Analysis

In Jewish Media Mania, Netanyahu Is Washington and Trump Jr. His Lafayette

After two millennia of persecution it's easier to equate erroneous BBC headlines with medieval blood libels

Donald Trump Jr. and Benjamin Netanyahu
Kathy Wilens / AP and Abir Sultan / AFP

The headline “Three Palestinians killed after deadly stabbing in Jerusalem," which the British Broadcasting Company ran in the immediate aftermath of Friday’s terrorist attack, was a professional and factual blunder. Faced with an international outcry that included tweets by Donald Trump Jr., the BBC changed the headline to "Israeli policewoman stabbed to death in Jerusalem" and apologized for the misstep. So far so good: A mistake was made, it was corrected, and the world goes on. Or so you might think.

Because while to a disinterested observer or random visitor from Mars it might seem like a minor if not negligible incident, for Israel and the Jewish world it is a major skirmish in an epic war. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu claimed credit for leading the troops to victory, like George Washington crossing the Delaware. Trump was declared a Righteous Gentile, like the Marquis de Lafayette blocking British General Cornwallis before his defeat at Yorktown. The headlines proclaimed a victory for good over evil, truth over falsehood, David over Goliath, the Jewish People over their eternal enemies. Justice, once again, prevailed.

But to take a famous Hillary Clinton quote completely out of context, our amazed Martian might ask: What difference, at this point, does it make? Israel is a regional superpower, its economy is booming, its enemies are in disarray and it is more popular than ever on the world stage, or so Netanyahu claims. Why does it devote so much time and energy and resources to occasional headlines or stories that don’t conform to its view of the world? How can someone so strong feel so weak? How can a country that has ruled over millions of Palestinians for five decades convince itself and its supporters that it is the victim who is being maligned while its opponents are the oppressors who are given a free pass? And how can it believe that this or that headlines make any difference whatsoever to people’s overall perceptions?

It doesn’t come easy, of course. It’s taken one or two millennia of exile and subjugation to entrench the sentiment. In the eyes of many Israelis and their supporters abroad, this BBC faux pas is no accident. It wasn’t some random oversight made by an overworked and underpaid desk editor or by a maverick Palestinian sympathizer working undercover. “Mistakes” like these, whether made by the BBC, the New York Times, CNN, Pravda, the Goldstone Commission or the UN Human Rights Council, are part of a pattern. They are never innocent or benign, but malicious and malignant. Our Martian might not see it, but Jews can smell the stench from miles away.

In combatting the media’s supposed anti-Israel slant, Jews around the world see themselves as foot soldiers in a historic fight against blood libels that started – was it really by coincidence? – in England in 1144, when Thomas of Monmouth claimed that young William of Norwich was murdered by local Jews who believed that killing Christian children will ensure their return to the Holy Land.  After nine centuries of defamation that often led to massacre, it isn’t all that difficult to convince well meaning Jews that describing Palestinian violence as anything less than terrorism or doubting whether all knife-wielding Palestinian teens deserve to die is a harbinger of worse accusations to come.

There are no molehills in this campaign, only mountains. There are no innocuous errors, only evil designs. It might start with criticizing the occupation, but will deteriorate from there to doubting whether Israel truly wants to end it, descend further to justifying boycott and from that point, the gates of hell are blown wide open. These manifestations of potential defamations have to be nipped in the bud, when they are in the headline stage, so that they never go any further. 

BBC workers place barriers near to the main entrance of the BBC headquarters and studios in Portland Place, London, Britain, July 16, 2015.
REUTERS/Peter Nicholls/File Photo

Resenting the media is also a convenient way of diverting energies away from the occupation to more immediate concerns. Yes, the occupation is bad, many Jews might tell themselves, but that headline in the Washington Post is atrocious. And given that most Jews, especially those who live abroad, can neither maintain the occupation nor work to undo it, they volunteer to serve as foot soldiers in a global war to maintain Israel’s good name. It keeps them busy and focused on defending Israel rather than questioning it.

Encouraged by Israeli politicians and their ministries and goaded by a multitude of anti-media NGOs generously funded by right wing billionaires, hundreds and thousands of Jews serve as 24/7 media posses, always on the lookout for a misguided headline here or a malicious story there that will justify ringing the alarm bell and recruiting the Jewish world, in all its might, to smite the offending defamer.

Most of these inoffensive vigilantes are convinced that the media’s malice requires no proof. They ignore the fact that a significant part of today’s news organizations, especially in the U.S., support Israel no matter how odious its actions and criticize Palestinians no matter how justified their moves. They can point to voluminous accounts of anti-Israel bias at the New York Times or the Guardian, which are meticulously documented by scores of well-staffed NGOs, ignoring the fact that absolutely no one is bothering to chronicle mistakes and monitor the media that sits on the other side of the fence.

BBC editors are probably predisposed to err on the side of the Palestinians, but those at the Telegraph might go the other way. You might hear a lot about how the New York Times or CNN are brimming with bias because they didn’t give an Israeli reaction or because they fail to report a Palestinian history of violence but you will never ever hear a peep about the Wall Street Journal or Fox News or the Washington Examiner who will often go harder and farther in the other direction. The reason is simple: Israel’s media defenders may swear by their allegiance to fairness and balance, but they really couldn’t care less. They want their media to conform to the Israeli government line, and anything that strays from that is heresy that needs to be eradicated.

People who work for Haaretz in English are familiar with the dynamic. Its critics have developed conspiracy theories about how Haaretz purposely distorts news reports and opinion articles that appear in Hebrew to make them even more damaging for Israel when they appear in English. For Haaretz’s detractors, variations are always deliberate and change eternally preconceived. They meticulously note every time Haaretz in English translates “terrorist” as “attacker” but ignore the usually equal number of times it translates “attacker” as “terrorist”. They weave dark tales about the headlines, texts, prominence and promotion of certain articles, disregarding the many other benign and often mundane factors that can influence all of the above, including professional considerations, differing opinions, innocent mistakes and even plain exhaustion. 

In many cases -  especially Haaretz’s - the main motivation of many of these media warriors isn’t to correct the accuracy of the reports but to impede them. It’s not this or that word that bothers them, but the essence of their content. Many of Israel’s defenders want to wish away any criticism of the occupation. They try to deter media groups by bombarding them with protests, in the hope that next time they will steer clear of controversy and thus get Israel and its occupation off the hook.

The Palestinians, who are complete amateurs in criticizing or influencing the media, believe that the Times and the BBC and even the Guardian are mostly pro-Israel. In their eyes, Western media outlets by and large are indifferent to Palestinian suffering, tolerant of the occupation, inclined to marvel at Israel’s high-tech wizardry and to ignore the daily ordeals of Palestinians at the roadblocks. They will tell you of pro-Israeli commentators masquerading as neutral commentators, of the media’s lopsided coverage of Israeli casualties, of a tendency to doubt Palestinian claims but to accept official Israeli accounts as gospel truths. But when Israel’s media defenders hear someone accusing the BBC of pro-Israel bias – including two independent commissions that investigated the matter – they can’t stop laughing. It is the exact same reaction that one gets from Palestinians when they are told that the New York Times or the BBC or other media outlets are biased in their favor. The only difference is that for them, objectively, laughing comes much harder.