During the 4th International Conference of the Global Forum for Combating Antisemitism, which has been taking place this week in Jerusalem, I was asked to give a short presentation to the Working Group on Anti-Semitism on the Internet and in the Media.
HonestReporting‘s primary brief is to deal with anti-Israel media bias. Clearly not all criticism of Israel is illegitimate even if we sometimes may not like what our critics have to say.
As the criticism has moved into areas of delegitimisation and demonization, so the boundaries of acceptable discourse have also shifted and, with it, we have increasingly witnessed the appearance of anti-Semitism in the mainstream media.
If it looks like a duck, walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it is probably a duck. And for most Jews they know anti-Semitism when they see it. Arguably, however, one of the problems of contemporary anti-Semitism is the failure of the Jewish people to collectively define and codify what it is. Today there exists the European Union Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia (EUMC) Working Definition of Anti-Semitism that also includes a section outlining where criticism of Israel could be construed as anti-Semitic.
But this Working Definition, created in 2004, is clearly not referred to by the mainstream media and in the absence of any other codified definition accepted by a body as large and credible as the European Union, it’s the best there is at this time.
Anti-Semitism is a serious charge and throwing that accusation against a media outlet or an individual journalist or cartoonist should not be taken lightly.
And herein lies the problem. In the past, the anti-Semitism of a hate sheet such as the Nazi Der Sturmer was clear-cut. In the present, the disgusting incitement and Jew hatred so common in so much of the Arab media is also blatant (yet still brushed under the carpet by Western politicians and media).
It goes without saying that no Western mainstream media outlet is going to openly declare itself to be proudly anti-Semitic and any newspaper or individual judged to hold such beliefs would find themselves out in the cold.
I would argue, however, that many media outlets are either unwilling or incapable of recognizing anti-Semitic tropes, particularly when it comes to the treatment of Israel.
A recent case study that I noted at the Global Forum was that of the grotesque Sunday Times cartoon by Gerald Scarfe that depicted Israeli PM Netanyahu building a wall on the bodies of Palestinians using blood for the mortar.
The cartoon screamed “blood libel” to many of us. The initial reaction of the Sunday Times was to state its belief that the cartoon was “not anti-Semitic. It is aimed squarely at Mr Netanyahu and his policies, not at Israel, let alone at Jewish people.”
But who are the media to define what constitutes anti-Semitism and what Jews should find or not find offensive? After all, why would I be qualified to tell a member of an ethnic community or minority group that I do not belong to, what is or is not offensive to them?
Too many times I’ve seen my own organization and other pro-Israel advocates accused of labeling all criticism of Israel as anti-Semitic in order to shut down legitimate debate.
Indeed, at the Global Forum, one journalist complained that media watchdogs had accused her of being an anti-Semite. While I cannot speak for others, I know that this charge is rarely used in my own organization. In the absence of a journalist openly admitting to hating Jews, it is difficult to prove that someone is a bona fide anti-Semite. To accuse someone of being one without being 100% sure of an individual’s intentions is self-defeating.
Intentions are important. In the case of Gerald Scarfe above, it is highly unlikely that Scarfe is an anti-Semite. Yet it is a major concern that an anti-Semitic trope such as the blood libel can enter what is considered to be mainstream and acceptable discourse without be recognized as offensive.
In this case, Scarfe apologized for causing offense and rejected the suggestion that he had set out to produce an anti-Semitic cartoon. In the absence of a track record of similar offensive material, we can only take his word for it.
We have to recognize that most of the anti-Semitic tropes that are appearing in the mainstream media were, most likely, not produced with anti-Semitic intent. This gap between intentions and results needs to be bridged through educating the media as to where the red lines should be drawn.
Drawing the media’s attention to the EUMC Working Definition is a good start. Hopefully one result of the Global Forum will be its widespread dissemination so that the media can avoid printing offensive material and we do not have to see anti-Semitism disguised as criticism of Israel in print or online.