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Tuesday, August 26, 2014

The world is not responding to events in #Israel, but rather to the description of these events by news organizations @tabletmag

A former AP correspondent explains how and why reporters get Israel so wrong, and why it matters

An Insider’s Guide to the Most Important Story on Earth

The Israel Story

Is there anything left to say about Israel and Gaza? Newspapers this
summer have been full of little else. Television viewers see heaps of
rubble and plumes of smoke in their sleep. A representative article from a recent issue of The New Yorker
described the summer’s events by dedicating one sentence each to the
horrors in Nigeria and Ukraine, four sentences to the crazed génocidaires of ISIS, and the rest of the article—30 sentences—to Israel and Gaza.

When the hysteria abates, I believe the events in Gaza will not be
remembered by the world as particularly important. People were killed,
most of them Palestinians, including many unarmed innocents. I wish I
could say the tragedy of their deaths, or the deaths of Israel’s
soldiers, will change something, that they mark a turning point. But
they don’t. This round was not the first in the Arab wars with Israel
and will not be the last. The Israeli campaign was little different in
its execution from any other waged by a Western army against a similar
enemy in recent years, except for the more immediate nature of the
threat to a country’s own population, and the greater exertions, however
futile, to avoid civilian deaths.

The lasting importance of this summer’s war, I believe, doesn’t lie
in the war itself. It lies instead in the way the war has been described
and responded to abroad, and the way this has laid bare the resurgence
of an old, twisted pattern of thought and its migration from the margins
to the mainstream of Western discourse—namely, a hostile obsession with
Jews. The key to understanding this resurgence is not to be found among
jihadi webmasters, basement conspiracy theorists, or radical activists.
It is instead to be found first among the educated and respectable
people who populate the international news industry; decent people, many
of them, and some of them my former colleagues.

While global mania about Israeli actions has come to be taken for
granted, it is actually the result of decisions made by individual human
beings in positions of responsibility—in this case, journalists and
editors. The world is not responding to events in this country, but
rather to the description of these events by news organizations. The key
to understanding the strange nature of the response is thus to be found
in the practice of journalism, and specifically in a severe malfunction
that is occurring in that profession—my profession—here in Israel.

In this essay I will try to provide a few tools to make sense of the
news from Israel. I acquired these tools as an insider: Between 2006 and
the end of 2011 I was a reporter and editor in the Jerusalem bureau of
the Associated Press, one of the world’s two biggest news providers. I
have lived in Israel since 1995 and have been reporting on it since

This essay is not an exhaustive survey of the sins of the
international media, a conservative polemic, or a defense of Israeli
policies. (I am a believer in the importance of the “mainstream” media, a
liberal, and a critic of many of my country’s policies.) It necessarily
involves some generalizations. I will first outline the central tropes
of the international media’s Israel story—a story on which there is
surprisingly little variation among mainstream outlets, and one which
is, as the word “story” suggests, a narrative construct that is largely
fiction. I will then note the broader historical context of the way
Israel has come to be discussed and explain why I believe it to be a
matter of concern not only for people preoccupied with Jewish affairs. I
will try to keep it brief.

How Important Is the Israel Story?

Staffing is the best measure of the importance of a story to a
particular news organization. When I was a correspondent at the AP, the
agency 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. It was higher than the total number of news-gathering
employees in all the countries where the uprisings of the “Arab Spring”
eventually erupted.

To offer a sense of scale: Before the outbreak of the civil war in
Syria, the permanent AP presence in that country consisted of a single
regime-approved stringer. The AP’s editors believed, that is, that
Syria’s importance was less than one-40th that of Israel. I don’t mean
to pick on the AP—the agency is wholly average, which makes it useful as
an example. The big players in the news business practice groupthink,
and these staffing arrangements were reflected across the herd. Staffing
levels in Israel have decreased somewhat since the Arab uprisings
began, but remain high. And when Israel flares up, as it did this
summer, reporters are often moved from deadlier conflicts. Israel still
trumps nearly everything else.

The volume of press coverage that results, even when little is going
on, gives this conflict a prominence compared to which its actual human
toll is absurdly small. In all of 2013, for example, the
Israeli-Palestinian conflict claimed 42 lives—that is, roughly the
monthly homicide rate in the city of Chicago. Jerusalem, internationally
renowned as a city of conflict, had slightly fewer violent deaths per
capita last year than Portland, Ore., one of America’s safer cities. In
contrast, in three years the Syrian conflict has claimed an estimated
190,000 lives, or about 70,000 more than the number of people who have
ever died in the Arab-Israeli conflict since it began a century ago.

News organizations have nonetheless decided that this conflict is more important than, for example, the more than 1,600 women murdered in Pakistan last year (271 after being raped and 193 of them burned alive), the ongoing erasure of Tibet by the Chinese Communist Party, the carnage in Congo (more than 5 million dead as of 2012) or the Central African Republic , and the drug wars in Mexico (death toll between 2006 and 2012: 60,000 ), let alone conflicts no one has ever heard of in obscure corners of India or Thailand . They believe Israel to be the most important story on earth, or very close.

What Is Important About the Israel Story, and What Is Not

A reporter working in the international press corps here understands
quickly that what is important in the Israel-Palestinian story is
Israel. If you follow mainstream coverage, you will find nearly no real
analysis of Palestinian society or ideologies, profiles of armed
Palestinian groups, or investigation of Palestinian government.
Palestinians are not taken seriously as agents of their own fate. The
West has decided that Palestinians should want a state alongside Israel,
so that opinion is attributed to them as fact, though anyone who has
spent time with actual Palestinians understands that things are
(understandably, in my opinion) more complicated. Who they are and what
they want is not important: The story mandates that they exist as
passive victims of the party that matters.

Corruption, for example, is a pressing concern for many Palestinians
under the rule of the Palestinian Authority, but when I and another
reporter once suggested an article on the subject, we were informed by
the bureau chief that Palestinian corruption was “not the story.”
(Israeli corruption was, and we covered it at length.)

Israeli actions are analyzed and criticized, and every flaw in
Israeli society is aggressively reported. In one seven-week period, from
Nov. 8 to Dec. 16, 2011, I decided to count the stories coming out of
our bureau on the various 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. I counted 27 separate articles, an average of a story every
two days. In a very conservative estimate, this seven-week tally was
higher than the total number of significantly critical stories about
Palestinian government and society, including the totalitarian Islamists
of Hamas, that our bureau had published in the preceding three years.

The Hamas charter, for example, calls not just for Israel’s
destruction but for the murder of Jews and blames Jews for engineering
the French and Russian revolutions and both world wars; the charter was
never mentioned in print when I was at the AP, though Hamas won a
Palestinian national election and had become one of the region’s most
important players. To draw the link with this summer’s events: An
observer might think Hamas’ decision in recent years to construct a
military infrastructure beneath Gaza’s civilian infrastructure would be
deemed newsworthy, if only because of what it meant about the way the
next conflict would be fought and the cost to innocent people. But that
is not the case. The Hamas emplacements were not important in
themselves, and were therefore ignored. What was important was the
Israeli decision to attack them.

There has been much discussion recently of Hamas attempts to
intimidate reporters. Any veteran of the press corps here knows the
intimidation is real, and I saw it in action myself as an editor on the
AP news desk. During the 2008-2009 Gaza fighting 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 policy was then, and remains, not to inform
readers that the story is censored unless the censorship is Israeli.
Earlier this month, the AP’s Jerusalem news editor reported and
submitted a story on Hamas intimidation; the story was shunted into deep
freeze by his superiors and has not been published.)

But if critics imagine that journalists are clamoring to cover Hamas
and are stymied by thugs and threats, it is generally not so. There are
many low-risk ways to report Hamas actions, if the will is there: under
bylines from Israel, under no byline, by citing Israeli sources.
Reporters are resourceful when they want to be.

The fact is that Hamas intimidation is largely beside the point
because the actions of Palestinians are beside the point: Most reporters
in Gaza believe their job is to document violence directed by Israel at
Palestinian civilians. That is the essence of the Israel story. In
addition, reporters are under deadline and often at risk, and many don’t
speak the language and have only the most tenuous grip on what is going
on. They are dependent on Palestinian colleagues and fixers who either
fear Hamas, support Hamas, or both. Reporters don’t need Hamas enforcers
to shoo them away from facts that muddy the simple story they have been
sent to tell.

It is not coincidence that the few journalists who have documented
Hamas fighters and rocket launches in civilian areas this summer were
generally not, as you might expect, from the large news organizations
with big and permanent Gaza operations. They were mostly scrappy,
peripheral, and newly arrived players—a Finn, an Indian crew, a few others. These poor souls didn’t get the memo.

What Else Isn’t Important?

The fact that Israelis quite recently elected moderate governments
that sought reconciliation with the Palestinians, and which were
undermined by the Palestinians, is considered unimportant and rarely
mentioned. These lacunae are often not oversights but a matter of
policy. In early 2009, for example, two colleagues of mine obtained
information that Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert had made a
significant peace offer to the Palestinian Authority several months
earlier, and that the Palestinians had deemed it insufficient. This had
not been reported yet and it was—or should have been—one of the biggest
stories of the year. The reporters obtained confirmation from both sides
and one even saw a map, but the top editors at the bureau decided that
they would not publish the story.

Some staffers were furious, but it didn’t help. Our narrative was
that the Palestinians were moderate and the Israelis recalcitrant and
increasingly extreme. Reporting the Olmert offer—like delving too deeply
into the subject of Hamas—would make that narrative look like nonsense.
And so we were instructed to ignore it, and did, for more than a year
and a half.

This decision taught me a lesson that should be clear to consumers of
the Israel story: Many of the people deciding what you will read and
see from here view their role not as explanatory but as political.
Coverage is a weapon to be placed at the disposal of the side they like.

How Is the Israel Story Framed?

The Israel story is framed in the same terms that have been in use
since the early 1990s—the quest for a “two-state solution.” It is
accepted that the conflict is “Israeli-Palestinian,” meaning that it is a
conflict taking place on land that Israel controls—0.2 percent of the
Arab world—in which Jews are a majority and Arabs a minority. The
conflict is more accurately described as “Israel-Arab,” or
“Jewish-Arab”—that is, a conflict between the 6 million Jews of Israel
and 300 million Arabs in surrounding countries. (Perhaps “Israel-Muslim”
would be more accurate, to take into account the enmity of non-Arab
states like Iran and Turkey, and, more broadly, 1 billion Muslims
worldwide.) This is the conflict that has been playing out in different
forms for a century, before Israel existed, before Israel captured the
Palestinian territories of Gaza and the West Bank, and before the term
“Palestinian” was in use.

The “Israeli-Palestinian” framing allows the Jews, a tiny minority in
the Middle East, to be depicted as the stronger party. It also includes
the implicit assumption that if the Palestinian problem is somehow
solved the conflict will be over, though no informed person today
believes this to be true. This definition also allows the Israeli
settlement project, which I believe is a serious moral and strategic
error on Israel’s part, to be described not as what it is—one more
destructive symptom of the conflict—but rather as its cause.

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,
just as Hezbollah is the dominant representative of radical Islam in
Lebanon, the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, the Taliban in Afghanistan
and Pakistan, and so forth.

Hamas is not, as it freely admits, party to the effort to create a
Palestinian state alongside Israel. It has different goals about which
it is quite open and that are similar to those of the groups listed
above. Since the mid 1990s, more than any other player, Hamas has
destroyed the Israeli left, swayed moderate Israelis against territorial
withdrawals, and buried the chances of a two-state compromise. That’s
one accurate way to frame the story.

An observer might also legitimately frame the story through the lens
of minorities in the Middle East, all of which are under intense
pressure from Islam: When minorities are helpless, their fate is that of
the Yazidis or Christians of northern Iraq, as we have just seen, and
when they are armed and organized they can fight back and survive, as in
the case of the Jews and (we must hope) the Kurds.

There are, in other words, many different ways to see what is
happening here. 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.

The Israel story is framed to seem as if it has nothing to do with
events nearby because the “Israel” of international journalism does not
exist in the same geo-political universe as Iraq, Syria, or Egypt. The
Israel story is not a story about current events. It is about something

The Old Blank Screen

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.

Like many Jews who grew up late in the 20th century in friendly
Western cities, I dismissed such ideas as the feverish memories of my
grandparents. One thing I have learned—and I’m not alone this summer—is
that I was foolish to have done so. Today, people in the West tend to
believe the ills of the age are racism, colonialism, and militarism. The
world’s only Jewish country has done less harm than most countries on
earth, and more good—and yet when people went looking for a country that
would symbolize the sins of our new post-colonial, post-militaristic,
post-ethnic dream-world, the country they chose was this one.

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.

Some readers might remember that Britain participated in the 2003
invasion of Iraq, the fallout from which has now killed more than three
times the number of people ever killed in the Israel-Arab conflict; yet
in Britain, protesters furiously condemn Jewish militarism. White people
in London and Paris whose parents not long ago had themselves fanned by
dark people in the sitting rooms of Rangoon or Algiers condemn Jewish
“colonialism.” Americans who live in places called “Manhattan” or
“Seattle” condemn Jews for displacing the native people of Palestine.
Russian reporters condemn Israel’s brutal military tactics. Belgian
reporters condemn Israel’s treatment of Africans. When Israel opened a
transportation service for Palestinian workers in the occupied West Bank
a few years ago, American news consumers could read about Israel
“segregating buses.” And there are a lot of people in Europe, and not
just in Germany, who enjoy hearing the Jews accused of genocide.

You don’t need to be a history professor, or a psychiatrist, to
understand what’s going on. Having rehabilitated themselves against
considerable odds in a minute corner of the earth, the descendants of
powerless people who were pushed out of Europe and the Islamic Middle
East have become what their grandparents were—the pool into which the
world spits. The Jews of Israel are the screen onto which it has become
socially acceptable to project the things you hate about yourself and
your own country. The tool through which this psychological projection
is executed is the international press.

Who Cares If the World Gets the Israel Story Wrong?

Because a gap has opened here between the way things are and the way
they are described, opinions are wrong and policies are wrong, and
observers are regularly blindsided by events. Such things have happened
before. In the years leading to the breakdown of Soviet Communism in
1991, as the Russia expert Leon Aron wrote in a 2011 essay for Foreign Policy,
“virtually no Western expert, scholar, official, or politician foresaw
the impending collapse of the Soviet Union.” The empire had been rotting
for years and the signs were there, but the people who were supposed to
be seeing and reporting them failed and when the superpower imploded
everyone was surprised.

the outcome in this region in the next decade, it will have as much to
do with Israel as World War II had to do with Spain
And there was the Spanish civil war: “Early in life I had noticed
that no event is ever correctly reported in a newspaper, but in Spain,
for the first time, I saw newspaper reports which do not bear any
relation to the facts, not even the relationship which is implied in an
ordinary lie. … I saw, in fact, history being written not in terms of
what had happened but of what ought to have happened according to
various ‘party lines.’ ” That was George Orwell, writing in 1942.

Orwell did not step off an airplane in Catalonia, stand next to a
Republican cannon, and have himself filmed while confidently repeating
what everyone else was saying or describing what any fool could see:
weaponry, rubble, bodies. He looked beyond the ideological fantasies of
his peers and knew that what was important was not necessarily visible.
Spain, he understood, was not really about Spain at all—it was about a
clash of totalitarian systems, German and Russian. He knew he was
witnessing a threat to European civilization, and he wrote that, and he
was right.

Understanding what happened in Gaza this summer means understanding
Hezbollah in Lebanon, the rise of the Sunni jihadis in Syria and Iraq,
and the long tentacles of Iran. It requires figuring out why countries
like Egypt and Saudi Arabia now see themselves as closer to Israel than
to Hamas. Above all, it requires us to understand what is clear to
nearly everyone in the Middle East: The ascendant force in our part of
the world is not democracy or modernity. It is rather an empowered
strain of Islam that assumes different and sometimes conflicting forms,
and that is willing to employ extreme violence in a quest to unite the
region under its control and confront the West. Those who grasp this
fact will be able to look around and connect the dots.

Israel is not an idea, a symbol of good or evil, or a litmus test for
liberal opinion at dinner parties. It is a small country in a scary
part of the world that is getting scarier. It should be reported as
critically as any other place, and understood in context and in
proportion. Israel is not one of the most important stories in the
world, or even in the Middle East; whatever the outcome in this region
in the next decade, it will have as much to do with Israel as World War
II had to do with Spain. Israel is a speck on the map—a sideshow that
happens to carry an unusual emotional charge.

Many in the West clearly prefer the old comfort of parsing the moral
failings of Jews, and the familiar feeling of superiority this brings
them, to confronting an unhappy and confusing reality. They may convince
themselves that all of this is the Jews’ problem, and indeed the Jews’
fault. But journalists engage in these fantasies at the cost of their
credibility and that of their profession. And, as Orwell would tell us,
the world entertains fantasies at its peril.


A Former AP Correspondent Explains How and Why His Colleagues Get Israel So Wrong – Tablet Magazine

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