Sarah Tuttle-Singer recently scolded the Israeli press for its critical coverage of President Shimon Peres’s birthday bash, telling us to “shut up and enjoy the show,” in the name of Israel advocacy.
I could not disagree more.
Leaving aside the fact that trying to stifle dissent only serves to reinforce the idea that Peres is being put on a “great leader” pedestal in the mold of a Kim Jong (take your pick which one), there’s a question here that cuts to the very heart of how journalists cover the news and deal with responsibilities to their state. But I can see no situation in which expecting journalists to sit quietly and only write nice things involves anything short of a total abrogation of our responsibilities as holders of the fourth estate, even if it is in the name of advocating for Israel.
I’m all for hasbara professionals doing their jobs and making the Jewish state look good, and I’m not against a little hagiography on somebody’s birthday (too often we wait until somebody is dead to start talking nicely about them). But that’s not journalists’ job to do, and in any case, what happened Tuesday night at the Presidential Conference was something totally beyond the scope of either hasbara or nuanced hagiography: It was insulting to Israel and her citizens and, if intended as a way of making the Jewish state look good, insulting to those whom the hasbara potentially targets.
At a time when Israel is entering a painful period of austerity measures, throwing a high-shekel star-studded gala for a public servant, replete with international celebrities and politicians flown in to literally sing his praises seems like a slap in our face. And yes, the over the top nature of the show, with everybody taking turns talking about how amazing Shimon Peres is (with some even comparing him to royalty), did unfortunately arouse a bitter taste that was reminiscent of dictators forcing citizens to celebrate their birthdays. There was what to be critical of and journalists who raised their voices should not be told to “shut up.”
Worse than Peres throwing a party that made Netanyahu’s ice cream habit seem like a joke, though, was the press’s tendency to go along with the horse and pony show with nary a single word of critical discourse (The Times of Israel included). On television, channels 1, 2, 10 skipped their normal prime time schedules to give wall to wall coverage to the event, with anchors from the 8 p.m. newscast broadcasting live from the party. I am reminded of Channel 2’s Yonit Levy gushing about Peres’s place at the heart of Israeli consensus, ignoring the fact that even as president, a largely ceremonial post, he has been more critical than nearly any of his predecessors, to say nothing of his positions as an active politician over the years that not everyone agrees with. If anything, Peres, who is known for taking unpopular stances throughout the years but fighting for what he believed in, would probably be displeased at the whitewashing of his record. (For the record, I am agnostic on Peres’s place in the Israeli pantheon.)
I don’t know how much coverage Peres’s birthday received outside Israel, but I imagine it was minimal, and mostly tied to the presence of the American celebrities who were there. Even if the party did win any hearts and minds, do we really want our friends to be the type of people who like a place because Sharon Stone visited there, or do we cherish a bit more intellectual honesty? Did Hillary Swank’s attendance at a birthday for Chechnyan leader Ramzan Kadyrov in 2011 make you think anything less of human rights abuses in the breakaway republic. There are many ways to do hasbara, but I am not convinced this is one of them.
On the other hand, one of the greatest talking points for hasbarists is Israel’s place as a thriving democracy with a press that can be painfully critical of its government, unlike many other countries in the region. By dissenting critically with Peres’s birthday party, Israeli journalists are essentially creating their own version of Aharon Barak’s famous Buzaglo law. Just as no politician is above the law, no politician is above criticism, even on his birthday.
As journalists our role is to present the truth, and to put that truth into context with as little bias as possible. In the US journalism community, where balance is often seen as the ultimate arbiter of fairness, an important debate arose during the election season last year as reporters and editors grappled with how to fact check their subjects without seeming as if they are advocating for the other side. The same debate cropped up over whether it is necessary to quote opposing scientists in articles about global warming, and in many other cases. It is an unresolved debate there, but here in Israel, journalists, many of whom double as commentators, are less concerned with balance and more with calling it as they see it. This does not mean being antagonistic just for the sake of taking an opposing viewpoint, but rather a basic commitment to dialectical thought.
This critical discourse is not only reserved for political manners, or for how we treat the Palestinians or asylum-seekers. The fact is that many in the country were not overly thrilled to see Peres’s over the top extravaganza, and their opinions are no less worthy of being covered than those who saw the party as the crowning achievement of Israel’s 65 years of existence. Stifling dissent won’t help those who seek to paint Israel in a good light. If anything it will make their jobs that much harder.