How New Digital Technology Encourages Terrorism and Threatens Democracy

digital media and securityThere was a time when surveillance and security concerns did not trample on the rights of individuals or democratic principles because the entire matter was too difficult and cumbersome. In the old days when the threat was only ideological (e.g. communism) security issues were far less immediate and gathering information was a slow and lumbering process. But now there is a marriage of violence and digital technology. It is no accident that the correlation between terrorism and media presence and sophistication is strong and positive. As digital technology has advanced, along with the ease and availability of violence, so has terrorist activity and the technology and security requirements necessary to control it.

The threat to individual rights and democratic processes is always easy to defend when faced with rank violence. Of course we cannot let extremist ideologies and easy violent behavior dictates the political environment. But digital technology allows nonstate actors as well as other participants to engage in violence with ease by historical standards. Again, during the relatively simple period of security issues during the Cold War if an individual were a potential threat to the United States he could be detained or we could even enlist the help of others and subject the individual to legal processes. In the modern digital age the means and techniques of interrogating individuals and gathering information are less compatible with legal principles and offer more options – some of them unpleasant and questionable legally and morally.

In the Cold War if we wanted to learn secrets about somebody someone could be assigned to “tail them” and see what they could learn. This was slow, unreliable, and not a very productive use of resources. It was impossible to have enough people assigned to potential sources of information. Searching your person or your property required legal permission. New digital media can gather vast amounts of information from your cell phone, websites, credit card purchases, etc. The state has the legal right to gather information from organizations and it can all be done by a few people in a single place. Moreover, all of the electronic data about you is potentially more informative and revealing than any information obtainable from a coworker or close friend. Purely human information is fallible; people are not paying attention to what you’re doing, or you forget what you did at a certain time and place. But your cell phone and computer don’t forget. It’s all there in simple searchable form.

In the Cold War there was no technology available for massive data-gathering like collecting phone messages from entire communities. Today, the technology is available along with the software sophistication for massive meta-data collection. In fact, Facebook does the equivalent every day.

The security issues in the modern era are serious because of the easy availability of violence and technology. The security sector of the state measures itself by its ability to prevent incidents and is thus motivated to do more and more, regardless of how far the edges of acceptability are pushed, to ensure that there are no more 9/11s. These conditions threaten our democracy as they push the pendulum more towards the security side of the continuum. Still, surveillance and security are part of any state and targeting an opponent of the state capable of violence is legitimate.

Practical limits and approval from proper chains of authority are the only answer to maintain the balance between security and democracy. But new challenges and interesting questions still are on the horizon. Google and Apple, for example, are planning on encryption devices in new versions of cell phones. Security forces are legitimately concerned that this will make important information even more difficult to obtain. But such devices will strike a blow for privacy and individual rights while maintaining the tension between security and democracy.

 

How to Create a Terrorist – Criminal Justice or War

indexThe newspapers are full of stories about how these Jihadies get created. The typical headline reads “The Journey to Extremism,” or “The Radicalization of Mohammed,” or “From Amateur to Slaughter.” The “from-to” structure is apparent as the story always tells a tale of the evolution (or should we say devolution) of the terrorist’s political consciousness and radicalization.

The fact is that we know quite a bit about this process. Terrorism has been the subject of study for some time with an accepted enough definition regarding the use of violence against noncombatants for the purpose of political goals. The problem is that the distinction between combatants and noncombatants has been getting fuzzier for some years. The US killed lots of innocent people during the bombing of Serbia and even during World War II.

The Western, and shall we say more developed world, continues to be chagrined at the creation and presence of terrorists because our first reaction is that they must be psychologically damaged or “crazy.” But we have known for some time that psychopathologies are no more likely among terrorist than non-terrorists. In fact, if terrorists were truly crazy and psychopathological it would be easier to track them and prevent their destructive ways. So, how does it happen? Does a terrorist just decide one day to be a terrorist?

First, from the work of Horowitz and McCauley we know that terrorists kill for a combination of ideology and group dynamics. They are attached to a cause that is worth dying for but more importantly the cause and the ideology are seen as greater than the individual even leading perhaps to immortality. The most normal person believes in something greater than himself (a religious group, a political party, the social ideology).

Secondly, the group dynamics become even more important as death or violence becomes nearer because the group membership gives it meaning. The group becomes the same as a family or culture allowing members to embrace its values. And any set of important values will do. The common refrain is that religion accounts for so much death but secular ideology (Maoists, Shining Path, Red Brigade, Baader Meinhof, communism, Stalinism) accounts for and justifies more death than religion. Although these secular ideologies have met their match in jihadist Islam.

Third, there are few conditions more potent than a collection of highly focused intense like-minded people who reinforce one another. We all belong to lots of groups but when one group becomes dominant and foregrounded in our consciousness with respect to identity the group becomes particularly powerful. Other members of the group become like family with intense interpersonal commitments fueled by a belief in a just cause. The psychology of extremist behavior is normal psychology but just intensified.

Criminal Justice or War

How do we handle the French terrorists or the Boston Marathon bombers? Are they criminals engaged in illegal activity in which we must provide evidence of illegal behavior, or is this a war? For starters, describing something as a war moves it away from individual responsibility toward group responsibility. But this just feeds into terrorist goals which are to convince you that their individual behavior represents the will of large groups. It is true enough that we should always examine foreign policy to see how we might be contributing to discontent, but this is certainly no excuse for the typical violence associated with terrorism. When we call for a “war” on the terrorists we are using language that justifies broader military operations and of course different legal implications.

It is time to move beyond simple questions about where these terrorists come from and how they are created. We know a lot about the development of violent behavior and under the right conditions most people are capable of it. We need, instead, a concerted effort to understand how we might defuse these conditions. This would include a more systematic defense of liberal values by Western leaders as well as efforts by group leaders (e.g. mainstream Muslims) to direct grievances away from violence.

 

 

 

 

A Very Impressive and Important Opportunity

Summer Fellowship all expenses paid. You really need to seriously consider Brandeis University’s summer travel and study. Stimulating academic and intellectual preparation for teaching and scholarship–at no cost to you. More information from below.

Keren Goodblatt
Communications Specialist
Schusterman Center for Israel Studies
Brandeis University
781-736-7310
www.brandeis.edu/israelcenter
Faculty: Just a few places left for Summer Institute for Israel Studies. Apply now!

“I Make No Effort to Indulgently Understand Tyranny. I Am Charlie”

Free speech In the wake of the attack in France on the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo, I call on all news and publication outlets to reprint satirical articles from the magazine and publish images that Jihadis object to. This should be done in the name of freedom, symbolic expression, and solidarity with those killed in France. I consider myself a pretty decent democrat committed to liberal values that includes such qualities as tolerance, diversity, compromise, pursuit of the best argument, deliberative processes, and respect. But these Islamic extremists who kill people because of some flimsy insult push the boundaries of all of these.

They consider nothing to be outside the realm of their own decisions about what is deserving of violence, and represent the type of political sensibilities the world has been evolving away from for 200 years. They care about nothing except their own ideological purity, always a dangerous condition. And we certainly have not seen the last of these. The communities that ring the city of Paris have become infested with radicalized extremists who advocate mass murder and even genocide in certain cases. These are the kinds of extremes that call for restrictions on liberty and that’s always a dangerous moment. But what can you do? Can we make it easy to blowup soccer fields, performing arts centers, kosher grocery stores, and schools just because we object to inspections and security profiling?

And this sort of extremism in the name of religion is not the result of weak economies or abstract political theories objecting to US foreign policy. It increasingly looks like an ideological system bent on imposing its doctrines on others.

I turn at these times to the Euston manifesto with respect to democracies which advocates a muscular democracy. That is, it clearly defends the limits of tolerance and acceptability. I quote two paragraphs below but it is the very last sentence of paragraph 2 that is the most muscular. In other words, democracy is not about that spectrum of the left that knows no group that is not oppressed and gives all sorts of groups a free pass with respect to responsibility being associated with individual volition rather than abstract social forces.

1 For democracy.
We are committed to democratic norms, procedures and structures — freedom of opinion and assembly, free elections, the separation of legislative, executive and judicial powers, and the separation of state and religion. We value the traditions and institutions, the legacy of good governance, of those countries in which liberal, pluralist democracies have taken hold.

2 No apology for tyranny.
We decline to make excuses for, to indulgently “understand”, reactionary regimes and movements for which democracy is a hated enemy — regimes that oppress their own peoples and movements that aspire to do so. We draw a firm line between ourselves and those left-liberal voices today quick to offer an apologetic explanation for such political forces.

Two groups of leaders need to denounce these attacks and speak up in defense of liberal values. Muslim leaders are one of these groups and they need to go beyond simply objecting to violence. They must begin a program of explanation and clarification about Islam making clear that the God of Islam does not endorse such behavior. And secondly the leaders of Western countries must systematically explain, clarify, and defend the liberal state. Many immigrants as well as citizens of a country – whether it be in the outskirts of Paris or to the United States – need to understand more clearly and sharply what it means to live in a democracy and the boundaries of diversity and tolerance. This will include proper forms of protest. I might make the argument that a news outlet should be aware of too much satire and criticism of one group and respect in a diverse society requires limiting such copy. But this sort of criticism or humor still exists in the realm of symbolic behavior and is protected speech. The only way to object to what someone writes is more writing and the power of the better argument.

 

 

Do You Want to Stop Extremist Groups? Don’t Change Messages, Change the Receivers for These Messages

terrorist and capitalistCommunication perspectives have a long history of trying to teach people which particular message produces which affects, as if the message were a bullet traveling through space that simply needed to be aimed properly. I’m just as guilty as anyone else of thinking about communication as an instrumentality that is constantly looking to push the right button to achieve a predetermined desired effect. So, for example, my own work in dialogue and deliberation still often – not always – reads as if success is simply finding the optimal input conditions that lead to some output.

But there is another way of thinking about how to achieve particular effects. Rather than thinking of the receiver of a message as a passive mechanism with an absorptive sponge for a brain, and then spending your time trying to find the right message that will be absorbed as you designate, change the receiver rather than the message. Make new receivers that will be more or less poised to receive particular messages. Let me explain.

The U. S. is currently struggling to defeat extremist groups such as the Islamic State, Hezbollah, Hamas, Al Qaeda, and a host of other radical groups. Most of the news about our efforts to degrade these extremist groups is pretty bad. Terrorist and violent groups are successfully recruiting new members, winning their share of battles, raising money, and generally prospering. Our military, mighty as it is, will not defeat the Islamic State and no informed counselor to the president believes military force is the only answer – important as it is. So what are we to do?

One answer is to change the terrorists and make them less interested in violence. A more traditional approach consistent with the silver bullet metaphor above is to “lecture” terrorists on democracy, and pluralism, and liberalism, and all those good things and assume that if we can only find the right words with the right pedagogical strategy then these ideas will “take” and we will turn them all into liberal democrats. Well as a popular quip goes, “good luck with that.”

But a second way to approach the problem is to change social structures and business arrangements such that they foster capitalist enterprises and market economies. Don’t try to change people, change social systems and the people will follow. Hernando De Soto wrote about this some months ago in the Wall Street Journal. The idea is to raise living standards and inject the cultures with some imagination and capital especially for the poor. And interestingly, turns out that the poor in many cultures, both Latin American and Middle Eastern, are not poor because of simple unemployment as conventional wisdom would hold. Rather, they are small businessmen and women operating “off the books” in an underground and informal economy.

If economic leaders and advisers in Middle Eastern states would eliminate regulation, and bureaucratic extremes including recognizing the importance of property rights, they would create customers for businesses and leave extremist groups with fewer customers. This is consistent with the goal of leaving groups like ISIS without constituencies, which is currently the goal in Iraq after the deposition of Malaki. On the political front of the strategy is to bring Sunnis into the political system including official bodies of governance on the assumption that they will not turn their attention to outside extremist groups. The same logic can work on an economic basis. The perceptions of these communities must change so they are seen as future vibrant markets rather than training grounds for violence. There is some history, according to De Soto, of these capitalist strategies working in Peru, China, Botswana, and others. And finally, it’s fairly well established that businesses rationalize human relationships. Former intergroup enemies can be interdependent on the basis of a commercial exchange. And if you change the relationship you can change attitudes and values.

I’m naïve you say? Maybe.

 

 

 

 

Some Serious Solution Proposals to the Israel-Palestine Conflict – Pay Attention!

Two states on one land It’s just unconscionable how much time is spent analyzing and criticizing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and how little time is spent working on positive and productive solution possibilities. There are, of course, lots of solution proposals and options but the force of communicative energy is directed toward critique and justifications for why something cannot be done rather than the hard work of grinding out durable solutions that take into account the “facts on the ground.” True enough, many elements from both sides don’t actually want to work on solutions because their identities are wrapped up in the conflict but this is one of the stages in the conflict process the two sides must overcome. Listen to the sound file here from the “Voice of Israel” and their shallow criticism of the New York Times. They fail to make the distinction between bias and perspective and have slipped into a series of minor perspective differences informed more by defensiveness than serious engagement.

An animated video that you can watch here is a better and more productive presentation of the conflict because it presents the pragmatic issues that must be addressed rather than small matters that do not carry any traction. Here’s an alternative from IPCRI – a serious solution that clearly requires additional difficult conversation but seems “rational” to the extent that it addresses the needs of everyone.

IPCRI (the Israeli-Palestinian Center for Research and Information) is a welcome alternative. IPCRI has been working on detailed solutions designed to create “Two States in One Space.” You can access the “Two States in One Space Research Paper” here. The paper tries to balance a separation mentality with a cooperation one that requires somewhat less sacrifice and ameliorates potential trauma. The core idea of the paper is to avoid evacuation of hundreds of thousands of Jews and Palestinians by creating different categories of political participation. For example, on that portion of the land that will be Israel one group will be citizens (Israeli Jews) with all the privileges of voting, decision-making, and shaping the national identity. The minority group will be residents, not citizens, but who will have certain guaranteed liberal rights just not the same as citizens. The same will hold for the Palestinian state where Jews (many of them now are settlers) will be a resident minority but not citizens.

This model mitigates demographic fears, responds somewhat to the right of return issues, prevents massive population movement which is rarely easy or successful, and allows for independent nation building. Individuals can move to their own nation state or remain a resident granting the fact that population movement and control will be demanding.

But Most Important!

But most importantly the model sets up the conditions for the development of integrated cooperation and interdependence. The current asymmetrical relationship between Israelis and Palestinians will be softened as the two sides cooperate on security, regional and local governance, and the establishment of necessary shared institutions of government. Israeli Jewish needs for a democratic state devoted to Jewish particularity will be met and there will be no political possibility for the Jewish nature of the state to be challenged. And, Palestinians will have their own state devoted to cultural, political, artistic, and religious matters all in the service of a Palestinian political identity.

Of course, these things remain difficult with lots of work ahead but both sides have to assume that they are not going to get everything they want. This proposal is a matter of entering into a voluntary union that requires a certain amount of cooperation and allows for less sacrifice. And finally, it represents a sensible integration model rather than the separation mentality that characterizes most political solutions. Spend some time reading the documents at IPCRI.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Try Communication, Torture Doesn’t Work

 ... -wont-be-charged-for-post-911-enhanced-interrogation-techniques.jpgIt sounds a little benign, but the issues surrounding torture are very much communication issues. I don’t consider pure torture to be communicative in the proper sense of the term but a decision not to torture is certainly communicative because it means information will be extracted and processed through the communication process. There is nothing wrong with interrogating someone purely through the interactional process with the goal of trying to get information, as long as this process remains fully symbolic. But of course any process that is fully symbolic and “interactive” in the most straightforward sense of the term is subject to wide latitudes of interpretation, pragmatic complexities, and semantic confusions. Prevarication is always part of a pure human symbolic activity not to mention time constraints, speed of information acquisition, and other practical limitations.

People start to justify torture when the information is considered crucial and must be obtained quickly. Moreover, the moral argument is typically overcome by the principle of the “greater good.” In other words, the potential to save lives or do good outweighs the opportunity to maintain moral purity. Security and intelligence specialists feel responsible for protecting the lives of others and thus acquiring information from an enemy is vital. Torture becomes justified by an appeal to a “higher” good.

There remains the question of simply whether or not torture works. In other words if a political system institutes a program of torture is it the case that inputting torture leads to an output of truth. Arrigo posits three potential theoretical suggestions for how torture leads to truth. These are the animal instinct model, the cognitive failure model, and the data processing model. Each has complexities and strengths and weaknesses that are beyond our concern here but all share an “informational” quality in terms of predictions about whether or not the model leads to the truth it seeks.

Briefly, the animal instinct model is simply that in order to avoid pain or death one will meet the demands of the torturer and utter the truth. The problem with this model is that it requires considerable brutality and subjects will say anything to avoid the pain. A second model is the cognitive failure model and it holds that torture creates incompetence in the subject and it is impossible for him to maintain any deceptions. This process is lengthy which makes information less valuable over time of and often the subject can’t distinguish between true statements and erroneous ones. The third model is the data processing model and it poses the theoretical position that extracts bits and pieces of both true and false information from subjects and then uses that with other information to complete a comprehensive analysis. This is the most common model and approximates the way interrogation specialists whether they inflict pain or not actually operate. They defend the information value of their work by defending the notion of accumulating small bits of information that finally amounts to something.

In the end, torture just doesn’t work very well. Of course appeals to morality and democratic liberties are potent arguments that must be respected. But the arguments for enhanced interrogation or torture by any definition always include the pleas for speed and the “ticking bomb” argument that some disaster must be prevented immediately. More than a few studies have reported the ill consequences of coercive interrogation which are serious societal moral objections, false evidence, manipulated evidence, corrosive corruption and secrecy, and even the involvement of organized crime. Arrigo reports that changes in information value when torture is permitted are negligible.

When the public feels threatened it resorts quickly to extreme means to solve problems and identify dangers. The public support for torture varies as a function of its perception of threat. Managing these threats through communicative and political means will eliminate the conditions that nourish the demand for coercive interrogation, and eliminate the time pressure that justifies such interrogations.

 

 

 

 

 

 

How Group Level Conflict Is Changed by Interaction Rituals

interaction ritualsEthnopolitical conflicts are pervasive in a culture and involve a relationship between locally situated parties and larger groups. The conflict is perceived as both an interpersonal problem and a group level problem. Attempts to resolve these conflicts are significantly at the interpersonal level in the form of communicative contact experiences that seek to change relationships in the hope that such changes will find their way to group levels. If intergroup contact of any sort (problem-solving groups, dialogue groups, civil society) is going to claim efficacy then there must be some principled relationship between interpersonal interactions and the larger world of social structure. This calls to mind work by Giddens on the relationship between communicative interactions and the pre-existing structural world (e.g. “culture,” “ethnicity”). Sociologists refer to this as the micro-macro link and the connections between the real-time world of individuals and the larger world of social structure. Conflict resolution experiences rely on interdependence between forms of interpersonal communication and broader group goals. For example, communicative contact between conflicting groups can have multiple goals. One goal can be immediate and concern change or attitude adjustment on the part of those participating in the communicative encounter, while a broader goal is concerned with the relationship between the communicative encounter and the conflict as a whole. Israeli and Palestinian high school students, for example, might interact in order to appreciate each other’s values and culture, and then have mechanisms to return to their home communities to transfer their experiences and widen the impact. A macro category such as “Israeli” or “Palestinian” serves as a shorthand for numerous micro communication and cultural behaviors. This leaves room for definition and change of meaning.

The term interaction ritual from Goffman refers to the motivations, resources, and messages of language users who are parties to conflicts to produce histories, cultural content, and stored memories. Ethnopolitically divided groups distort these processes on the basis of attribution errors, incompatible narratives, interpretive disjunctions, incomplete scripts, biased indexicality, and perceptual biases thereby producing dangerous, damaging, and inaccurate macro categories. Some interaction ritual chains (e.g. mutual victimization claims) are counterproductive and circulate in the larger community thereby perpetuating the conflict. Controlled encounters designed for positive change have new interaction rituals as a goal. A category for the other group such as “violent,” “backward,” “manipulative,” “deceptive,” or “rigid” contain the reality that lives in the network of communicative relationships. By changing the interaction rituals and activating the network of communicative relationships it’s possible to alter the group’s reality and alter the categories of meaning that sustain the intensity of the conflict. Macro categories of meaning (gender, ethnicity, group identification) are enfolded into individuals and displayed in communicative practices. Biased meanings are thus easily foregrounded in the context of ethnopolitical conflicts.

For example, one of the macro meaning categories for intractable conflicts in general, and the Israelis and Palestinians in particular, is “victimhood.” (See Eidelson and Eidelson for more on victimhood.) Victimhood is that state where groups feel a loss or sense of insecurity and diminished self-worth because of aggressive outsiders. Each group feels as though victimhood correctly characterizes their condition. Third person affects and group level perceptions supports the notion that even when individuals do not feel victimized, they believe that victimization characterizes their group. Typically, ethnopolitically divided groups argue about who has suffered more and “compete” for the most victimized status. The macro category “victim” serves as a short hand for a compilation of micro-experiences. Talk in localized contexts produces interaction ritual chains that circulate like capital between micro-and macro levels of reality. By changing the interaction rituals group members can change the nature of the circulating symbolic capital. Just as the label describing someone’s personality (e.g., friendly, aggressive, authoritarian) is an encapsulation of interaction encounters, so too are macro descriptive terms of group experiences. Conflict resolution is about changing communicative relationships in micro-contexts so that the phenomenological reality of the concept changes at the macro level.

 

 

A Third Narrative for Israel-Palestine

 

The Third Narrative

 

Anyone interested in the Middle East these days will be subjected to a relentless barrage of accusations against Israel on the Web, on campus and in other settings. Some of these attacks come from the far left, from activists trying to appeal to Jews and non-Jews who are committed to human rights and social justice.

Often, these critics are not just attacking specific, objectionable Israeli policies and behavior. They treat Israel as the epitome of evil. They portray the entire Zionist enterprise, from the 19th century to the present, as nothing more than a racist, colonialist and immoral land theft. Many are active in the movement of Boycotts, Divestments and Sanctions (BDS) against Israel, calling Israel an Apartheid state.

At Ameinu, a North American Jewish organization that supports progressive causes in Israel, the U.S. and Canada, we have often criticized Israeli policies and behavior, including settlement expansion, racism against Arabs and crony capitalism. But we believe too many of Israel’s left-wing critics cross the line that separates legitimate, productive criticism from polemical, inaccurate and unfair attacks.

At the same time, too many voices of those who reflexively support –or passively accept—the Israeli occupation and the morally indefensible status quo in the Palestinian territories are going unanswered.

The Third Narrative initiative is our response to this situation. We hope to engage people on the left who suspect that it is wrong to lay all blame for the Arab-Israeli conflict at the feet of Israeli Jews…but aren’t sure how to respond to Israel’s most vitriolic critics. Some of what these critics say is true, some of their accusations are justified. Some of what Israel’s traditional defenders say is also accurate. When it comes to this conflict, the truth is rarely black or white; it resides in a gray area where advocates on either side typically don’t like to venture. That is where we try to go with The Third Narrative.

We feel a deep connection to the Jewish state and the Jewish people. We are also committed to social justice and human rights for everyone. Some say those commitments are contradictory, that particularist attachments to a state or a people can’t be reconciled with universal values. Our response is that belonging to a people, a community larger than ourselves, is a basic human need –indeed, it is our right. And balancing our communal attachments with a commitment to humanity as a whole is our responsibility.

In fact, our ties to Israel might make us even more disturbed by its current direction than those that have no ties to it. But we are alarmed by the increasingly widespread rhetoric that refuses to recognize any justification whatsoever for Israeli positions or the Jewish state. And we think the American left –Jewish and non-Jewish—could use a third narrative, one that neither reflexively attacks nor reflexively justifies Israeli policies and actions.

For more information, please contact us.

 

 

Covering Israel: Western Democratic Traditions and Moral Failings

Times Opinion pageThe Israeli-Palestinian conflict is always here. It continues year after year as populations everywhere grow weary. The other issue that is always with us is the charge of biased news coverage. Large numbers of people will charge, for example, the New York Times with blatant bias and their fury seems to jump from the page. The next day another group will accuse the Times of being the mouthpiece for Israel. You can’t win and you don’t know who to believe. Margaret Sullivan of the New York Times recently expressed similar frustrations in an article called “The Conflict and the Coverage.”

Frustrating and futile as it seems to be, newspapers of quality such as the New York Times must continue to grapple with how they can do better. And they must continue to search for standards that ensure balance, context, and accuracy. Even though we have a tradition of aspiring to objective journalism the public remains ignorant about how journalists actually work, not to mention the difference between “bias” and “perspective.” Moreover it is impossible to write a story from a perspective that matches everyone. But let me suggest to you three good reads on the matter of covering Israel and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The first one we mentioned above is Margaret Sullivan who is the public editor for the New York Times. Sullivan concludes that The Times does everything in its power to be fair and does have a basic worldview that Israel has a right to exist. This assumption puts them at odds with radical critics of Israel such that nothing The Times does will be satisfactory. She makes four suggestions: (1) provide more historical and geopolitical context, (2) improve the engagement between the newspaper and the public so that the public can ask questions and learn more about journalists, (3) improve the coverage of Palestinians, and (4) stop straining for equivalencies. In other words, take a stand when defensible and necessary.

If you want a perspective from a blogger strongly supportive of Israel who corrects biases and misunderstandings then go to “How Not to Report on Israel (and How It Can Be Done Correctly”). You will not find detailed data and argument on the site but you will find the perspective of a cultural native who is tapped into the consciousness of Israel. This is a useful perspective because many journalists covering the Middle East have a modest at best working knowledge of history, culture, language. This may not be true of journalists such as Thomas Friedman but he is an exception as well as an editorial writer which allows him to stay above the fray; that is, he is rarely if ever on the ground reporting facts.

A final reading is from Tablet magazine entitled “An Insider’s Guide to the Most Important Story on Earth.” In this essay a former AP correspondent explains how so much of the reporting fails to understand Israel. Yet the international media is consistent in its reporting and suggests a narrative or an understanding of Israel that is largely misdirected. First, so many media assumes that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is more important than others where more people die and the politics are more contentious. This “magnification” process often associated with the media is truly operational here. The conflict also garners attention because it takes place in the center of the three Abraham religions – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – and this infuses it with significance. Secondly, it is simply policy to favor stories that are about violence more than peace and reconciliation. When a political party is elected to government and it seeks a moderate path and contact with the Palestinians the story goes untold. This is true, according to Matti Friedman the author of the Tablet story, because of the pressure to maintain the consistent narrative that has the Palestinians as the underdog seeking a home and historical justice, but Israel as difficult and unmoving as it drifts rightward.

The coverage of Israel has moved from fair and supportive to unfair and critical. And no fair treatment of Israel can ignore either its strong Western democratic traditions or its moral failings. But it is also true that Israel is not a symbol for everything right or wrong, good or evil, solvable and not. The coverage of Israel requires some critical empathy on the part of all sides.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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