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A willful ignorance on Israel

A willful ignorance by reporters and others who should know better helps spread false Palestinian narratives

The terror attack this past week in Jerusalem by the nephew of Hamas’ former bomb specialist and the murder of three-month old Chaya Zissel Braun has brought with it much that is dispiriting to contemplate. The silence of the straightforward Israel haters is less dispiriting for being unsurprising. But what in some ways has resonated more deeply is the barely-concealed desire of Israel’s more mainstream critics to avoid accepting facts — like the barbarism that Israel is unendingly obliged to endure — that get in the way of narratives that they have come to hold very dear indeed.

The instinctive reaction to the terror attack of Human Rights Watch’s Executive Director, Ken Roth, illustrates the “I-don’t-want-to-know-it” problem that Israel has with critics whose bias on the conflict has rendered them untethered, and who have a strong aversion to processing facts that are inconvenient to them. Roth’s tweet when news of the attack first emerged was delicious in the contortions he employed to avoid simply saying that it was indeed a terror attack and it was by a Palestinian. If there were to be an updated version of Orwell’s famous essay “Politics and the English Language,” Roth’s tweet would merit serious consideration for inclusion:

Palestinian deadly crash into train stop. Israel calls it ‘terrorist attack…typical of Hamas.’

It was important for Roth to take to Twitter as quickly as possible to describe it simply as a vehicular accident that happened to involve a Palestinian. And it was also important for him to suggest to the world that Israel was, predictably, leaping to conclusions, and unfairly characterizing it as a quote “terrorist attack,” unquote.

Indeed, Roth’s derisive tweet is the sort of thing that might lead him, in the name of integrity, to recuse himself from Human Rights Watch discussions that involve Israel.

Would that the problem were confined to Ken Roth. It isn’t, and examples of it abound.

My own personal favorite involved Jodi Rudoren, the chief of the New York Times’ Jerusalem bureau and the principal correspondent for the Paper Of Record covering the Gaza War. I was part of a small group that sat down with her in July, 2012, exactly two years earlier, when she had first arrived in Jerusalem after being the Times’ education writer.

We were warned just before the meeting that Rudoren tended to be somewhat cocky and a tad flippant, and that it would be best if we remained as impassive as we possibly could during the meeting. This proved to be good advice, and also something of a challenge, when Rudoren told us that she really knew nothing about the Middle East or the Arab-Israeli conflict, had not done any reading of substance on it and had not talked to many people about it, but that growing up in Newton, Massachusetts as she had, “I know Jews.” That was her quote: “I know Jews.”

I confess to doing Lamaze breathing exercises when I heard this, because in truth it did not seem to me to suffice for the principal correspondent for the New York Times to have as the cornerstone of her reporting on the Mideast conflict personal knowledge of the breakfast habits of the clientele of Johnny’s Luncheonette in Newton Center.

I apparently did not succeed in keeping my face wholly impassive when I heard this, because she looked at me and assured me that I shouldn’t worry, because even though she was clueless, her editors back in New York were not, and they could be counted upon to be very helpful in guiding her on what to write about.

Naturally enough, I thought about this exchange during the Gaza War when, in early August as the fighting was in full swing, the Foreign Press Association, an umbrella group representing foreign journalists, released a very tough statement condemning Hamas for intimidating journalists trying to cover the war in order to keep them from reporting objectively about what Hamas actually was doing there. Here in part is what the FPA wrote:

The FPA protests in the strongest terms the blatant, incessant, forceful and unorthodox methods employed by the Hamas authorities and their representatives against visiting international journalists in Gaza over the past month.

The international media are not advocacy organisations and cannot be prevented from reporting by means of threats or pressure, thereby denying their readers and viewers an objective picture from the ground.

“In several cases,” the FPA went on, “foreign reporters working in Gaza have been harassed, threatened or questioned over stories or information they have reported through their news media or by means of social media.”

What was it that Hamas did not want to have reported out of Gaza? Well, what everyone in the region knew, namely, that Hamas was both storing its rockets in, and firing its rockets at Israel from, schools, hospitals, apartment complexes, individual residences and United Nations facilities, and building its elaborate system of tunnels underneath Gazans’ houses from which to try to kill large numbers of Israeli civilians.

What did that mean? It meant that of course Hamas was using Palestinians as human shields on a massive scale, in order that Palestinian civilians could be sacrificed for the purpose of targeting Israeli civilians, a double-war crime, just as Netanyahu is fond of saying. And it meant that there truly was no way for the Israelis to stop the rocket fire and dismantle tunnels without Palestinian civilians being killed, just as Hamas knew would occur.

And what, in turn, did that mean? It meant that the Hamas narrative and that of its supporters — that Israel was targeting civilians and was engaged in a deliberate massacre — a narrative peddled by Israel’s critics so skillfully, and lapped up by so many so credulously — was simply hooey.

This apparently dismayed Jodi Rudoren a very great deal, but not for the reason one might imagine. It wasn’t the pattern of intimidation of journalists condemned by the Foreign Press Association that upset her. It was the Association’s condemnation, which in her view was “nonsense.” Here is the tweet that Rudoren, handle “@rudoren,” saw fit to tweet out at 11:30 am on August 11, 2014:

Every reporter I’ve met who was in Gaza during war says this Israeli/now FPA narrative of Hamas harassment is nonsense.

The harassment of her fellow journalists by Hamas that moved them to issue the statement did not trouble her; it was the criticism of Hamas. Did she think the Foreign Press Association was the World Zionist Organization? That they were just making it up?

Evidently, she did. Or she was simply in the dark, and knowing what the waiters serve with bagels and whitefish salad at Johnny’s Luncheonette in Newton Center was not, in retrospect, sufficient to discern reality in the Middle East. Because within hours of when Rudoren issued her tweet proclaiming that what the Foreign Press Association said was nonsense, the head of Foreign Relations in Hamas’ Foreign Ministry admitted the following in an interview on Lebanese TV: The foreign press, she said, that was focused on:

…filming the places from where the missiles were launched were deported from Gaza. The security agencies would go and have a chat with these people. They would give them some time to change their message one way or the other.

“We suffered from the problem very much,” she went on, “some of the journalists who entered the Gaza Strip were under security surveillance. Even under these difficult circumstances, we managed to reach them, and tell them that what they were doing was anything but professional journalism and that it was immoral.”

It is tough to say what is the most stomach-turning aspect of this. Is it that Hamas managed to bully and intimidate foreign journalists en masse for almost two months and get away with it? Is it the fact that this bullying and intimidation successfully prevented the world from receiving an objective picture of what this awful war was really all about? Or is it the fact that the principal correspondent of the New York Times either had no clue about what was happening, or instinctively desired to deny it, or both?

Tough to choose from the dispiriting menu of choices. There has developed an “I-don’t-want-to-know-it” disease that has grown to epidemic proportions among people that we expect to be prepared to know facts when it comes to Israel, and it is far from clear what the cure is.

About the Author
Jeff Robbins, a former United States Delegate to the United Nations Human Rights Commission in the Clinton Administration, is an attorney in Boston, Massachusetts