Who’ll Break It to Him It Was Only a TV Show?
“Actor George Takei begins his TEDx talk in Kyoto with a slight smile, introducing himself as a veteran and former helmsman of the starship Enterprise. ‘I soared through the galaxy, driving a huge starship with a crew made up of people from all over this world . . . all working together.’ “–Cate Matthews, Huffington Post, June 13
The Most Important Story on Earth
Israeli journalist Matti Friedman wants you to know he’s no right-winger. He describes himself as “a believer in the importance of the ‘mainstream’ media, a liberal, and a critic of many of my country’s [Israel’s] policies”–this by way of introducing a fascinating essay for Tablet. It’s worth reading in full, but we’d like to highlight a few of his most salient points. …
Friedman’s piece is an insider’s reflection on the media’s treatment of Israel, based largely on his tenure (2006-11) at the Associated Press’s Jerusalem bureau.
Part of his argument concerns the quantity of coverage. When he was at the AP, it “had more than 40 staffers covering Israel and the Palestinian territories. That was significantly more news staff than the AP had in China, Russia, or India, or in all of the 50 countries of sub-Saharan Africa combined.” Also higher than “in all the countries where the uprisings of the ‘Arab Spring’ eventually erupted.”
That “volume of press coverage . . . gives this conflict a prominence compared to which its actual human toll is absurdly small,” Friedman notes. As an example, he compares the 2013 death toll of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (42) with the estimate from Syria’s civil war (190,000). Granted, the latter is over three years, but 42 times 3 is still [so much] smaller than 190,000.
Friedman concludes that news organizations “believe Israel to be the most important story on earth, or very close.” That argument is actually his weakest. The coverage of Israel may be out of proportion to its importance, but for a variety of historical, cultural, economic, political and religious reasons, Israel’s importance also is out of proportion to its size–just as, say, New York’s or Washington’s is relative to other American [cities] or regions.
The massive coverage of Israel relative to other places in the Middle East also is reminiscent of the children’s joke about the guy who explains why he’s looking for his keys even though he knows he lost them someplace else: “The light is better here.” As the region’s only open society, Israel makes it especially easy for journalists to do their work. The hazards for a reporter of working in Jerusalem or Tel Aviv are trivial compared with the risks of covering the Syrian civil war.
There are hazards to covering the Arab side of the Palestinian dispute, though, and Friedman notes that those contribute to biased coverage. “During the 2008-2009 Gaza fighting,” Friedman reports, “I personally erased a key detail–that Hamas fighters were dressed as civilians and being counted as civilians in the death toll–because of a threat to our reporter in Gaza.” The AP’s policy is “not to inform readers that the story is censored unless the censorship is Israeli.” This month a story on Hamas intimidation “was shunted into deep freeze” by top AP editors.
Friedman’s most damning critique, however, is of what he calls the “narrative construct” that guides mainstream media coverage of Israel. It is, he asserts, “largely fictional”–and its purpose is invidious. Here is the key passage:
For centuries, stateless Jews played the role of a lightning rod for ill will among the majority population. They were a symbol of things that were wrong. Did you want to make the point that greed was bad? Jews were greedy. Cowardice? Jews were cowardly. Were you a Communist? Jews were capitalists. Were you a capitalist? In that case, Jews were Communists. Moral failure was the essential trait of the Jew. It was their role in Christian tradition—the only reason European society knew or cared about them in the first place. . . .
Today, people in the West tend to believe the ills of the age are racism, colonialism, and militarism. . . . When the people responsible for explaining the world to the world, journalists, cover the Jews’ war as more worthy of attention than any other, when they portray the Jews of Israel as the party obviously in the wrong, when they omit all possible justifications for the Jews’ actions and obscure the true face of their enemies, what they are saying to their readers–whether they intend to or not–is that Jews are the worst people on earth. The Jews are a symbol of the evils that civilized people are taught from an early age to abhor. International press coverage has become a morality play starring a familiar villain.
As if to illustrate Friedman’s point, on the same day Tablet published his essay, the New York Times printed a foul and ignorant letter to the editor from the Rev. Bruce Shipman, Yale’s Episcopal chaplain, in response to an op-ed piece by a prominent historian of the Holocaust. Rev. Shipman wrote:
Deborah E. Lipstadt makes far too little of the relationship between Israel’s policies in the West Bank and Gaza and growing anti-Semitism in Europe and beyond.
The trend to which she alludes parallels the carnage in Gaza over the last five years, not to mention the perpetually stalled peace talks and the continuing occupation of the West Bank.
As hope for a two-state solution fades and Palestinian casualties continue to mount, the best antidote to anti-Semitism would be for Israel’s patrons abroad to press the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for final-status resolution to the Palestinian question.
The narrative is generally presented devoid of the regional context, Friedman argues:
A knowledgeable observer of the Middle East cannot avoid the impression that the region is a volcano and that the lava is radical Islam, an ideology whose various incarnations are now shaping this part of the world. Israel is a tiny village on the slopes of the volcano. Hamas is the local representative of radical Islam and is openly dedicated to the eradication of the Jewish minority enclave in Israel. . . .
Jerusalem is less than a day’s drive from Aleppo or Baghdad, and it should be clear to everyone that peace is pretty elusive in the Middle East even in places where Jews are absent. But reporters generally cannot see the Israel story in relation to anything else. Instead of describing Israel as one of the villages abutting the volcano, they describe Israel as the volcano.
This point, too, was illustrated elsewhere in a story published the same day, by Abraham Rabinovich, writing from Jerusalem for the Washington Free Beacon:
“Hamas is responsible for the slaughter in the Gaza Strip,” wrote Turki al Faisal, the former head of Saudi Arabia’s intelligence services, in Asharq Al-Awsat. He cited the organization’s “haughtiness” in firing rockets at Israel “which contribute nothing to the Palestinian interest.”
Iraqi journalist Adnan Hussein last week condemned Hamas’ public execution of more than 20 Gaza residents on charges of spying for Israel. He termed the street executions as “barbaric acts that resemble the brutality of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.” He wrote in the daily Al-Mada that Hamas and other jihadi groups in Gaza “awaken the wild Israeli beast” by provoking it with acts such as the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teens last month, which sparked the Gaza War.
Carlo Strenger noted in Ha’aretz that most Arab governments have refused to comment publicly on this war: “From Morocco through Egypt to Saudi Arabia, almost no Arab state was willing to support Hamas in this conflict.”
Those Arab governments, most of which do not officially recognize Israel, are also threatened by radical Islam. Unlike Western reporters, they don’t have the luxury of ignoring the regional context. An ironic result is that anti-Jewish sentiment is waning in Riyadh [Saudi Arabia] even as it waxes in New Haven [Yale University].
(From the Wall Street Journal’s OpinionJournal.com)