The Collins Dictionary explains the term “underdog” as follows: The underdog in a competition or situation is the person who seems least likely to succeed or win. In other words, the underdog is an inherently inferior party to the conflict, who actually experiences or claims to experience injustice. According to ideological inclinations, the oppressed believe they are always right and the stronger party is a priori on the wrong side of world history. By this we are getting closer to the “underdog issue” in the context of the Middle East conflict and its significance in public perception.
In the vast majority of the “mainstream” media, the core conflict is presented to create the perception of an asymmetrical confrontation between powerful Israel and the militarily inferior Palestinians, and goes hand in hand with the mainstream media being in solidarity with the latter. This presentation bias appeals to the well-known reflex of socially and politically compassionate people that one predominantly takes the side of the weaker party.
Expressing support in favor of underdogs is commonly seen as a laudable cause, even regardless of who is actually right. Sometimes such a sentimental attitude ignores or discounts the contradicting facts or the complexity of the underlying conflict.
And herein lies the dilemma for Israel’s standing in the public opinion: within the viewer’s narrow perspective of the viewer focused on the asymmetrical exchange of blows with Hamas. The highly armed and efficient Israeli military beats a much weaker enemy, and by extension the mainly defenseless civilians, who cannot find shelter anywhere in the narrowness of the overpopulated strip of territory. This handicap dooms the largely clumsy attempts by the friends of Israel to explain the complex background of the situation failure from the outset.
The historical context of the conflict is of much less interest and facts only stand in the way of the long-established views. The weaker side’s denial of the stronger side’s right to exist is not considered. Neither is the annihilation of Israel that would be implemented without hesitation if it were possible. Yet Israel only exists in a hostile environment because of its ability to live and survive, born of sheer necessity. The other side exists because Israel does not seek its annihilation, although it would be able to do so, at least in theory.
The arguments put forward by the Israeli side in official statements or in the context of the “Hasbara” public relations work are ineffective because they are unable to break up the apparent asymmetric balance of power between the two sides. Particularly, they fail to bring sufficient visibility to the true background of the conflict.
Instead, they concentrate on the repeatedly emphasized differences in the attitude towards the civilians on both sides. Reference is made to Israel’s effective defense against randomly fired projectiles provided by Iron Dome. Hamas in contrast, deliberately places its weapons near civilian facilities. Civilian casualties in Gaza that inevitably occur as a result of the Israeli counter-attacks are not only accepted, but are even welcomed in order to be presented to the shocked world in order to score points in the battle for public opinion.
It doesn’t help much to point out the Israeli’s efforts to avoid collateral damage, either by warning in advance of attacks (keyword “roof knocking”), or breaking off certain actions in order to spare bystanders. The statements of a fired UNWRA director, who dared to truthfully confirm the Israeli efforts to limit the damage are significant.
Regardless of how successful these collateral damage mitigation measures were, the media critical of Israel willingly speak of massacres of the civilian population and gladly refer to the vastly different numbers of victims on both sides in obedience to the rulers Gaza. It almost seems as if they want more Israeli victims. The mainstream press does not refrain from making inadequate comparisons for the Gaza Strip, such as “open-air prison” or “Nazi methods” for Israel’s defensive measures against attacks from Gaza. The latter comparison in particular is a popular metaphor in relevant reporting. Apart from the Holocaust inherent denial, provides the opportunity for the rhetorical question of how is it possible “that the former Nazi victims could themselves become the cruel oppressors. Apparently the Jews had learned nothing from history”. Professionals have already commented in detail on the psychopathological aspect of this view, which is very popular with Germans in particular. Even the mainstream press twists the facts sometimes (e.g. denial of Hamas military installations in civil institutions), reversing the cause-and-effect sequence into its opposite (hiding escalation due Hamas rocket fire), and selectively misplacing blame (when Hamas’ missed rockets fall short and kill Gazan civilians). Worse yet, are damage reports based on artificially staged and photogenic “Pallywood” productions. Both victims with injuries dramatized using fake blood and resurrected corpses are seen walking away normally once filming is finished.
Attempts by the certainly smaller and timid Israel-friendly press are ineffective against the pro-Palestinian propaganda; at best, they appear as delayed replies to previous reports, which means that the context of the original message can hardly be established. Headlines with reversed causal connections appear with undiminished regularity. In these, the Palestinian victims are emphasized, but the fact that these were combatants to a certain extent, or even if they were the operating teams of launching devices, is mentioned only in a subordinate clause if at all.
A theoretical possibility of escaping this journalistic bloodlust would be to direct the “underdog” sympathy of the left-alternative audience to some unconsidered facts. I am thinking of a kind of onion skin model, where one would have to show the ignored outer layers around the Israeli-Palestinian core conflict, which display a different distribution of power than is commonly assumed.
Indeed, the Palestinians are undoubtedly the underdogs in the strictly focused, local frame. However, if you already include the next adjacent outer shell, the picture of the actual balance of power begins to change. Nearly without exception, hostile countries or population groups surround the Jewish state. Israel has no truly peaceful neighbor at all as is normal elsewhere in the world, in particular where its critics dwell in safety and undisturbed peace.
This layer includes, in particular, highly aggressive and potentially dangerous actors such as Hezbollah in Lebanon and parts of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard stationed in Syria. Moreover, if you look at another, next stratus, other heavily armed and potentially dangerous opponents emerge, such as the Houthis in Yemen and the Shiite militias operating in Iraq.
From here it is only a small step to the next level, to Iran, probably the most determined and capable opponent of Israel. Iran represents a vital threat that will take on unimagined dimensions with the rapid development of its nuclear technology. Israel is constantly pointing out this particular threat, but surprisingly it is met with little understanding. This occurs even with Israel’s friends, who would like to somehow come to terms with the Ayatollahs. The media critical of Israel are careful not to mention the shrill, genocidal attitudes of the rulers in Tehran.
This is still not the end of the onionskin model of outwardly increasing adversity constellations shifting Israel to an underdog like position. As a next level, the entire Arab world can be viewed as a predominantly hostile environment; this despite diplomatic relations and “cold peace” with some of his neighbors. The latter do nothing to mitigate the hostility of their own people and various institutions. On the contrary, they even support that hostility.
Another outer shell is the non-Arab, Islamic world, which includes not only the aforementioned Iran, but also other, sometimes extremely anti-Israeli actors such as Erdogan’s Turkey, the nuclear power Pakistan and Malaysia, to name but a few openly anti-Semitic (and by no means only anti-Israeli) countries. Finally, on the outside, the crackling outer skin of the symbolic onion as it were, there are the two great powers Russia and China, who despite established relations with Israel, supply Israel’s adversaries with weapons, information and political support. The latter finds in the United Nations Assembly and its various bodies a fertile arena for ridiculous Israel-bashing, into which many even so called friends of Israel, readily immerse themselves into absurd accusations. This would be the most external layer of the mentioned complex.
The lack of awareness of these external levels around the central Israeli-Palestinian conflict lies in the narrow horizon of the progressive, left-leaning mainstream media. This focus on an ideologically palatable section of the overall picture makes it impossible to adopt a more discerning and balanced attitude.
The question of whether this is selective perception or willful ignorance is not so easy to answer. I am undecided, and both are probably there. Additionally, everything is fueled in addition by the unconditional love for the “underdogs” – and perhaps spiced with a hefty pinch of anti-Semitism. The grotesque dimensions of this one-sided blindness can best exemplified by the paradoxical solidarity of the western LGBTQ movements with the explicitly homophobic and misogynous Islamists, while at the same time displaying vehement hostility towards the predominantly libertarian and mainly tolerant Israeli society.
As relevant as the ideologically fueled support of the “underdog” can be, and additionally, how flexible it is in its direction, can be seen in the sudden shift in sympathy from pro to anti-Israel, resulting from the Israeli victory in 1967. Before that, the progressive world sided with the Jewish state, which at that time was still viewed as too weak and vulnerable. After the true balance of power became apparent (which in principle was already foreseeable in 1949 and even more so in 1956), the left-progressive world discovered the Palestinians as objects of the underprivileged to be elevated and spoiled. This was done in good time after the appropriation of the name Palestine for the newly invented nation, which was previously only used geographically.
The roughly equal numbers of Jewish refugees and expellees from Arab countries were completely ignored; presumably because – leaving aside other differences – they were not intentionally preserved in their initially precarious status like their Arab counterparts. The refugee status of the Arab refugees is meanwhile inherited over five generations, which is an absolute novelty in human history.
With the efforts apparently not working to gain understanding for Israel’s position as an underdog in a broader context, relevant public opinion will not change for the near future. Israel is too successful to visibly present itself as an “underdog” and garner understanding in the committed public. The good news in this regard, however, is that Israel’s apparent position of strength and superiority is still better than the alternative of indefensible inferiority. In other words, it is far better that Israel remain strong and unpopular in the world, rather than the other way around: to be pitied by the so-called progressives just because its existence threatened.
That is why I prefer to stick with the otherwise repulsive Caligula, who is believed to have said: “Oderint, dum metuant (in English: You may hate me as long as you have to fear me)”.