Why Is the Media Obsessed With Israel?

Seven plausible reasons why the world might be disproportionately occupied with Israel, none of which have anything to do with base hatred of the country or of Jews.

Mira Sucharov.
Mira Sucharov
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Protesters against military action in Gaza gather by the BBC building in central London, Saturday, Aug. 9, 2014.Credit: AP
Mira Sucharov.
Mira Sucharov

More senseless violence hit Jerusalem on Tuesday, with the brutal murder of four worshipers at a synagogue in the Har Nof neighborhood, and some folks, while on the one hand wanting to ensure the world learns of this heinous act, will, on the other hand, continue to ask why the media is so obsessed with Israel.

I was reminded of this question recently via a short CNN video clip with journalist Matti Friedman. To make his case that the media is unfairly biased against Israel, Friedman cites the 2013 death toll in Jerusalem compared to Portland (more deaths in Portland), and the century-long Arab-Israeli conflict toll compared to the ongoing carnage in Syria (more lives lost in Syria). He adds that, in the overall reporting on the Israeli-Palestinian saga, Israel is unfairly portrayed as the aggressor while the Palestinians are cast as victims rather than as agents of their own fate.

(Background: the video clip is a distillation of a short essay Friedman wrote for Tablet magazine three months ago, but the video is still circulating on social media.)

The question of presumed agency is a key one in the conflict: how the conflict actors themselves see it, and how others can serve to reinforce these roles. It’s a fair point.

But to truly understand why individuals, media markets, foreign policy actors and international organizations devote so much time and energy to the Israeli-Palestinian nexus we’d need some in-depth research to really understand their motivations. So for now, here are several plausible reasons that seek to raise the discussion beyond the trivial and the reductionist assumption that there is a “media bias against Israel,” and the related, if unspoken, accusation that the world simply hates the Jewish state.

Perhaps most importantly, American taxpayers provide a significant annual sum of money to Israel, via the $3 billion in annual U.S. aid granted to Israel. It’s natural that the government and the voters in that country at least would disproportionately concern themselves with the region.

Second, the Israel-Palestine core is the heartland of the three main monotheistic religions. The role of the religious imaginary in Western art, literature, film and culture in general is significant. The region, in short, has long captured the imagination of many.

Third, Israel — unlike Syria — is a democracy. Citizens of democracies tend to hold other democracies to democratic standards. And that means that violence committed in the name of democratic values — for better or worse — sometimes gets more airtime.

Fourth, as others have written before, Israel is seen by many as a colonial transplant. There are very good arguments against a simplistic understanding of Israel as being a colonial project. (There is no core state to which settlers send extracted resources, for example.) But there is no getting around the fact that Israel’s birth was precipitated in part by Europe’s carving up of the region into mandate territories after the First World War. The shred of the colonial shadow succeeds in galvanizing a certain political consciousness that other conflicts, especially civil ones within non-democracies, simply don’t, unfortunately perhaps.

Fifth, once Israel came into existence, it was seen by many as a plucky state surviving against all odds. It’s a narrative that Israel and the engines of Diaspora Jewry have themselves succeeded in promoting. That the world continues its fascination with Arab-Israeli geopolitics, played out now partly through the Palestinians, is therefore not surprising.

Sixth, Jews tend to punch above their collective weight in many aspects of popular culture: entertainment, the arts, literature, and so on. That the Jewish State and its goings-on figure so prominently in the media can be seen as a benign extension of this. Add to this the fact that some of the players in the contemporary Israeli-Palestinian saga also hold American citizenship (three of the victims of the Har Nof synagogue attack held dual Israeli-U.S. citizenship, while the fourth was British-Israeli) and the effect is magnified.

Finally, as for Friedman’s comparison between the disproportionate attention given to death and destruction in Israel compared to, say, in Portland, one could say that political violence naturally garners more international concern — again, sadly for those who are ignored— than death caused by such typical urban ills as poverty, petty crime, drugs, or traffic accidents.

In sum: I've suggested seven plausible reasons why the world might be “obsessed” with Israel, none of them having to do with base hatred of the country or of Jews. Of course, there’s nothing saying that any of these possible reasons obviate the need to look anti-Semitism in the eye wherever it genuinely appears, or to spend more time analyzing the Palestinian part of the equation. But let’s at least consider the array of possibilities out there before we assume that the world is against us.