by Tamar Sternthal
Celebrated poet and fiction writer Margaret Atwood, the recipient of the Dan David Prize at Tel Aviv University last May, should stick to the world of fiction. In a Sept. 17 piece in Ha’aretz entitled “Suffering of Palestinian children is something both sides can agree on,” Atwood cites a 2009 report by Save the Children U.K. called “Life on the Edge,” claiming that document finds that “the rate of malnutrition of the children in Area C [of the West Bank, under full Israeli control] is higher than even that in Gaza, and many kids are not only developmentally stunted, but are dying from related illnesses.” But the 70-page document says nothing about child malnutrition or mortality, either caused by illnesses related to malnutrition, developmental stunting, or otherwise. This is pure invention on the part of Ms. Atwood, whose piece appeared in the Yom Kippur issue of the Israeli publication.
This gross falsehood serves as the test case in Ms. Atwood’s challenge to what she calls the “entrenched” view of Israelis, and falsely epitomizes what she sees as Israel’s responsibility for the conflict. In her words: “If you break it, you own it. Israel owns this problem, and Israel should fix it. Or does Israel really want an international campaign in which every doughnut shop in North America features a collection box, a sad-eyed child holding a dead sibling, and a stack of outrage-generating leaflets? Write your congressman: Tie aid to Israel to action on Area C child malnutrition and deaths? Give at church, save an Area C baby? Or how about: On the Day of Atonement, when considering wrongs to other human beings for which you bear some responsibility, start with the children of Area C?”
Atwood seeks to preempt any criticism of her false allegation against Israel by invoking a game theory described by psychiatrist Eric Berne, and insists that any well-meaning party suggesting a solution will be met with “well-worn verbal missiles,” ie, ad hominem attacks. Thus, she writes:
Has Israel been playing a very long game of “Why Don’t You – Yes But” when it comes to the “Palestinian problem”? Is there a mirror-image game in which Israel itself is “the problem”? Certainly the outside commentators – pro-Israel, pro-Palestinian – are ready with a “yes but” whenever someone they consider an opponent proposes anything like a logjam-breaker. The ideological positions are by now so dug in that the field of discourse resembles the western front in World War I: There are trenches everywhere, and anyone who sticks his head up is met with a barrage of well-worn verbal missiles: “mental defective,” “idiot,” “criminal” and the like. If some witless innocent lacking a trench wanders into the line of vision babbling of human brotherhood or something seen as equally fatuous, all those entrenched let fly.
Why anyone considers it an aid to positive resolutions to heave these overblown nouns and adjectives through the air is anyone’s guess: If convincing others is the goal, this tactic fails, as the heavers sound like irrational fanatics. It does, however, deter anyone not already entrenched from taking an interest. (“Don’t touch it! It’s a swamp!” ) Perhaps the adjective-heaving comes from frustration, which is understandable considering the lack of positive momentum. Or perhaps it’s a universal human characteristic: Having chosen and dug one’s trench, one feels the need to defend it.
Thus, in Atwood’s analysis, she, the “helper” sets herself up as the faultless victim of the personal insults that she anticipates on the part of the stubborn, self-defeating Israelis and their supporters. Having fortified herself with this tired technique (used before her by President Carter and Judge Richard Goldstone, among others), she charges ahead with her central accusation against Israel:
What about the Palestinian children of Area C? (Area C, for those witless innocents who have never heard of it, is not that part of the West Bank controlled by the Palestinian Authority, nor is it Gaza, for which Israel now claims no administrative responsibility other than blockading it. Instead it is that part of Palestine entirely occupied and controlled by Israel since 1967. ) According to a 2009 report by Save The Children U.K. called “Life on the Edge,” the rate of malnutrition of the children in Area C is higher even than that in Gaza, and many kids are not only developmentally stunted, but are dying from related illnesses.
Is Israel responsible for this situation? Yes, because it alone controls the Area C Palestinian population’s access to food and its ability to earn a viable living. Is there a “Yes But” that could possibly justify the conditions being imposed on these children? Unless the report is lying, I can’t think of one. Even the most wild-eyed extremist can hardly claim that children under the age of seven are terrorists.
In actuality, as noted above, while the 70-page Save the Children U.K. document hurls many accusations against Israel, the report makes no mention of malnutrition and related illnesses or deaths on the part of Palestinian children in Area C or elsewhere.
In Atwood’s words: “If you break it, you own it.” Atwood has falsely accused Israel of essentially starving Palestinian children to death. Atwood owns this problem, and Atwood should fix it. She should promptly acknowledge the error and request that Ha’aretz publish a correction in Hebrew and in English, in print and online.
To its credit, Ha’aretz recently published a correction by veteran writer Akiva Eldar for a similar journalistic malpractice; he falsely claimed that a Hebrew University poll found that 21 percent of settlers endorse the “use of arms” to resist settlement evacuations, when the poll did not at all mention the “use of arms.”
Ha’aretz should follow that commendable precedent and make clear that contrary to Atwood’s fictional claim, the Save the Children U.K. report makes no mention of malnutrition and related deaths and diseases among Palestinian children in Area C or elsewhere.