“Israel is an apartheid state.” For a second, I think I must have misheard. I’m at a gala in downtown Manhattan on February 3 held by the ultra-Zionist newspaper Algemeiner, and the opening speaker appears to be going off-script. “Israel targets civilians,” she continues. Is this an awkward attempt at reverse psychology? Did she feel a last-minute pang of sympathy for the Palestinians on her way here, tossing her prepared speech out of the Uber and starting anew? She rattles off a few more common criticisms of Israel, none of which any honest observer would dispute, before pulling a quick rhetorical 180 that by now the audience is prepared for: “These are some of the lies you hear in the mainstream media.” It’s going to be a long evening.
The gala is meant to honor the “Jewish 100,” a list of the “top 100 people positively influencing Jewish Life.” The list of honorees, many of whom are not Jewish, includes Indian Prime Minister Narenda Modi, One Direction member Harry Styles, and the Pope. Algemeiner is not exactly a household name, but it has managed to carve out a niche for itself publishing online articles filled with a particularly rabid brand of hasbara. “Why do 80% of Palestinians Support Murder?” one piece asks. Another approvingly quotes an Israeli think-tank’s claim that “almost 50% of those killed in Gaza” during Operation Protective Edge were “terrorist operatives” (according to the Gaza Health Ministry, 70% were civilians, while a recent AP investigation concluded that only 11% were militants). The publication’s tone should be familiar to anyone who has waded into the morass of right-wing Zionist propaganda: fear masquerading as strength.
The night’s MC is Fox News’ Heather Nauert, who peppers her speech with country club flourishes – “isn’t that something?” – as she touts the accomplishments of Great (not necessarily Jewish) Jews. In fact, the distinction between Jewish and gentile has been all but obliterated. The meal may be kosher, but the message is inclusionary: “You can be of any race, nationality, or religion – we don’t care. As long as you support Israel, Jews will consider you an honorary member of the tribe.” Of course, by Jews they mean Zionists. More specifically, they mean the people who work at Algemeiner.
A video scored with dramatic Game of Thrones-eque music starts to play. A dramatic voiceover intones, “As the Qassams rained down, an iron dome sprang into action.” TMZ footage of Joan Rivers suggesting that Palestinians be given nose jobs elicits raucous laughter and applause. Melissa Rivers accepts the night’s first “Warrior for Truth” award on behalf of her mother, speaking of the many trees planted in Israel in her honor. “At this point I think I control enough Israel real estate that I think we should open negotiations for the first Trump L’Chaim golf course,” she cracks.
The joke is a nod to another guest of honor, The Donald himself, who is here to accept the “Liberty” award for reasons that remain largely unclear. He begins by awkwardly bragging about his newly Jewish daughter, who converted in 2009 before her marriage to New York Observer owner Jared Kushner (also in attendance): “I have a Jewish daughter! This wasn’t the plan, but I’m very glad it happened.” Since Trump himself didn’t follow suit, it’s safe to say his approval is based less on the religion itself than on the cachet he believes a Jewish daughter gives him among the Zionist socialite set.
Rounding out the night is Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein, who accepts the second “Warrior for Truth” award of the night. His speech, longer and more somber than the others, sums up the prevailing mood: a lamentation not that Palestinians are systematically persecuted, but that this persecution might be acknowledged by the mainstream press. In a pensive tone, Edelstein bemoans, “There’s no truth anymore. It’s all about different narratives, different histories…and we all have to understand each other. There is no truth anymore. And I will immediately kind of disclaim and say no, I don’t mean that we all have to fight each other. We can and should understand each other, obviously. We don’t have to shout. But there is still ultimate truth. There are no two truths.” He’s right of course, but not in the sense he intends. The truth is that Edelstein’s government regularly displaces, imprisons and massacres Palestinian civilians in order to maintain a permanent Jewish majority and quell any attempted uprisings against the illegal Israeli occupation.
When someone like Yuli Edelstein speaks about “the ultimate truth,” he is talking not about truth itself but about a monopoly on what is considered true. It is a monopoly that Israel has enjoyed for most of its existence. Statements like that of CBS host Bob Schieffer – whose reporting on Protective Edge included the claim that Palestinians are actively trying to get their children killed – are still all too common. Establishment media’s pro-Israel bias is still pervasive enough that Rula Jebreal was fired from MSNBC after making undeniable claims about the underrepresentation of Palestinians on cable news.
Yet during this past summer’s assault on Gaza, there was also an ever-so-slight acknowledgement among some prominent outlets that Palestinians were humans too and that Israel was not the eternal victim. This barely perceptible sea change resulted largely from first-hand accounts of the carnage in Gaza that kept leaking out through the cracks until their truth was undeniable, and it was enough to seriously frighten die-hard defenders of Zionism.
As long as Israel’s PR machine is able to spin ethnic cleansing into something palatable to the liberal mind, the systematic dispossession of the Palestinian people will continue unabated. Edelstein shouldn’t be worried about the Algemeiner crowd, and by the ease with which he spoke it seems like he wasn’t. He has their everlasting devotion, regardless of how many atrocities pile up in the coming years. The ones he should be worried about are members of the American left, many of them Jews, who little by little are starting to hear the hate underneath the hype. It sounds a lot like a Joan Rivers joke.