Thursday, February 11, 2016

Yes, Many Journalists Choose Sides in a Conflict—and Often for the Worst Reasons - by Zenobia Ravji

It’s important to remember that journalists are human beings, too—and just like everyone else at work, they can often be overwhelmed, underprepared, bought with kindness, and subject to unconscious bias.

Zenobia Ravji..
Tablet Magazine..
Issue 35/February '16..

People always ask me if I’m pro-Israel. No one has ever asked me if I am pro-America or pro-Canada or pro-Kenya, where I was born. What does it mean to be pro-Israel? The question even seems vaguely offensive, as if it questions the legitimacy of Israel itself.

I am sure that the concept of a Jewish state has always made sense to me. Perhaps because I myself come from an ancient ethnic and religious minority, the Zoroastrians, who continue to live in a diaspora outside of what was once our homeland, Iran.

So I came to Israel with a predisposed understanding of the need for a state, a safe haven for a people that has been a global minority for millennia and continuously persecuted. But as for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, I had no clue what was going on, who was right and who was wrong.

What I came to realize was that you simply cannot understand this highly complex, multidimensional situation unless you come see it for yourself and experience it for yourself, without preconceived notions. This is hard to do. So whom do we rely on to do it? For most people, it’s the Western media, and we presume they know what they’re doing. For the most part, they don’t.

I first came to Israel in January 2014 for a short trip. This two-week holiday turned into two years. At the time, I was a graduate student in journalism at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. While traveling, I stumbled on a really eye-opening story—“everyday life” in the West Bank. In the U.S., I was exposed to images of violence and chaos any time the West Bank was mentioned in the news. So when I accidentally ventured into the West Bank during my travels, I had no idea I was even there. I was surrounded by tranquil scenes, modern infrastructure, and economic cooperation between Palestinians and Israelis. I guess this was too boring to make any headlines.

I thought it would be interesting to show people the uneventful side of the story. This wasn’t to negate any social and political injustices of the situation. I just thought people should see the entire truth—not just soldiers, bombs, and riots, but also what’s happening when none of the drama is taking place.

And it wasn’t just the normalcy of life in the West Bank that went unreported. Many of the human rights violations by the Palestinian Authority were never mentioned, such as the lack of freedom of speech and the press, and a complete neglect of the Palestinian people by their own politicians, who continue to exploit the peace process while pocketing European and American funding for a “free Palestine.” My work, however, didn’t consist of criticizing the PA. I thought I should leave that to the “real” journalists. It was their job, after all, to report such things.

I decided to stay in Israel to complete my last semester of journalism school, which consisted of one last major project. Mine was a feature story on economic cooperation between Israelis and Palestinians. It was a documentary that takes place on Sdeh Bar farm in the Israeli settlement of Nokdim. It followed the lives of an Israeli farmer and a Palestinian man who works with him. The two have a unique working relationship, which is more of a friendship. The story also touched on the deep-rooted mistrust both communities have for each other—one that is compartmentalized when cooperating in social and economic settings, while always keeping a suspicious eye open.

In my reports, I tried to learn about the region by just observing and interacting with local people. I immersed myself in the culture. I started to develop friendships with Israelis, Palestinians, and Israeli-Arabs. The more I spoke with people, the more I understood where they were coming from. The more information I received on the historical context of the whole situation (which was different depending on who I was speaking to) the more confused I became. And it didn’t take very long for me to realize that the situation was not black and white.

During my time in Israel, I landed an internship with an Israeli non-profit that provided support services for foreign reporters based in Israel. For the most part, my job was to accompany members of the press on field tours, getting perspectives on both the Israeli and Palestinian sides. I found to my surprise that much of the foreign press was ignorant and quite lazy in their reporting. They often had a less than limited understanding of the region, its history, and its politics. They tended to write stories that fit the preconceptions of their editors and producers. For the most part, this narrative consisted of the idea that Israelis are bad and Palestinians are good.

On several occasions journalists asked me the most basic questions about the region, such as “What is the difference between a Palestinian and an Israeli-Arab?” Once, a reporter asked me “where is the West Bank?” even though we had been on a tour of the West Bank for the past two hours. I was shocked. I had learned in journalism school that foreign correspondents were meant to be talented professionals. How did these well-educated, ostensibly top-notch journalists be so ignorant, even after spending months and sometimes years in the region?

After working closely with the foreign press, I realized that you can tell a lot about a journalist’s abilities when they are under stress. I would say some of the most memorable performances I witnessed took place during the 2014 Gaza war. One Brazilian journalist comes to mind. He had been flown into Tel Aviv on a day’s notice. He knew nothing about the region. He didn’t even want to be there. When he arrived at Ben-Gurion Airport, he had no idea where he was. In fact, his colleague had to show him where Israel, Gaza, and the West Bank were on a map. The only reason he was even sent to cover the war was because his colleague was Jewish. His paper didn’t want a Jewish name attached to any articles, lest readers think his reports were biased.

In other words, a major international newspaper sent a journalist who didn’t even know where Israel was to cover a war born out of one of the most complicated international situations in modern history. It was incomprehensible to me.

During the war, the Western media often accused the IDF of war crimes. But only a few talked about Hamas’ human rights violations, like the use of children as human shields. Israelis were criticized for having bomb shelters and the Iron Dome system to prevent casualties, but the media never mentioned that Hamas also had bomb shelters, as well as an entire underground city connected through a series of tunnels. Both could easily have been used to protect civilian lives. Indeed, members of Hamas were protected by these shelters and tunnels. But their people were forced to fend for themselves in order to serve Hamas’ victim doctrine, the terrorist group’s tactic of engineering massive civilian casualties in order to win the media war against Israel. Nor was there much attention paid to the Hamas charter and its call to destroy Israel and ethnically cleanse the Jewish people.

The Western media also flooded its coverage of the war with personal stories of Palestinians. There were significantly fewer personal stories on the Israeli side. There was a Pavlovian reaction to focus one’s reporting on the supposed “underdog,” which left Israelis voiceless. I wanted to know what Israelis were thinking. How did they feel about the war? The Western media refused to tell us.

So after the war, I took it upon myself to get the detailed stories of Israelis and their experiences during the war. I started collecting stories with the goal of compiling them into a book. I covered the entire mosaic of Israeli society: Bedouins, Israeli-Arabs, Druze, IDF soldiers, politicians, activists, and more. I wanted to know how they felt and what they went through. I found anger and resentment toward their own government and deep sadness for the suffering of innocent Palestinians and their children. It was a very different picture than what the Western media painted. Perhaps they had not bothered to dig deep enough into the story. Perhaps they didn’t want to.

So, why does the Western media get away with such unprofessional and sometimes outright biased conduct? There are two main reasons: First, Israel is a democracy. Second, Israel fails to stand up for itself.

The best part of being a journalist in Israel is freedom of speech. Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East and the only country in the region that respects freedom of the press. And as with all democracies around the world, it is a privilege for journalists, civilians, foreigners, and the like to criticize it. Members of the foreign press are free to say whatever they want about Israel, without fear of censorship or retaliation.

This is not the case on the other side of the conflict. In fact, during the 2014 Gaza war, there were several incidents in which Hamas deleted photos and video footage from journalists’ memory cards before they crossed back into Israel. These journalists did not report the entire story for a simple reason: Hamas wouldn’t let them.

On the other hand, Israel has terrible PR. The Israeli government does not defend itself very well against media bias in times of war or when facing criticism. The spokespeople for this or that politician are not the friendliest. Almost every member of the Israeli bureaucracy is more or less rude to journalists. Let’s also not forget the treatment of journalists and diplomats at Ben-Gurion Airport. Jewish or non-Jewish, if you don’t hold an Israeli passport, you may be treated like a potential threat to the state. One shouldn’t underestimate the effect this has on how journalists see Israel.

I once had lunch in Jerusalem with an accomplished member of the foreign press. I asked her about her personal experiences as a journalist. She had been in the region for about a year. She told me that when she arrived, Israelis were not very friendly to her, but Palestinians were. This was a strong factor in her tendency to write articles that were anti-Israel and pro-Palestinian. In fact, during that conversation she spoke at length about Palestinian hospitality and how it was a major factor in her impression of the conflict. Arabs have a well-earned reputation for amazing hospitality.

On the other hand, how can you trust a journalist’s stories when the basis for them is pure emotion and personal sensitivity? Should a journalist treated with classic Arab hospitality write against Israel for that reason? Should they manipulate each story, no matter what the truth is, in such a way that Israel will forever be portrayed in a negative light?

Obviously not, but journalists are human beings after all. If you offend them, you should be ready to face the consequences. The Israeli government is shortsighted on this issue. It’s as if it doesn’t believe that making a concerted effort to defend and thoroughly explain its actions will have any effect. Israel should remember that the reason the PA and Hamas are able to portray their agenda as legitimate in the eyes of the Western media, despite their terrorism and serious human rights violations, is because they have effective PR.

Over time, I came to realize that to be considered a successful journalist by the Western media, a journalist must stick to an acceptable script. In the Middle East, this means portraying Israel and the Jews as the bad guys, and the Palestinians and the PA as the good guys. If you don’t do this, you are professionally ostracized.

I know that journalism has changed with the advent of the internet and the power of social media. But the reality is that foreign correspondents have also changed their ways. I saw journalists depict the easiest stories to tell without digging any deeper into the facts behind the conflict. There were various reasons for this—lack of time, money, and resources; ignorance and pressure from editors. These editors sometimes act as experts on the region from their comfortable offices in New York.

Beyond this, however, I found that some stories carried with them an inherent dislike for the Jewish state and the Jewish people. I’m not speaking about most of the Western media. But a few conversations with journalists do come to mind in which it was obvious that the motivation for their stories was anti-Semitism. What’s scary is that these stories inevitably play a major role in shaping foreign policy toward Israel.

Of course, every news outlet, newspaper, or magazine has an agenda. There is no such thing as an unbiased journalist. We bring our experiences, interactions with people, and our emotions to bear on every story and situation. This is inevitable. Biases will always exist. But we still have a responsibility to uncover and portray the truth to the best of our ability. Admitting to our biases does not mean we should submit to them.

I admit that, at times, I questioned my perception of the situation in Israel. Was I missing something? I felt like I must be doing something wrong, because my views didn’t fit into the framework presented by the Western media. And sometimes I was afraid to voice my own opinions, post them on social media, or write articles about what I saw. I was afraid I would be labeled a right-wing lunatic or an Israeli propagandist. How would I explain myself to people who knew of my progressive work? Only Republicans side with Israel, right? But ultimately I reminded myself of my efforts as a social activist—work that started with questioning the status quo. And the Western media’s view of Israel is a status quo that needs to be questioned.

There is another reason why Western journalists must begin to question their biases and their conduct toward Israel: Their failure do so is pushing peace further away. For example, the Western media feeds the corruption of the Palestinian Authority. If journalists really want to help change things for the better, they should have the courage to criticize the Palestinians and their government. They should report on human rights violations committed by the PA (and Hamas). They should tell the world about incitement again Jews and Israelis in PA-controlled media, as well as mosques and schools. They should report on the television shows that teach Palestinian children to hate Jews. They should share the stories of Palestinians who want to speak out against their leaders, but are afraid to do so for fear of imprisonment or death. Give Palestinians a real voice. Putting all the blame on Israel will never change the fate of the Palestinian people.

In fact, just like the PA, the Western media exploits the Palestinians. They use them in order to get the award-winning story their editors want. What the Palestinians do not realize is that these journalists don’t care about the Palestinians. They interview a few people in Ramallah about their struggles, take some emotional photos, and then head back to the comfort of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem. As a result, decades of pro-Palestinian bias has changed nothing.

Perhaps I am not like my fellow journalists, but when it comes to Israel, I am not ashamed of that. Do I always agree with Israeli policy? No. Are there some serious, deep-rooted racial issues in Israel? Yes. Is the Israeli government sometimes plagued by corruption and the abuse of powers by government officials for private gain? Yes. But I can’t think of a democracy that doesn’t have these issues in one form or another. And the beauty of a democracy is having the privilege to criticize the government, the ability to address those issues and bring about change. Because of this, progress is possible in democratic societies. And progress is definitely possible in Israel.

But the way the Western media treats Israel does not make progress possible. As a journalist myself, it pains me to see how bias, unprofessionalism, laziness, ego, and sometimes outright racism influences coverage of Israel and its conflict with the Palestinians. These failures are not only a violation of journalistic ethics, they make peace less likely and embolden Israel’s enemies, and the enemies of democracy around the world.

People ask me a lot if I am pro-Israel. Am I pro-Israel? If supporting democracy and the search for truth it permits means that I am pro-Israel, then, yes, I am.


Zenobia's reporting career started in Israel while she was a Graduate Fellow in journalism at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign (UIUC). She holds an MS in Journalism, an MA in Political Science, during which she was a Civic Leadership Fellow, and an undergraduate degree in Economics & Spanish from UIUC.

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