I asked [the protesters] once this one clichéd question that always comes to mind – ‘So why Israel of all places? Why not Syria? Egypt? Russia or China?’
One of them put on a serious face. ‘Are you insane?’ he asked me. ‘These are all extremely dangerous places!’
So wrote Tal Dror in his illuminating essay in Yediot Aharonot, published in Hebrew six days after several hundred of the world’s most comfortably outraged Fly-tillers took a mostly (with a notable exception, for which appropriate punishment resulted) pleasant jaunt to Israel. The essay appeared in English a few days later, just after Bob Simon’s 60 Minutes piece on the plight of Palestinian Christians aired.
Anyone whose Hebrew was strong enough to have read Dror’s essay prior to last week’s 60 Minutes episode could have been forgiven for thinking that Dror’s essay was about Bob Simon, rather than about international activists. Indeed, Dror’s questions just as easily could have been asked of Simon, whose own selection bias seems to somehow lead him back to Israel every time he wants to probe a new injustice taking place in the Middle East. And had the question been asked, in a moment of honesty Simon might have given a strikingly similar answer:
“Go to Syria, where I could report on Assad’s wanton killing of innocent civilians, but where my colleagues have been murdered? To Egypt, where I could report on the fact that Coptic Christians are under perpetual attack, but where I, as a Jew, could be violently assaulted?
“Do the names Marie Colvin and Lara Logan mean nothing to you? Are you insane? These are extremely dangerous places!”
That answer, as with Dror’s subject’s explanation, would be true, and may have made some of us smile; but it is incomplete, as it actually only answers half the question. It is easy to overlook the fact that Dror’s query is in fact comprised of two very, very separate questions, and the answers to each matter. “Why not Syria?” is not the same as “Why Israel?” Fear causes journalists and activists to shrink away from the dangers of Syria and Egypt; lack thereof does not somehow ipso facto cause them to magically re-appear in Israel (unless, of course, the same story directly involves both Israel and the other country in question). After all, Israel is not unique in the ways its detractors might claim. It is far from the world’s only occupier (China and Turkey), and it is far from unique in its imperfect human rights record.
So then, it does not suffice to simply leave well enough alone after the journalist or activist has answered, “Why not Syria or Egypt?” We must press on towards a more complete understanding of the answer to “Why Israel?” Only with an answer to this half of Dror’s question can one then call anti-Israel activists and journalists out on their bias reliably, meaningfully, and with force.
This piece is intended to take a look at a few meaningful answers that go beyond the conventional explanation of anti-Semitism. Though Jew-hatred plays no small role for some, settling for a one-size-fits-all explanation actually undercuts the ability to combat the anti-Israel extremism, whose roots I believe are more nuanced. Not all anti-Israel journalists and activists simply hate Jews.
I don’t claim to have all the answers, and the rest of this essay will certainly omit some worthy explanations; but it’s worthwhile to at least begin to dig a bit deeper.
Why Israel? Because of cognitive dissonance
About two years ago, while I was living in Tel Aviv, a few colleagues and I had the opportunity to sit down with the Jerusalem Bureau Chief for a major international news outlet. During our discussion in his office, the bureau chief insistently maintained that neutrality and objectivity were mainstays throughout his reporting. No matter what questions or charges of imbalance, he did not budge from this position.
It was only when I attempted to remove the question of agency that he gave an inch. It was not he himself who was responsible for biased reporting, I argued; rather, it was the fact his ledes consistently landed on the front page, despite the fact that had the story been attributed to any other country, he would have been lucky to land it anywhere at all. And to that, all he had to say was something to the effect of, “That’s probably true. But that’s the newspaper’s decision, not mine. It’s responding to market forces.”
Twenty-one years earlier, another former Jerusalem Bureau Chief by the name of Thomas Friedman retold the story of Neil Armstrong’s first time visiting the Old City of Jerusalem. Friedman recounted in From Beirut to Jerusalem that upon Armstrong’s discovery that he was walking the very same steps that Jesus had once tread, Armstrong had remarked, “I have to tell you…I am more excited stepping on these stones than I was stepping on the moon.”
That story was not lost on me as I returned from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv that afternoon. When that journalist spoke of market forces, what he was really talking about are the billions of Jews, Christians, and Muslims who read stories of Jerusalem, and see in their mind’s eye not a faraway place but a place in their heart; not a city in Israel, but the City of David – or the city of Jesus’ resurrection, or of Muhammad’s ascent. There is a cognitive dissonance that diaspora Jews, Christians, and Muslims hold between an Israel that is, one the one hand, a modern nation-state with modern political actors and citizens with modern concerns and desires; and on the other, a holy book come to life, for which the needs and desires of Israelis themselves are secondary to one’s own preferred outcomes for a land that one understands religiously, but not politically.
The extensive daily media coverage of Israel not only fuels the bond between past and present; it helps to transform people’s religious investment in Israel as a holy land into activism towards Israel as a political entity. For its sheer potency, this is a transformative power unique to the land of Israel.
Why Israel? Because it has freedom of the press
But it is not only about what Israel was. It is also about what Israel is. And among the many things Israel is, both good and bad, it is a beacon of free speech and press, surrounded by societies that actively repress both. While this asymmetry should help Israel’s image internationally, it actually hurts it in two ways. Firstly, as Dror argued, it allows activist journalists and demonstrators to operate without the same fear they have elsewhere. But fear is not the only critical issue here. Equally importantly, it makes it nearly impossible for would-be objective reporters to report fairly or give full context to the outside world, yielding an imbalanced view and leaving the outside world with a skewed impression of what Israel actually is like.
An example: let’s say that Bob Simon interviews several Palestinian Christians who are undergoing terrible suffering in the West Bank, and who go on the record blaming their hardship on Israeli policies. None of us would dispute their plight, and it seems easy enough to buy the explanation for their troubles– unless you have a sense of context. For instance, might viewers have benefited from knowing that three weeks before that story aired, Youssef Abu-Shayeb, a Palestinian journalist, had been arrested by the Palestinian Authority for the “crime” of exposing corruption within the PA’s diplomatic ranks? Or that just two days ago, the Times of Israel reported that Mahmoud Abbas himself was ordering a shutdown of Palestinian websites critical of his Fatah party?
These types of restrictions in the West Bank are hardly new. But keeping in mind that these constrictions on criticizing the PA are becoming evermore prevalent, it is essential to revisit these interviews. How can we be sure that the Palestinian Christians interviewed on 60 Minutes were actually saying what they felt? Or, put another way: suppose that the Palestinian Authority were actually at least partly to blame for the plight of Palestinian Christians in the West Bank. Do we really believe, given crackdown on dissent in the West Bank, that those interviewed would have said so?
I, for one, am doubtful. Bob Simon, unfortunately, is not. Perhaps the Palestinian Christians truly feel that the Israeli occupation is the source of their hardship. The point is, we don’t know, and we can’t know, because Israel will let them say so, and the PA won’t let them say otherwise. But when Simon hears these terrible stories, and does not take the broader context into account, his thinks he does know – as do many of his viewers. It goes without saying that Simon’s dispatches from Jerusalem will affect the biases of his viewers, and the prevalence of the Israeli wrongdoing in their collective mind. One of Israel’s greatest strengths and sources of pride, in this particular instance, becomes a weakness.
Why Israel? Because it’s the perfect story
Two weeks ago, I wrote a piece in which I endeavored to explain Gunter Grass’ recent diatribe against Israel in the context of his Nazi past and his generation’s sense of guilt (“What Gunter Grass Talks About When Gunter Grass Talks About Israel“). What is unique in Gunter Grass is his particular story; what was not, however, was his need to focus in on state of Israel for reasons that have nothing to do with Israel as a state. Gunter Grass had his own reasons. Nearly everyone else has a reason, too.
Writers, pundits, activists, and journalists simply could not ask for a more perfect storyline with which to engage than the Battle for the Holy Land. It has something for everyone. For the devoutly religious, it is a holy war; for the Western historian, Jerusalem is nearly without peer in its importance; for the neo-conservative, it is a battle between the Occident and the Orient; for the arch-liberal, a battle between the ultimate victim, and that victim’s victim. For the Jew, a symbol of return to ancestral homeland in the wake of unprecedented tragedy; for the Christian, a symbol of the hope for redemption; for the Muslim, a symbol of struggle against Western domination and over control of its third-holiest site. In many ways, and for many people, it is the center of the world.
Israel is, in short, the front page story waiting to happen, even when nothing is actually happening at all. After all, each new story is but another entry in the 10,000 others that mankind has already written about the Holy Land. The way the story is written depends on the ideology and background of those who write it; but no story is entirely unique.
It is neither anti-Semitic nor anti-Israel for a journalist, activist, or anyone else to oppose the Israeli occupation of, and continued settlement growth in, the West Bank. It is not anti-Israel to hold firm to the belief that while these policies may not be the primary impediment to Israeli-Palestinian peace (let’s save that dubious honor for those politicians who repeatedly and openly refuse to recognize a state’s right to exist), they are nonetheless harmful to Palestinians citizenry, to moderates, to peace, and to the long-term interests of both Israel and other western countries, including the United States.
But to single Israel out for particular condemnation requires an extra jump that neutral, arms-length objectivity does not justify. So let us be honest: it is for what Israel was, what Israel is, and what Israel represents, that so much of the international community not only tolerates, but celebrates anti-Israel protesters, be they journalists or activists. Anti-Semitism helps fuel this, to be sure – but Israel presents a perfect storm for critics for so many other reasons. The common thread, however, is that each of these reasons likely has nothing to do with Israel’s actions.
Of course, this does not mean that Israel’s fate is sealed in the eyes of the world. For the open-minded, what Israel does matters in terms of its international standing, and in terms of its international relations. The way Israel acts makes a difference, which is why the strengths and weaknesses, the positives and negatives, of Israel as a modern nation-state do yet have meaning. But for others, though they may not admit it – indeed, though they may not even consciously know it – Israel is, for lack of a better phrase, too different to be normal. It must always be under scrutiny, because it simply matters too much to leave alone.
I do not, by the way, recuse myself from this discussion. For me as an American, as a Jew, and as a lover of peace, Israel is a place whose future I care about deeply, as its destiny affects my own. But with every critique or defense of Israel, I keep in mind that while we talk about the land of Abraham, Jesus, and Muhammad, real lives are being lost today; that while we talk of the birthplace of religion, real people are fighting for their future; while we talk about a peaceful Jerusalem as a divine ideal, real people will be affected by that. I am neither Israeli nor am I Palestinian. While we talk, they live.
For Bob Simon, however, what Israel is, far less than what Israel does, will continue to lead him, and his activist equivalents, away from Damascus, Cairo, Moscow, and Beijing, and back to Jerusalem. Come what may for Israel – that is not his concern. His job is to weave the narrative for the masses, to report dispatch no. 10,001 from Jerusalem. The market continues to respond to Israel, for reasons biblical, historical, and political.
Ultimately, the state of Israel will always deal with wildly disproportionate and often unparalleled attention – for better or for worse. It is against their own fears, ghosts, and dreams that the activist or journalist actually fights; it is the modern Israeli who faces the consequences.
The least we can do is point that out to anyone who is still listening.