To citizens of Israel, it’s often baffling how foreign media characterizations of the state seem to have almost no relationship to their daily reality. Sometimes, the criticism is so hyperbolic and fantastical it’s almost as if they’re covering a different country entirely. Among the most popular conclusions in search of evidence within the media echo chamber is that the state is becoming increasingly racist, moving “dangerously right” and that democracy itself is in danger.
The Economist’s latest edition includes a series of pieces on the 50th anniversary of the Six Day War, including one, titled ‘Right v far right: Politics in Israel no longer offers much of a choice’, which represents one of more egregious examples of this erroneous media narrative.
As with most media attacks on Israel, the Economist’s nearly 1500 word article on issues such as religion and state, terrorism and interfaith relations all but ignores the actions of Palestinians and Arab Israelis – a denial of agency increasing representing the sin qua non of the popular media narrative about the conflict.
The piece begins by warning their ‘sophisticated’ readers to be ware of Jewish zealots.
THE SIGN AT the entrance is clear: “According to Torah Law entering the Temple Mount area is strictly forbidden due to the holiness of the site.” Rabbinical tradition holds that Jews may not set foot on any part of the esplanade atop Jerusalem’s holiest site. Once the location of the Jewish temple, which was destroyed by the Romans in 70AD, the area has for centuries been a Muslim compound comprising the al-Aqsa Mosque and the golden Dome of the Rock. Because the location of the Holy of Holies (the inner sanctum of the former temple) is unknown, say the rabbis, ritually impure Jews might accidentally enter and defile it. These days Jews mostly pray outside, at the base of the retaining wall, known as the Western Wall, or Kotel.
Nonetheless, Jewish zealots venture into the al-Aqsa compound almost every day, ostensibly as tourists. The police let them jump the queue of foreigners and form a protective cordon as they perambulate the Dome of the Rock, amid curses from Muslim worshippers. Sometimes they stand silently, gazing at it longingly. They are filmed by the police, who are supposed to ensure that they do not attempt to pray. One trick is to address God while pretending to speak on a mobile phone.
To describe Jews who peacefully visit the compound as ‘zealots’ – a word evoking the anti-Roman rebels who instigated the Great Revolt – shows just how wedded they are to Palestinian talking points about the conflict. Of course, a more neutral, less tendentious explanation would note that Jewish
zealots worshipers venture to the al-Aqsa Temple Mount (Judaism’s holiest site) almost every day. Indeed, a more neutral observer would likely conclude that it is the Muslim worshipers uttering curses – and often engaging in stone throwing and rioting – at the mere sight of peaceful Jews visiting their holiest site who are the zealots in this tale.
The Economist then tries to provide some context to the dispute over Jerusalem’s holiest sites.
For Palestinians, the intrusion of Jewish activists into the al-Aqsa compound is all of a piece with the creeping “Judaisation” of Jerusalem. All around al-Aqsa, they lament, right-wing Jews financed by foreign donors are buying up Arab houses above while conducting archaeological digs below.
Again, note how Jews peacefully visiting Judaism’s holiest site is again turned into an “intrusion” into an Islamic holy site. Further, the words “creeping Judaisation” – incendiary language, you’d expect to see in a Palestine Solidarity Campaign Facebook post – falsely suggests that Jews are interlopers in the city. However, in addition to the fact that Jerusalem is the epicenter of Judaism, Jews have (since King David established Jerusalem as the capital of his kingdom in 1004 BCE), had a continuous presence in the city, and have maintained a majority within the city since the mid 19th century. In fact, the only time the city was divided into east and west – with Jews ethnically cleansed from the east – was during the Jordanian occupation of the city from 1948-67.
The Economist then attempts to provide more historical context:
Holy sites are the powder kegs of the conflict, imbuing the nationalist dispute with religious fervour. A row over the Kotel in 1929 led to deadly anti-Jewish riots across British-ruled Palestine. A visit to the Temple Mount in 2000 by Ariel Sharon, then the Likud party leader, lit the fuse of the second Palestinian intifada. And the increasingly frequent prayer visits helped launch the current wave of stabbings and car-rammings by Palestinians.
The claim that “a row over the Kotel in 1929 led to deadly anti-Jewish riots” is astonishingly misleading. The riots were instigated by Haj Amin al Husseini (Grand Mufti of Jerusalem) who fanned the flames of hatred by falsely accusing Jews of attempting to destroy Muslim holy sites, including the al Aqsa Mosque. Indeed, Palestinian leaders have repeatedly used and continue to use the “Al-Aksa is in danger” lie in order to incite attacks against Jews.
Turning to the incident in 2000, what immediately jumps out in their portrayal is how Palestinians are infantilized, in rhetoric suggesting that they had no control over whether to riot at the site of an Israeli political leader peacefully visiting his faith’s holiest site. Moreover, the intifada was not caused by Sharon’s visit, but by decisions by Palestinian leaders to deflect attention away from Yasser Arafat’s rejection of a peace offer at Camp David. Sharon’s brief visit merely served as the the ideal pretext for Arafat’s terror groups to launch what became the Second Intifada, a war which killed more than 1,100 Israeli civilians.
Even more dishonest is the Economist claim that “increasingly frequent prayer visits helped launch the current wave of stabbings and car-rammings by Palestinians”. First, whilst Jewish visits to Judaism’s holiest site have indeed increased, the overwhelming majority of visitors abide by the rules. Those who even attempt to pray (even silently) are routinely arrested by police. So, there has not been an increase in “prayer visits”, only an increase in legal, peaceful visits completely consistent with the current status quo at the holy sites where Jews can visit but not pray. Of course, The Economist also fails to so much as mention other contributing factors for the violence: incitement by Palestinian leaders, including incendiary and erroneous warnings by Palestinian religious and political leaders that Jews are going to defile or destroy the mosque.
The Economist then pivots to what it calls the “weaponization of prayer”, and provides a brief history of Hebron before turning to the case of Sergeant Elor Azaria, who shot an incapacitated Palestinian terrorist who had just stabbed a soldier. Though Azaria was found guilty, the Economist frames the popular support – or at least sympathy – towards Azaria by some politicians and the wider public as emblematic of “the “chauvinism” within Israeli public life.
Politics is no longer a contest of right against left but of right against far right. Israel has become more ethno-nationalist and less universalist; more Jewish and less Israeli. Mr Netanyahu, once regarded as a demagogue, often looks like a moderate next to many of his cabinet members.
Right-wingers have sought to marginalise Arab parties in the Knesset and hamper leftists and liberals. The Knesset is pushing laws on everything from reducing the volume of Muslim calls to prayer to forcing the disclosure of money given by foreign governments to NGOs (which often support human rights and other liberal causes) and giving immigration authorities greater power to ban BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel) activists from entering Israel. The government has inveighed against what it calls the “activist” Supreme Court (which it deems too liberal) and against the media.
First, the claim that “right-wingers” have sought to marginalise Arab parties is, at best, extremely misleading. All they’re likely referring to is a recent law that “allows lawmakers (with a vote of 90 MKs) to remove their colleagues from office if they have backed armed struggle against Israel or incited racial hatred. Whatever the merits of the bill, it hardly represents the ‘marginalisation’ of Arab parties to demand that members of the nation’s parliament avoid incitement to violence or support terrorists. Further, the rules requiring 90 of 120 MKs vote to remove the member – with an appeal to the Supreme Court available even if they get the required votes – makes it extremely unlikely that anyone will ever actually be ousted.
The other Knesset law they’re alluding to, designed to reduce the volume of Muslim calls to prayer (or any religious prayer over a loud speaker), only impacts the first prayer, before dawn. What the Economist also doesn’t tell you is that many European (and Muslim) countries limit either the number of such calls to prayer or the decibel level of the loudspeaker. In the UK, there are limits imposed on such Muslim calls to prayer. The East London Mosque is only permitted to issue a public call to prayer over their loudspeakers twice a day. In Norway, the public call to prayer over the loudspeakers are only permitted once a week, on Fridays, with a limit of 60 decibels. As our colleague Tamar Sternthal noted, in Egypt, authorities attempted (unsuccessfully) to restrict the call to prayer to only the largest mosques in order to reduce noise, and even some Saudi cities “currently impose decibel restrictions on the muezzin’s call”. It is simply disingenuous for the Economist to imply that the modest limits imposed by Israel on the mosque loudspeakers represents the marginalisation of Israeli Muslims.
As far as the Israeli law requiring “the disclosure of money given by foreign governments to NGOs”, this again is another example of editors’ tendency to frame every law they don’t like as somehow undemocratic. Reasonable people can of course take issue with increased fiscal transparency requirements for Israeli NGOs that rely on donations from foreign states. But, again, it’s difficult to see how a simple financial reporting requirement harms democracy or limits the activities of left-wing NGOs.
Similarly, with regard to the Israeli anti-BDS law, which allows visitors to be barred “who knowingly issues a public call for boycotting Israel” which have “a reasonable possibility of leading to the imposition of a boycott”, it’s telling that the Economist failed to acknowledge that the law has precedents in other democratic countries. As CAMERA demonstrated, “the United States has long had similar restrictions. One section of the Immigration and Nationality Act says that an alien “whose entry or proposed activities in the United States the Secretary of State has reasonable ground to believe would have potentially serious adverse foreign policy consequences for the United States is inadmissible.” That’s much broader than Israel’s language. The Immigration and Nationality Act also bars “any immigrant who is or has been a member of or affiliated with the Communist or any other totalitarian party”.
Finally, the Economist warns that the Israeli government “has inveighed against what it calls the “activist” Supreme Court (which it deems too liberal) and against the media”. Of course, in democratic countries like Israel, politicians and others are free to criticize institutions of government and the media. The important fact is that the Supreme Court remains strong and fiercely independent, whilst the media – newspapers such as Haaretz and Yediot Aharonot, and broadcasters like Channel 2 – are free, feisty and clearly unafraid to attack the current ‘right-wing’ government.
The Economist then provides additional examples, putatively demonstrating Israel’s lurch to the far right:
Outside parliament, things can turn uglier still. The ultras of the Beitar Jerusalem football club, La Familia, sing racist chants and are frequently involved in violence, not least when they pour out of matches to look for Arabs to beat up. The team has never had an Arab player. “I am a racist,” says one member. “That’s what La Familia means: the Jewish family.” A related group, Lehava, campaigns rowdily against miscegenation. All this might be dismissed as fringe activity, except that Beitar Jerusalem is much beloved of Likud ministers, and the government gives money to groups close to Lehava that seek to “save” Jewish women from Muslims. It has also objected to a book featuring love between Arabs and Jews
As we’ve argued previously in response to UK media reports on racism by Beitar fans, the Economist (like other media outlets) fails to acknowledge that such reprehensible football hooliganism or racism is quite common throughout Europe and in the UK. According to reports from 24 police forces across Britain, there have been over 350 incidents of reported racism (including antisemitism) since 2012. Whilst The Economist has reported previously on racism in British football, we were unable to find any such reports which suggested that these disturbing incidents represented a flaw in the national character, or a troubling indication of an increasingly intolerant society.
The final sentence of the paragraph we highlighted vaguely notes that the Israeli government “objected” to a “book featuring love between Arabs and Jews”, obfuscating the facts regarding the book ‘Borderlife’ by Israeli author Dorit Rabinyan. As we noted in response to a Guardian article falsely asserting that the book was “censored”, all that occurred was that an Israeli professional pedagogic body decided not to include the novel in the Israeli high school curriculum. The book is not banned at schools (teachers can use it if they choose, it’s just not required reading), and the book was actually on the Israeli best seller’s list.
Regarding the group Lehava, The Economist correctly asserts that it is a racist, extremist group. However, contrary to their suggestion to the contrary, Lehava is indeed a fringe group with negligible support. They’ve been condemned by Israeli leaders from across the political spectrum. Within Likud alone, Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein, Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan and former Defense Minister Boogie Ya’alon all called for the group to be banned. President Rivlin once characterized Lehava demonstrators as “rodents gnawing under the shared democratic and Jewish foundation of Israel”. Even the right-wing group Im Tirtzu condemned the group as an “anti-Zionist, right-wing extremist group”. In 2015, Ya’alon and the Shin Bet consulted with legal experts to determine if there was sufficient evidence to ban the group.
The Economist then quotes a few Israeli politicians affirming the desired narrative of a nation moving dangerously towards greater levels of racism, and even fascism, while almost entirely failing to provide readers with an alternative take on the state of the country.
In fact, the suggestion that the country is moving to the far right couldn’t be further from the truth. Despite a few bills of questionable merit which many on the left here disagree with, and which have little actual impact, fundamentally Israel remains – as the respected human rights group Freedom House reports each year – a bastion of liberal, democratic values.
- Israel has a multi-party democracy.
- Israelis enjoy free speech.
- Israel has universal healthcare, extremely low infant mortality rates and is ranked among the best places in the world to raise a family.
- Israeli courts remain stubbornly independent.
- The press is free and adversarial.
- Religious, racial, ethnic and sexual minorities (LGBT) enjoy protections unimaginable elsewhere in the region and on par with protections afforded in Western democracies.
Indeed, regarding this last point, the freedoms afforded to religious and ethnic minorities, Israel Democracy Institute (IDI) released a poll that included counter-intuitive results. For instance, among Jewish Israeli respondents, 44% said they see Israel’s situation as “good” or “very good” while among Arab Israelis the figure was actually higher, with 66% seeing Israel’s situation as “good” or “very good”. Additionally, a majority of Israeli Arabs said they were proud to be citizens of Israel; 61% of Israeli Arabs said they positive about the future; and 58% of Arabs reported feeling “to a moderately large extent” or “to a very large extent” a part of the state of Israel.
The Economist’s myopic, tendentious and narrative-driven attack piece can’t obviate one undeniable truth: In a Middle East awash in violence, extremism, and authoritarianism, Israel’s liberal democracy is stable, strong and resilient, and indeed represents a beacon of success and progress amidst a sea of failure and despair.
Oh, and one last thing. The 2016 Democracy Index by The Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) reported that Israel was the best performer in the MENA region. The Index noted that the country “has worked to strengthen various public institutions to ensure that the government remains accountable to the public between elections”.
- What did the Economist erase from this picture of occupation? (UK Media Watch)