Israel’s 60-year war for survival has been marked by numerous victories on the battlefield. The Israeli Defense Force (IDF) is lauded as one of the premier military forces in modern history. But Israel has often lost on another front, sometimes without much of a fight: the battlefield of the mind, where ideas, words, and images are the weapons of choice. Israel’s enemies are keenly aware of how the victories and defeats in one theater can affect the outcomes in the other. As Hizbullah commander Nabil Qaouk noted in 2000, “The use of media as a weapon had an effect parallel to a battle.”
From words, ideas, and images, one creates narratives. These narratives are how the human mind organizes and understands events and issues. Narratives may be truthful or deceitful, revealing or misleading, fair or unfair. But they are hugely consequential. Israel must learn to better drive messages and shape narratives as it looks toward the future.
The Nazi Narrative
To understand these concepts, consider the conflicting narratives of World War II:
In the 1930s, Winston Churchill warned repeatedly that Hitler was a megalomaniac intent on world domination. Appeasement, he argued, would prove fruitless. Hitler would have to be stopped, and the longer Britain and its allies waited, the bloodier would be the conflict.
Churchill’s critics called him a “war monger.” They insisted that Germany was responding to “legitimate grievances,” among them the mistreatment of the German-speaking minority in Czechoslovakia. They insisted it was possible to settle disputes with Hitler peacefully, through diplomacy and compromise.
As author Joseph Loconte noted, shortly after Hitler became chancellor in 1933, the leader of the Federal Council of Churches (the forerunner of the National Council of Churches) urged a “less superficial appraisal” of the Nazi Party – a shot at those who criticized the Nazis’ anti-Jewish policies. Even in November 1941, with much of Europe under Nazi control, the editor of the liberal Christian Century, Charles Clayton Morrison, worried more about “Anglo-American world hegemony” than a Nazi triumph. Morrison rejoiced when President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “Four Freedoms” speech failed to mobilize Americans for war. He cast Britain’s struggle against Hitler as “a war for imperialism.”
In short, Churchill’s narrative was the truthful one, but Nazi sympathizers challenged it with a stream of lies and apologia.
Israel’s Evolving Battle
In the years after Israel’s War of Independence, the dominant (and truthful) narrative was of a David-and-Goliath struggle. Israel, a tiny nation, was under attack by hostile Arab neighbors. Against all odds, Israel had defeated its enemies, established a state, and provided refuge for displaced European Jewish survivors of the Holocaust, as well as Jews fleeing oppression in Muslim lands.
From 1948 to 1967, the events surrounding the Arab-Israeli conflict tended to reinforce this narrative. But after the Six-Day War of 1967, Israel’s enemies adopted increasingly sophisticated messaging strategies.
Initially, Israel emerged again as the sympathetic underdog. Israel had defended itself against attack from nations on all sides that were openly intent on the Jewish state’s annihilation. In a lightning pre-emptive war, Israel took possession of the Sinai Desert, the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, and annexed the Golan Heights and East Jerusalem.
In London, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) and The Guardian sympathized with Israel, more than with the Arabs that precipitated the conflict. The BBC noted that the, “path for war was cleared on 16 May when President Nasser ordered the withdrawal of the United Nations Emergency Forces from the Egyptian-Israeli border.” In the aftermath of the war, and in response to internal calls for Israel to annex the West Bank and militarize along the Straits of Tiran, an editorial in The Guardian concluded that, “It will be neither surprising nor wholly wrong if these demands become Government policy.”
Today, however, the liberal media, which currently dominate the mainstream news in the West, view the Six-Day War and most other issues related to the conflict through a different prism. The lands Israel won in the defensive war of 1967 were at first “disputed territories.” That was soon spun into “occupied territories,” then “occupied Palestinian territories” and eventually, “illegally occupied Palestinian territories.”
Israel’s enemies have since pushed the narrative of Israel as an imperialist power, a message that resonates deeply within the liberal mindset. Thus, the roles have been reversed – the Palestinians are now David, while Israel has become Goliath.
This transition was quite apparent this past May, marking the 40th anniversary of the end of the Six-Day War. The BBC likened Israel’s pre-emptive strike against an imminent Egyptian attack to “Shock and Awe,” a clear reference to the American invasion of Iraq, which the BBC also regards as imperialistic. A National Public Radio report on the war’s anniversary acknowledged that “Israel no longer occupies the Sinai or Gaza,” but added the opinion that Israel’s “continued hold over the other territories has stymied efforts to bring a comprehensive peace to the Middle East.” No mention was made of Israel’s need to defend itself in a war for survival.
Israel’s control of Gaza and the West Bank is too often depicted as the problem. Moreover, the media fail to credit Israel for relinquishing land for the mere hope of peace. According to an article in Le Monde Diplomatique, “The unprecedented unilateral withdrawal from Gaza [in 2005] was a step towards this new form of Israeli hegemony over Palestine.” An article in The Guardian warned, “Israel’s worst practices from Gaza are likely to be transferred to the West Bank now.” Their baseless conclusion: Israel is untrustworthy and driven by imperialism.
The Modern Media War
Today, in Europe, Asia and even America, Israel is frequently depicted in the media as colonialist or apartheid, waging an ill-defined “war of imperialism.” Israel is commonly cast as an oppressor and predator, rather than a victim defending its citizens from wave after wave of terror.
The media focus is primarily on the suffering of the Palestinians, while Israelis receive little sympathy. In a 2004 report, after watching endless hours of programming, Trevor Asserson of BBCWatch, a U.K.-based media monitoring group, came to the conclusion that the BBC was engaged in a “campaign to vilify Israel.” Asserson notes that, at the time, 88 percent of the BBC’s documentaries on the conflict painted “either a negative impression of Israel or (in two cases) a positive image of Palestinians.”
Analogous findings were presented in a November 2007 study by the media watchdog HonestReporting, which analyzed the New York Times coverage of the conflict from April to September 2007. The report found that 61 percent of the images used in the Times‘ coverage of the conflict were sympathetic to the Palestinians. Moreover, almost all the articles discussing violence between Israelis and Palestinians began with Israel’s actions, even if they were unambiguously retaliatory. “Only later – lower down in the article – was there mention of the cause of Israeli action,” the report revealed. Thus, the impetus behind Israel’s actions lost much of their weight and justification.
Similarly, the impetus behind the violence of Israel’s enemies is often obfuscated by poor media coverage. Years ago, the term “terrorist” was accurately used to describe groups or individuals who perpetrated acts of violence against civilians. Today, however, “political correctness” demands that “terrorist” be used sparingly, or not at all. Major news agencies, in the name of impartiality, assert that, “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.” According to David A. Schlesinger, Reuters’ global managing editor: “[O]ur policy is that we don’t use emotive words when labeling someone.” In this way, anti-Israel, suicide-bombing terrorist groups such Hamas, Hizbullah, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades are seen as “militants,” while Israel’s retribution against them is depicted, at best, as arbitrary, or aggressive, at worst.
The Influence of Terror
Finally, it cannot be ignored that terrorists use terrorism as an instrument of media relations. They frighten and intimidate journalists. They do this in a variety of ways, both implicit and explicit.
Following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, many Palestinians took to the streets in celebration, brandishing posters of Osama bin Laden. The media captured these images, but plainclothes Palestinian policemen confiscated the video and film. When asked about this draconian measure, Bassam Abu Sharif, an adviser to Palestinian Authority chairman Yasir Arafat, said it was a “normal preventative act… we don’t want to give more to the Zionist propaganda which portrays all Palestinians as terrorists.” If journalists sought continued access to the Palestinian territories, where the media is heavily censored, they had little choice but to agree.
Another chilling example of terrorist media relations was the kidnapping in Gaza of Fox News journalists Steve Centanni and Olaf Wiig. During their time in captivity, they were tormented at gunpoint by the previously unknown Holy Jihad Brigade. The message the kidnappers sent was clear and chilling: Make sure your reports about us are positive, for one day you may find yourself wearing handcuffs and a hood, looking at the barrel of a gun – and then you’ll wish you had.
No less disturbing were the events surrounding the October 2000 lynching of two Israeli soldiers in Ramallah. The bodies of the soldiers were hung from a police station window, and then beaten by an angry mob of Palestinians. However, the Palestinians made every effort to ensure that those images, captured by an Italian television crew, never saw the light of day. According to British photographer Mark Seager:
… I could see everything. Instinctively, I reached for my camera. I was composing the picture when I was punched in the face by a Palestinian. Another Palestinian pointed right at me shouting “no picture, no picture!”… another guy hit me in the face and said, “give me your film!” I tried to get the film out but they were all grabbing me, and one guy just pulled the camera off me and smashed it to the floor… I was scared for my life.
Does overt intimidation explain why many in the mainstream media refuse to use the term “terrorist” when covering Palestinians who kidnap or kill non-combatants? Reuters’ global managing editor states candidly: “My goal is to protect our reporters.”
What Can Be Done?
Many other factors combine to slant coverage of Israel. Some argue that the Palestinians – and their American and European advisors – have been masterful media puppeteers. Some argue that Israel continues to provide intellectual arguments for emotional news stories – which is like bringing a knife to a gunfight.
In addition, while the charge of anti-Semitism should not be thrown around lightly, its presence is at times undeniable. Indeed, one can argue that anti-Israelism is a modern form of anti-Semitism. In the 20th century, anti-Semitism envisioned a Europe without Jews; in the 21st century, the project of anti-Semitism is a Middle East without a Jewish state.
Whatever the many reasons, Israel’s communications challenges are great. Israeli strategists and spokesmen need to be well trained, multi-lingual, and highly skilled. They need to better understand strategic communications – the role of messages and narratives and the dynamics of public opinion formation. Lies must be repeatedly countered with truths. It must be expected that anti-Israeli poisons will be injected every day into the American and European body politic. Antidotes must be administered daily as well.
Former Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir once observed, “Better a critical editorial than a praiseworthy obituary.” But Israel need not settle for one or the other. The embattled Jewish state, and its supporters in America, must wage an endless battle for fair and accurate editorials, telling the story of Israel’s fight for its life, and its continuing struggle to find a way to live in peace with its Arab neighbors.
Clifford D. May, a former New York Times foreign correspondent, is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), a policy institute focusing on terrorism. Joshua D. Goodman is the director of research at FDD.