Alternative Facts…Then and Now

The phrase “alternative facts” entered the American lexicon in the earliest days of the Trump presidency. Just days after Trump’s inauguration in 2017, then Press Secretary Sean Spicer claimed at a news conference that the number of people attending that ceremony was the largest in American history, a statement disproved conclusively by multiple sources of empirical evidence. When pressed on it, he doubled down, asserting that what he had said was indeed the case, and that was the end of that line of questioning. Case closed.

Shortly thereafter, on the January 22, 2017 episode of NBC’s Meet the Press, then Special Advisor to the President Kellyanne Conway defended Spicer, saying that he was giving “alternative facts.” The show’s host, Chuck Todd, responded that “… alternative facts are not facts. They’re falsehoods.” Case not closed.

Yes, now as then, “alternative facts” are just lies. As Ecclesiastes might have said, there is nothing new under the sun.

When the Al-Ahli hospital in Gaza was tragically destroyed by a rocket attack just a few days ago, causing massive civilian casualties, Hamas very quickly announced that it was the result of an Israeli air attack. Social media and all the major news outlets were flooded with gruesome video images of dead bodies, and it was all but assumed that the Hamas narrative was true. The governments of Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, as well as Hizbollah in Lebanon and territory controlled by the Palestinian Authority, were quick to buy in to this version of what had happened, and the “Arab street” exploded in violent anger. Jordan and Egypt, whose leaders had been scheduled to meet with President Biden when he came to Israel, cancelled those meetings for fear of enraging their own citizens even further.

But once again, mutiple sources of empirical evidence, not just Israeli intelligence but also American intelligence agencies and others, provided a different narrative- one that was actually true. The attack on the Gaza hospital was not the result of an Israeli rocket or bomb, but rather of a failed missile launch from within Gaza by Islamic Jihad, another terrorist organization allied with Hamas. Israel is not beyond making mistakes, but it does not target hospitals.

Hamas had once again provided the world with “alternative facts,” and what is sadly true is that, when it comes to Israel, not only the Arab world but the world as a whole is all too ready to adopt lies that serve to confirm their pre-existing bias against Israel. By the time the facts, not the alternative facts, saw the light of day, the damage world-wide had already been done. You can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube…

It is important to understand that, though the attack by Hamas against Israel on October 7 was unique in its horrific savagery, even by modern standards, the pattern that led to it was not unique.

As Israel and Saudi Arabia seemed to be moving inexorably towards some kind of normalization of ties, those radical rejectionist elements of the Arab world that could never accept Israel’s existence (“From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free!) realized that with the Saudis poised to formally accept the reality of Israel, they (and the Palestinians whom they claim to represent) were destined to be on the wrong side of an emerging new Middle East- the outside.  As Jonathan Greenblatt, the National Director and CEO of the ADL has forcefully pointed out, Hamas is not interested in a two-state solution. It’s interested in a final solution.

So they did what they had done in the past, only more so. They perpetrated increasingly violent acts, making it impossible for even the most moderate of Israelis to consider any possibility of living side by side with these people in two states. Whether blowing up buses in Jerusalem during past peace initiatives, waging intifadas, shooting up schools, cafes and pizzerias, or now slaughtering fourteen hundred men, women and children and kidnapping hundreds of others, the more violent they became, the more their cause was served. The angrier Israelis became, the more right-wing their politics did as well, and their politicians. It’s said that in America people vote their pocketbooks. In Israel, they vote their security. And that’s how Israel’s current Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has remained in office for so long, despite his multiple indictments. “Only I can keep you safe.” he has claimed. Sounds familiar, yes?

No one in Israel feels very safe right now, and this great tragedy happened on his watch. He and all of his ministers will yet pay the political price for their arrogance and malfeasance.

Among other painful lessons, what the current unfolding tragedy in Israel reminds us is that even in a world awash in gray, there are still areas of black and white for those who dare to see them. There is good and there is evil, and there is truth and there are lies. The violence that Hamas perpetrated against Israel on October 7 was evil, and nothing, no grievance, can justify it. Those who would claim otherwise, whether on college campuses or media outlets, are at best showing their willful ignorance of what was done. At worst they are broadcasting, loud and clear, their abject lack of moral clarity. The attack on that hospital in Gaza was the result of an errant missile(s) fired by Islamic Jihad, and not by Israel. Those who refuse to acknowledge that are consciously and intentionally passing off “alternative facts” as truth, and in so doing exacerbating the horror of October 7… just what they are trying to do.

We who suffer along with Israel from afar are struggling to show the depths of our empathy, and our heartache. No matter how connected we feel to what is happening there, we’re not running to safe rooms every few minutes. Most of us- though we ache for friends and family who live in Israel- are still living our lives and following our routines, though it certainly does feel as if we’re living through a nightmare. So many of us are worrying about loved ones whose lives have been forever altered,  some with family members who have been kidnapped, or friends and relatives who were slaughtered. We all wish we could do more; it is a terribly frustrating feeling.

But what we can do- and indeed what each and every one of us must do- is be vigilant in insuring that lies are challenged, and the truth is known.   All of our print and electronic outlets, as well as our elected officials, must understand that we are watching them, and counting on their support in these critical hours. University presidents should not be allowed to hide behind the worst instincts of some of their students, who seem tragically devoid of a moral center that sees beyond platitudes of political correctness and intersectionality. We must contribute to those worthy charitable causes that are doing what needs to be done on the ground in Israel to support both both members of the IDF and their families. Protest “alternative truths” wherever they manifest themselves.

And last but most certainly not least- we must be there for Israel when the rest of the world runs out of sympathy, which it is already showing signs of doing. Eradicating Hamas will be a long and painful process, and the war may yet widen to other fronts. There will be blood, no matter what precautions are taken. Standing with Israel means standing with Israel, no matter what the coming weeks may bring. May Israel have the courage to do what needs to be done, and may we have to courage to stand by her side as she does.

About the Author
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the Rabbi Emeritus of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.
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