Home inFocus A Palestinian State? (Fall 2011) Israel and the Media: Sense and Nonsense

Israel and the Media: Sense and Nonsense

Aryeh Green Fall 2011

“Why Israel Doesn’t Care About Peace” was the screaming headline on the cover of Time Magazine a few months ago, stunning for all who know something about Israel, or about journalism. Not only because Karl Vick’s article, filed from Jerusalem, reported nothing of the kind. But many were shocked at the cynical, simplistic cover title because it borders on slander, blaming Israel for the lack of peace in the Middle East while ignoring the repeated actions taken by Israel in the cause of peace as well as the repeated, hostile actions taken by the Arab and Palestinian leadership against Israel at the same time. And the outrage was compounded knowing that such a cover (illustrated with a large Star of David), seen by millions of commuters and others—well beyond the number of subscribers to the magazine itself—colors the perceptions of all who see it.

Reporting on the Middle East affects the attitudes of policy-makers, academics, union leaders, church officials, students, and even children. It is perhaps not surprising that so many academics (and not a few politicians) are profoundly anti-Israel, or that so many Jewish students and children (and not a few adults) are ever more uncomfortable identifying with Israel or even as Jews, when they hear how Israelis kill Palestinian bulldozer drivers, harm innocent children, steal land, and prevent Palestinian students from traveling abroad, all as reported the world over.

But an only slightly more nuanced presentation of the facts provides a much different impression: that particular bulldozer driver was screaming “Allahu Akbar” as he drove his machine into pedestrians and cars; those innocent children were killed by a Hamas explosive device; the ‘stolen’ land in question is being used legitimately for a temporary fence preventing murderous terrorists from accessing Israel’s population centers; and the students in question were refused visas by the U.S. State Department as security risks.

Unfortunately, the reporting on these and most other issues related to Israel and the Middle East often lacks sufficient context, background, and balance, as well as the nuance necessary for the media-consuming public to gain a complete understanding of the reality on the ground.

Adopting a Narrative

How did the media reach this point? Do all media personnel hate the Jews? Are they all anti-Israel, willing pawns in Iran, Hamas, and Hezbollah’s psychological warfare campaign to destroy the Jewish state?

No, they don’t; and no, they aren’t. But to see the process in perspective, note that a generation ago European opinion elites in the media and universities began the process of accepting what has become known today as “the Palestinian narrative,” which includes de-legitimizing and demonizing Israel and its leaders. Today, most European leaders and academics, nursed on images of imperialist, racist Israel as the world’s worst human rights violator, view Israel as inherently evil, as reflected in recent public opinion surveys across Europe naming Israel as the leading threat to world peace on the planet, with the United States second in line. Thus most Europeans today view the questioning of Israel’s legitimacy as a reasonable part of public discourse.

This is happening in North America now. In many quarters, there has developed an institutionalized bias of sorts, whether in the foreign policy establishment in Washington, think tanks and academic institutions, church hierarchies and even within the Jewish community and its leadership. The intellectual milieu within which the American elite operates has slowly come to resemble the European mindset of two decades ago—not anti-Israel in the sense of calls for its destruction, but in the sense of blaming Israel for the lack of peace in the region, demonizing Israeli attempts to defend itself, and questioning the justice of Israel’s establishment. America’s current intellectual leadership would like its citizens to believe that the main reason there is no peace is because of the “illegal Israeli settlements” or “the occupation” or “the wall.” Or, in more and more circles, there’s no peace because the Jewish state insists on its Jewish identity—the raison d’etre of its founding, as provided for in UN resolutions and as acknowledged in its recognition by the United States and all countries outside the Arab/Muslim World. Never mind that the primary obstacle to peace in the Middle East remains, as it has been for over 100 years, the continued and violent rejection of any Jewish connection with the land, let alone the legitimacy of Israel’s founding, by the leaders of most Muslim, Arab, and Palestinian societies.

All this has led to a situation where Israel’s existence is now up for debate, not only in Oxford but also at Harvard and Yale, and calls for its dismantling are not beyond the pale. Such sincere demands for the elimination of a UN member country, however, should concern all civilized peoples and nations.

Language that Skews

Words have meaning, power, and influence, and the above example of Time’s headline is instructive. The article itself, while somewhat objectionable in its repeated references to Israelis wanting to make money, missed a crucial point: The reason Israelis are cynical about the prospects for peace is in part a result of the current Palestinian leadership’s ongoing and very public hostility. Thus the headline, indicating that Israel is not interested in peace, implies, first, that others are; and second, that Israel is interested in other things such as money, or the opposite of peace, namely, war. Yet this is only one of many examples of how language is used to skew perception of the reality on the ground.

With reference to the July 2008 bulldozer attack mentioned above, the BBC website’s headline was a classic: “Israel kills Palestinian bulldozer driver.” Israel, the killer, causes the death of a Palestinian, who happens to be a tractor driver. This headline remained on the BBC site for a full 24 hours, contributing to the perception of Israel as a murderous attacker of innocent civilians and inverting the reality of Israel defending itself against murderous terrorists to Israel bent on killing and maiming civilians for overtly political reasons.

Other examples abound, and not least regarding those nefarious “settlements.” The use of the term “settlement,” once a positive expression used to describe, for instance, the new communities of the American West, has now been accepted as a pejorative implying illegitimacy and impermanence. This is not the place to review the legal history of the term but given the fact that Israel’s presence there is not prima-facie illegal, as recognized by the U.S. State Department no less, it should be of concern that the term “settlement” is used, and preceded by terms such as “illegal” and “illegitimate,” as a sort of mantra by many in the international press.

The point here is as simple as it is not political: A majority of political leaders, as well as Israeli citizens, agree that Israel ought to relinquish most of those territories in favor of the establishment of a Palestinian state as a political solution to at least part of the Arab-Israeli conflict. But it remains irrelevant whether one supports or opposes this policy; journalists using language other than “disputed territories” or similar terminology which acknowledges the indeterminate status of these areas since 1947, and the dual legitimate claims of the Israelis/Jews and Arabs/Palestinians here, are by default prejudicing their viewers against the Israeli and Jewish position.

This was seen, as well, in examples of reporting about the effort by the Palestinians to achieve recognition by the UN in September. The Israeli government has made it clear, by action and by declaration, that it is in favor of—or at least amenable to—the creation of an independent Palestinian state, and ready, willing, even anxious to negotiate an end to the conflict which can not only give birth to that state but also ensure its development and success. Yet from reading most press reports, one would be forgiven for believing that the Jewish state “opposes” such an occurrence. This, because most of the media simplify Israel’s opposition to unilateral moves at the UN (which the Palestinian leadership themselves have defined as the next stage in their conflict with Israel rather than a step towards reconciliation and peace), presenting it as resistance to Palestinian statehood itself. When subtleties like this are missed, or left out, the reality is misrepresented, and Israel ends up looking like the bad guy.

A Workable Solution

All is not lost, however. There is an objective reality that can be researched and reported by the media and academia. Proactive steps can be taken to help journalists see the whole picture, develop a more nuanced understanding of the complexities of the region, and report stories fairly. Though many reporters arrive in Israel with misconceptions and many pre-conceived notions about the region, the most effective antidote is simple observation of the actual state of affairs. The history of the region, the geography, the cultural and political milieu is right in front of them—they just need a credible helping hand to see it.

A senior foreign correspondent said recently that if visiting journalists are offered some balanced and neutral assistance, and access to everyone and every shade of opinion, coverage would improve not just of Israel, but of all stories coming out of the region. He noted the need for reporters to talk to newsmakers and to those whose voices are rarely heard; to hear from not only the official spokespeople but also private individuals from all walks of life and experts on various topics.

Most of the more than 450 foreign journalists serving in Israel do not hate Jews or Israelis, but they don’t know a great deal about them, or about Israel and the area’s history. Israel can and must use the carrot, rather than just the stick, in its relations with the international media—developing relationships with the journalists on the ground rather than just criticizing them for ‘getting the story wrong.’

And it works. Take for instance the coverage of Israel’s recent retaliations for rocket and missile attacks from Gaza. Those reporters who made the effort to go down to the border wrote much more balanced treatments of the topic than did those who merely attended pro-Palestinian press conferences in Gaza, Ramallah, and eastern Jerusalem. The former attended a field tour, organized by MediaCentral, a Jerusalem project of HonestReporting, where contacts, transportation, and briefings were provided with no agenda other than to help the journalists develop a more nuanced understanding of a complex reality. Which they did—and reported as such, including detailed descriptions of Israel’s predicament, with Hamas missile attacks on its civilian population a daily occurrence, and with a focus on those attacks rather than on Israel’s defensive operations. The latter, of course, reported verbatim the diatribes delivered by the various spokesmen about Israel’s “illegal, immoral, indefensible attacks on Palestinians in Gaza,” and focused on Palestinian casualties.

The same can be said for a myriad of topics, from environmental and water issues in the Jordan Valley to Israel’s policies vis-à-vis the Bedouin in the Negev, from border demonstrations on the Golan to high-tech cooperation between Israeli, Palestinian, and Jordanian businesses. Whether discovering the aid work of “Jewish Heart for Africa” or exploring the economic cooperation between Israeli Gilboa and Palestinian Jenin; whether meeting “average” Israelis informally over coffee or learning about how Israel is the only nation on the planet increasing its forest acreage—foreign journalists in Israel are open to this new approach. They just need some assistance.

A Dangerous Reality

Americans need only to look at the policies of Europe towards Iran, Hezbollah, and Hamas, and the prevailing European attitudes toward Jews, Israel, and America, to understand the implications of current trends in reporting about Israel and the region.

But this doesn’t have to be the case. Through embracing and helping journalists with services to report accurately from the field, Israel can help ensure that objective reporting leads to more informed public opinion and better policy formation.

Aryeh Green is director of MediaCentral, a Jerusalem project of HonestReporting.com providing support services for journalists based in or visiting Israel and the region, www.m-central.org