Alan Silverstein

Hamas’s Second-Stage Assault — Media Distortion

On October 7, Hamas monsters, with ISIS-style cruelty, stormed a music festival as well as kibbutzim and yishuvim located in Israel’s “Gaza Envelope.” These barbarians proceeded to commit unspeakable crimes — rape; decapitating of bodies; burning people alive; mass shooting of unarmed civilians; and kidnapping of babies, children, women, the elderly, and men of all ages. More than 1,200 were murdered, thousands were injured, 200 are still reported as missing, and more than 240 are being held as hostages.

Within hours, Israel responded with force. Hamas shifted to its “second line of attack”: employing Arab civilians as human shields and then enlisting the media in blaming Israel for the resultant deaths of Gazans. Editors were complicit as they shifted members of the press corps from assignments covering the carnage in Israel to documenting violence by Israel against Palestinian civilians. Provocations by Hamas and Islamic Jihad were downplayed, since mention of them would complicate the simple (anti-Israel) story the reporters were sent to tell.

Hamas’s weaponizing of media coverage merits further examination. Why do they manage to succeed in hitting their target — the journalists who willingly comply with their distorted message?

A “morality tale”

There evidently is a thirst among members of the press to scrutinize wartime missteps made by Israel. Seeking flaws in the Jewish state’s behavior seems to be a journalistic obsession. Editors assume that their readers are fascinated by “The people of the Bible” behaving in a “flawed manner.”

Back in 2014, former Associated Press reporter Matti Friedman — a Canadian-Israeli journalist and author — commented at length about this imbalance:

1. Inflated importance accorded to the story
Friedman wondered why there was so much coverage of the IDF’s battle record. He noted that “the Israeli campaign was little different in its execution from any other battle waged by a Western army against a similar [non-state] enemy in recent years.” The only real differences, Friedman said, “were the immediate nature of the threat to a country’s own population” — Gaza being so close to the border with Israel — and Israel’s “greater exertions…to avoid civilian deaths.”

The same news services greatly under-reported more catastrophic military action elsewhere (notably 190,000 deaths in the Syrian civil war).

Friedman attributed such excessive coverage to the sheer volume of press personnel stationed in Israel. “When I was a correspondent at the AP,” he wrote, it had “more than 40 staffers [today it’s 100s] covering Israel and the Palestinian territories. That was significantly more news staff than the AP had in China, Russia, or India, or in all of the 50 countries of sub-Saharan Africa combined.”

This volume of press coverage, Friedman said, resulted in affording coverage of Israel’s conflict a prominence way beyond its relative merit.

Israel’s deeds are meticulously scrutinized, generally without context. The clear intent has been to “catch the Jew” (quoting author and journalist Tuvia Tanenbom, who wrote a book with that as its title) doing something improper.

2. Hamas intimidates reporters into compliance with their views
To ensure that reporters’ stories not run counter to the terrorists’ propaganda, Hamas intimidates reporters into submission. Friedman recalled what he saw for himself as an AP news editor, “During the 2008-09 Israel-Gaza fighting, I personally erased a key detail — that Hamas fighters were dressed as civilians and being counted as civilians in the death toll — because of a threat to our reporter.” Similarly, when the AP’s Jerusalem news editor “reported and submitted a story on Hamas intimidation of the press, the story was shunted into deep freeze by his superiors and has not been published.”

3. Mideast reporters’ livelihoods depend upon a pro-Arab slant
The livelihood of Middle East reporters is reliant on gaining access to Hamas. Journalists have to “prove themselves” by espousing a bias against Israel. They worry they will lose their sources unless they portray Jews automatically “as the party obviously in the wrong [and] omit all possible justifications for the Jews’ actions and obscure the true face of their enemies.”

Hamas’s objective is not difficult to achieve. Why? Many folks joining the international press corps attribute the ills of the age to “isms” — racism, colonialism, militarism, and so forth. Friedman noted that when these reporters went looking for a country that would symbolize the sins of our new post-colonial, post-militaristic, post-ethnic dream world, the country they [conveniently] chose was Israel — whether that characterization is true or not.

4. Reporters often lack general knowledge of the Mideast
Bias in coverage of Israel is also due to many reporters’ lack of knowledge of overall trends and conditions in the Arab world. Most reporters are extremely localized in their expertise and do not comprehend the complexities of the larger picture. But a true understanding of what is happening in Gaza, Friedman has said, “means understanding Hezbollah in Lebanon, the rise of the Sunni jihadis in Syria and Iraq, and the long tentacles of Iran….” It requires understanding, Friedman wrote, that “the ascendant force” in the Middle East is not “democracy or modernity. It is rather an empowered strain of Islam…that is willing to employ extreme violence in a quest to unite the region under its control and confront the West.”

5. Falling into a comfort zone: “blaming the victim” (the Jews)
The combination of the above factors creates receptivity toward a simple story in which Israel is “the villain.” The staff of “The New York Times” issued false coverage of the Gaza hospital bomb blast without checking the facts. Why? Friedman believes that “many in the West” — including journalists — “prefer the old comfort of parsing the moral failings of Jews and the familiar feeling of superiority this brings them, to confronting an unhappy and confusing reality….” They actually “convince themselves ‘that all of this is the Jews’ problem, and indeed the Jews’ fault.”

Friedman concludes that when many in the media “omit all possible justifications for the Jews’ actions and obscure the true face of their enemies, what they are saying… — whether they intend to or not — is that Jews are the worst people on earth.”

6. Psychological projection onto Israel of qualities one hates on the “other side” of the conflict
Friedman posits that for the international press, “the Jews of Israel are the screen onto which it has become socially acceptable to project the things you hate about yourself” and your cause.

After the enormities of October 7, when Hamas enacted a plan of genocide in Israel, it was Israel that was quickly accused of “genocide.” This is true even though under Israeli administration since the Six-Day War, Gaza’s population of several hundred thousand in 1967 has grown dramatically to 2.2 million.

Similar “projection” is made with regard to “apartheid.” Israel grants citizenship to its Arabs (Arab political parties in the Knesset, Arab representation in civic life, high percentages of “spots” in Israeli universities and in jobs in health care and other fields). In contrast, the Palestinian Authority (in the West Bank) and Hamas (in Gaza) make clear that no Jews will be permitted to live under their sovereignty — a clear anticipation of ethnic cleansing.

7. Consumers of media-messaging fall prey to these canards
Many well-intentioned folks instinctively accept anti-Israel slanders as truth. Yet open-minded people and especially Diaspora Jews must remember some lessons laid out by “The Jerusalem Post”:

“The first is that information released by the Gaza Health Ministry should not be presumed true.” The ministry is in effect a Hamas propaganda office, and as such any statements it issues — about the Oct. 17 al-Ahli Arab Hospital explosion or other reports from the war front — should be regarded with the utmost skepticism.

In addition, in the “fog of war,” journalists’ initially simply get things wrong. They must, according to “The Jerusalem Post,” “take extraordinary care in how they report events on the ground…. What appears to be the story often is not…”; such erroneous reporting may constitute “journalistic malpractice.”

But perhaps the most important lesson here is that Israel — a liberal democracy governed by rule of law — and Hamas — an Islamist terror organization — “are not on equal moral footing.”

8. Countering Hamas propaganda objectives
Journalists, media organizations, and social media platforms wield enormous power in the global conversation. Israel’s supporters must make certain that the story is reported correctly. Be active in sharing “the case for Israel” in social media posts, by writing letters to editors, by granting interviews. Keep up to date via The Times of Israel, “The Jerusalem Post,” JTA, and other trustworthy publications and outlets.

As said by David Horovitz, founding editor of The Times of Israel, “The public opinion battlefield is, in many ways, at least as important as the actual conflict zone.”

“If the battle for world hearts and minds is not properly fought, the room for military maneuver on the ground will quickly become constrained.”

About the Author
Rabbi Alan Silverstein, PhD, was religious leader of Congregation Agudath Israel in Caldwell, NJ, for more than four decades, retiring in 2021. He served as president of the Rabbinical Assembly, the international association of Conservative rabbis (1993-95); as president of the World Council of Conservative/Masorti Synagogues (2000-05); and as chair of the Foundation for Masorti Judaism in Israel (2010-14). He currently serves as president of Mercaz Olami, representing the world Masorti/Conservative movement. He is the author of “It All Begins with a Date: Jewish Concerns about Interdating,” “Preserving Jewishness in Your Family: After Intermarriage Has Occurred,” and “Alternatives to Assimilation: The Response of Reform Judaism to American Culture, 1840-1930.”
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