Shai Afsai writes on how The Independent’s Joe Sommerlad’s ‘A brief history of the Israel-Palestinian conflict’ plagiarises Rawan Damen’s four-part Al Nakba documentary.
Al Nakba — written and directed by Rawan Damen, produced and first run on Al Jazeera Arabic in 2008, and re-versioned by Al Jazeera World to English in 2013 — is precisely the sort of documentary one would expect to be promoted by Al Jazeera, the Qatari government-funded news channel.
The four-part documentary is an over three-hour-long attack on the Zionist movement and the state of Israel. The first quote to flash across the screen at the start of the documentary is from Arnold Toynbee: ‘The tragedy in Palestine is not just a local one; it is a tragedy for the world, because it is an injustice that is a menace to the world’s peace.’ Damen’s Al Nakba presents an entirely anti-Israeli perspective, eliding the national, religious, historic, and cultural connection between Jews and the Land of Israel/Palestine, and blaming Zionists for the current troubles in the Middle East — and perhaps for the lack of global peace, too. It’s a propaganda film for a propaganda news channel.
Apparently, though, Al Nakba’s narrative is also exactly what the editors of the British online newspaper The Independent wanted to convey to readers by publishing writer and blogger Joe Sommerlad’s ‘A brief history of the Israel-Palestinian conflict’ (May 13, 2021) during the recent eleven days of fighting between Hamas and Israel.
About three-quarters of the content of Sommerlad’s 2,300-word article is taken directly from Al Nakba, often word for word — but with no mention of Damen or her documentary. It seems that having gone that far, Sommerlad may as well have plagiarized more of Damen’s propaganda film. When he doesn’t have her documentary to rely on for information, or veers from her script and begins interjecting content not spelt out there, his writing is usually incorrect or false.
I’ll leave detailed criticism of Damen’s documentary for another time. The questions I want to raise here are why The Independent’s editors thought that it was acceptable to run Sommerlad’s plagiarized article and why they thought his writing would afford The Independent’s readers useful context about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or about the May battle. Sommerlad’s article was also picked up by MSN, and the same questions apply to MSN’s editors. I’ll provide five examples demonstrating Sommerlad’s plagiarism, and several other examples of the misinformation he gives when he deviates from Damen’s documentary.
There are many historical events with which one might begin a brief history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. One could go back to the destruction of the Kingdom of Israel by the Assyrian Empire, or the conquest of the Kingdom of Judah by the Babylonian Empire, or the catastrophe of the destruction of the First Temple in Jerusalem and the exile of Jews from the Land of Israel to Babylon, or the subsequent Jewish return to the Land of Israel and rebuilding of Jerusalem and the Second Temple, or the catastrophe of the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem by the Roman Empire, or the destruction and exile that followed the initially successful Jewish Bar Kohkba revolt against Roman rule, or the Muslim conquest of the Land of Israel/Palestine centuries later, or the Crusades, or the rise of the Zionist movement in the nineteenth century, or World War I, or World War II…
A rather unusual historical event to begin with, however, is Napoleon Bonaparte’s siege of Acre. That is how Damen’s narrator begins Al Nakba: ‘Our story starts here in 1799, outside the walls of Acre in Ottoman-controlled Palestine. An army under Napoleon Bonaparte besieged the city, all part of a campaign to defeat the Ottomans and establish a French presence in the region. In search of allies, Napoleon issued a letter offering Palestine as a homeland to the Jews, under French protection.’
Sommerlad begins his article the same way: ‘The modern state of Israel was founded in May 1948 in the aftermath of the Holocaust and Second World War but the conflict that has raged between Israelis and Palestinians since can be traced back much further. Napoleon Bonaparte proposed a Jewish homeland in Palestine as long ago as 1799 in the wake of the siege of Acre during his war against the Ottoman Empire.’
Damen’s narrator continues: ‘At the time, there were estimated to be no more than 3,000 Jews in Ottoman-controlled Palestine. Over the years Jewish immigration to Palestine increased, helped on by wealthy benefactors. One of these was the aristocrat Baron Edmond de Rothschild. He spent over 14 million French Francs to establish 30 Jewish settlements. The most important was Rishon Le Zion, founded in 1882.’
Sommerlad continues: ‘While there were only around 3,000 Jews living in Palestine at that time, wealthy benefactors such as French aristocrat Baron Edmond de Rothschild began to sponsor others from Europe to join them and establish settlements, the most notable being Rishon Le Zion, founded in 1882.’
Damen’s narrator then posits the origin of the term ‘Zionism’: ‘In 1885 the term “Zionism” was first coined by Austrian writer Nathan Birnbaum.’ And one of Damen’s talking heads, an Israeli historian named Dr Hillel Cohen, adds: ‘The Jews who came from Europe, especially Eastern Europe, in the late 19th century wanted to assert a new Jew.’
Sommerlad combines that segment of Damen’s film into: ‘Austrian writer Nathan Birnbaum coined the term “Zionism” in 1885 as Jews, particularly from eastern Europe, continued to arrive in Palestine.’
Next, Damen’s narrator turns to Theodor Herzl and Max Nordau: ‘In 1896, Theodor Herzl, an Austro-Hungarian journalist, wrote a book called The Jewish State. It is considered one of the most important texts of early Zionism. Herzl envisioned the founding of a future independent Jewish state during the 20th century. His colleague, Max Nordau, sent two rabbis to Palestine to investigate the prospects for a Jewish state there. Their report concluded: “The bride is beautiful but she is married to another man.”’
And so Sommerlad turns his attention to Herzl and Nordau, too: ‘Austro-Hungarian journalist Dr Theodor Herzl’s book The Jewish State appeared a decade later, envisioning the establishment of such an entity with the coming of the 20th century. Two rabbis were sent by Herzl’s friend Max Nordau to Palestine to investigate the feasibility of the prospect but reported back: “The bride is beautiful but she is married to another man.”’
Before moving on to a fifth example of Sommerlad’s plagiarism of Damen’s documentary, it’s worth taking a closer look at the story about Nordau that is found in both Damen’s documentary and Sommerlad’s article.
In 2012, I published an article about stories in which ‘The bride is beautiful, but she is married to another man’ phrase is used (‘“The bride is beautiful, but she is married to another man”: Historical Fabrication and an Anti-Zionist Myth’. More recently, I followed up that article with ‘“The bride is beautiful, but she is married to another man.” The tenacity of an anti-Zionist fable’. I pointed out in both the Shofar and Fathom articles that the stories about the Land of Israel/Palestine being reported as lovely but already taken lack a primary source and that there is no basis for recounting them as historical events that occurred during the early years of the Zionist movement.
While different versions of these stories were previously around for several decades, they started to spread quite rapidly after the publication of The Iron Wall: Israel and the Arab World, Oxford University Professor Avi Shlaim’s influential history of the Arab-Israeli conflict. By now, they are found in a host of books, articles, and films. (Shlaim makes an appearance in Damen’s film, as does Al–Zaytouna Research Centre’s Mohsen Saleh. I discuss both in my 2020 Fathom article.) In his introduction to The Iron Wall, Shlaim discusses Jewish reactions to Herzl’s 1896 book: ‘The publication of The Jewish State evoked various reactions in the Jewish community, some strongly favourable, some hostile, and some sceptical. After the Basel Congress [i.e., the First Zionist Congress, in 1897] the rabbis of Vienna sent two representatives to Palestine. This fact-finding mission resulted in a cable from Palestine in which the two rabbis wrote, “The bride is beautiful, but she is married to another man.”’
In some versions of ‘The bride is beautiful, but she is married to another man’ stories, the explorers to the Land of Israel/Palestine are not sent by the rabbis of Vienna, but rather by the First Zionist Congress or by Herzl. Writers have altered the details of the stories as they’ve told them over time, which isn’t surprising given that the core of the stories, in all their variations, lacks a primary source to refer back to, and given that those telling them have usually been less concerned with historical accuracy than with advancing political agendas.
And so it is with Damen and Sommerlad, whose version of the story has Nordau sending two rabbis to Palestine and hearing back that ‘The bride is beautiful, but she is married to another man’: they are less concerned with historical accuracy than with advancing a political agenda by telling this story.
Now back to a fifth example of how Sommerlad plagiarized Damen’s documentary. Damen’s narrator discusses Chaim Weizmann: ‘In 1907, Chaim Weizmann, a chemist who had emerged as a leader among British Zionists, visited Palestine for the first time. He set out to establish a company in Jaffa to develop the land of Palestine, a practical means to pursue the Zionist dream of building a Jewish state…Within three years a major deal was struck. The Jewish National Fund, set up to buy land in Palestine, purchased some 10,000 dunums in the Marj Bin Amer region of northern Palestine.’
In Damen’s documentary, a Palestinian NGO named Wakeem Wakeem states: ‘Over 60,000 Palestinians in the Marj Ibn Amer area were forced to leave.’ And Azmi Bishara (a former member of Israel’s parliament who fled the country in 2007 to escape charges of treason for aiding Hezbollah during its 2006 war with Israel) adds: ‘Expelling the farmers accomplished two aims: seizing the land, or the “Judaization” of the land, and replacing Arab farmers with Jews from Eastern Europe and Yemen.’
Sommerlad combines that segment of Damen’s documentary into this paragraph: ‘British Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann, a biochemist, would arrive in Jerusalem at this time to establish a company engaged in buying up land near Jaffa. Within three years, about 10,000 dunums, an old land measurement equivalent to acres, had been acquired in the Marj Bin Amer region of northern Palestine, forcing out 60,000 local farmers to accommodate Jewish arrivals from Europe and Yemen.’
I think the five examples I’ve provided sufficiently illustrate Sommerlad’s plagiarism of Damen’s documentary, though readers are invited to continue comparing the rest of Sommerlad’s article to Damen’s work and finding others. As mentioned, not all of Sommerlad’s article is taken from Damen’s documentary, but those places where he diverges from his unacknowledged source are replete with error. Below are three examples.
There is a sole instance in Sommerlad’s article in which Jews aren’t the supposed instruments of injustice: his reference to the Holocaust. Sommerlad writes: ‘The wider world would once more be plunged into war in 1939 in the fightback against Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Germany, whose Third Reich would ultimately be found responsible for executing six million Jews in concentration camps.’
Surely, it’s not too much to expect that a writer for The Independent would know that most of the six million Jews murdered during World War II were not executed in concentration camps. According to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum: ‘Concentration camps served primarily as detention and labor centers, as well as sites for the murder of smaller, targeted groups of individuals. Killing centers, on the other hand, were essentially “death factories.” German SS and police murdered nearly 2,700,000 Jews in the killing centers [death camps] either by asphyxiation with poison gas or by shooting.’
And, as further explained, by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum: ‘With the start of Hitler’s “war of annihilation” against the Soviet Union in June 1941, the scale of Einsatzgruppen mass murder operations vastly increased… Under the cover of war and using the pretext of military necessity, the Einsatzgruppen organized and helped to carry out the shooting of more than half a million people, the vast majority of them Jews, in the first nine months of the war…Concerns about the inefficiency of the shootings and their psychological impact on the shooters led to the development of special vans outfitted with engines that pumped carbon monoxide into sealed passenger compartments. Jews were packed into the compartments, then driven to a mass grave, asphyxiating during the journey…Throughout the German occupation of seized Soviet territories, mass shootings continued to be the preferred method of murdering Jews. At least 1.5 million and possibly more than 2 million Holocaust victims died in mass shootings or gas vans in Soviet territory.’
World War II is mentioned again in Sommerlad’s next paragraph: ‘Not long after the US entrance into the conflict, American-Zionist relations would be cemented with a 1942 conference at the Biltmore Hotel in New York, occurring just as an armed Zionist paramilitary force known as Irgun was rising up in Palestine and attacking local Arab groups.’
But the Irgun was actually founded in 1931, and began launching widespread paramilitary operations towards the end of 1937. Had Sommerlad paid just a little more attention to Damen’s documentary, he might have caught the year found in this sentence: ‘In 1938, an underground Zionist paramilitary organization called Irgun began to increase attacks against Arab targets.’
And here is Sommerlad’s description of the Six-Day War: ‘Israel’s military advance on the Gaza Strip, West Bank, Golan Heights and Egyptian Sinai in 1967 sparked fresh bloodshed and saw the UN Security Council pass Resolution 242 ordering it to withdraw from territories it considered occupied. The council was ignored.’ Sommerlad offers nothing about the circumstances leading up to the Six-Day War, including the fact that Israel’s military ‘advanced’ on the West Bank only after Israel was attacked from there by the Kingdom of Jordan.
Sommerlad immediately follows his description of the Six-Day War with this account of events in the Kingdom of Jordan in 1970: ‘Following further fighting with Palestinian soldiers in Jordan in the “Black September” of 1970, the Security Council would pass another resolution, 338, calling for a ceasefire and again demanding Israel retreat from its 1967 incursions. Again, Israel refused.’
Reading this paragraph, one would conclude it was Israel’s military that was engaged in ‘further fighting with Palestinian soldiers’ in Jordan in September 1970, rather than there having been a civil war in which the Palestine Liberation Organization tried to overthrow King Hussein, ending with the PLO’s defeat and the expulsion of its fighters to Lebanon. UNWRA, an organization not known for its sympathies towards Israel, gives this summary of the events of September 1970: ‘A conflict, now known as Black September, breaks out between the PLO and the Jordanian Armed Forces. Thousands of Palestine refugees are expelled from the country, and the PLO leadership moves from Jordan to Lebanon.’
Moreover, UN Security Council Resolution 338 had nothing to do with what took place in Jordan in 1970. That resolution was passed in 1973, during the Yom Kippur War, which began when Egypt and Syria’s combined militaries advanced on the state of Israel on Judaism’s holiest day of the year.
Sommerlad’s imprecisions about the Six-Day War, the Black September conflict, and UN Security Council Resolution 338 are indications that he’s not really concerned with giving readers “A brief history of the Israel-Palestinian conflict” that will help them understand the past and contextualize current events. Rather, he’s simply interested in portraying Zionism and Israel as negatively as possible. Likewise, Damen’s decision to tell a version of ‘The bride is beautiful, but she is married to another man’ story, and Sommerlad’s decision to lift this story from her documentary, reveals much about their motivations. The potential anti-Zionist uses inherent in the stories featuring ‘The bride is beautiful, but she is married to another man’ phrase are irresistible to many writers, accounting for much of their popularity. Regardless of their different details, the stories’ central point is usually the same: Already in the early years of the Zionist movement, the suggestion goes, Jews recognized that it would be wrong for them to try to reestablish a state in the Land of Israel/Palestine, as it was inhabited by Arabs and ‘wedded’ to them. Despite this, the Zionists proceeded with their plans. From the outset, therefore, Zionism was resolutely immoral, and at its core, the establishment of the state of Israel was an act of willful iniquity. It’s but a small step from there to the conclusion that the Zionist state should now be dismantled, ending decades of injustice.
This is the conclusion promoted by Damen’s documentary, and it’s also the conclusion that Sommerlad hopes readers of his plagiarized article will reach. Apparently, it’s the conclusion that The Independent’s editors want readers to reach as well.