Book Review- Free Palestine: End Apartheid Israel, Human Rights Denial, Gaza Massacre, Child Killing, Occupation and Palestinian Genocide” by Gideon Polya

The Intercept recently intercepted a New York Times internal memo sent by their standards editor, Susan Wessling, and international editor, Philip Pan, instructing their journalists not to use certain words in their articles about Israel and Palestine. Censored were the following words: genocide, Palestine, ethnic cleansing, occupied territory, refugee camps, slaughter, massacre and carnage (Jeremy Scahill & Ryan Grim, 15th April, 2024). This is Orwellian. Our language is hijacked by the media. This control of vocabulary enables the control of thoughts on the scale of whole populations. Not only are journalists censored, but our unarticulated thoughts are restrained by a limited dictionary of words available or permitted in public discourse. This is your classic example of ‘manufacturing consent’, as per Herman and Chomsky (1988), which enabled the US and its allies to perpetrate the Vietnam War.  But this time it is on behalf of Israel.

What I love about Gideon Polya’s new book, Free Palestine, is that it breaks these rules. As a scientist, Polya is not constrained by fashion. As a humane scientist, truth is not relative.

Free Palestine

Free Palestine is a collection of his essays first published on the website, Countercurrents. It is a large book of 761 pages, but do not be frightened by this. There are 36 essays which can be read independently. It can be read as a reference text. Polya is fastidious in measuring things, as evidenced by his book, Body Count: Global Avoidable Mortality Since 1950 (2007). A true reference text would have an index, but finding material in this essay collection is made somewhat easier by each essay being subdivided into well-titled sections. It can be read in bite sizes, which is helpful when reading about a great injustice. Most essays have extensive citations to both reputable books and online essays. Polya’s book is worth it just for these references alone, accessible at one’s fingertips.

The earliest essay in the book, “Apartheid Israel excludes Palestinians from all provisions of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights”, dates from 2012. This reminds us of this crucial 1948 document, written in the wake of the Second World War. But Polya’s essay was written in the wake of Israel’s infamous ‘Operation Cast Lead’, in which Israel conducted one of its gross massacres. Despite “mowing the lawn” of hundreds of Palestinian children, Israel discovered it could still manage the PR fallout. When you have institutions like the NYT on your side, are human rights no longer universal?

As I write this review, today’s newspapers report “Israel’s war of influence”, about a secretive social media campaign targeting US politicians and the American public with pro-Israel messages, aimed at drumming up support for the attacks on Gaza. Israel’s war of influence is showing cracks. This year, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) and the International Criminal Court have made it more acceptable in many quarters to talk about Israel’s ‘genocide’ and war crimes against Palestinians. But Polya did not have to wait for the ICJ’s permission. In 2012, he used ‘unacceptable’ words like ‘genocide’. This word is not used in a hysterical way, but it is well-measured, literally, as a scientist might.

In contrast, Chapter 4 is a poem called “And then they stole the falafel”. Polya has his creative side, although he admits some inspiration from famous Martin Niemöller’s poem, which begins, “First they came for …”. Polya’s poem is both a light-hearted poem, and a heavy-hearted poem, simple, but informative. It distils history, just as does Niemöller’s poem.

Polya is also a good historian. He grew up in a Zionist family. He knows Zionism from the inside, and Israel from its inception. He knows the beast, and rather than run the other way, he confronts it in all its ugliness.

One of Polya’s most recent essays is chapter 15, called “Gaza Massacre: 35 ways Zionist perverted US, Australia and West lie for child-killing, neo-Nazi apartheid Israel”. It is dated the 23rd November, 2023. Here Polya breaks a NYT rule by mentioning ‘massacre”. But the “neo-Nazi” adjective will upset more people.

In early 2022, one could be ridiculed for calling Israel a fascist state, but a year later, the powerful Israeli politician, Bezalel Smotrich, felt bold enough to confess being a fascist. In 2024, as Israel becomes synonymous with ‘genocide’, the neo-Nazi label may start to stick in the public’s mind.

Polya is fearless of the language police. This is partly because he wears the chain-mail of  Jewish heritage and having lost family in the Jewish Holocaust. This gives him cred in the absurd hierarchy of Jewishness. And he is outraged by what Israel does, supposedly in his name. Polya prefers to identify with outspoken anti-Zionist, anti-fascist, anti-racist Jewish writers of the likes of Norman Finkelstein and Antony Loewenstein, rather than the brutish fascists in the Israeli government.

I highly recommend this book. It is refreshing to read plain truths, supported by numbers and plain-speaking, and not filtered of meaning by NYT editors and their ilk.

Polya’s final chapter, “Democratic, secular, non-racist and just one-state solution for post-Apartheid Palestine” offers Polya’s vision for just and free Israel/Palestine, together with a valuable collection of quotes from a variety of informed sources that cut through the cant and the “can’t” of navel-gazing politicians and media. As summarized in the book’s subtitle, our governments “can” demand of Israel to ‘End Apartheid Israel, Human Rights Denial, Gaza Massacre, Child Killing, Occupation and Palestinian Genocide”. It worked on apartheid South Africa.

The book’s bold red title, “Free Palestine”, may evoke the simple symbols of watermelons and keffiyas, but it’s also a powerful catchcry which makes censors squirm. They fear these words that will let us imagine another, better, world. Just think of the prophetic power of the anti-apartheid song, “Free Nelson Mandela” (1984), just ten years prior to Mandela’s release and South Africa’s regime change.

(Korsgaard Publishing, 2024)

Mark Bradbeer is a Melbourne-based scientist, the author of Aemilia Lanyer As Shakespeare’s Co-Author”(Routledge, 2022), a long-time advocate for Palestinian human rights, and a founding member of Free Palestine Melbourne  that helps organize huge weekly Sunday Rallies for Gaza in the Melbourne CBD (12 noon, State Library, every Sunday).

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