You know the old “New Yorker’s view of the world” map where Manhattan is bigger than Asia and 3 stops on the N train is about the distance from Capetown to Cairo? I think of that map when I read journalists discuss the Israeli political spectrum.Israeli electorate

In Israel, the left and center are in the minority. Which begs the question: how are we defining center? By what definition do these left-of-center parties occupy the center? Shouldn’t center be defined relative to the electorate? In which case the Likud is a center-right party, and the parties to the left of it are on the left. It is especially skewed, given that polls show Likud-Beyteinu earning the center’s vote, to define Likud-Beyteinu as “far right” and Labor as simply “left.”

It’s not because Israel’s public or politicians have shifted to the right. They haven’t. Netanyahu grudgingly supports a demilitarized Palestinian state, which puts him to the left not only of all of his Likud predecessors when they were elected, but also of where Yitzhak Rabin and his predecessors were when they were elected.

We could give the media the benefit of the doubt and say that historically parties between Likud and Labor are defined as the center. But this isn’t really new. I first noticed it after Likud won the 1988 elections, and yet the New York Times referred to Labor as “center-left” and Likud as “right.” Given that more than half of the electorate supported the Likud or parties to its right, what could possibly justify this nomenclature?

I think the media have defined center as either:

  • Wherever the center would have to be to make themselves moderately left-of-center.
  • The center of “people like me” — secular Ashkenazi voters.

It’s a self-referential definition of center, sort of like when you think everybody besides you has an accent.

The media inaccurately portrays the left as the mainstream and the center-right as the fringe.

This matters for at least two reasons:

  • People generally want to be part of the mainstream, not the fringe. Pretending that the left is the center nudges voters to the left.
  • This bias leads the rest of the world to perceive our elected officials as radical extremists, and to pretend that Israel’s left-wing is its mainstream. This makes it much easier for foreign leaders and columnists to pressure our elected leaders while declaring support for the real Israel.

Defining the center according to self-reference-criteria is part of a media bias that’s so pervasive that we often don’t notice it. But it matters. And publications that aspire to journalistic integrity should stop. Like it or not, Likud-Beyteinu is a center-right party. Livni and Lapid are on the Israeli electorate’s left. Even if they’re on your right.

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