The Israel-Palestine ‘conflict’ (a deceptive term, some say) is largely a war of words. Pitched battles have been fought over nouns, adjectives — even definite articles.
Last week, under pressure from a group that polices the Canadian media on behalf of the ‘Jewish state’, Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) Radio host Duncan McCue issued an on-air apology for using the word “Palestine” in an interview on the Public Broadcaster’s flagship current affairs show, The Current. Like a real-life Winston Smith, a CBC digital editor swiftly excised the offending toponym from the online version of McCue’s CBC interview and dispatched it down the memory hole.
Had Mr. McCue uttered the word “Palestine” in the course of an interview with a Palestinian politician or commentator, his objectivity may well have been faulted. In fact, his guest on the August 18 edition of CBC’s The Current was the graphic novelist Joe Sacco, creator of a work called Palestine.
Based on nine comic books published by Fantagraphics between 1993 and 1995, Palestine was released in graphic novel format in 2001, with an introduction by renowned Palestinian literary critic and philologist Edward Said. Two earlier versions, published in 1996 — Palestine, a Nation Occupied and Palestine: In the Gaza Strip – won the Before Columbus Foundation’s American Book Award.
The subject of Mr. McCue’s conversation with the Maltese cartoonist and author, in his August 18 interview, was Sacco’s latest graphic novel, Paying the Land, about the Dene people of Canada’s Northwest Territories. Mr. McCue is Anishinaabe, and a member of the Chippewas of Georgina Island First Nation, in southern Ontario. During CBC’s regular season, McCue is the host of Canada’s number one phone-in show, Cross-Country Checkup.
Unfortunately, in his use of the word ‘Palestine’, Mr. McCue did not refer back to Sacco’s earlier eponymous works – obviously known to McCue and his script writers.
Were McCue and his team not aware of the proper noun’s explosive force? They must have been. The word ‘Palestine’ has been a source of incendiary conflict for almost a century. “I think it is fair to say that Palestine has given the Committee more trouble not only than the rest of the Colonial Empire but than the whole rest of the world together,” a member of Britain’s Permanent Committee on Geographical names remarked in 1935 (cited in Tom Segev’s 1999 work One Palestine, Complete).
Had Mr. McCue and his script writers been more precise in their evocation of the P-word, McCue might not have been obliged to come on air the next day in sackcloth and ashes.
“Yesterday, in my interview with Joe Sacco, I referred to the Palestinian territories as ‘Palestine’. We apologize,” Mr. McCue muttered, flatly, on the morning of August 19.
By that point, the offending word and conjoined phrase had been excised from the program’s online/podcast edition. In his original exchange with Joe Sacco, McCue launched into his ill-fated question as follows: “… In so much of your work, context is key — whether it’s Palestine, or whether it’s Bosnia. In this book, when you’re asking the Dene …”
Hours later, the online version of McCue’s question began thus: “… In so much of your work, context is key. In this book, when you’re asking the Dene …”
For “Honest Reporting Canada” (HRC) — the media policing group with the Orwellian name — CBC’s lightning act of self-censorship was a coup barely describable in words. CBC routinely asks programs to respond to complaints in twenty days, not in the space of a business day.
“This is an issue that Honest Reporting Canada has sensitized the CBC to,” HRC director Mike Fegelman proudly announced, in a post emblazoned with the lines “Palestine Doesn’t Exist” and the “mythical state of ‘Palestine’.”
“Of course, there’s no such country in existence and the CBC should only refer to the Palestinian territories,” Fegelman continued. “We’re pleased to note that in the August 19 broadcast of the Current, the program issued a formal on-air correction.”
In its self-adulatory post, HRC quotes CBC’s style book:
“There is no modern country of Palestine, although there’s a movement to establish one as part of a two-state peace agreement with Israel. Areas under the control of the Palestinian Authority are considered Palestinian territories: Fatah-run West Bank and Hamas-run Gaza Strip.”
As it happens, CBC/Radio-Canada’s Ombudsman considers the network’s reportorial “glossary” to be out of date. “CBC several years ago developed a glossary of sorts for its journalists on how to describe events and concepts in the Middle East,” Ombudsman Jack Nagler wrote to this author in a July 8 email, in response to another complaint about CBC’s Israel-Palestine reporting. “Your complaint is a reminder that CBC News ought to review whether the phrases and assumptions that worked then still apply in 2020 and beyond.”
Ombudsman Nagler suggested in his email that he would “encourage” senior editors “to do that sort of review … [If] the end result is better and clearer coverage of the Middle East, it will have been time well spent.”
Given the linguistic Claymore mine Duncan McCue stepped on last week, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation may opt to get a move-on. No lack of precedents to go by. The New York Times (not known as Palestine-friendly in this online publication) seems to have no problem using the term “Palestine” in its titles. To whit:
Jan. 30, 2020: “Inside the Fight Over Trump’s Israel-Palestine Deal” (Spencer Bokat-Lindell)
Dec. 19, 2014: The Embattled Dream of Palestine (NYT Editorial Board)
Oct. 6, 2014: “Palestine’s ‘Nuclear Option’” (Ali Jarbawi)
Feb. 12, 2013: “Palestine’s Democratic Deficit” (David Keyes op-ed)
Sept. 20, 2011: “The ‘Question of Palestine’” (a ‘6 Q’s About the News‘ feature from Holly Epstein Ojalvo)
May 17, 2010: “A Beer for Palestine” (Roger Cohen)
July 11, 2004: “Palestine Lost” (Glossary column)
Closer to home, the Canadian Press has “no specific guidance on the use of the name Palestine in regards to a territory or state” in its guidebook, a CP reporter advises. CP’s authority for international place names is the National Geographic Atlas of the World. ‘Palestine’ is in the index, but does not appear on the map itself.
The P-word certainly pops up at the United Nations, where Palestine is a non-member state of certain stature. The State of Palestine has formally acceded to and is recognized by the WHO, UNICEF and UNESCO, and its communications and complaints have been received and acknowledged by the International Criminal Court and the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. Palestinian officials appear before the UN Security Council, behind black plates bearing the words “State of Palestine.”
And, in the land where money talks and bullshit walks, the Bank of Palestine’s name raises no eyebrows and trembles no lips. Among the reputable financial institutions BOP clients funnel funds through, without etymological acrimony, using the BOP’s own assigned SWIFT code: Citbank, Commerzbank, ABN-AMRO, the Bank of Sydney and a host of Middle East institutions, including Israel’s Bank Hapoalim.
Even in the virtual world, where Israel struggles to liquidate language and erase memory, Palestine resists deletion. Type the toponym into Google and Wikipedia’s definition instantly pops up:
“Palestine, recognized officially as the State of Palestine by the United Nations and other entities, is a de jure sovereign state in Western Asia claiming the West Bank and Gaza Strip with Jerusalem as the designated capital, although its administrative center is currently located in Ramallah.”
Amusingly, in the Google map right above this definition, ‘Palestine’ is nowhere to be found. But it does appear in the collapsible pane to the left – along with an image of the Dome of the Rock.
So, what’s CBC’s problem? How can one explain host Duncan McCue’s August 19 on-air mea culpa (he had no choice), and Palestine’s digital laparotomy, from The Current’s online edition? Why didn’t the CBC tell Israel’s ‘media watchdog’ to return to its kennel?
They may yet.
This author has filed a complaint to the CBC Ombudsman. As indicated above, the ‘Mother Corp’ (as some call it, affectionately) strives to reply to complaints within twenty days. That would be some time in September. In the meantime, CBC is now being deluged with letters of complaint from those who swear Palestine is completely real – over a thousand, at this instant. An Access to Information request for the email thread leading to Palestine’s deletion has also been filed. That may take months to play out.
Stand by for updates.
Update (8/25/2020): Joe Sacco has responded to this piece. Here are his thoughts –
It’s ironic that the CBC would apologize for the use of the word “Palestine” for a segment about my book, whose subject is at least partly the attempted obliteration of the cultural identity of indigenous people of the Northwest Territories, particularly through the notorious residential school system. Imagine today if the First Nations people I talked to, the Dene, would be made to apologize for using their word “Denendeh”, which means “The Land of the People,” for describing where they live. To whom, exactly, was the CBC apologizing for using the word “Palestine”? If anything, this storm over a proper noun brings into relief a similar way the adherents of colonial-settler projects seek to suppress native peoples and then laud their dominance. I’m sure none of this is lost on either Canada’s indigenous people or Canadian-Palestinians.
Update (8/27/2020): Raj Ahluwalia, the Executive Producer of The Current responded to a letter David Kattenburg’ sent to CBC Ombudsman Jack Nagler outlining the issues presented in this article. Here is an excerpt from Ahluwalia’s response:
As the program aired in Western Canada, we edited out the reference to Palestine, and the following day issued this correction: Before we get to the podcast, I’ve got a correction to make. Yesterday in my interview with Joe Sacco, I referred to the Palestinian territories as Palestine. We apologize.
On reflection, we could have simply made the edit and hoped no one noticed. But that would have been, in my view, ethically wrong. The fact is we made a mistake and we should correct it.
We didn’t do this because we were pressured by anyone or worried about or actually received any complaints from “Israel’s corporate lobbyist/agent” in Canada as you state in the email and in your writing about this for mondoweiss.net.
To be clear, there was no pressure from anyone.
We did it because it is CBC policy to not refer to Palestine as a country or entity.
Here is our internal language guidance on this issue:
Palestine vs. Palestinian territories — There is no modern country of Palestine, although there’s a movement to establish one as part of a two-state peace agreement with Israel. So do not refer to Palestine or show a map with Palestine as a country. Use the term “pro-Palestinian” instead of “pro-Palestine” when referring in generic ways to Palestinian supporters. Areas under the control of the Palestinian Authority are considered Palestinian territories: Fatah-run West Bank and Hamas-run Gaza Strip.
I understand that Palestine is recognized as a state by the UN, as well as more than a hundred countries and other organizations.
However Canada, the U.S, Britain, Germany, Italy, France, Japan, Australia, New Zealand among others do not.
The CBC’s language guidelines are vigorously debated and reviewed regularly. They’re often changed to reflect current times.
The Current can not ignore them. But I assure you that I have raised your concerns with CBC managers and those who are responsible for our Journalistic policies and guidelines.