I was just in the States, speaking to members of Ameinu, an organization which, the times notwithstanding, remains outspoken both in its support for peace and its support for Israel.
Among the topics I was asked to address was the portrayal of the Jewish state in the news media. Phrased a little less delicately, the issue amounts to: "Why does the press love to hate Israel?"
The question has taken on an unusual urgency of late, its pivot points Israel's war in Gaza, the debate over engaging a proto-nuclear Iran, the UN's upcoming Durban II World Conference against Racism, Avigdor Lieberman's Arab-baiting campaign for Knesset, and, not least, disclosures in Haaretz, Ma'ariv, and Israeli broadcast media quoting IDF troops describing moral failings during the Gaza offensive.
Allow me to begin with the underlying first question.
Are there journalists who truly dislike Jews, and allow their Jew-hate to color their coverage?
Yes. I've met and, in fact, worked with, a number of them. Some of them, it will come as no surprise to report, are themselves Jewish. But does this explain or account for a significant portion of negative coverage of Israel in the media? It does not. Not at all.
1. What Israel says, and what Israel does.
A. In all the world, there is no bait more tempting for a reporter than Israel's assertion that its military is the "most moral in the world." This is the socially clueless Goliath wearing a sign reading "Kick Me." It is the one irresistible soft target of sound bites.
B. Anyone who has been in a war, as a participant, reporter, or civilian bystander, knows that any war, every war, spawns war crimes. The question, when examining the Cast Lead operation in Gaza, was whether there was something different, something exceptional and intentional and, especially, a matter of policy and command direction, that either trapped or targeted large numbers of civilians, resulting in a human tragedy far beyond the horrible reality of the very fact of warfare.
Was, in other words, this war different from all other wars? Or was this war the trigger for an outpouring of anti-Israel animus that was, for lack of a better term, disproportionate?
Although the jury is still out pending further independent inquiry, the likely answer to both is: Yes.
C. There is reason to believe that, at least in certain units, massive and, in retrospect, excessive firepower was employed, the apparent result of a miscalculation about how, and where, Hamas fighters were likely to engage in combat. In the main, Hamas, whose men had fought to the death in previous encounters, refrained from engaging the IDF at all.
There remains a need for intensive and impartial investigation to determine the extent and the cause of actions which led directly to the deaths of innocents.
D. The fact that may be most difficult to digest - either for haters of Israel or its most ardently positive supporters - is that Israel's armed forces have always been marked by an extraordinary degree of autonomy, down to the level of the individual grunt.
As a direct result, there were instances of Israeli soldiers who risked their own lives to save those of innocents, and there were Israeli soldiers who were predisposed to take the lives of innocents without just cause.
2. What Palestinians say that Israel does.
There are journalists who accept without reservation or corroboration the accounts of Palestinians regarding the actions of Israeli soldiers. There are television networks, some of them financed by Qatar, whose coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, even during studio interviews, is accompanied by unending, obscenely graphic footage of infants and children wounded and killed in the war.
The first rule of covering the Holy Land is also in some ways the only rule:
3. Everyone lies to the press here. Everyone. All the time.
This is similar to, but not the same as:
4. Middle East news, like news in general, is marketing.
We are, all of us, in marketing. We are, all of us, in the business of selling a story. This includes the eyewitness, the victim, the military commander, the Hamas official, the Israeli spokesman, the betrayed, the bereaved, the film crew, the pundit.
Every news outlet has a lens through which it believes the story will best sell to an increasingly news-inured public. Every individual, Israeli or Palestinian, has an axe to grind, and a world full of good reasons to grind it.
5. Sometimes Israel looks bad because it is made to look bad. At other times, however, Israeli actions appear brutal because they, in fact, are.
Much has been made of what may be the least translatable word in the Hebrew language, Hasbara, literally, the act of explaining:
"It is true that the world media, generally speaking, doesn't like Israel very much, and stacks the deck against it, but good hasbara starts with not allowing soldiers to vandalize Palestinian homes and shoot Palestinian women," writes Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic, a veteran of the IDF, of the disclosures over the past week in Haaretz.
"Public relations isn't a morally relevant category, in any case: The crucial question is, how should a civilized country behave when confronting barbarism? With barbarism? Or with respect for innocent life? Pardon me for saying so, but the Jewish people didn't struggle for national equality, justice and freedom so that some of its sons could behave like Cossacks.
"Please don't get me wrong: I'm not equating the morality of the IDF to that of Hamas. The goal of Hamas is to murder innocent people; the goal of the IDF is to avoid murdering innocent people. But when the IDF fails to achieve its goal, and ends up inflicting needless destruction and suffering, it sullies not only its own name, but the name of the Jewish state. It risks making a just cause - Jewish nationhood - seem unjust, and it ultimately endangers what it is supposed to protect."
6. Israelis, as a people and individually, are execrable at public relations because they abhor and distrust the very concept.
There is a reason why Israelis are so breathtakingly inept at furthering their own cause.
It is not only becuse this war was a frank and literally misguided attempt to redress years of misguidance. Or because the war between the Jews and the Arabs, this war which has raged for more than a hundred years, has robbed both sides of its ability to see the humanity of the other.
It is also because Israelis hate the very idea of public relations. They live in a country which has been under effective world quarantine for nearly all if its history.They live in a society whose trait of unbridled openness has become something of a learning disability. They speak a language which is light years and thousands of literal years away from television English. They are bathed in a culture which insulates itself and armors itself and has had little reason to believe the world will give it a fair shake.They have a shared, largely unspoken truth which is based, in part, on the world's inability to fathom their behavior. And they believe that no matter what they do, much of the world is likely to condemn them. And in this,at least, they have seldom been proven wrong.
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