The international media’s anti-Israel bias is a story of detached liberal elites in Israel and abroad reinforcing each other’s prejudices.
The Gaza War has sparked a major debate about the anti-Israel bias of the international media • But the bias would not be so powerful were it not for an influential group of Israelis in the local media and political scene who readily supply the ammunition for painting Israel in the worst possible light • Seth Frantzman on a curious phenomenon
In the aftermath of the recent Gaza war many media professionals and pro-Israel advocates began to search through the rubble of the media’s portrayal of Israel to understand how, once again, Israel was portrayed in a negative light and numerous facts, such as those relating to civilian casualties, seemed to have been manipulated. Matti Friedman’s piece ‘an insider’s guide to the most important story on earth’ seemed to reveal the secret “answer” to what many felt was a biased media: The media gets Israel’s story wrong because it is basically anti-Semitic.
This mantra – that the media hates Israel and there isn’t much one can do about it – creates an easy scape-goat. Blame the New York Times for the coverage of Israel. Blame the Guardian and BBC. Blame “them.” But it misses the forest for the trees. The fact is that almost every anti-Israel story originates in Israel, not in the conspiracy minded editorial offices in New York or London, and many of those stories are the result of Israeli media and Israeli NGOs. When I raised this point to a media professional here he replied “Israel is a free country with a free press.” Israel is a free country, but some of its critical press is unrelenting in creating well-packaged stories to feed to a salivating foreign media.
Liberal Western Angst…
To understand the problem we should begin by parsing Friedman’s allegations.
“Israeli actions are analyzed and criticized, and every flaw in Israeli society is aggressively reported,” he alleges. He notes that stories about Israeli corruption get traction but no one reports about Palestinian corruption. He argues that the AP and others focus on “moral failings of Israeli society—proposed legislation meant to suppress the media, the rising influence of Orthodox Jews, unauthorized settlement outposts, gender segregation, and so forth.”
Furthermore; “Most reporters in Gaza believe their job is to document violence directed by Israel at Palestinian civilians…Our narrative was that the Palestinians were moderate and the Israelis recalcitrant and increasingly extreme.” Israel is “the pool into which the world spits” and the international press is “the tool” by which the modern anti-Semite bashes Israel.
Amazingly Steven Gutkin, the AP Bureau Chief in Jerusalem from 2004-2010, wrote a reply to Friedman on September 6th. Gutkin reveals something fascinating about his view of the Israeli “story.” For him “it’s also a story about the persecuted becoming the persecutors. All of this, of course, is happening to the people of the Bible, the descendants of the Hebrew slaves who were led out of Egypt by Moses and from whose ranks emerged Jesus Christ. It’s as if a new chapter of the Bible is being written in our times.”
Gutkin claims “I have no doubt that my Jewishness gave me a keener appreciation of the Israeli cause. I also know that my intense feelings about Jewish persecution – and the fact that much of my own family was murdered in the Holocaust – made me even more sensitive to the plight of the weak, no matter who they were.” Gutkin reveals that those who most affected him included a “devout Muslim” AP colleague in Afghanistan, “a Palestinian colleague in Gaza” and another “former colleague in Gaza.”
This speaks to the heart of what Friedman got wrong: It is precisely those like Gutkin that are the reason Israel fares so badly in international media. His “Jewishness” informed his support for “plight of the weak.” His focus on some convoluted story about the “persecuted becoming the persecutors” is what informed the slant of the coverage. The irony is that if he wasn’t covering Israel, but Pakistan, then the persecutors remaining the persecutors don’t get some special biblical moral twist put on them.
Gutkin was attuned to not seeing Jews as victims, because the narrative of the conflict was that Palestinians are victims, Jews are strong aggressors, even if those Jews just got on a plane from Ethiopia penniless. Friedman was right about the narratives, but he got wrong the anti-Semitism. Gutkin isn’t anti-Semitic, he is philo-Semitic, except his twisting of the story and his own internal negotiating with his Jewishness leads him to color his views of Israel.
…Through An Exclusively Secular Liberal Israeli Lens…
When we move beyond this little AP spat we see how it plays out on a much larger scale. Consider a BBC report from October 2013. The writer seeks to shed light on “Jerusalem communities.” She argues “Shabbat in Jerusalem means everything is closed down from Friday afternoon to Saturday evening.” She interviews an Israeli Jew named Dor Dirkovich who perpetuates this narrative by complaining the city is too Orthodox. The author has a negative view of the Haredi society which “is very closed and insulated against the outside world.”
But something is missing from this analysis, right? Arab Jerusalem, one third of the city. 288,000 residents according to the article. The author doesn’t have sharp words about their “closed” society. And the author seems to forget that on Shabbat all of East Jerusalem’s stores are open. The BBC falls into the typical Israelocentric trap that posits that Israel is entirely Jewish and then critiques the Jews only.
It reminds us of Haaretz’s Ari Shavit writing 20 days before the BBC report that “Jerusalem is lost.” He noted “the battle is almost lost…Haredi students account for 39 percent…Arabs for 37 percent.” Did the BBC simply parrot back that narrative? The entire narrative about Jerusalem being “closed” on Shabbat is an Israeli-Jewish narrative that focuses on the Jewish part of the city. It’s almost as if the BBC was relying exclusively on a particular, and highly partisan, section of the Israeli media for its news.
Consider another example of the “segregated bus lines” Israel was said to have launched in March of 2013. At the Washington Post, Caitlin Dewey wrote, “Starting today Palestinians travelling from the West Bank into Israel have their own bus lines.” The Times in London claimed “‘Apartheid’ anger as Israel starts separate bus lines in West Bank.’” Al-Jazeera jumped on as well “Israel launches segregated bus service” and the Telegraph also talked about “Palestinian-only buses.” But when one looks at where the story originated, it wasn’t from the “anti-semitic” foreign media, it was from the Israeli media. The Washington Post admitted “according to Haaretz, the two new non-mandatory public bus lines will start from checkpoints and run north toward Tel Aviv.”
The story was entirely fabricated. The buses were not “Palestinian-only”, and they were not part of a “segregation” system. Jews could ride them, and Palestinians could ride the Israeli buses. The buses had merely been launched to provide more buses for Palestinian workers entering Israel from the Tulkarm and Qalqilya areas. Were they targeting the Palestinian population and servicing it? Yes. And were the buses going to Ariel mostly avoiding this population? Yes. But the media didn’t want to ride the buses to get nuance, it relied on Israel’s own reporting. When Ynet wrote an article noting “separate but equal bus lines,” it fed into the media frenzy.
The stories that erupted in the Hebrew press in 2012 about the “exclusion of women from the public space” were also picked up and parroted verbatim by international observers. The New York Times noted “public discourse in Israel is suddenly dominated by a new, high-toned Hebrew phrase, ‘hadarat nashim,’ or the exclusion of women. The term is everywhere in recent weeks, rather like the way the phrase ‘male chauvinism’ emerged decades ago in the United States.”
The Times’ reporting was not original. It didn’t go out and see if there was actually a story; it re-reported a story already making waves in Israel. Even the way the ‘Times’ reported the piece was similar to the secular Israeli discourse. The authors wrote “Instead, they [the Haredim] have multiplied, joined government coalitions and won subsidies and exemptions for children.” The Times’ doesn’t write this way about minority groups in the US; it wouldn’t dare talk about how “African-Americans have multiplied”, because such language would be offensive. It borrowed this term from leading members of ‘liberal’ Israeli society such as Yesh Atid’s Mickey Levy who called them “parasites” in April of 2013.
When Julian Kossoff at The Telegraph wrote a 2010 piece entitled “the Haredim are holding Israel to ransom,” he borrowed heavily from Israeli populist imagery. “Military service and paying tax may be duties of citizenship the Haredi manage to dodge, but they never fail to miss out on voting.” Interpreting the Haredi relationship with the state and his rancor over the “duty” of paying taxes and military service are not formed from a British sense, since the UK doesn’t have national military service and the Telegraph doesn’t bash minorities in the UK for missing out on the “duty” of tax paying; his entire premise was borrowed from an existing Israeli critique of Haredim: tax dodgers who vote too much.
…Mixed With Classic Blood Libels…
When it comes to particularly salacious stories about Israel, there is a blend between foreign media inventing pseudo-blood libels and also being careful about passing on wrong information. For instance, conspiracy theories that ran wild in Israel such as a 2009 article in the Swedish tabloid Aftonbladet claimed Israel was stealing Palestinian organs. This story grew legs over the years, and a two minute clip by Time Magazine on the Israel-Palestinian conflict included a mention to it as one of the supposed failings of the IDF as if it were fact. Time then deleted the reference. That was a case of the person making the video having trusted a Google search over fact-checking. However, a New York Times story that reported on an organ-trafficking ring and the role played by some Israelis was re-packaged by Iranian media as “Israelis at forefront of International organ trafficking.”
But a case in January and February of 2013 where Israeli media reported that Ethiopian Jews awaiting immigration had been given a birth control drug without their apparent consent could have resulted in a flood of misleading stories by international media attuned to anti-Israelism. It was responsibly reported at The Guardian and The Telegraph, the latter of which even questioned if the story was even true.
However, a Forbes writer named Elise Knutsen turned it into a classic anti-Semitic story. She claimed that “That Israel should allegedly engage in this activity is particularly shocking, considering the practice was widely used by the Germans throughout the Shoah.” Insanely, she noted “From a sociological perspective, this incident shows the strain between Israel’s religious heritage and its modern political agenda. ‘Behold, the heritage of the Lord is sons, the reward is the fruit of the innards’…the Torah proclaims. The involuntary sterilization of African immigrants suggests that the Jewish moral code (inextricably connected with Israel’s domestic legal codes) can be selectively applied to those with ‘desirable’ backgrounds.”
The classic case of mixing modern Israeli history with biblical narratives and the turning Israel into the “new Nazis” is part of an anti-semitic agenda that Friedman noted in his Tablet piece. But what is interesting is how closely this piece jives with the self-described agenda of Gutkin: Israel is a biblical story and Jews who were persecuted became persecutors.
…With Readily Packaged Stories…
To truly understand what’s happening we have to go beyond the fact that international media often allows its own version of events, and even the terms it employs, to be shaped by highly critical local reporting by radical-left media in Israel. Where does the international media get its facts? When ‘Times’ writer Isabel Kershner wrote her August 25, 2010 ‘El Araqib’ journal about “a test of wills over a patch of desert,” she followed a track trodden by all the media who came before and after. She spoke with Professor Oren Yiftachel, an Israeli academic who argues the Bedouins deserve “indigenous rights,” and she mentioned Rabbis for Human Rights. She was guided on her tour by Sheik Sayah Abu Mudegem al-Tori, the “village elder” and his two wives. Mya Guarani’s article at Al-Jazeera was basically a regurgitation of the same cast of characters.
Israel fares badly in international media for the same reason it fares badly in its own critical media. As the US Senator Daniel P. Moynihan noted “The amount of violations of human rights in a country is always an inverse function of the amount of complaints about human rights violations heard from there. The greater the number of complaints being aired, the better protected are human rights in that country.”
Israel has a robust, active and highly critical human rights machine. Israeli human rights organizations receive almost all their funding from foreign sources, often European governments. A 2010 Wikileak cable noted “B’Tselem Director Jessica Montell…estimated her 9 million NIS ($2.4 million) budget is 95 percent funded from abroad, mostly from European countries.” These organizations are often headed by leaders who seek to tar Israel with the worst brush possible and they feed international media information on allegations of Israeli abuses
When David Shulman sat down to write his Jan. 2011 article for the New York Review of Books ‘And no one wants to know: Israeli soldiers on the Occupation,’ he sought to review a book by ‘Breaking the Silence’. According to NGO Monitor, the organization receives funding from a variety of sources – including European governments. Does it “break the silence” about soldiers serving in the West Bank in Israel, or is its material primarily for consumption in the EU and US? It gets press abroad by appearing to be a dissident organization. Shulman’s article about the soldiers opened with a story about an Arab woman living in a tent named Hajja Sara Nawaja. Shulman claimed that her tent had been burned and asked “Did the settlers who probably set the fire intend to kill Hajja Sara and her large family? It’s quite possible.” Is Shulman part of an international anti-Semitic agenda? Judging by his name he is Jewish, not an anti-Semite, but like others a Jews who identify with the Palestinians.
An article by Neil Lewis in 2012 in the Columbia Journalism Review about ‘The Times and the Jews’, made an interesting point about how America’s largest newspaper covered Israel. “Beginning in the 1960s the [positive] narrative began to change…the template of the small nation battling Goliath no longer fit after Israel prevailed in the Six Day War.” In the article the author notes that the American media establishment’s leaders were close to Israeli politicians and generals like Abba Eban, Golda Meir and others. After Menachem Begin was elected in 1977 “Eban spoke frequently to their friends in the media, telling them that the new crowd was a disaster…an extreme nationalist.” The article notes that the appointment of subsequent bureau chiefs such as Deborah Sontag clouded Israel’s image because she represented a “very liberal segment of America that has grown impatient with Israel.”
Israel’s real problem in facing the international media may therefore not be the anti-Semitic agenda of a few crackpots, which indeed there are. The Iranian news service, Al-Jazeera, or Swedish journalists aside, the real story of the visceral critique Israel is subjected to is closer to home. Even after the Swedish tabloid published the article by Donald Bolstrom accusing Israel of organ trafficking, he was invited to speak at a media conference in Israel. Israelis are often not offended by their home grown conspiracy theorists such as Dr. Moti Shefer who was quoted in Globes as “There is no missile in the world today able to intercept missiles or rockets. Iron Dome is a sound and light show that is intercepting only Israeli public opinion.”
…Creating A Closed and Partial Information Loop
Israel’s problem is that members of the international media – such as AP bureau chiefs or others – who reside in Israel live within a milieu of Israelis who primarily lean to the left. They are fed information by NGOs such as Rabbis for Human Rights. Some of them already have the ready-made narrative of “giving a voice to those who have none” or “helping the weak.” A ready-made narrative of Israel already exists, set in stone since the 1960s, and tragically fed by former Israeli elites who dislike the current right-wing government and use foreign media to get back at it.
The international media thus naturally gravitates towards Israel’s critical press like Haaretz that has no problem publishing misleading stories such as the May 18 headline “settlers torch Palestinian orchard” for Lag B’omer which was subsequently corrected. In other countries, such as Russia, Turkey or the United Arab Emirates, the foreign media does the same, in terms of relying on local English-language media and NGOs for its stories, and the result is the same in each country: Where there is critical civil society and self-loathing left wing press, the international media will come away with negative stories, where there is censorship and forced patriotism, the media will parrot back patriotism. Rare is the foreign media that truly discovers a story for itself without handlers, fixers and the like.
On the other hand, the more interesting stories in Israeli society, such as about Jewish diversity, or about minority communities that don’t get media attention, such as the Druze, Circassians or Ahmadiya, are routinely ignored. Foreign media almost never expresses interest in things that galvanize large masses of Israelis, such as Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef’s funeral or Mizrahi musicians. The media simply is not attuned to Israeli popular society or its nuances; even its poverty, simply because Israeli media doesn’t care about this issue and doesn’t report about it in English.
The tragic fact is that international media’s focus on Israel is a twisted blend of Jewish leftists from abroad posted to Israel who have a contentious relationship with the Jewish state. It concentrates on Israeli media sources from the highly critical left, and fits them into a pre-conceived box relating to the conflict through such themes as “David versus Goliath” and “weak Palestinians suffering at the hands of Israel,” with clichés in the background about the “persecuted becomes the persecutor.” Both the Israeli public and the world at large deserve better.