The following Op-Ed imagines how the prevalence of anti-Israel media falsehoods can contribute to a cartoonishly hostile narrative about the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Having carefully studied media coverage of Israel during the past several years, it is hard to avoid certain unpleasant conclusions about the country.
Consider what has been reported about Israel's conduct in the Gaza Strip. Only 92 out of over 1000 Palestinians killed during the 2008-2009 Gaza war – less than 8 percent – were fighters.1 Instead of learning from this dismal performance, though, Israel repeated it in the subsequent round of fighting a few years later. Already during the first hours of the round of fighting that broke out in November 2012, Palestinian fatalities were almost all civilians.2
But sterile numbers do not tell the whole story. It is the personal accounts that allow us to viscerally feel the horrors of Israel's immoral behavior. We cannot help but be emotionally touched by stories like that of Jihad Misharawi, a BBC journalist whose agony was caught on camera after his 11-month old son was killed by Israel.3
Israeli bombs caused the same anguish when they took the life of four-year-old Mahmoud Sadallah.4
And yet again, when Israel bombed a soccer stadium killing four Palestinian teenagers doing nothing more than playing the sport they loved — who else would Israel expect to be harmed when it bombs a soccer pitch? Families were destroyed.5
It is no wonder that soccer star Didier Drogba signed a petition slamming Israel and calling on the under-21 soccer tournament to be moved from the country.6
Israel and other observers have argued that Hamas and other Palestinian terrorist groups put civilians at risk by using built-up, populated areas to fire their rockets into Israel. But the reality is that virtually every square inch in Gaza is a built-up civilian area; the terrorists really have no choice but to risk the lives of fellow Palestinians.7
Meanwhile, the West Bank has its own serious problems. Israel has been pushing forward with planning for a neighborhood east of Jerusalem that would cut the West Bank in half and prevent a contiguous Palestinian state in the West Bank.8 The territory is crisscrossed with roads on which only Jews are allowed to travel, and from which anyone of a different religion or ethnicity is barred.9 And Bethlehem, the birth place of Jesus, is completely surrounded by Israel's security barrier.10 (It's remarkable that, despite these horrific conditions, Palestinians still make sure their textbooks humanize Israelis, for example, by teaching that it is an obligation as Muslim Arabs to help Israeli soldiers.11)
Things are very different in Tel Aviv, the capital of Israel.12 Palestinians cannot be oppressed there, but only because there are no Palestinians in Tel Aviv — it is in fact the only Western city without Arab or Muslim inhabitants.13 For this we can thank Israeli founding father David Ben Gurion, who insisted before Israel became a state that "the Arabs will have to go, but one needs an opportune moment for making it happen, such as a war."14
Beyond Tel Aviv, there are Arabs in Israel. But if the Jewish majority had its way, those Arabs would face more than just discrimination — a recent poll found that most Israelis support apartheid in Israel.15 (Israeli society is part of the way there. Arabs, for example, do not have access to Israeli military or national service.16)
Each of the footnoted assertions above appeared in a major media source. And each is patently false. (See footnotes below.)
Mistakes, of course, are inevitable, not least in the deadline-driven world of journalism. And a number of the errors that re-appear in the hypothetical Op-Ed were commendably corrected.
But the frequency, persistence and viral quality of falsehoods that cast Israel in a negative light is unusual, and leaves the sense that there is more than deadline pressures at play here. Indeed, a closer look at the errors above shows that, in many cases, professional journalism takes a back seat to ideology and hostility when it comes to Israel.
Consider Bob Simon's claim on 60 Minutes that Israel's security barrier "completely surrounds Bethlehem." 60 Minutes had been working on the segment for months before it aired, leaving plenty of time for basic research and fact checking. There was no one-day or one-week deadline to get in the way of journalistic dilligence. Much more telling, though, is CBS News's behavior after it was informed of its clear-cut falsehood. Instead of quickly investigating and straightforwardly correcting the misinformation, CBS responded to CAMERA's correction request with excuses, stonewalling, and a subsequent reiteration of the error by CBS News Chairman Jeff Fager, who insisted before a a crowd at his home church that "Bethlehem is surrounded by a wall." At that lecture, which occured about one year after the problematic segment was first broadcast, Fager insisted that CBS was a victim of bullying by those calling on the organization to correct the error. This is not how a professional news organization behaves after committing an innocent mistake.
Likewise, why were BBC's Jon Donnison and The Washington Post's Max Fisher so reluctant to walk back their claims that Jihad Mashrawi's son was killed by Israel? Why did they seem so attached to the discredited anti-Israel narrative? Even the radical advocacy group Electronic Intifada eventually came clean, sharing with readers that the Palestinian Al Mezan Center for Human Rights determined the boy was most likely killed by Palestinians. When professional journalists are less forthright than an extremist anti-Israel organization, they cannot be said to have committed an innocent mistake.
And what would impel a serious journalist to defend Hamas's use of residential areas to fire rockets with a patently false claim, as BBC's Paul Danahar did when he insisted there is no open space in Gaza from which Hamas can fire rockets at Israel? This is not a misspelling, nor a misremembered statistic. It is a reinvention of reality.
The bad-faith behind some of the falsehoods is self-evident. Joseph Massad, who claimed that Tel Aviv is the only Western city without Muslim or Arab inhabitants, is not only a Columbia Universtiy professor but also a (rather hysterical) anti-Zionist activist. Ha'aertz's Gideon Levy, who falsely claimed that Amnesty International counted only 92 fighters among the Palestinian fatalities during Operation Cast Lead, is little different than Massad.
Finally, it is worth pointing out that errors are only the tip of the iceberg. The media shapes people's views on the Middle East conflict in much more subtle ways, too. For example, CAMERA's monograph Indicting Israel points out that, during 6-months of New York Times coverage of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, "Israeli views were downplayed while Palestinian perspectives, especially criticism of Israel, are amplified and even promoted." In other words, it is not only errors that lead to misunderstanding of the Middle East. The same ideology that produces those errors also affects what is reported, how it is reported, whose voices are heard most loudly, and what concerns are downplayed.
American support for Israel is at an all-time high. But considering how some reporters and outlets cover the conflict, it is not hard to imagine what shaped the opinions of the minority that does not sympathize with Israel.