On February 24, PEN Canada presented Embattled Truths: Reporting on Gaza at the Toronto Reference Library. Toronto Star foreign affairs correspondent and seasoned war reporter Olivia Ward shared the stage with Max Blumenthal – an author who has garnered criticism and acclaim for his work on Gaza. PEN Canada staff caught up with Ward after the event to get her take on Embattled Truths.
NB: The opinions expressed by Olivia Ward are her own, and do not represent those of the Toronto Star.
PEN Canada: What did you make of the controversy preceding the event?
Olivia Ward: It’s par for the course. Every time I write (or collaborate on a film) on the Israeli-Palestinian issue it stirs up a hornet’s nest. And it’s the same with other contested issues in other parts of the world. The problem is that the Internet and social media have aggravated the polarization of their audience so that the sides are yelling from fixed positions in their own echo chambers regardless of the facts. The angry notes I got before the event were from people who had evidently not read Max’s book, but they had read furious comments from those who reflexively cry “anti-Semitism.”
This is a truly dangerous situation for Israel, because without scrutiny, criticism, discussion and depth of understanding, the polarization will only get worse. Max did an extremely good job of separating opposition to the Israeli government’s self-defeating policies from anti-Semitism – but as usual the protesters defaulted to the translated rants of Palestinian politicians who are trying to shore up their own shaky power in their constituencies. And the ranters were conveniently ignoring numerous reasoned criticisms by, among others, Israeli military officials who have read the writing on the Wall.
PEN Canada: What parts of the conversation, if any, have you been replaying in your mind?
Olivia Ward: Probably the part on responsibility for supplying context in reporting. Max declared himself a campaigner – which is a legitimate stance. But it brings up the always difficult debate on whether it’s possible to be both a journalist and an activist, to what extent journalists should enter the narrative, and the impossibility of being without a “bias” toward the side of the line you are reporting from. But if the focus of the reporting is narrowed to one position, it also leaves the readers or viewers without an understanding of the wider picture.
PEN Canada: Is there anything you didn’t get to, or wish you could have talked about in greater detail?
Olivia Ward: I would have liked some discussion of Max’s last chapter, which hints at a crucial point: what will inevitably happen unless there is a radical change in Israeli policy toward Gaza. Undermining and demonizing Hamas – even when senior Israelis say publicly that it is trying to prevent another war – is preparing the ground for infiltration by the so-called Islamic State. Conditions in Gaza are overripe for the rise of a much more vicious faction which will attract the deeply traumatized, disenfranchised and enraged young population who feel that its leaders have failed. This has happened in other conflict zones. If it follows this course, ultimately Israel will be promoting the Assad scenario – wipe out any opposition that could gain any legitimacy, and leave only the horrific, nihilistic extreme, which will frighten Israel’s allies into accepting a scorched earth policy in Gaza. It is so much a tragedy waiting to happen. For Israel as well as for the Palestinians.
PEN Canada: What do you hope the audience took away from the talk?
Olivia Ward: I always worry about preaching to the choir. The pro-Israel group who did a lot of placard-waving and shouting won’t have budged in their views, because they were not there to listen. Those who were against the Netanyahu government will agree with what they already believed. I only hope that there were enough people in the audience who came to listen and went home having learned something new — and now want to learn more.