he meant was that they started to get sympathetic to the Palestinian point of view.” 

Cook argues from experience that The Guardian isn’t the anti-Israel paper it’s often thought to be. While the paper might go out of its way to condemn the occupation, Cook says more incisive questioning of Israel’s capacity to be both a Jewish and democratic state, or critiques of aspects of its security doctrine, are left out.  

David Edwards and David Cromwell, editors of media criticism website Media Lens, and co-authors of Guardians of Power: the Myth of the Liberal Media, and Newspeak in the 21st Century, have published several of Cook’s critiques of the mainstream media. 

“Cook is a rare example of a successful corporate journalist with the integrity and insight to perceive and expose the deep structural flaws in the profession that embraced him,” they wrote in an email to this reporter. 

But where is a critic of Israel to go once he’s disillusioned with what even the mainstream left’s flagship paper has to offer? Nowadays the answer is, of course, online.  

Though he is now on staff at The National, an Abu Dhabi-based newspaper, it is unlikely the job would have come around had he not earned a reputation for years as one of the online alternative press’s most dogged Israel-Palestine reporters. Since giving up his byline at The Guardian, Cook’s unique perspective has found a comfortable home in the dynamic world of smaller online publications. His articles on websites like Counterpunch and Electronic Intifada are widely cited in circles concerned with Israel-Palestine issues.  

“The internet made people like me possible,” says Cook, who wrote solely on the internet for nearly three years. 

“You can’t live on it but it does mean you can be heard,” says Cook. “It means you can make some kind of impression.” 

Getting picked up on blogs and gaining a loyal internet fan-base gave Cook more visibility than he’d ever had. But Internet visibility is not without it’s pitfalls.  

“In some ways it’s bad as a mainstream journalist to get visible like that because newspapers don’t like it,” says Cook. “You get recognized for having a certain kind of view or you get associated with a certain kind of website or kind of online readership and the newspaper doesn’t want to be associated with it.” 

But Cook has made his heterodox views work for him, and for now he’s staying in Nazareth, a place that he says complicates the simplistic narrative that Israel wants to present. 

“Israel wants us to see it as a conflict between Jews-civilization-good guys, and Muslims-terrorists-bad guys,” says Cook, “and Nazareth doesn’t fit into that at all.”

Jon Dillingham is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. He is an MA candidate in the Specialized Journalism program at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.

About Jon Dillingham

Adam Horowitz is Co-Editor of Mondoweiss.net.
Posted in Israel/Palestine

{ 15 comments... read them below or add one }

  1. “‘Israel’s policies in the Occupied Territories were devised before the occupation began, in its treatment of Israeli Arabs, especially in terms of land confiscation and creating conditions to break down the community’s social fabric,’ Cook says.

    ‘All of this was done inside Israel to an Arab population that posed no security threat, raising the question of whether many of Israel’s current policies towards the Palestinians are really security-related.’”

    Not security related! From the beginning. This is a very significant point.

    I’ve long admired Jonathon Cook’s work, reading him often at Counterpunch.com .

  2. pabelmont says:

    Phil, thank you for sharing Jonathan Cook with us.

    Poor man! Probably has no ready contact with Jewish leaders. Probably cannot make himself a mouthpiece or echo-chamber or sounding-board for the politicians. Could never go to the important cocktail parties. No job with NYT.

    He is consigned to find the news from nobodies, nobodies, people without power, people who can scarcely be said to exist. And no-one would think of publishing his stuff or reading it except other nobodies. That’s us. And the Arabs. And some of us are Arabs, so I counted his audience twice, so he really has a tiny audience.

    Phil, thank you for sharing Jonathan Cook with us.

  3. bindup says:

    Really appreciated Dillingham’s interview with Jonathan Cook.
    Makes so clear what a huge problem “exceptionalism” is, whether applied within Israel-48, or beyond the ’67 borders.

    The bottom line, it seems to me, is that in the end no one in Israel Palestine will settle for anything less than a secure homeland. Any future political arrangement, with however many “states”, must guarantee that, or fail. Crucial to secure homeland(s) are uniform laws – including “rights of return” – applied to majorities and minorities on an equal basis – and building from there.

  4. James North says:

    Jonathan Cook. A moral giant.

  5. clenchner says:

    Nazareth is great. If you go there, be sure to eat Knafeh – the best in Israel. Be sure to think about Nazareth, the first city in the entire Middle East to elect a Communist mayor. And about Tewfiq Zayyad, the great poet and leader, who did so much before his personal demons got a little out of control.

    • Avi says:

      clenchner May 12, 2011 at 8:43 pm

      Nazareth is great. If you go there, be sure to eat Knafeh – the best in Israel. Be sure to think about Nazareth, the first city in the entire Middle East to elect a Communist mayor. And about Tewfiq Zayyad, the great poet and leader, who did so much before his personal demons got a little out of control.

      After watching Mr. Cook’s description of the discrimination and the oppression that Israel has inflicted on Nazareth’s Palestinians, all you can think about is eating Knafeh?

      The average Jewish Israeli’s extent of interaction with Palestinians in Israel is limited to buying Shawarma or Falafel, or in your case, Knafeh. Then, so-called “liberals” go on to proclaim that they LOVE Arabs and have many “Arab friends”, like the guy who runs that “great Shawarma place”. I’m very well familiar with this behavior and these views among many Israelis. It’s so superficial and shallow.

      And what does being elected as the “first communist” mayor have to do with the topic at hand? Are you going to regurttate the whole Israel-invented-the-cherry-tomato schpiel?

      Alas, you’re no different a propagandist than the other commenters, humpty or eee. To that extent, you are pathetically transparent.

      • clenchner says:

        Ha. The competition for best knafeh title is fierce. Most Nazarenes were quite happy celebrating this culinary delight, much in the same way that Nabulsis were eager to claim the title for best in the WB or best in Palestine.
        Try selling to a Nazerene that there isn’t a good time to celebrate that city! Try selling to Avi that people aren’t required to respond to the things he finds important!
        @talknic, if you are confused about whether or not Nazareth is in Israel, go ask a Nazerene.

        • Avi says:

          clenchner May 13, 2011 at 6:42 am

          Ha. The competition for best knafeh title is fierce. Most Nazarenes were quite happy celebrating this culinary delight, much in the same way that Nabulsis were eager to claim the title for best in the WB or best in Palestine.
          Try selling to a Nazerene that there isn’t a good time to celebrate that city! Try selling to Avi that people aren’t required to respond to the things he finds important!

          You may have grown up in an environment in which superficiality and shallowness were celebrated. That could explain why common decency is such an alien concept to you.

          That you tried to sell the “first communist mayor in the entire Middle East” shtick with a straight face tells me you’re a buffoon.

        • talknic says:

          clenchner

          When it comes to the legal status of territories, the law applies.

          It has been Customary International Law since at least the 1830′s (see the legal annexation of Texas by the US), that territories ‘acquired’ by defensive or aggressive war (i.e., not already sovereign to the conqueror), must be legally annexed. Legal annexation requires a referendum of the citizens (not the occupier’s citizens) of the territory being annexed. (see the legal US annexation of Texas 1836)

          When you can show me results of the referendum in territories Israel has acquired by war. The date the referendum was held. The LEGAL annexation document. Date. Co-signatories….you might have a point. As it is, you don’t. All you have is an empty Hasbarrow to push

          In fact, Israel has never legally annexed ANY territories. NONE, NIL, NADA, ZIP, ZILCH. link to wp.me (detailed maps)

          Israel’s actual sovereign territories today are the same as when the state of Israel was declared and recognized. It was declared and recognized and a UN Member state BEFORE it made any claims of territory “outside of” Israel.

          If you follow the links here — link to wp.me — You will find Israel Government statements to the UNSC showing that there were borders defined by Israel’s Declaration.

          Here is Israel’s first claim to territories “outside of” Israel. link to wp.me Israel was told “NO”.

          You could continue spouting ignorant BS or you could educate yourself. I have no doubt though, that the former is much more appealing. The latter will turn your world completely inside out.

    • talknic says:

      clenchner

      Problem: Nazareth is not in Israel. It sits in the territory slated for the Arab State, was never declared as Israeli and never legally annexed to Israel.

      Google Earth Overlay Or Here

      …and the ‘acquisition’ of territory by war is inadmissible. Professor Stephen M. Schwebel – ex Judge of International Court of Justice

      • pjdude says:

        but your ok with conquest by war. you claimed that Israel even though it was gained through conquest is valid and legal.

        • clenchner says:

          I’m okay with respecting Nazarenes. I’ve spent a lot of time there, with residents of that fair city, and by and and large they don’t spend much time claiming not to live in Israel. But if ever there is a movement in Nazareth to try and not be included in Israel, but sure and write about it. I’m sure Israel’s foreign minister would be happy to negotiate on that point.
          But seriously. If you can’t find a Nazarene, ask a Palestinian in the WB. They’ll tell you.

  6. Jim Haygood says:

    ‘Major papers generally avoid this kind of narrative, according to Cook. Policies like that of the Guardian, which rotates Middle East correspondents after two or three years, hinder in-depth reporting, he argues. “I remember a foreign editor once saying that the reason [for the time limit] was that they [reporters] tended to ‘go native,’” Cook explains. “What he meant was that they started to get sympathetic to the Palestinian point of view.” ‘

    Precisely. And who wouldn’t? Whereas in London and New York, Jewish readers and (more importantly) advertisers outnumber Muslim ones by an order of magnitude. Thus the deliberate distancing from too incisive, too disturbing reporting which strays from the conventional ‘Israel is our trusted ally’ narrative.

    But it would be an ugly form of ethnic stereotyping to assume that all of the important Jewish demographic toes the zionist, pro-Israel line. Slowly, this is changing. By the time the anachronistic mainstream media catch on to this seismic shift, they likely be will be out of business.

    The economist Dr. Gary North recently advocated that the NYT ditch its printing presses and reporters, and stake its future on leasing its Times Square office building. I heartily concur. Let seasoned resident professionals such as Jonathan Cook handle the journalism, Mr. Sulzberger. Your Judith Millers and Ethan Bronners have spectacularly struck out.