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The Sense and Nonsense of How the Media Tackles Israel
Reporting on the Middle East affects the attitudes of academics, policy-makers, students, even our children. It's perhaps no surprise that so many academics and politicians around the globe are profoundly anti-Israel, and that so many Jewish students and children (and some adults) are increasingly uncomfortable identifying with Israel or even as Jews, when they hear how Israelis kill Palestinian bulldozer drivers, harm innocent children, steal land and prevent Palestinian students from traveling abroad.
A slightly more nuanced presentation of the facts provides a different impression: that driver was screaming "Allah Akbar" as he drove his bulldozer into cars and pedestrians; those children were in fact killed by a Hamas explosive device; the land in question is being used legitimately for a temporary fence preventing murder; the students were in fact refused visas by the U.S. State Department as security risks.
"The media" is, of course, not monolithic. There are bloggers and broadcasters, print and radio correspondents, based in or visiting Israel from every country of the world. Do they all hate the Jews? Are they all anti-Israel, willing pawns in Hezbollah and Hamas' psychological warfare campaign to destroy the Jewish state?
No, they're not. But a generation ago, European opinion elites in the media and universities began the process of accepting the "Palestinian narrative" and demonizing Israel. Today, most European leaders and academics -- nursed on images of "imperialist, racist" Israel as the world's worst human rights violator -- view Israel as inherently evil. They view the questioning of Israel's legitimacy as reasonable public discourse. And now this is happening in North America as well.
When Israel's anti-terrorist security barrier, 96 percent of which is chain-link fence, is termed an "apartheid wall," we should worry. When Israel's defensive military operations are condemned for accidental deaths of innocents while Hezbollah and Hamas' targeting of Israeli civilians (and cynical use of their own civilians as "human shields") are ignored by the media, the United Nations and human rights groups, we must truly worry.
This is not meant to diminish the real hardships that Palestinians suffer under the strictures of Israel's efforts to protect its citizens and the oppressive authoritarian rule of their own leaders. But there is a difference between picturing Israel as making difficult decisions and sometimes making mistakes as it balances security against Palestinian humanitarian needs, and presenting Israel as tormenting Palestinians for no reason, stealing "their" land and denying "human rights." This is the difference between fact and fiction; between reality and politics; between truth and promoting an agenda.
The media is the lens through which policymakers and the public view issues about which they have no firsthand knowledge. So the media must be our primary focus if we are to address this crucial imbalance.
Steps can be taken to help journalists see the whole picture, develop a more nuanced understanding of the complexities of the region and report the stories fairly.
Over 25 years of living in Israel, and dealing with the foreign media and visiting politicians, has convinced me that accuracy is Israel's best ally. For the many reporters who arrive in Israel with misconceptions and pre-conceived notions, simple observation of the actual state of affairs is the most effective antidote. The history of the region, the geography, the cultural and political milieu is right in front of them -- they just need help to see it.
A senior foreign correspondent told me recently that if we can offer journalists balanced and neutral assistance, access to everyone and every shade of opinion, we'll succeed. He noted the need for reporters to talk to newsmakers and to those whose voices are rarely heard.
Most of the more than 400 foreign journalists serving in Israel do not hate Jews or Israelis. But they also don't know a great deal about them or about Israel's history. It's time for Israel to use the carrot, and not the stick, in elations with international media -- developing relationships with the journalists on the ground, and not just arguing with the editors and publishers.
And it works. Take, for instance, the coverage of Israel's recent retaliation for attacks from Gaza. Those reporters who made the effort to go down to the borders wrote much more balanced treatments of the topic than did those who merely attended pro-Palestinian news conferences in Gaza, Ramallah and eastern Jerusalem.
They attended a field tour where contacts, transportation, briefings and, of course, lunch were provided -- with no agenda other than to help them develop a more nuanced understanding of a complex reality.
And they did, which was reflected in their detailed descriptions of Israel's predicament, with Hamas missile attacks on its civilian population a daily, sometimes hourly occurrence, and with a focus on those attacks rather than on Israel's defensive operations.
Those who didn't make such an effort to report from the scene reported verbatim the diatribes delivered by the various Palestinian spokesmen about Israel's "illegal, immoral, indefensible attacks on Palestinians in Gaza," and focused on Palestinian casualties.
Foreign journalists in Israel are open to this new approach. We are much more effective when we embrace them and help them to learn about under-the-radar stories such as the aid work of Israelis in Africa; the economic cooperation between the Israeli region of Gilboa and Palestinian Jenin; and encounters between veteran Israeli activist Natan Sharansky and Palestinian Arab democracy activists like Professor Mohammed Dajani.
Helping them to meet "average" Israelis over a beer or to learn that Israel is the only nation on the planet increasing its forest acreage -- these actions will help inspire more accurate reporting from the field.
Aryeh Green is director of MediaCentral (www.m-central.org), a Jerusalem center providing support for journalists based in or visiting Israel and the territories. He recently spoke in Philadelphia as part of a U.S. tour.