The cover story of the New York Times Sunday Magazine this week was written by Israeli journalist Ronen Bergman and it gave a detailed summary of Israel’s strategy and motivation regarding a possible attack on Iran, which, the article concluded, is more likely than not.
Then the blogosphere exploded with irate pundits and enraged commentators accusing the New York Times of being biased, employing double standards and serving as a mouthpiece for Israeli propagandists. The adjectives “pro-Israel” and “pro-Zionist” were tossed around freely as was their obvious connection to the well-known fact that the owners of the newspaper are Jewish, even though they’re not.
All of which, of course, would come as a great surprise to the legions of harsh critics of the newspaper, both in America and in Israel, including, first and foremost, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who refused to pen an opinion article for the so-called “Old Gray Lady” and who reportedly described the Times as one of Israel’s two worst enemies in the world, (the other being the one that you are reading right now.)
Double standards are sometimes a matter of opinion and media bias is often in the eye of the beholder. To hear Arabs and Muslims say it, the American media consistently ignores the ordeals of the Israeli occupation, routinely downplays the significance of Jewish settlements overlooks the Israeli government’s rejectionist peace policies and barely makes an effort to disguise its blatantly obvious anti-Muslim, anti-Arab and anti-Palestinian prejudices.
These claims, of course, would be considered preposterous by many Israelis and American Jews who consistently lambast the same media’s unbalanced, disproportionate and yes, quite often anti-Semitic portrayal of the Jewish state. In America, these sentiments are fortified and amplified by conservative and Evangelical leaders who have their own axe to grind with the “elitist liberal media.”
It’s not only that supporters of Israel are feeling increasingly victimized, - with, but usually without just cause - or that they tend to view every harshly critical comment as part of a grand conspiracy to delegitimize Israel or even that they are participating in the defense of Israel in the only way they can – by knocking the media; they are also constantly lowering the bar in order to prove their point.
Criticism of settlement activity, for example, is no longer acceptable if it is not accompanied in the next paragraph by a much harsher blast of some Palestinian transgression, lest the writer stand accused of the cardinal sin of “moral equivalency.” Talk of a negotiated settlement based on modified 1967 borders and a division of Jerusalem is no longer a rational blueprint advanced by two American presidents and two Israeli prime ministers, at the very least, but rather a sinister formula for Israel’s destruction, or “throwing Israel under a bus,” as Mitt Romney describes it. It’s only a small jump from there to branding commentators who advocate such an agreement as aiders, abetters and avowed anti-Semites.
Another favorite gripe against the media is that Israel gets an inordinate amount of coverage compared to other countries, and this, in and of itself, is a form of double standard and bias. And while the number of foreign correspondents stationed in Israel has gone down by the hundreds in the past decade, there is no denying that Israel punches way above its weight in newspaper inches, broadcast minutes and web pages, as a simple calculation can prove.
When you take the population of various countries and divide it by the number of times they are mentioned in Google News, you get a measurable index of media coverage per number of people. A random check carried out this week showed that there is one citation on Google News for every 50,000 Chinese or Indians, 20,000 Bangladeshis, 8,000 Pakistanis, 5,000 Russians, 3,400 Egyptians (in the midst of horrific soccer riots) or 1200 Syrians (although the regime in Damascus is doing its best to improve its rankings by steadily decreasing the number of living Syrians). But it takes only 300 Israelis for each Google News item on Israel, clear proof that the country is being singled out for disproportionate coverage.
But is this disproportion really such a bad thing? Is it something to be fought, or rather cherished and preserved? And while Natan Sharansky has brilliantly copyrighted “three D’s” that define the “new anti-Semitism”, do “double standards” really belong up there together with demonization and delegitimization?
Because disproportionate coverage of Israel is, in many ways, the flip side and the natural outgrowth of the disproportionate support that Israel enjoys, especially in America. And the “double standards” are but a consequence, aren’t they, of the “shared values” that Americans and Israelis love to boast about. And bias, you must admit, can cut both ways.
After all, the very same people who detect no bias when Republican presidential hopefuls fall all over themselves swearing their undying love for Israel, who sense no double standards when Palestinians are suddenly cast as “invented people” and who see nothing disproportionate in the fact that the time and attention devoted to Israel in the Republican debates usually corresponds to two and a half Chinas, with a Europe and India thrown in for good measure – these are usually the very same people who go bananas over a random sentence in a Tom Friedman article, who man the battle stations when a critical Roger Cohen column is published, who cry Eureka! over each and every anti-Israeli citation, in the process drawing attention to often obscure publications that no one would have heard of otherwise.
And it’s not even clear which is the chicken and where is the egg in this equation, because there is a strong case to be made that the disproportionate coverage and the media double standards are not only the result but also a direct cause of what is, after all, the truly amazing phenomenon that brings Republicans and Democrats, who can’t agree on anything anymore, to declare in perfect unison that tiny Israel is “America’s greatest ally in the world.”
And if that is true, then bias, disproportion and double standards are no threats, but rather critical building blocks of Israel’s national security. People who zealously combat the bias and the double standards and the disproportionate should be careful what they wish for, lest it come true.
Israel and its supporters increasingly prefer to shoot the messengers rather than listen to what they may have to say, to focus on the people holding the mirror rather than look at it directly; this see-no-evil, hear-no-evil attitude has now spread from the international to the Israeli media as well. In a classic case of cognitive dissonance, instead of facing up to the rather obvious and inherent contradiction between settlement activity, for example, and the pursuit of peace, sinister motives are ascribed to anyone who tries to point it out.
Israelis once viewed themselves not only as a “chosen people” in the religious sense but as a unique and admirable phenomenon on the secular world stage as well. When the book “Siah Lohamim” came out after the Six Day War (published in English as “The Seventh Day: Soldiers Talk About the Six Day War) Israelis wore the soul-searching angst of kibbutznik soldiers as a badge of honor. They promoted the unique and rather oxymoronic term “tohar haneshek” - purity of arms – as proof of their morally superior attitude towards their “wars of no choice.” They used to think of the media as an ally. They were self-assured and confident of their just cause. They looked media bias and double standards straight in the eye; they didn’t blink and rarely complained either.
It’s true that times have changed, that much water has flowed in the Jordan River and that Israel and Israelis of 40 years ago are significantly different than the Israelis of today. Still, there is something profoundly post-Zionist and even “unJewish,” if you will, in the demand that Israel be held to the same standards as Syria or Egypt or Sudan or France or Britain or even the United States for that matter. Israelis used to have higher expectations and to demand better of themselves but are now becoming increasingly resigned to being just like everyone else, no worse, perhaps, but not much better either. Israel wants to be treated as “a nation like all other nations,” which, Jews know better than most, is nothing to be proud of.
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