Matti Friedman writing in The Atlantic wrote a trenchant article about what the media gets wrong with Israel. Friedman makes the point that the press is failing the public when it comes to its duty to inform and provide a platform for issues and debate. In a number of publications Friedman has pointed out stories that are purely ideological, an overemphasis on stories with a certain perspective, and a disproportionate amount of media attention on the conflict without being particularly informative. You can read The Atlantic article here.
His analysis is important because it recognizes the banality of news gathering (the pressure of deadlines, journalist fatigue, financial constraints, distractions) and how it influences news gathering and results in mistakes and minor distortions. But Friedman claims that the true explanation lies elsewhere and that the flow of information is intentionally manipulated. Here’s his explanation.
First, international journalists in Israel live in the same social context and have a certain uniformity of attitude and behavior. The people in these groups know one another and that’s why four or five stories written by different people sound alike. There is a uniformity to the stories because this group of people share information and talk on a regular basis. Journalists also tend to be liberal and that’s one reason that the Israeli story, according to Matti Friedman, is less known and understood then the Palestinian story.
The same is true for NGOs and humanitarian organizations. Journalists view them through a positive humanitarian filter and consequently write about them in the language of public relations puff pieces. The truth is that these NGOs and humanitarian organizations have political agendas, plenty of funding from international sources, and are happy to buy drinks in the American Colony Courtyard.
A disdain for Israel is almost a prerequisite for admission to this journalist social club. The conscientious new reporter arriving in Israel will spend time educating himself or herself about the conflict including its history, religion, and cultural implications. But many new journalist arrivals to Israel cling to their colleagues who already have a framework and a “story” about who’s a good guy who’s a bad guy. Many of the standard criticisms have already been described and producing a story is little more than coordinating and repackaging stories that have already been written. The Middle East is full of failed governments that are authoritarian and corrupt, but there is more likely to be a story critical of Israel than anyone else.
Friedman bluntly indicts the Associated Press for having moved from a journalistic tradition of careful description to one of advocacy. Moreover, there has developed a narrative, or a story with standard plot lines and characteristics, that is increasingly consistent and coherent for both Palestinians and Israelis. But the Israeli narrative is fueled more by ideology than facts. The standard script for Israel has more bad guys (settlers, far right politicians, IDF, Netanyahu), but the only Palestinian “bad guys” are abstract groups (e.g. Jihadists).
There has always been a gap between what journalists write and what is actually going on, but in the case of the Israel-Palestine conflict the gap is too large and the distortions too intentional. The Israeli narrative, in addition to its long list of bad guys, portrays the Palestinians as weak and innocent victims and the Israelis as oppressors. Groups like Hamas choose journalists to talk to carefully and use them to magnify messages.
There is a cynical attitude about truth in the modern world which denies its existence and claims that any agreed-upon truths are social constructions anyway. Such an argument might be defensible on the basis of philosophical discourse but less so on the basis of political discourse. Much of what is written about Israel fits that narrative constructed by others and is either completely untrue or “untrue enough.” Ferreting out and reviewing as much truth as possible is a continuing journalist challenge.
We have become so committed to the fluid and malleable sense of history that the existence of facts or truth has lost its moorings and, more than that, you are considered unreconstructed if you believe in such things. This is especially true in academia where the “social construction of reality” rules the day. History is considered to be the result of myths, subjective narratives, flawed memory, social construction, or written by the victors with all of their self-serving perspective.
I’m thinking in particular about the Klinghoffer Opera currently being staged at the Metropolitan in New York. This is a controversial opera by John Adams called “The Death of Klinghoffer” which has generated protests in New York and demonstrations in front of the Met. These protesters take serious objection to the portrayal of the Palestinian terrorists who killed Leon Klinghoffer on the cruise ship Achilles Lauro. Note: I have not seen the Klinghoffer Opera but I’m not writing about it as if I had. You can read some background on the controversy here.
Very briefly, in 1985 Palestinian terrorists hijacked the cruise ship Achilles Lauro and singled out Jewish passengers. One passenger was a wheelchair bound Jew by the name of Leon Klinghoffer. The terrorists shot Klinghoffer in the head and threw him and his wheelchair overboard. It has always been considered a vicious act of murder, terrorism, and anti-Semitism.
The opera “The Death of Klinghoffer first appeared in 1991 and it was accused of sanctioning blatant murder and rationalizing and legitimizing the terrorism that took place on the Achilles Lauro. The play apparently was sympathetic or at least asked the audience to consider its sympathies for the Palestinians. The opera has since been edited with scenes removed and is being re-staged at the Metropolitan Opera. John Adams, the composer of the opera, and the librettist Alice Goodman have been accused of portraying false moral equivalence between the historical plight of Jews and that of the Palestinians. Adams talks about his work in the opera here.
The Klinghoffer daughters stated that the opera “perverts the terrorist murder of our father and attempts to romanticize, rationalize, legitimize and explain it. The political approach of the composer and librettist is evident with the opera’s disingenuous and dangerous juxtaposition of the plight of the Palestinian people with the coldblooded, terrorist murder of an innocent disabled American Jew.” The arts are central to the full expression and comprehension of political issues, but the Klinghoffer Opera does not critically examine world events; rather, it rationalizes violence and manipulates the historical truths that make up the Palestinian narrative.
History As a Lump of Clay
History can be changed and molded and even if it isn’t particularly easy, over time, and with systematic efforts, what was once true can now be false. The campaign against Israel and the redefinition of Zionism and the historical plight of the Jews is relentless. Even the Holocaust, which is associated with Jewish particularity and the primary stimulus for the creation of the state of Israel, of which there is reams of evidence, is chipped away at, challenged, denied, and ultimately turned back on the Jews. The Palestinians now blatantly claim that they were put in internment camps by Israelis and suffered the same Holocaust.
These issues remain difficult because a committed group of people can always be relied on to daze and confuse others. And they will always be successful with at least some group of people. Part of the answer is to become more rigorous about language. We must continue to try and recognize the distinction between narrative and flagrant manipulation. Of course, the hell of it is that we will never be completely successful at such a distinction. But we must try.
Israel supporters are struck dumb by what they consider to be the great moral inversion. In fact, as Jeffrey Goldberg writing in The Atlantic states, “Hamas is a theocratic fascist cult committed to the obliteration of Israel.” It is an organization committed to genocide. Hamas represents nothing of modern democratic political theory– religious tolerance, political participation, association rights, liberal values, etc. But to the chagrin of many Hamas is treated as if it were a legitimate political party committed to the interests of Gazans rather than itself. Hamas is fighting a war in which they are trying to kill as many of their enemy as possible (Israelis); Israel is fighting a war in which they are trying to avoid killing as many people as possible. The moral inversion continues.
John Kerry is currently struggling with a cease-fire agreement because he insists on granting Hamas various rights rather than treating it according to his own State Department’s designation as a terrorist group. Kerry’s defense is that Hamas is a reality that must be dealt with and I agree with that, but one does not cave in to a terrorist group’s demand for their own security, funding, and freedom of movement in order to secure a cease-fire. On the contrary, that would be a reward for the group’s behavior and will probably encourage future violence if such rewards are available.
So what explains this? Why is this violent anti-Semitic group being treated seriously while Israel takes a perceptual and public relations beating? Why do the Palestinians, who are equally as blameworthy for the failure of conflict management, win the narrative? Why are they the sympathetic underdog? Here are a few suggestions:
Imagine some tough guy big kids in your neighborhood who are teased and taunted by a bunch of little kids. The little kids throw rocks, break the windows at houses, and spread false or distorted stories about these big kids to others in the neighborhood. The big kids defend their houses and respond to the rock throwing with fistfights they easily win, and throwing back bigger and harder rocks. The big kids do more damage and bloody the noses of the little kids and are “blamed” for inflicting damage even though they were defending themselves and the little kids initiated the aggression. And so it is with the Israelis and Palestinians. It doesn’t seem to matter how the Palestinians or Hamas behave, the Israelis get blamed because they are capable of inflicting more damage. The big kids and the Israelis lose if they defend themselves and if they do not defend themselves. So Hamas wins the narrative battle every time they manipulate Israel into killing Palestinians. Israel cannot escape the paradox.
Secondly, the Palestinians have mastered the underdog narrative. During pre-state Israel, and even in the early days of the state, Jews were the underdog and the center of world attention and sympathy. But now the left has switched its allegiance to the newest minority group. There is a spectrum of the left that never met a minority group it did not consider oppressed and the Palestinians are a perfect example.
And third, the second point above is informed by the context of anti-Semitism. I dislike and reject the notion that anti-Semitism is everywhere and always the explanation for criticism of Israel. Surely Israel can be criticized without it being anti-Semitic. But sometimes the criticism of Israel is so bizarre, so morally inverted, that only anti-Semitism explains it. And new media has brought violent and vitriolic anti-Semitism to the forefront. Anti-Semitism was of hallucinogenic proportions during the Holocaust, completely unjustified by reality, and there are moments when I feel the same conditions returning.
Finally, everyone has to do more. Israel has to make its case better to the world. They need spokespersons and better public relations to be sure. But that’s only a small part of the problem. It is not a public relations problem but an argument one. It is incumbent on Israel to do a better job of explaining to the world who they are and what they are fighting against. Moreover, Israel has to begin addressing those issues where change is inevitable. Settlements, for example, are just not going to be there in the end – at least in their present form. The only way Israel remains a nation of Jews, for Jews, and defined as a Jewish state devoted to some sense of Jewish particularity is by allowing the Palestinians to do the same for themselves in their own state. Israel must make more aggressive progress toward this goal.
Until then, Israel will continue to win military battles and kill more of the other side (which is never a very good measure of anything), but lose the narrative battle.
A narrative is an argument because it is an interpretation of evidence that explains some version of reality. As scholars explain, narratives provide a foundation for reasons. If a Palestinian tells a story of lost land and injustice then he or she is making an argument supporting a position. In the case of ethnopolitical conflicts, personal narratives set with national narratives and define the political environment of the participants. Each party to a conflict uses stories to justify their position. The stories are the basis for competing claims about resources, political events, and the assignment of blame for one’s condition. Moreover, narrative must be included in the deliberative process because it is simply a fundamental way that people communicate. And although narratives can become deceitful and misleading, and subject to manipulations designed to elicit emotional responses, they remain part of the folkways of communication. Narratives often involve an appeal to a moral standard. And these are some of the most difficult issues for deliberators. Making the claim that narrative is part of the argumentative structure for deliberating groups is a departure from the Habermasian ideal which purges folk rhetoric from the deliberation process in order to keep deliberation pure. Still, even Habermas would recognize that all arguments need to be accounted for and can be expressed in diverse ways. Such narratives draw attention to issues and injustices that cannot escape deliberative attention. Finally, such forms of communication as narrative and stories are often characteristic of a more popular form of rhetoric, or patterns and styles that are more culturally distinct. Including these forms of communication in the argumentative process helps achieve sensitivity toward pluralism and diversity that must be included in political discussion. If deliberative communication is as epistemic and effective as it is capable of then the full range of rhetorical styles must be accommodated. There is the reasoned argument tradition of Habermas stressing the public sphere and the ascendancy of the best argument, and the second tradition that stresses popular social relations, emotions, and folk theories of communication. These will meld together.
Clearly, theorists and practitioners of deliberation have worked too hard to try to purify the process by removing emotions and identities in the pursuit of rationality. And this has resulted in the exclusion of communication and rhetorical styles that are separate from the history of logical debate. I make this point not because of political correctness or a sense of social justice but in order to improve the quality of the deliberation and dialogue process. By including narratives and identities in deliberation it improves our understanding of the communication process and actually forms a more accurate foundation for problem resolution.
We cannot ignore the fact that intergroup conflicts are over material resources and the rational allocation of these resources is typically part of the solution. But in intractable conflicts a rather straightforward disagreement about material resources is intensified and made salient through narratives and identities. This is one more reason that narratives, which are easily part of the dialogue process, must be expanded to include deliberation. And the more material conflicts are filtered through and associated with identities the more intractable they become. Conflicts in which progress is genuinely possible often become “impossible” because the conflict has moved beyond resource allocation and become identified with the fundamental nature and definition of the national group. We see this clearly in the case of the Israel-Palestine conflict where every aspect of society is politicized and the political conflict is refracted through the culture. The pathway from a manageable conflict to a difficult identity that exacerbates problems is typically through stories and personal narratives. Stories allow members of conflicting groups to voice perspectives and express values relevant to the issues. Stories also help move the groups to dialogue because stories are a natural way to express experiences and communicate genuine emotions.