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Essay: Media Malfunctions

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Confessions of an AP reporter

 

Matti Friedman

 

One night several years ago, I came out of Bethlehem after a reporting assignment and crossed through the Israeli military checkpoint between that city and its neighbour, Jerusalem, where I live. With me were perhaps a dozen Palestinian men, mostly in their thirties - my age. No soldiers were visible at the entrance to the checkpoint, a precaution against suicide bombers. We saw only steel and concrete. I followed the other men through a metal detector into a stark corridor and followed instructions barked from a loudspeaker - Remove your belt! Lift up your shirt! The voice belonged to a soldier watching us on a closed-circuit camera. Exiting the checkpoint, adjusting my belt and clothing with the others, I felt like a being less than entirely human and understood, not for the first time, how a feeling like that would provoke someone to violence.

Consumers of news will recognise this scene as belonging to the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, which keeps the 2.5 million Palestinians in that territory under military rule, and has since 1967. The facts of this situation aren't much in question.

The question we must ask, as observers of the world, is why this conflict has come over time to draw more attention than any other, and why it is presented as it is. How have the doings in a country that constitutes 0.01% of the world's surface become the focus of angst, loathing, and condemnation more than any other?

We must ask how Israelis and Palestinians have become the stylised symbol of conflict, of strong and weak, the parallel bars upon which the intellectual Olympians of the West perform their tricks - not Turks and Kurds, not Han Chinese and Tibetans, not British soldiers and Iraqi Muslims, not Iraqi Muslims and Iraqi Christians, not Saudi sheikhs and Saudi women, not Indians and Kashmiris, not drug cartel thugs and Mexican villagers. 

Questioning why this is the case is in no way an attempt to evade or obscure reality, which is why I opened with the checkpoint leading from Bethlehem.

My experiences as a journalist provide part of the answer, and also raise pressing questions that go beyond the practice of journalism.

I have been writing from and about Israel for most of the past 20 years, since I moved there from Toronto at age 17. During the five and a half years I spent as part of the international press corps as a reporter for the American news agency the Associated Press, between 2006 and 2011, I gradually began to be aware of certain malfunctions in the coverage of the Israel story - recurring omissions, recurring inflations, decisions made according to considerations that were not journalistic but political, all in the context of a story staffed and reported more than any other international story on earth.

What is and is not a story

In early 2009, to give one fairly routine example of an editorial decision of the kind I mean, I was instructed by my superiors to report a second-hand story taken from an Israeli newspaper about offensive T-shirts supposedly worn by Israeli soldiers. We had no confirmation of our own of the story's veracity, and one doesn't see much coverage of things US Marines or British infantrymen have tattooed on their chests or arms. And yet T-shirts worn by Israeli soldiers were newsworthy in the eyes of one of the world's most powerful news organisations. This was because we sought to hint or say outright that Israeli soldiers were war criminals, and every detail supporting that portrayal was to be seized upon. At around the same time, several Israeli soldiers were quoted anonymously in a school newsletter speaking of abuses they had supposedly witnessed while fighting in Gaza; we wrote no fewer than three separate stories about this, although the use of sources whose identity isn't known to reporters is banned for good reason by the AP's own in-house rules. This story, too, was very much one that we wanted to tell. By the time the soldiers came forward to say they hadn't actually witnessed the events they supposedly described, and were trying to make a point to young students about the horrors and moral challenges of warfare, it was, of course, too late.

Also in those same months, in early 2009, two reporters in our bureau obtained details of a peace offer made by the Israeli Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert, to the Palestinians several months before, and deemed by the Palestinians to be insufficient. The offer proposed a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza with a capital in a shared Jerusalem. This should have been one of the year's biggest stories. But an Israeli peace offer and its rejection by the Palestinians didn't suit OUR story. The bureau chief ordered both reporters to ignore the Olmert offer, and they did, despite a furious protest from one of them, who later termed this decision "the biggest fiasco I've seen in 50 years of journalism." But it was very much in keeping not only with the practice at the AP, but in the press corps in general. Soldiers' vile T-shirts were worth a story. Anonymous and unverifiable testimonies of abuses were worth three. A peace proposal from the Israeli Prime Minister to the Palestinian President was not to be reported at all.

Vandalism of Palestinian property is a story. Neo-Nazi rallies at Palestinian universities or in Palestinian cities are not - I saw images of such rallies suppressed on more than one occasion. Jewish hatred of Arabs is a story. Arab hatred of Jews is not. Our policy, for example, was not to mention the assertion in the Hamas founding charter that Jews were responsible for engineering both world wars and the Russian and French revolutions, despite the obvious insight this provides into the thinking of one of the most influential actors in the conflict.

The Hamas military build-up amid and under the civilian population of Gaza is not a story. But Israeli military action responding to that threat - that is a story, as we all saw this summer. Israel's responsibility for the deaths of civilians as a result - that's a story. Hamas' responsibility for those deaths is not. Any reporter from the international press corps in Israel, whether he or she works for the AP, Reuters, CNN, the BBC or elsewhere, will recognise the examples I've cited here of what is newsworthy and what is not as standard operating procedure.

In my time in the press corps I saw, from the inside, how Israel's flaws were dissected and magnified, while the flaws of its enemies were purposely erased. I saw how the threats facing Israel were disregarded or even mocked as figments of the Israeli imagination, even as these threats repeatedly materialised. I saw how a fictional image of Israel and of its enemies was manufactured, polished and propagated to devastating effect.

Over time, I came to understand that the malfunctions I was witnessing, and in which I was playing a part, were part of a broader problem in the way the press functioned, and in how it saw its job. The international press in Israel had become less an observer of the conflict than a player in it. It had moved away from careful explanation and toward a kind of political character assassination on behalf of the side it identified as being right.

Eventually, however, I realised that even the press wasn't the whole story. The press was playing a key role in an intellectual phenomenon taking root in the West, but it wasn't the cause, or not the only cause - it was both blown on a certain course by the prevailing ideological winds, and causing those winds to blow with greater force.

In the aftermath of last summer's Gaza war, and in light of events in Europe in recent months, it should be clear that something deep and toxic is going on.

Myths and Facts about "the occupation"

What presents itself as political criticism, as analysis, or as journalism, is coming to sound more and more like a new version of a much older complaint - that Jews are troublemakers, a negative force in world events, and that if these people, as a collective, could somehow be made to vanish, we would all be better off.

The occupation of the West Bank, with which I opened, would seem to be at the heart of the story, the root cause, as it were, of the conflict portrayed as the most important on earth. A few words, then, about this occupation.

The occupation was created in the 1967 Mideast war. The occupation is not the conflict, which of course predates the occupation. It is a symptom of the conflict, a conflict that would remain even if the symptom were somehow solved. If we look at the West Bank, the only Palestinian area currently occupied by Israel, and if we include Jerusalem, we see that the conflict in these areas claimed 60 lives last year - Palestinian and Israeli.

An end to this occupation would free Palestinians from Israeli rule, and free Israelis from ruling people who do not wish to be ruled. Observers of the Middle East in 2015 understand, too, that an end to the occupation will create a power vacuum that will be filled, as all power vacuums in the region have been, not by the forces of democracy and modernity, which in our region range from weak to negligible, but by the powerful and ruthless, by the extremists. This is what we've learned from the unravelling of the Middle East in recent years. This is what happened in Iraq, Syria, Libya, Yemen and Egypt, and before that in Gaza and southern Lebanon. My home in Jerusalem is within a day's drive of both Aleppo and Baghdad. Creating a new playground for these forces will bring the black-masked soldiers of radical Islam within yards of Israeli homes with mortars, rockets and tunnelling implements.

Beyond the obvious threat to Palestinian Christians, women, gays, and liberals, who will be the first to suffer, this threatens to render much or all of Israel unliveable, ending the only safe progressive space in the Middle East, the only secure minority refuge in the Middle East, and the only Jewish country on earth. No international investment or guarantees, no Western-backed government or Western-trained military, will be able to keep that from happening, as we have just seen in Iraq.

People observing this conflict from afar have been led to believe that Israel faces a simple choice between occupation and peace. That choice is fiction. The Palestinian choice, it is said, is between Israeli occupation and an independent democracy. That choice, too, is fiction. Neither side faces a clear choice, or clear outcomes. Here we have a conflict in a region of conflict, with no clear villain, no clear victim, and no clear solution, one of many hundreds or thousands of ethnic, national, and religious disputes on earth.

The Cult of Occupation

The only group of people subject to a systematic boycott at present in the Western world is Jews, appearing now under the convenient euphemism "Israelis." The only country that has its own "apartheid week" on campuses is the Jewish country.

No similar tactics are currently employed against any other ethnic group or nationality, no matter how egregious the human rights violations attributed to that group's country of origin.

Anyone who questions why this is so will be greeted with shouts of "the occupation!", as if this were explanation enough. It is not.

The human costs of the Middle Eastern adventures of America and Britain in this century have been far higher, and far harder to explain, than anything Israel has ever done. They have involved occupations, and the violence they unleashed continues as I speak here this evening. No one boycotts American or British professors. Turkey is a democracy, and a NATO member, and yet its occupation of northern Cyprus and long conflict with the stateless Kurds - many of whom see themselves as occupied - are viewed with a yawn; there is no "Turkish Apartheid Week." The world is full of injustice. In Congo, 5 million people are dead.

The time has come for everyone to admit that the fashionable disgust for Israel among many in the West is not liberal but is selective, disproportionate and discriminatory.

There are simply too many voices coming from too many places, expressing themselves in too poisonous a way, for us to conclude that this is a narrow criticism of the occupation.

Naming and understanding this sentiment is important, as it is becoming one of the key intellectual trends of our time. We might think of it as the "Cult of the Occupation."

The cult's priesthood can be found among the activists, NGO experts, and ideological journalists who have turned coverage of this conflict into a catalogue of Jewish moral failings, as if Israeli society were different from any other group of people on earth, as if Jews deserve to be mocked for having suffered and failed to be perfect as a result.

Most of my former colleagues in the press corps aren't full-fledged members of this group. They aren't true believers. But boycotts of Israel, and only of Israel, which are one of the cult's most important practices, have significant support in the press, including among editors who were my superiors. Sympathy for Israel's predicament is highly unpopular in the relevant social circles, and is something to be avoided by anyone wishing to be invited to the right dinner parties, or to be promoted.

The cult and its belief system are in control of the narrative, just as the popular kids in a school are those who decide what clothes or music are acceptable. This guides the coverage. This explains why the events in Gaza this summer were portrayed not as a complicated war like many others fought in this century, but as a massacre of innocents.

What, exactly, is going on?

Observers of Western history understand that at times of confusion and unhappiness, and of great ideological ferment, negative sentiment tends to coagulate around Jews. Discussions of the great topics of the time often end up as discussions about Jews.

In the late 1800s, for example, French society was riven by the clash between the old France of the church and army, and the new France of liberalism and the rule of law. The French were smarting from their military humiliation by the Prussians. All of this sentiment erupted around the figure of a Jew, Alfred Dreyfus, accused of betraying France as a spy for Germany. His accusers knew he was innocent, but that didn't matter; he was a symbol of everything they wanted to condemn.

To give another example: Germans in the 1920s and '30s were preoccupied with their humiliation in the Great War. This became a discussion of Jewish traitors who had stabbed Germany in the back. Germans were preoccupied as well with the woes of their economy - this became a discussion of Jewish wealth, and Jewish bankers.

This is the face of this recurring obsession. As the journalist Charles Maurras wrote, approvingly, in 1911: "Everything seems impossible, or frighteningly difficult, without the providential arrival of anti-Semitism, through which all things fall into place and are simplified."

The West today is preoccupied with a feeling of guilt about the use of power. That's why the Jews, in their state, are now held up in the press and elsewhere as the prime example of the abuse of power. That's why for so many the global villain, as portrayed in newspapers and on TV, is none other than the Jewish soldier, or the Jewish settler.

Symbolism and the Mideast Turmoil

One would expect the growing scale and complexity of the conflict in the Middle East over the past decade to have eclipsed the fixation on Israel in the eyes of the press and other observers. Israel is, after all, a sideshow: The death toll in Syria in less than four years far exceeds the toll in the Israel-Arab conflict in a century. The annual death toll in the West Bank and Jerusalem is a morning in Iraq.

And yet it is precisely in these years that the obsession has grown worse.

This makes little sense, unless we understand that people aren't fixated on Israel despite everything else going on - but rather because of everything else going on.

The last few decades have brought the West into conflict with the Islamic world. Terrorists have attacked New York, Washington, London, Madrid, and now Paris. America and Britain caused the unravelling of Iraq, and hundreds of thousands of people are dead there. Afghanistan was occupied and thousands of Western soldiers killed, along with countless civilians - but the Taliban are alive and well, undeterred.

All of this is confusing and discouraging. It causes people to search for answers and explanations, and these are hard to come by. It is in this context that the Cult of the Occupation has caught on. The idea is that the problems in the Middle East have something to do with Jewish arrogance and perfidy, that the sins of one's own country can be projected upon the Western world's old blank screen.

As one BBC reporter informed a Jewish interviewee on camera several weeks ago, after a Muslim terrorist murdered four Jewish shoppers at a Paris supermarket, "Many critics of Israel's policy would suggest that the Palestinians suffered hugely at Jewish hands as well." Everything, that is, can be linked to the occupation, and Jews can be blamed even for the attacks against them. This isn't the voice of the perpetrators, but of the enablers. This voice is confident and growing in volume.

The Jews of the Middle East are outnumbered by the Arabs of the Middle East 60 to 1, and by the world's Muslims 200 to 1. Half of the Jews in Israel are there because their families were forced from their homes in the 20th century not by Christians in Europe, but by Muslims in the Middle East. Israel currently has Hezbollah on its northern border, al-Qaeda on its northeastern and southern borders, and Hamas in Gaza. None of these groups seek an end to the occupation, but rather openly wish to destroy Israel. But it is naive to point out these facts. The facts don't matter: We are in the world of symbols. In this world, Israel has become a symbol of what is wrong - not Hamas, not Hezbollah, not Great Britain, not America, not Russia.

Matti Friedman's work as a reporter has taken him to Lebanon, Morocco, Egypt, Moscow and Washington DC, and to conflicts in Israel and the Caucasus. His first book, The Aleppo Codex, won the 2014 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature. The above is an edited transcript of a speech he gave at a Britain-Israel Communications and Research Centre (BICOM) dinner in London on January 26. © BICOM, reprinted by permission, all rights reserved.

 

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