Commentary Magazine

Israel’s Media Problem

There was a time in Israel when I occasionally watched the news on BBC and CNN. Although they did a mediocre job of presenting it, they covered the globe more fully than did the Israeli television channels.

Eventually, though, I got so angry that I stopped. I can remember one of the last times before I did. A suicide bombing had killed several Israelis that morning and there had been a retaliatory air strike against a PLO installation in Gaza that the Israeli air force knew to be empty of people. While nobody was injured, one bomb fell on a wing of a building that was used by a Palestinian marching band. CNN took ample note of this. After mentioning the terrorist attack in a sentence, with no footage shown of its victims, it dwelled for long moments on the mangled trumpets and shredded drums of the marching band. Clearly, only a ruthless enemy would take revenge on innocent musical instruments.

In her new book, The Other War: Israelis, Palestinians, and the Struggle for Media Supremacy, Stephanie Gutmann remarks that media treatment of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has of late grown slightly more balanced.
1 But slanted reports like the one on CNN, appearing day after day in numerous major newspapers and television newscasts, continue to be the main reason for Israel's poor image around the world. What the average person knows, or thinks he knows, about this conflict comes almost entirely from the media, and media bias against Israel has been enormous.

Why has it been? Gutmann, a working journalist herself who descends on one side of her family from Zionist stock (her grandfather, Nachum Gutmann, was a prominent Palestinian Jewish artist) and on the other, as she tells us, “from a bunch of New-Englandy WASP's led by a matriarch grandmother who literally used to wince if she had to say the word ‘Jew,’ ” has a professional's perspective. She does not, that is, dwell on the “big” explanations commonly given by Israel's supporters for its unpopularity: anti-Semitism, Israel's place in contemporary anti-colonialist discourse, its close association with America in an increasingly anti-American world, and so forth. What concerns her, rather, is the nuts and bolts of reporting from the field and the ground-level vantage point of those doing it, about which she has perceptive points to make. Some of these I can personally vouch for from three years in the mid-1990's in which I functioned as an Israeli correspondent for the New York weekly Forward.


Few foreign correspondents are particularly well-educated. Most go from one posting to another and rarely stay at any for more than a few years. They usually arrive in a country with only a cursory knowledge of its history; rent living quarters in an expensive and far from typical neighborhood in its capital; never learn to speak its language or languages with any proficiency; and socialize heavily among themselves. At the same time, they are expected to present themselves as highly knowledgeable about the place they are reporting from and to file daily stories beginning the moment they arrive. Moreover, these stories must compete for space and prominence with others filed from elsewhere and must satisfy an editorial staff in a home office that worries it is being outdone by rival media.

Everywhere, this tends to produce foreign correspondents who are heavily dependent for their information and point of view on each other and on the small number of official and unofficial native sources they manage to cultivate; who view the country they are covering as much through the prism of other countries they have been in as in terms of its own uniqueness; who have little time for research, being required to churn out copy at a steady rate; who are forced to concentrate on the dramatic and superficial at the expense of the in-depth and explanatory; and who fear nothing worse than being caught out of step with their colleagues.

And if this is true generally, it is even truer of journalists writing about Israel and the Palestinians. One reason that this is so, as Gutmann points out, is that Israel is probably the most reported-on country on earth. Dozens of major newspapers and TV networks maintain permanent staffs and offices in it, and when there are major events to cover, these are massively augmented from abroad. This greatly increases the element of competitiveness—and with it, paradoxical though it may seem, the element of conformism.

Moreover, while in Israel, as in any democracy, journalists are free to go where they wish and talk to whom they want, there are two crucial and closely related exceptions to this rule. One involves places in the occupied or Palestinian territories to which access is limited or barred by the Israeli army; the other, the danger posed to free movement in these same territories by armed Palestinians, who are everywhere a law unto themselves. And because these exceptions directly affect that aspect of reporting from Israel which foreign journalists are most interested in, namely, Jewish-Arab violence and everything surrounding it—a military dragnet in the West Bank, say, for wanted terrorists, or an interview with a Palestinian “resistance fighter” in a refugee shantytown, or an army closure on a Palestinian city—they assume great importance and force the foreign correspondent to deal frequently with two types of intermediaries.

On the Israeli side, there is the military, whether in the form of commanding officers in the field or the spokesman's office of the Israel Defense Forces, which briefs reporters on military events, answers their queries, lets them know what is off-limits at a given moment, and sometimes provides them with an English-speaking escort when they wish to visit sensitive areas.

On the Palestinian side, there is the “fixer,” as he or she is called by Gutmann and other journalists. This is a person, generally young, educated, and with a good command of English, who accompanies correspondents in the territories, informs them of interesting subjects and possible scoops, arranges appointments and interviews for them, translates for them from the Arabic, explains to them nuances of scenes or conversations that they may have missed, knows the back roads and streets that will get them around military checkpoints, and acts as a guarantor of their safety, assuring local residents that they are not Israeli secret agents and negotiating their way into and out of potentially difficult situations. “Fixers” are not cheap, but a good one is an indispensable asset, and just about all foreign correspondents in Israel have their regular or regulars on whom they depend.


Here, as Gutmann describes it and as I can confirm, is where a major part of the problem sets in. A journalist's dealings with the Israeli army, or with institutions like the government press office and the foreign ministry, are of a formal nature and frequently cumbersome and annoying. There is bureaucracy and delay; requests may go unanswered or be turned down; harried soldiers on duty can be snappish and in any case are forbidden to be interviewed; answers to questions come in vague officialese; and while the journalist may sometimes gets to know the officials who give these answers, relations with them are rarely personal.

With one's “fixer,” on the other hand, it is just the opposite. Everything is informal and personal. There are no rules and regulations, decisions can be made and carried out on the spur of the moment, and the more personable and skillful the “fixer” is, the more he or she can do for you. Needless to say, too, the more it is likely that a friendship, or at least a shared sense of camaraderie, will develop from this.

Since one's “fixer” is generally an intelligent and articulate expounder of the Palestinian point of view, this puts Israel at a disadvantage—all the more so because, whereas the correspondent's dealings with Israelis take place mostly in offices, at press conferences, and at army roadblocks, the “fixer” often brings him to Palestinian homes, where he is introduced to families, treated graciously, and told the stories of the people he meets and their complaints against the Israeli occupation. He is thus far more likely to encounter Palestinians who have suffered from Israeli military action than Israelis who have suffered from Palestinian terror—and if he does get to know Israeli families, they are likely to live in his own upper-class neighborhood and belong to the socio-economic group that least frequently rides the buses, shops in the markets, or resides in the places where terror commonly strikes, and that is also the most liberal, dovish, and pro-Palestinian of any in Israel.


It is not surprising, then, that even if they do not take up their posts with a bias against Israel, many journalists develop one during their stay there. In The Other War, Stephanie Gutmann shows at length how an identification with the Palestinians affects their treatment of both the conflict as a whole and of specific incidents in it. In sharply observant prose that is often quite funny in its eye for the foolish, the vacuous, the hypocritical, and the absurd, she documents case after case of events being badly distorted to Israel's detriment by supposedly responsible journalists. These include the Muhammad al-Dura affair, the lynching of two Israelis by a Palestinian mob in Ramallah in October 2000, the interception by Israel's navy of the arms-running Palestinian freighter Karine A in January 2002, and the Israeli assault on Jenin in April of that year.

In the first and last of these incidents, Israel was accused and convicted by foreign journalists, with a powerfully negative impact throughout the world, of atrocities it never committed. In the second, an especially brutal horror carried out with the collaboration of the Palestinian police was treated by the media as simply one more link in the chain of Israeli-Palestinian violence, even though it did more than anything else in those years to revolt Israelis and harden their attitudes. In the third, a dramatic instance of Palestinian Authority duplicity, so great that it contributed to the Bush administration's reevaluation of Yasir Arafat and its decision to cut its ties with him, was downplayed.

Incidents such as these also illustrate two other points that Gutmann makes. One (although it is here, she observes, that major improvements have recently been made) is the sheer incompetence that has plagued the Israeli government's treatment of the media. Poor logistics; interoffice rivalries; badly trained spokesmen; the brusque manners that Israelis perceive to be a form of honesty and directness but that foreigners often experience as rudeness; a traditionally Jewish “disputative, verbal, parsing culture,” as Gutmann puts it, that has little patience with journalists' inability to grasp the intricate workings of the Israeli mind; and the despairing attitude that, since the world will always be against Israel anyway, there is no point in trying to argue with it—such things have combined to make Israel's hasbara (a Hebrew word meaning literally “explaining,” but taking in all aspects of public relations) ineffective. In the case of the Karine A, for example, in which the Palestinians were caught smuggling a huge shipment of forbidden weaponry and proceeded to lie their heads off about it, hasbara produced, Gutmann writes, a “great yawn” in which a “major story was almost consigned to oblivion.”


The second point is Palestinian intimidation. The mixture of authoritarianism and lawlessness that characterizes the Palestinian Authority and the society very partially governed by it makes it easy to threaten foreign correspondents and to ensure that, if they value their jobs and their persons, they will not investigate or publish stories that may embarrass the wrong people or the right cause. In the case of the Ramallah lynching, for instance, TV cameramen on the scene were warned not to film it and, when they did, were forced to surrender their tapes (one had his camera smashed to the ground); the Israeli bureau chief of the Italian channel RTI, the only TV station to get a tape of the incident out and show it to the world, was forced to leave her post by Palestinian threats on her life; and a rival Italian channel's producer wrote a fawning letter to the Palestinian press apologizing for RTI's footage and promising that his own team would “always respect the journalistic rules of the Palestinian Authority.” This is not, to put it mildly, an atmosphere conducive to honest reporting.

One might think that such intimidation would backfire, yet it rarely seems to. For one thing, foreign correspondents cannot afford to defy it, since those who do so will quite simply be unable to operate in the territories in the future. Furthermore, there are some who, like Riccardo Cristiano, the Italian producer, actually condone it. After all, if the story they are covering is that of the oppression of one people by another, it is surely possible to understand that the oppressed have the right to take measures that will get their message across. Relating a conversation with an American reporter who considered Israeli soldiers “absolutely barbaric” and defended focusing his camera on Palestinian children throwing stones while deliberately turning it away from Palestinian gunman carrying arms, Gutmann comments:

[W]hat really bothered me was that, once again, I was seeing a journalist (a photojournalist in this case) who seemed to live very comfortably with dual standards on the issue of press censorship. In other words, it was okay for Palestinian fedayeen to virtually dictate how they would be covered (“they don't want to be photographed with guns, so I don't do it”), while Israeli soldiers and government officials weren't given the right to a choice.

The Other War is illuminating because Gutmann knows what makes journalists tick. They are not intellectuals, and she does not treat them as though they were. And yet like everyone, and perhaps a bit more than most people, journalists are influenced by the intellectual currents of their times—and these currents have been running against Israel for many years now. No doubt they would have been less fierce had history taken a different turn in 1967 and thereafter, and had Israel not ended up ruling militarily for decades over several million Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. And yet even an Israel that had never extended beyond its 1967 borders would have found itself in intellectual disrepute today.

The 1960's and 70's, after all, saw not only the entrenchment of the Israeli occupation, but also the rise of postmodernism—and postmodernist thought is intrinsically hostile to much of what Israel is about. An Israel confined to its 1948 borders would still have defined itself, against the protests of its Arab minority, as a Jewish rather than a multicultural state; would still have sought to maintain a demographic balance favorable to Jews by means of ethnically discriminatory immigration laws; would still have had a large Orthodox population that decried liberal values and called for state promulgation of religion; would still have needed to maintain a strong military force and military ethos to defend itself; would still have been accused of nationalism, militarism, and racism; would still have been charged with driving the Palestinians from their land; would still have been criticized for barring their return. And not least, it would still have been confronted with contemporary relativism and its devaluation of the notion of objective truth—a relativism that, already eighty years ago, was called by the French thinker Julien Benda “la trahison des clercs,” the betrayal of the intellectuals.

Benda's book by that name, published in 1927, has been largely remembered for its title alone. Yet it deserves to be remembered for more. Writing at the height of modernism, Benda was one of the first to discern the coming emergence of postmodernist attitudes. The intellectuals of Europe, he argued, were selling out: not to the lures of the marketplace—this was not yet the age of the cushy academic appointment, the lucratively paying think tank, the fat book contract, the TV celebrity status, or the ready ticket to international conferences—but to the excitement of the world of action and to the belief that the eternal verities that had concerned thinkers in the past were neither eternal, veracious, nor worth thinking about unless they could be pressed into the service of temporal, that is, political causes.

The intellectual who no longer asked “Is this so?” but rather “What effect does saying this have?”—or, to put it more crassly, “Whose interests does saying this serve?”—was the intellectual, Benda wrote, who had betrayed his calling. Much of La trahison des clercs is thus involved in tracing how, beginning with Nietzsche and Marx, 19th- and 20th-century European thought was becoming increasingly instrumental, so that instead of a determinable something known as “truth,” there were only, to use a contemporary term not yet fashionable in Benda's day, competing “narratives.”

What seemed a deplorable trend to Benda has now become the regnant ideology of our times. And this is bad for Israel, because the Zionist narrative, as gripping as it may seem to those who tell it as their own, is not, when set against the Palestinian narrative that opposes it, terribly convincing in an age that has a short attention span and distrusts the claims of history.

It is complicated, that Zionist narrative, a long account of many wanderings, homes, transformations, and identities, especially as compared with the simple Palestinian narrative of a people that has ostensibly always been who and where it is. The Zionist narrative summons as its witnesses sacred texts and ancient documents, its interpretation of which it expects others to accept as relevant and correct. It is associated with Western colonialism and its injustices rather than with the colonized and their struggles. It pits Jewish exile and the Holocaust against the Palestinian refugee problem and the Israeli occupation; the sufferings of the past and of the dead against those of the present and the living; first-world victims of terror against third-world victims of dispossession; national rights against human rights. (The Palestinians have their nationalism, too, but it is not so essential to their case as Zionism is to Israel's.)

For most contemporary intellectuals, this is a narrative that quite simply does not have what it takes. At best, it is put by them on a par with its Palestinian rival, so that one ends up with a “meta-narrative,” two contradictory versions of history between which it is impossible and unnecessary to choose because they are ultimately equal and symmetrical. Here is a people that has suffered and here is a people that has suffered; here is one with great traumas and here is one with great traumas; here a lost homeland has been repossessed and here a possessed homeland has been lost; here and here is the inability to recognize the “Other,” making both sides brutal and murderous with rage and hatred. And as these narratives are symmetrical, so are the acts committed in their names: the death of an Israeli killed by a Palestinian suicide bomb in Tel Aviv and the “targeted assassination” of the bomber's dispatcher by an Israeli rocket in Gaza, the killing of Muhammad al-Dura and the lynching of two Israelis.


But of course Muhammad al-Dura, we now know, was killed, if indeed he was killed at all, not by Israeli soldiers but by Palestinians. The fact that the lie deliberately fabricated about his death was eventually exposed, not by any of the scores of foreign correspondents stationed in Israel who had helped spread it (and who had access to Palestinian sources that Israeli journalists did not) but by others, among them an Israeli army investigatory team and a German-Jewish documentary film-maker, is a badge of shame for the international media. As is also, one might add, the same media's doing next to nothing to publicize the true story, much less to apologize for its role in concealing it, once it became known.

And yet, one might ask, why blame the journalists? For longer than some of them have been alive, their profession has operated in a world whose intellectual luminaries have declared that there is no point in looking for the truth because it either cannot be found or is trivial if it can be. Even a Foucault or a Derrida, one presumes, would concede that Muhammad al-Dura either was or was not killed by an Israeli bullet. But since even if he was not, he might have been, and if he might have been, he might as well have been (after all, haven't some Palestinian children been killed by Israeli soldiers? why, then, quibble about their names?), it would be churlish to deny the Palestinian narrative its right to him.

For foreign correspondents in Israel, such assumptions provide a convenient perspective. Knowledge of the past is not their strong suit; for most of them, the 1967 war that brought about the occupation of the territories is an ancient event of uncertain origins, to say nothing of the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, the British Mandate, and the Balfour Declaration, let alone the story of Zionism, much less the Jewish history that preceded it. It is easier for them not to bother with such things and to think of the events they are reporting on as self-enclosed, the vicious tit-for-tat of a blood feud that began when Israel conquered the West Bank and the Gaza Strip or, at the very earliest, when hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were forced to flee their homes by the creation of a Jewish state, and that is therefore Israel's fault. To ask what came before this, or what the larger meaning of it might be, makes no more sense to the average journalist than it would make to ask what existed before the universe was created. And to spend time trying to investigate the death of Muhammad al-Dura or similar matters is, so this journalist has been taught, to look for more trouble than it is worth.

It is encouraging to think that—if Stephanie Gutmann is right—the media do respond, even if not as much as one might wish, to improvements in Israel's hasbara. But to think of hasbara as merely public relations is to take only the ground-level view. Israel's battle to make its case heard and understood is part of a larger battle to assert the importance of history and historical truth in a world in which they no longer matter very much. It is even, one might say, part of the battle against the intellectual betrayals of postmodernism itself.

In that sense, unless hasbara is conceived of as truly explaining, and not just as PR, Israel will continue to lose the war for public opinion. In the long run, the truth is its most reliable weapon, even if it is one that can only be wielded effectively by those willing to risk self-inflicted wounds. For if the truth is, generally speaking, on Israel's side, it may not be so in every case, and the temptation to tailor it when it is not, which hasbara has not been free of, is the temptation to resort to propaganda. And in a war of Jewish propaganda versus Arab propaganda—or, if one prefers, of Jewish versus Arab narratives—the Arabs will always win. They are simply much better at it. The first rule of warfare is to fight on the ground that is most advantageous to oneself.



1 Encounter, 280 pp., $25.95.

2 See “Myth, Fact, and the al-Dura Affair” by Nidra Poller, COMMENTARY, September 2005.


About the Author

Hillel Halkin is a columnist for the New York Sun and a veteran contributor to COMMENTARY. Portions of the present essay were delivered at Northwestern University in March as the Klutznick Lecture in Jewish Civilization.

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