On May 26, Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar let it be known that Gaza was ready to renew attacks on Israel. “What has happened is but a drill for what will come if Israel violates the al-Aksa Mosque” – whatever that means. “The occupation must know – al-Aksa has men who will defend it.”
I imagine The New York Times will get around to reporting these jingoistic remarks. First, though, the editors want to imprint in the minds of their readers https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2021/05/26/world/middleeast/gaza-israel-children.html a pictorial spread featuring capsule histories of the “at least 68 children” killed because of “indiscriminate and disproportionate” bombing by Israel. The Times’ partner paper Haaretz dutifully carries the same piece in Hebrew.
It is a damming, stinging photo-heavy indictment. What’s our defense? That some of these poor youngsters were killed by Hamas rockets that fell short or because the Islamists used them as human shields or because in war, sweet children die? Any such explanations would offend even deaf ears.
The Times is here restating its oft-reiterated argument that Israel has a “right to defend itself,” but in the name of God, not with bombs or bullets or sharp implements.
Operation Guardian of the Walls, this month’s IDF drive to counter Palestine-Gaza-Hamas aggression, is now in the history books and I am exasperated. It has happened before, this sense that I have to do something because the media is against Israel, the Diaspora is not responding adequately, and some Jewish young people are championing the Palestinian Arab side.
Yet I am a jaded US-born baby boomer. The media’s negative portrayal of Israel is not new to me. I think back to the 1982 Lebanon War–Operation Peace for Galilee – aimed at stopping Yasser Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organization from launching attacks on Israel from Southern Lebanon (where the PLO had set up a mini-state). The 1982 media coverage confirmed in my mind that Israel would never get a fair shake from the press. This was in the days before social media, when CNN was in its infancy, and old media ruled the day. CBS, NBC, The New York Times were then in the Israel-bashing vanguard, as well as other influential papers such as The Christian Science Monitor.
There’s a TV image in my head. Against a smoldering Beirut skyline, NBC network news anchor John Chancellor shamelessly told viewers, “Nothing like it has ever happened in this part of the world, I kept thinking yesterday of the bombing of Madrid [an arch reference to 1936 and Franco’s Fascists] during the Spanish Civil War. What in the world is going on? Israel’s security problem on its border is fifty miles to the south. What’s an Israeli army doing here in Beirut? The answer is that we are dealing with an imperial Israel…world opinion be dammed.”
In 1982, Chancellor could have anchored from Eritrea, where 90,000 civilians were killed in some forgotten war, or from Hama in Syria, where perhaps 40,000 were slaughtered in fighting between Islamists and the regime led by Hafez al-Assad (father of the present ruler).
What did I want? For Chancellor to provide context? To emphatically denounce the PLOs intentions. To not hold Israel to standards no other country is expected to meet.
So, while I am today intensely irritated and frustrated, I have no expectations that Israel will get positive media coverage under any circumstances. What does it even mean these days that an outlet is NOT anti-Israel?
Over a piece of herring at Kiddush last Shabbes, a neighbor wondered out loud, “what’s wrong with Israel’s hasbara?”
Friend, nothing, or nothing that justifies relentless, unyielding, myopic negative coverage. There is literally nothing Israel could point out that would persuade someone predisposed against us to change their mind. Especially ashamed, smug Diaspora Jews.
Tell them the IDF sends SMSs to innocents in targeted buildings warning them to get out? Yeah, check. Point out that Hamas uses civilian, media, and NGO facilities – hospitals even – for military purposes? Check. Respond to claims Gaza is one big prison by pointing out that it shares a border with Egypt? Check. That COGAT transports thousands of lorries of food, fuel, and medicine from Israel even while Hamas is shooting at us? Yep. Done that. That we supply water and electricity to our enemies? Check. That cement and other dual-use materials were redirected by Hamas from the civilian sector? Yes, we have shown the world this is so. None of it matters.
We could point out that not many years ago, Gaza Arab motorists could be seen stuck in Tel Aviv traffic jams – that barriers then went up and movements were restricted because Israel had no other way of protecting itself from suicide bombers targeting buses and cafes. None of it matters.
Israeli hasbara has never been better. That’s a fact.
The IDF is skillful and ubiquitous on social media thanks to a strong and talented group of young people. So is the Office of the Prime Minister. In English, Hebrew, and Arabic. Even our Foreign Ministry, starved of resources by the PMO and Treasury, is nonetheless doing a yeoman’s job. On top of that, pro-Israel student and media monitoring groups that in my day had been run chiefly by busy people on a volunteer basis are today professionalized and well-funded. And they’re doing everything that can be done. Everything I would have wanted to do back in my day had we only had the resources.
We used to say that if only the world knew what the Arabs said in Arabic when they thought the West was not listening, public opinion would come our way. Nowadays, NGOs are disseminating translations from Arabic and Persian so that everyone can discover what our foes are saying almost as soon as the words come out of their mouths. It matters not a whit.
Supplementing all these efforts are hundreds of pro-Israel campaigners active on social media, with years of experience — some financed, others paying their way — tirelessly putting out tweets and posts and blogs to make the pro-Israel case.
In all these spheres, despite our best efforts, the enemy’s presence in English is overwhelming. A deluge. Scores of state and government-funded news agencies – like the Recep Tayyip Erdoğan mouthpiece TRT – craftily make the anti-Israel argument. As do Woke news sites like NowThis. Also, Palestinian Arab voices now have a powerful, multifaceted social media presence (partly thanks to EU monies). Then add the unfriendly mainstream press.
Still, I don’t think us Zionists being swamped is ultimately determinative because anyone open to what we are saying can easily find our messages. Many outsiders following the conflict have already had their blink moment. Their instincts are either with us or against us. We are broadcasting: “Good evening, Mr. and Mrs. America. Hello Europe and all the ships at sea…this is Israel. This is our case. Hello?”
Maybe it is simply too much to expect ordinary casual consumers of social media – Diaspora Jews particularly – to judiciously weigh the evidence and, hopefully, side with us.
Faced with pervasive media distortions and concerted messaging from seemingly credible personalities, most people will have no clue they’re being manipulated to close their minds to Israel’s position. They take at face value the bill of particulars they’ve been fed:
That Palestinians have lived in Palestine for centuries. Jesus was a Palestinian. Zionism is like maybe 100 years old. European Jewish settlers are capriciously evicting indigenous Arabs from their Jerusalem homes and elsewhere in the “Occupied Palestinian Territories.” Jews are Judaizing and subjugating Arabs who fell under the Zionist boot with the 1948 occupation. Oh, and really, it is racial. White Jews against Black Lives Matter Arabs. Israel is an Apartheid state. Apartheid roads. Apartheid wines. Apartheid supermarkets and pharmacies. Apartheid hummus.
My conclusion is that Israel’s image problem can’t be fixed. The problem isn’t media bias — it is that we are operating in a toxic hostile environment. It doesn’t mean we should not try to do the right thing or put our message out there – but let’s temper our expectations.
For starters, we are up against a media that, with single-digit exceptions, even in the best of times, was not a bastion of pro-Israelism or pro-Zionism. One of those exceptions (see https://www.amazon.com/Balfour-Declaration-Words-Years-Conflict/dp/9652299243) was the Manchester Guardian in 1917. On May 7, 2021, came the retraction. The Guardian said that its support over 100 years ago for a national homeland for the Jewish people was one of its biggest mistakes https://www.theguardian.com/media/2021/may/07/guardian-200-what-we-got-wrong-the-guardians-worst-errors-of-judgment-over-200-years
One paper that doesn’t have to apologize for any history of philo-Zionism is The New York Times. The paper was owned by assimilated German Jews who, in the wake of the Holocaust, moved its stance from anti to non-Zionist. Now, under A.G. Sulzberger, Jewish only in the homeopathic trace element sense, the outlet is back to its original clenched-teeth hostility toward the Zionist idea.
With Times collaboration Haaretz began publishing a post-Zionist English edition of its Hebrew paper. The paper’s often slanted pieces provide a hechsher for censorious Diaspora Jews to side with the Palestinians. My attitude toward the BBC, Al Jazeera, the NY Times, The Washington Post, the gamut of prestige British media, Haaretz (and the various Haaretz wannabes in the Anglo-Jewish Diaspora) is to roll my eyes, take a deep breath, turn the page, or scroll on.
Moreover, media is only an element of the picture. We are up against a Diaspora Jewish establishment that, with some exceptions, finds defending Israel burdensome and onerous. Somehow a myth developed that Jewish leaders did not criticize Israel or that it took courage to speak out against “settlements” or other Israeli policies. That view is out of focus. For many organizations, a pre-Holocaust indifference or antagonism toward Zionism evolved to acceptance and even soft embrace after 1948. The US Jewish establishment was indeed a bastion of wholehearted pro-Israelism, but only between the 1967 Six-Day War and the 1973 Yom Kippur War.
However, from 1973 onwards, establishment support for Israeli policies became brittle, with organizational leaders and public intellectuals — among them Edgar Bronfman, Nachum Goldmann, Philip Klutznick, Bert Gold, Henry Siegman, Leonard Fein, Seymour Martin Lipset, Joachim Prinz, Menachem Rosensaft, Albert Vorspan, and Arthur Hertzberg (a historian of Zionism but not a Zionist historian) — remaining wishy-washy non-Zionists while noisily advocating for Israeli withdrawal to more or less the 1949 Armistice Lines.
These staunch advocates of Diaspora Judaism saw Israel – the Israel of David Ben-Gurion and Golda Meir – as unpredictable or uncontrolled, potentially putting Diaspora Jewry at risk (“What will the goyim say?”)
Beginning in the 1980s, Jewish personages with ties of one kind or another to US officialdom embarked on a campaign to transform the image of Yasser Arafat and the PLO. They messaged the Palestinians to stop yapping about driving the Jews into the sea. It was this change to non-zero-sum messaging that made it impossible to dissociate US Jewish support for Israeli retention of the West Bank on security grounds. Delinking rank-and-file US Jews from Judea and Samaria was essential to give various administrations a free hand to pressure for an Israeli withdrawal to the Green Line (more or less).
The Arabs needed to be cajoled into making the rhetorical change. Jerome Segal, for instance, drafted Arafat’s first declaration of Palestinian statehood in 1988 implying the PLO’s unstated readiness for land for peace and a two state solution. It set the stage for a fuller cosmetic makeover of the PLO undertaken by Rita Hauser, Stanley Sheinbaum, and others in 1993 that gave birth to Oslo. The goal was to create the perception – false, to my mind – that the nature of the conflict had shifted. Funding for these efforts came from dark money sources. But it wasn’t money that carried the day. These US Jews embraced gullibility about Arafat, the PLO, and Palestinian intentions, with eyes wide open.
In 1973, a group of connected but radical intellectuals, including Eugene Borowitz, founded Breira to champion Palestinian statehood without conditioning it on the Palestinians ending terror and accepting Israel as the national homeland of the Jewish people. A college student named Tom Friedman became active in Breira as it emerged as a pro-PLO lobby. When Breira became noxious, it essentially morphed into the New Jewish Agenda in 1980 led by Gerald Serotta. Organizationally, these were amateurish shoestring operations. But they paved the way for something bigger.
In 2007 J Street sprouted (follow the initial money trail if you’re so inclined, but as I say, message not money is the main explanation of their success) as a professional, super-well-funded agency designed to displace parve but pro-Israel AIPAC. J Street sold Diaspora Jews what they wanted to buy: you can be pro-Palestinian and pro-Israel. Pro-Israel-Pro-Peace. You can believe the Iran Nuke Deal is good. That settlements are the core problem. That Israel’s intransigence is blocking peace. Repeat: Pro-Israel-Pro-Peace.
In contrast to J Street, which claims to offer “tough love,” IfNotNow and Jewish Voice for Peace offer a kick in the groin. A new generation of unabashed Zionism-bashers has arisen. They pay no lip service to the pro-Israel and pro-peace mantra. Historically, Jewish opposition to political Zionism is as old as Herzlian Zionism itself and there have always been anti-Zionist Jews whether ultra-Orthodox or red who didn’t pretend they were anything else. Hence no need to get our knickers totally in a twist over the latest mutant strain.
Every generation has its Alie Lilienthals and Noam Chomskys. Some, like Peter Beinart, wait until they are nearly 50 to come out as flaming anti-Zionists. These public intellectuals afford an avenue of expression for AsAJew young adults to dissociate from the Zionist enterprise and perversely feel they are doing something Jewish. Emily Wilder, the Associated Press staffer who lost her job because of her ongoing anti-Zionist campaigning, is part of the AsAJew cohort. You can lead a Jewess to water, but you can’t make her embrace her birthright. By the time young people like Wilder leave university, too many are farbissina and farbrente anti-Zionists who are unlikely to be swayed by a sentimental stroll through Yad Vashem.
Let’s put another myth to sleep. Israel was never the alpha and omega for American Jews. However, now support for Israel is tepid and thinning. Tinkering with Israel’s image in the media (even if we could influence coverage) will not win over an American Jewish community that was never wholly comfortable with the Zionist enterprise. With the US and UK Diaspora demographically shrinking and increasingly illiterate about Jewish civilization, there is only so much Zionists can do.
Being vastly outgunned on social media and in old media, the pro-Israel community needs to target its efforts where there is potential to influence. And that probably means our Zionist millennials need to challenge their fellow Diaspora millennials to swim against the tide of moral relativism and Woke Group Think.
All I am saying is that we should be realistic about what can be accomplished in the face of a Diaspora that does not have our back and a media that didn’t suddenly come to be biased, but has been historically hostile.
Thank you to my frequent collaborator Judy Montagu for editing this blog.