The Listening Post

The six words that got Marc Lamont Hill fired from CNN

Hill’s dismissal highlights how pro-Israel lobbying groups control the US discourse on Palestine and Israel.

Last week, CNN contributor Marc Lamont Hill delivered a speech at the United Nations in support of Palestinian self-determination and equal rights. Less than 24 hours later, CNN was done with him.

When you boil it down, he was fired for the use of six words: ‘from the river to the sea’ – a reference to the territory of historical Palestine, situated between the River Jordan and the Mediterranean prior to the creation of Israel in 1948. The reference was deemed anti-Semitic.

“When Marc Lamont Hill says ‘a free Palestine from the river to the sea’, he is acknowledging that Palestinians aren’t just clustered in the West Bank and Gaza but in fact we are from places like Akka and Yafa and Magdal and the Galilee and all parts of Palestine,” explains Susan Abulhawa, Palestinian writer and author. “And the significance of this is that Israel has always sought to erase this historic fact. They are not just objecting to use of the words ‘from the river to the sea’ but ‘Palestine’.”

Hill’s dismissal came on the heels of a seemingly coordinated attack by pro-Israel groups that have come to have a large say over what constitutes acceptable discourse on Palestine in the United States, by wilfully conflating legitimate criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism, and convincing news outlets to do the same.

It is crucial for people to understand the magnitude of the threat to free speech in the form of denying the ability of pro-Palestine activists to be part of the narrative in the United States.

by Omar Baddar, deputy director, Arab American Institute

It wasn’t long ago that CNN adopted the slogan “facts first”. When it comes to Israel though, it’s much more complicated than that, as some facts are clearly more inconvenient than others.

“In terms of what Marc Lamont Hill said, I think CNN was thinking probably about viewers and about the Jewish community and saying, well the majority of the community view this as a deeply problematic, as something that threatens their very existence, and so they made that decision based on that,” says Batya Ungar-Sargon, opinion editor at The Forward.

By firing Lamont, who used to balance out the discussion on Israel-Palestine, “CNN essentially perpetuated this narrative, this false dichotomy,” explains Abraham Gutman, opinion writer at the Philadelphia Inquirer.

“This idea that you have to choose don’t critique Israel or be anti-Semitic. It’s even more problematic because of the positive role that it could play in this conflict and this narrative. That discussion will not be on CNN because they fired Dr Hill, but that will be a perfect place and a perfect opportunity to have this discussion.”

CNN’s treatment of the Middle East conflict can be measured not just in the pro-Israel voices it pays to provide punditry, like former Israeli ambassador to Washington Michael Oren, ex-US Senator Rick Santorum and lawyer Alan Dershowitz, but in the airtime they are given.

Even the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) has said Oren’s opinions verge on conspiracy theories, yet he’s still a paid CNN contributor and is often interviewed by Wolf Blitzer. Blitzer’s bio on CNN’s news site is as revealing about the network as it is about him. It’s extensive, a detailed list of his career going back 40 years, but nowhere does CNN mention that in the 1980s, Blitzer worked at AIPAC as a paid lobbyist for Israel.

“It’s institutional, it’s embedded in the fabric of CNN,” points out Abulhawa. “All these people get to stay on CNN and Wolf Blitzer, who is an ardent Zionist and with a history of working for the Israeli lobby, he gets to frame the story and rarely do Palestinians ever get a voice on CNN.”

Omar Baddar, deputy director of the Arab American Institute, says it is “crucial for people to understand the magnitude of the threat to free speech in the form of denying the ability of pro-Palestine activists to be part of the narrative in the United States. We are facing a very serious threat to free speech in the form of denying the right to speak honestly about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the right to advocate on it.”