Comedian | Professor | Writer
(& Smartest) Arab
We all remember Hans Christian Andersen’s short tale, “The
This past Sunday on CNN, Brian Stelter, the host of “Reliable Sources,” interviewed Israeli analyst and former journalist Matti Friedman. The topic was Friedman’s latest article on Tablet, “An Insider’s Guide to the Most Important Story on Earth,” where the writer, a former Jerusalem-based reporter for the Associated Press, attempted to explain how and why reporters are fixated on the happenings in Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza. He laid out the reasons as to why, as CNN’s tagline put it, there exists a “disproportionate focus” on Israel.
Friedman starts out by telling us that this summer’s events in Gaza were not especially important or unique, as these things have happened before and will happen again. I will eventually get to whether or not that characterization is accurate. But it is important to note how he, a former journalist who uses that experience precisely to give himself legitimacy in this article, describes the Gaza war of the summer of 2014:
People were killed, most of them Palestinians, including many unarmed innocents.
This is what I would call “truthful deception.” Supporters of Israeli policies are usually quite adept at this particular skill. “Truthful deception” is saying or writing something technically accurate, even perhaps sounding like a concession, that is still actually misleading or incomplete. One might expect a husband to engage in this sort of treachery, but one would hope for much more from a journalist, even a former one.
People were killed, most of them Palestinians, including many unarmed innocents.
People are supposed to read this and say, “Wow, a supporter of Israel is saying that?! He must be honest!”
According to the United Nations, 96.5% of the deaths in this summer’s Gaza War (including Israeli soldiers) were those of Palestinians (2,104 out of 2,179). “Most” means “majority.” “Majority” means “more than half the total.” 96.5% is not “most.” 96.5% is “almost all.” Sure, in this statement, “most” might be technically accurate, but it’s not precise, sincere, or complete. When you hear “most,” you don’t think, “Oh, he must mean 96.5%.”
Also, 70% of the Palestinian deaths were those of unarmed innocents, including 495 children. “Many” means “numerous.” “Many” doesn’t necessarily suggest any sort of relative proportion to the total. 70% is not “many.” Actually, 70% is “most.” Sure, “many” might be technically accurate, but, again, it’s not precise, sincere, or complete. When you hear “many,” you don’t think, “Oh, he must mean 70%.”
Friedman does not use any statistics in his assessment. And why would he? It would have sounded quite different if he had written, “People were killed, almost all of them Palestinians, most of them unarmed innocents.” But Friedman, who is attempting to make a point about journalistic integrity, is not interested in being specific here. He is practicing “truthful deception.”
He does it again later in the article when he speaks of the media’s mischaracterization of Israel’s settlement policy. Before deriding the media for portraying settlements as a cause of the conflict rather than a symptom (a distinction without a difference in this case), he says he believes the policy is “a serious moral and strategic error on Israel’s part.” Sounds like a concession, right? Settlements are, in fact, illegal under the Fourth Geneva Convention, to which Israel is a party. Saying they are an immoral blunder is “truthfully deceptive.” When you hear Friedman call settlements “a serious moral and strategic error,” you don’t think, “Oh, he must mean they constitute a violation of international law.”
But let me try to find some of Friedman’s substantive points to analyze. As he laments the fact that Israel is getting way too much attention, he notes that the Associated Press, his former employer from 2006 to 2011, had over 40 correspondents in Israel during his time there. This number, he notes, was “significantly more news staff than the AP had in China, Russia, or India, or in all of the 50 countries of sub-Saharan Africa combined. It was higher than the total number of news-gathering employees in all the countries where the uprisings of the ‘Arab Spring’ eventually erupted.” I’m not sure why “Arab Spring” was in quotes. It’s not a nickname. In any case, Friedman goes to to argue that all these journalists ended up in Israel because Western discourse has “a hostile obsession with Jews.”
And there we have it. The media’s anti-Israel slant, according to Friedman, is nothing more than institutional anti-Semitism. He never uses the term “anti-Semitism,” but he spends a considerable amount of the article saying it over and over. Jews are “the pool into which the world spits.” They are “the screen onto which it has become socially acceptable to project the things you hate about yourself and your own country.” They are “a symbol of the evils that civilized people are taught from an early age to abhor.” The media, writes Friedman, is saying, whether it means to or not, that “Jews are the worst people on earth.” He concludes:
Many in the West clearly prefer the old comfort of parsing the moral failings of Jews, and the familiar feeling of superiority this brings them, to confronting an unhappy and confusing reality.
Friedman completely ignores, quite deliberately of course, the possibility that Israel’s actions are receiving criticism in the mainstream media because they might actually be immoral, illegal, and indecent. He also leaves out the fact that this phenomenon of media criticism is, in fact, quite new. Finally, he neglects to mention why there is a such a disproportionate number of Western reporters in Israel. They are there precisely because of a decades-long campaign by Israel and its lobbies to tailor the message. They are there at Israel’s invitation. They are there because they have been Israel’s most effective tool. Until now. Of course, no supporter of Israel was complaining about the huge media presence there when just about every news outlet was towing the party line. But things have changed. And that is what irks Friedman. He is bothered that “truthful deception” is no longer working. Journalists are starting to ask real questions, and Friedman is not happy about it.
And the questions they are asking are not that crazy:
Why it is ever acceptable to bomb a hospital, school, or UN facility, under any circumstances?
Why does Israel control Gaza’s sea, airspace, and entry points, yet continue to tell us there is no military occupation?
Why can a Jewish individual like Matti Friedman, who was born and raised in Canada, automatically receive full citizenship, while millions of Palestinians under Israeli rule in the West Bank and Gaza Strip remain stateless?
I can answer the last question. Israel is a foreign settler enterprise, and foreign settler enterprises need foreign settlers.
Questions like these make people like Matti Friedman very uncomfortable. So, instead of answering them, they simply label those asking them as anti-Semitic. This is the old strategy. And it’s not working anymore.
This piece by Friedman played with my emotions a bit, because while it starts out sounding like a possibly interesting take on media coverage of the Gaza War of 2014, it very quickly turns into something I have read a million times before. Friedman’s article, while purporting to be some sort of exposé on journalism in Israel, actually turns out to be just another regurgitation of Israel’s tired talking points.
“Israel is a small country in a sea of hostile Arab nations.”
“The problem is all these Muslims.”
“The Palestinians have squandered every opportunity at peace.”
Matti, these lines are archaic. You’ve been using them for 66 years. It’s time for them to retire and start collecting Social Security.
On top of calling media criticism of Israel anti-Semitic, Friedman even attempted to label the critics as hypocrites:
White people in London and Paris whose parents not long ago had themselves fanned by dark people in the sitting rooms of Rangoon or Algiers condemn Jewish “colonialism.” Americans who live in places called “Manhattan” or “Seattle” condemn Jews for displacing the native people of Palestine. Russian reporters condemn Israel’s brutal military tactics. Belgian reporters condemn Israel’s treatment of Africans. When Israel opened a transportation service for Palestinian workers in the occupied West Bank a few years ago, American news consumers could read about Israel “segregating buses.” And there are a lot of people in Europe, and not just in Germany, who enjoy hearing the Jews accused of genocide.
One should note that Friedman does not deny that Israel is doing any of these things. He is simply saying the critics might be guilty of the same crimes. Well, Mr. Friedman, may I, a lowly Palestinian, who is guilty of none of those terrible things, condemn Israel’s colonialism of my native land, displacement of my people, brutal military tactics, ethnic supremacy, and racial segregation? I humbly request your permission.
Ultimately, what scares Matti Friedman more than anything else is why this summer’s events in Gaza were, in fact, unique. The discourse is changing. And it is not changing because of anti-Semitism. It is changing because the huge media contingent in Israel, which was for so long reliably echoing its host’s case, is now following the lead of us Palestinians and emphatically proclaiming, “The occupier has no clothes!”