Much has been written about the double standards against Israel in the media, but this is a topic that deserves to be revisited. It can be argued that journalism about Israel is qualitatively different than journalism about other issues in that it often seems to operate with a different set of rules and assumptions than coverage of any other story.
Here is an example. Last week, in honour of the Balfour declaration, the Guardian published an editorial lambasting Israel. (Highly emotive articles about Israel in the Guardian are nothing new, but the level of vitriol in this editorial was surprising even by their own standards.)
Here’s a sample:
“Israel today is not the country we foresaw or would have wanted. It is run by the most rightwing government in its history, dragged ever rightward by fanatical extremists. The Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, is committed to building Jewish settlements on occupied Palestinian land, in contravention of international law. Right-wing politicians absurdly brand as traitors NGOs that seek accountability for military actions in the occupied territories. They want to carry on in darkness, free from the glare of meddlesome do-gooders. There is an increasing intolerance from the ethno-nationalist end of Israeli politics that threatens to undermine political freedom and judicial independence…..”
A truly dire picture.
Now, here’s the question: If one cherry-picks the worst facts, opinions and quotes, and add some vague feelings of impending gloom, can one make it seem that any given Western country is heading towards the abyss? I would answer that yes – it is remarkably easy to do so. Here is an example of a potential article in this style about the UK:
“The UK in 2017 teeters on the brink of catastrophe. A right wing minority government, lead by parliamentarians plagued by sex-scandals, is becoming a laughing-stock as it fumbles through Brexit. The mental health system is in crisis, women still face an obscene wage gap, and last month the IMF slashed the UK’s growth forecast. The 2016 referendum, in which Britain made a “stupid” decision according to top EU officials, brought the pound crashing to its lowest level in thirty years. The extremism of the campaign lead to the first murder of an MP in decades, and the hatred and nativism that lead to the murder still loom large. Anti-Muslim crimes are at an all-time high, fuelled by the ethno-nationalism of Britain First. As the Foreign Minister endangers the life of UK citizens, the Defence Minister resigns, and the Prime Minister teeters, the UK moves ever closer to its fourth vote in as many years. Such an election may go Labour’s way – bringing in a new home secretary who seems incapable of even getting through a radio interview. Three million EU citizens, and millions more concerned UK citizens, wonder what 2018 has in store for them.”
How can one write an article to make any country seem awful? It is very simple. Take as many negative stories as possible and put them together. Report only a country’s flaws, not any of its redeeming features. Take the most damning interpretation of any given story, or policy. Find a racist/sexist sounding line from any elected Parliamentarian, and present it as an example of the views of the whole country. Throw in references to past crimes, and suggest the possibility of future ones. Subjected to this treatment, it is genuinely very simple to make any country look bad.
However, generally we would consider articles like this a mark of unsophistication, even bordering on propaganda. No self-respecting paper would publish an article like that on the UK, Germany or any other country. But everything described above is standard fare in writing about Israel. Is Israel a uniquely extreme country? Or is Israel journalism uniquely extreme writing?
There are lots of mitigating factors to the picture the Guardian painted about Israel. Israel is a burgeoning democracy, providing technological and humanitarian solutions to some of the world’s greatest problems. Minorities are better represented in the parliament of Israel than that of France. Arabs in Israel have more rights and opportunities than Arabs anywhere in the Middle East. In 2015, the Israeli government enacted the largest ever stimulus package for the Arab Israeli communities – hardly the sign of that “most right wing government” lead by “fanatical extremists.” The fever pitch of emotion about Israeli settlements cloud the fact that the last government-approved completed settlement was built 25 years ago.
Israel, and only Israel, is judged exclusively by a list of its (perceived and real) flaws. With remarkable confidence, journalists throw together opinions, a few stories, select quotes, and feelings of impending doom – and hey presto, Israel is demonised. Israel is not a uniquely bad country. Journalism about Israel is often uniquely bad journalism.