Tag Archives: media

Just a thought: Cheering Al Jazeera America

In an excellent commentary on “Al Gore’s Al Jazeera sellout” in Ha’aretz, James Kirchick highlights some of the issues that have caused considerable concern about the profitable sale of Current TV that was acquired by the Qatari network in order to build up “Al Jazeera America.” Krichick begins by recalling that in July 2008, Al Jazeera celebrated the release of the notorious Lebanese terrorist and murderer Samir Kuntar – whom Israel exchanged for the remains of two abducted soldiers – by hosting a televised birthday party for him. During the program, the head of Al Jazeera’s Beirut office praised Kuntar as a “pan-Arab hero.”

While Al Jazeera later acknowledged that its enthusiastic coverage of Kuntar’s release had been inappropriate, Kirchick argues that “[such] coverage is all too typical of Al Jazeera, and it is important to keep the above scene in mind as American liberals, so-called ‘media studies’ experts, and other denizens of the global cosmopolitan class trip over themselves in praising the Arab Satellite network’s acquisition of Current TV.”

Kirchick goes on to argue:

“Indeed, vital to understanding Al Jazeera is acknowledging that it does have an ideology. This is something that many of its Western fan boys choose to ignore. Calling the network’s ethos an ‘ideology’, however, gives its modus operandi a little too much credit; the network, despite its protestations, is ultimately a tool of Qatari foreign policy. The network’s coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is invariably influenced by the fact that the Emir of Qatar has heaped hundreds of millions of dollars on Hamas. See, for instance, its highly manipulative and irresponsible presentation of the ‘Palestine Papers’ two years ago, which emboldened the implacable terrorist organization while portraying the Palestinian Authority as feckless, Zionist collaborators.”

Kirchick then focuses on the New York Times editorial board that praised Al Jazeera as “an important news source” that “could bring an important international perspective to American audiences” because it “often brings a nuance to international stories that can be lacking on American networks.”

Somewhat sarcastically, Kirchick adds:

“One wonders what specific ‘nuance’ the Times commends. Is it the musings of Sheikh Yusuf al Qaradawi, who shares his thoughts on permissible spousal abuse to 60 million viewers via his program ‘Shariah and Life?’ It was on Al Jazeera Arabic that Qaradawi, the most popular Sunni cleric in the world, declared that Adolf Hitler ‘managed to put [the Jews] in their place.’ The Holocaust, he declared, ‘was divine punishment for them,’ even though, of course, they ‘exaggerated’ it.”

Western praise for Al Jazeera is also remarkable given the restrictions upheld in Qatar. Here are some of the relevant passages of the 2011 Freedom House report on Qatar:

“While Qatar permits its flagship satellite television channel Al-Jazeera to air critical coverage of foreign countries and leaders, journalists are forbidden from criticizing the Qatari government, the ruling family, or Islam, and are subject to prosecution for such violations. […]

As a government-subsidized channel, Al-Jazeera refrains from criticizing the Qatari authorities, providing only sparse and uncritical local news. […]

The concentration of media ownership within the ruling family as well as the high financial costs and citizenship requirements to obtain media ownership licenses continue to hinder the expansion and freedom of the press.

Approximately 69 percent of the Qatari population used the internet in 2010, a major increase from 32 percent in 2007. Sixty-three percent of households have access to the internet. The government censors political, religious, and pornographic content through the sole, state-owned internet-service provider. Both high-speed and dial-up internet users are directed to a proxy server that maintains a list of banned websites and blocks material deemed inconsistent with the religious, cultural, political, and moral values of the country.”

That Qatari authorities are very serious about enforcing these restrictions is illustrated by the case of a renowned Qatari poet who has been given a life sentence for “a poem considered offensive to the nation’s symbols.”

Presumably, this kind of story is not one of the “nuances” that the New York Times hopes to get from Al Jazeera America.

Update:

Clifford D. May has another excellent article on this matter in National Review Online. May cites two journalists who worked for Al Jazeera but left due to a pro-Islamist and anti-American bias; he also quotes an interesting commentary from 2001 by Fouad Ajami, who noted that

“[Al Jazeera] may not officially be the Osama bin Laden Channel, but he is clearly its star . . . The channel’s graphics assign him a lead role: there is bin Laden seated on a mat, his submachine gun on his lap; there is bin Laden on horseback in Afghanistan, the brave knight of the Arab world. A huge, glamorous poster of bin Laden’s silhouette hangs in the background of the main studio set at Al Jazeera’s headquarters in Doha, the capital city of Qatar. […] Although Al Jazeera has sometimes been hailed in the West for being an autonomous Arabic news outlet, it would be a mistake to call it a fair or responsible one. Day in and day out, Al Jazeera deliberately fans the flames of Muslim outrage.”

May also highlights Qaradawi’s star role at Al Jazeera:

“One more reason to be less than optimistic: Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi is the host of Al Jazeera Arabic’s most popular program, Sharia and Life. Qaradawi endorsed Ayatollah Khomeini’s call to execute novelist Salman Rushdie for blasphemy, called what Hitler did to Europe’s Jews ‘divine punishment’ (adding that ‘Allah willing, the next time will be at the hand of the believers’). In 1991, one of his acolytes, Mohamed Akram, a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood in America, wrote a memorandum, later obtained by the FBI, asserting that Brothers ‘must understand that their work in America is a kind of grand jihad in eliminating and destroying the Western civilization from within and sabotaging its miserable house by their hands and by the hands of the believers so that it is eliminated and God’s religion is made victorious over all other religions.’”

Molad – or: what’s wrong with the Israeli left

In a post entitled “Confessions of a lapsed leftist,” I tried to explain more than a year ago why my lifelong allegiance to the left had begun to crumble. Of course, many Israelis who had supported “Peace Now” in the 1990s and who had hoped that the negotiations at Camp David and Taba would result in a peace agreement went through a similar experience in view of the fact that the Palestinians chose to respond to Israel’s offers with the long and bloody “Al Aqsa”-Intifada.

The historian Benny Morris has repeatedly described the unfortunate learning process that many of us went through, most recently last fall in a long interview with Ha’aretz. The problem is that Israel’s left – which represented the peace camp – has not been able or willing to go through the same learning process. As a result, there are lots of politically homeless people like me in Israel, and I think the dizzying proliferation of new parties over the past few years is at least in part a reflection of this widespread homelessness.

Personally, I can’t say that I find any of the new options attractive or politically convincing and sound, and it is perhaps for this reason that I felt particular frustration when I recently discovered that a new left-wing Israeli think tank that had been established a year ago is apparently resolved to continue the left’s head-in-the-sand-approach. The two posts I wrote about the new organization were first published in The Algemeiner and on my Jerusalem Post blog; they are cross-posted below with some minor changes. Continue reading

The Hamas bombardment of Gaza

You won’t see much in the news about this, but according to the IDF – which of course monitors all rocket launches from Gaza – about 10 percent of the rockets that Hamas shoots in the hope that they will kill and maim Israeli civilians crash back into Gaza. Inevitably, some of these rockets will kill and maim Gazans – after all, as we hear so often, Gaza is one of the most densely populated areas in the world.

Another well-known, though not widely reported fact is that Hamas likes to fire its rockets from residential areas. Some journalists stationed in Gaza have posted tweets when they observed rockets being launched from populated areas or even from the vicinity of their offices or their hotels, and sometimes, it was also noted that Gazans were cheering these launches.

But by now, almost 100 Hamas rockets have crashed in Gaza. Needless to say, the damage and casualties these rockets are causing are usually blamed on Israel. That was also the case when the body of a young boy was brought to a Gaza hospital just when Egypt’s Prime Minister was visiting there last week. The dramatic images were widely distributed by the media – but ultimately, it turned out that the dead boy whom CNN presented as “a symbol of civilian casualties” was the victim of a crashed Hamas rocket.

The blogger Elder of Ziyon was the first to point out that the available evidence in this case didn’t justify the claim that the boy had been killed by an Israeli airstrike. In the meantime, a few media sites have corrected their related stories. However, this will probably remain an exceptional case, and most of the damage and casualties caused by crashed Hamas rockets in Gaza will likely be blamed on Israel.

* * *

Cross-posted from my JPost blog.

UPDATE:

According to the IDF, by the end of the recent fighting against Hamas, a total of 152 rockets fired from Gaza into Israel crashed backed into Gaza.

Several of the journalists reporting from Gaza have mentioned in their reports that rockets were being fired from civilian neighborhoods. One especially egregious example was the firing of a long-range rocket from the vicinity of Gaza’s Shifa Hospital:

“At 2.08pm, a long-range Qassam rocket, of the type Israel has accused Iran of supplying to Hamas, was fired from within 500 yards of the hospital. […] Hamas officials at the hospital were asked how firing rockets from such a built-up area could be justified as it is likely to provoke Israeli action. One said Palestinians were merely defending themselves, another that it was probably the work of the Islamic Jihad militia.”

Of course, during the previous round of fighting, Hamas leaders used the hospital as their hide-out. As Ha’aretz reported in January 2009:

“Senior Hamas officials in Gaza are hiding out in a ‘bunker’ built by Israel, intelligence officials suspect: Many are believed to be in the basements of the Shifa Hospital complex in Gaza City, which was refurbished during Israel’s occupation of the Gaza Strip. […] During the mid-1980s the building underwent massive refurbishment as part of a showcase project to improve the living conditions of residents.”

Quote of the day

“In discussions of the Israel-Arab conflict, it has become increasingly acceptable to pretend that only one character truly exists: Israel, a country peopled with Jews struggling with their history and their demons as they act out a great moral drama against a backdrop of deserts, camels and Arabs.

Israel’s neighbors are present in this narrative as inanimate objects or, at most, as children. Their actions barely warrant analysis, so understanding the story does not involve looking at the complex interactions of Israel and its surroundings but rather dissecting Israel’s flaws.

A variant of this one-man show exists on Israel’s right: In this narrative, the Arabs are uniformly and unalterably malevolent, and the story is Israel’s failure to shed its Diaspora weakness and respond with enough force and ethnic pride. In the version accepted on Israel’s left and abroad, on the other hand, the Arabs are passive bystanders and victims, and the story is the Jews’ abuse of force, their repetition of the crimes once perpetrated against them. In my years covering Israel as part of the international press corps, I came to understand that this latter view has become the default framework in which the story is covered for foreign audiences, shaping the way it is seen by millions of people.”

These are just the first three paragraphs of Matti Friedman’s excellent review of Fortress Israel: The Inside Story of the Military Elite Who Run the Country – and Why They Can’t Make Peace, by Patrick Tyler (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2012). As nicely summed up in the subtitle of Friedman’s review: “Written with more antipathy than knowledge, a new book by a prominent US journalist is a disturbing example of what passes for learned comment on Israel.”

 

Imagine how bad the news would be without Obama [Updated]

In a devastating commentary on the end of the US troop surge in Afghanistan, Walter Russell Mead noted sarcastically:

“We should all be very glad that we have a Democratic president right now; otherwise the news would be terrible. We would be seeing a rash of horrible and depressing stories in the newspapers about strategic failure […]

There would be continuous coverage of the disarray in Afghanistan: the soldier’s we’re training are shooting us, the corruption is intensifying, and the opium trade spreading. There would be story after story about how Afghanistan seems little changed after the surge, and how peace is still not at hand. These stories wouldn’t be on the back pages; they’d be perceived as major news with profound implications for America’s global position […]

There would be bitter, wounding comparisons between the president and LBJ in Vietnam. If we had a conservative Republican president right now, we’d be hearing him compared to the noble Duke of York, who marched 10,000 men to the top of the hill only to march them down again.

And we’d be hearing all kinds of damning stories about the failure of the U.S. government to deal with the chaos in Pakistan.

We’d also be reading stories linking the apparent U.S. failure in Afghanistan to the empowerment of anti-American movements throughout the Middle East. The recent riots would be used as a stick to beat the president with—his weakness, indecision and strategic inconsequentialism in Afghanistan would be endangering our interests all over the region. Instead of concentrating on the real terror threat, the press would tell us, this hypothetical clueless Republican president wasted time, treasure and attention on a failed strategy in Afghanistan. The press would try to hang the corpse of the U.S. ambassador in Libya around the neck of a Republican president, if we had one right now.

But thankfully we have a Democratic president, and in an election year the normally feisty American media—the same media that worked night and day to expose every flaw and contradiction in the Bush policies in the region (and they had plenty to expose)—is too busy reporting the flaws in the Romney campaign […] to pay attention to anything as insignificant as a comprehensively failed presidential strategy in a foreign war.”

This is not the first time that Mead has criticized the media, and I’ve quoted him repeatedly (see e.g. here) because in my view, his voice is particularly important in the fiercely partisan debate about media bias. As Mead himself notes in a new essay on the public’s growing distrust of the mainstream media (MSM), complaints about media bias are usually associated with the political right – and therefore shrugged off by the liberal media elites. Since Mead has a well-deserved reputation as a brilliant analyst whose focus on substance largely ignores partisan politics, his criticism of the media is all the more noteworthy.

In his most recent essay on this subject, Mead suggests that we might begin to see the “MSM Tipping Point On Obama in the Middle East.” He argues that the recent “anti-American riots that have been rocking the Muslim world since 9/11 [2012] have shaken the [media] establishment out of its complacency” and that there is now a growing realization that “[the] turbulence in the region is impossible to miss, the problems for American interests and even security are disturbing to contemplate, and the failures of the Obama administration can no longer be ignored.”

However, the fact that the failures of the Obama administration’s Middle East policies have been ignored by the MSM for so long has some important implications.

Perhaps most obviously, there are a number of analysts who can rightfully say “told you so.” If I could name just one of those analysts, it would be Barry Rubin – and I think everyone who has followed his prolific and knowledgeable commentary over the past few years would agree that his readers knew long ago what the MSM seem to discover only now.

But of course, for the past few years of the Obama administration, it was “right-wing” or “neo-con” to find fault with US Middle East policies.  This kind of labeling – practiced enthusiastically both by the left and the right – is of course an easy way to dismiss an argument by saying essentially: you have your world view and I have mine, and yours is wrong.

What is completely ignored is the question if the rejected view is based on facts and logical reasoning. This is perhaps hardly surprising since we live in a time when almost all certainties have been shattered and postmodernism has made it fashionable to assert that there is no such thing as “facts,” let alone “truth”.

I have to admit that I was delighted to find out that it is apparently not as old-fashioned as I had feared to ponder what all this means for the politics of our times: just last fall, the Hannah Arendt Center at Bard College organized a conference devoted to exploring the challenges of “Truthtelling: Democracy in an Age Without Facts.” While I feel quite ambivalent about Arendt and have some reservations about the introductory lecture for this conference, I think there is one observation that deserves to be cherry-picked:

“We face today a crisis of fact. Facts […] are all around us being reduced to opinions; and opinions masquerade as facts. As fact and opinion blur together, the very idea of factual truth falls away. And increasingly the belief in and aspiration for factual truth is being expunged from political argument.”

But it’s actually not just about facts, but also facts in their relevant context. One excellent example is the attempt of Justin Martin, a journalism professor blogging at the prestigious Columbia Journalism Review, to use published data about the number of journalists jailed in various countries to calculate the completely meaningless ratio of how many journalists per capita are jailed in any given country. You can easily see where this gets us: Naturally, tiny Israel swarming with journalists needs to arrest only one journalist to get a bad ranking, while a big and populous country like China with relatively few journalists can round up quite a few and still look pretty good.

As Sohrab Ahmari rightly noted in a critical commentary:

“The ultimate impact of pieces like Mr. Martin’s is a softening of the reading public’s moral intuitions and sensitivities. By placing Israel on the same plane as the likes of Iran and Syria, Mr. Martin minimized the threats faced by journalists working under genuine authoritarianisms—not to mention the broader human rights catastrophes underway in these societies.”

Tellingly, in his response, Justin Martin notes right at the outset:

“Some issues in journalism fire up audiences more than others […] Globally, it is reporting on the Middle East, particularly Israel/Palestine matters, that draws ire, fulsome praise, or ad hominem molotovs.”

Of course, this obsession with “Israel/Palestine matters” has to a considerable degree been created by the media, not least because in the wake of 9/11, it has become particularly popular to view Israel as the root cause for the Middle East’s problems: after all, agreeing with long-held Arab and Muslim “narratives” that depict the tiny Jewish state as the region’s biggest problem is a fabulously convenient way to follow the “politically correct” imperative to avoid a “clash of civilizations.”

But as Walter Russell Mead observes in a just published must-read essay entitled “Dispatches From The War That Nobody Wants:”

“We may be tired of the war on terror, but the terrorists aren’t tired of waging war on us. Far from it. They are just warming up.”

This is bad news for everyone – but for Israelis, it’s not really news. However, thanks to the MSM, this will be really bad news for a lot of people.

* * *

Cross-posted from my JPost blog.

 

UPDATE:

Walter Russell Mead has done it again: In yet another new must-read essay under the title “Thank God W Isn’t President Anymore,” Mead pokes more fun at the media, but also offers some very serious and important observations.

As a teaser, here’s one highlight from the fun part, fantasizing what we would get to read if Bush was still president:

“There would be no end to the woes and the recriminations. There would be the most moving and eloquent examples of hand wringing in the New York Review of Books, elegantly demonstrating that the cretinous assumptions and moral failings that led Bush into his failed Afghan policy weren’t his alone, but reflected broader, deeper failings in America itself. One is almost sorry for the sake of the authors of these diatribes that Bush is gone; the failure of our Afghan strategy is so sweeping, so unavoidable, that it would be the best possible backdrop against which to paint a stirring portrait of a failed president misleading a flawed people. What works of polemical literature have been lost, what inspired jeremiads will never be penned, what scalding portraits of America’s inherent flaws will never see the light of day because W left the White House too soon.”

In the serious parts of the essay, Mead points out that there “may not be any real answers to America’s conundrums in Afghanistan;” as another example of a problem that might not have a solution, Mead mentions the “Israel-Palestine problem.”

Taking the media to task once again, he argues:

“The implicit assumptions in the press that anything less than a flawless performance in war is prima facie evidence of bumbling incompetence merely reflects the cluelessness and arrogance of a pseudo-educated elite that thinks textbooks on theory and lessons in political correctness plus good SAT scores amount to a grounding in the real business of life.”

But Mead emphasizes that he is of course not advocating that the media should treat Obama as it treated Bush:

“There is a happy medium between clueless cheer leading and attempts to destroy: it is called responsible analysis [and] we could use a lot more of it. A press that neither waves pom-poms nor throws stink bombs non-stop is an important component of healthy democratic society; there are plenty of excellent reporters out there who want to do exactly that. May their tribe prosper and their numbers increase.”

 

Wrong about Israel and much else

Earlier this month, the Jerusalem Post had a short report about some remarks of the British Ambassador to Israel, Matthew Gould, on Israeli TV. The report’s headline highlighted the ambassador’s assertion that Israel was widely seen as Goliath, while the Palestinians were perceived as David. According to Ambassador Gould, the “problem is not hasbara,” but since both the British public and politicians “read news about ongoing settlement building, conditions in the West Bank and restrictions placed on the Gaza Strip,” Gould claimed it was “[the] substance of what is going on [that] is really […] driving this.”  Gould also suggested that there was an “erosion of popular support for the Jewish state.”

It is noteworthy that the ambassador’s remarks were actually a response to a reference to the rather peculiar BBC coverage of Israel in the run-up to the London Olympics. But while the ambassador might feel a professional obligation to claim that the British media convey the “substance of what is going on,” Israeli writer Hadar Sela rightly noted in a critical commentary that British audiences are exposed to “a constant largely monotone diet of one-sided and chronically misleading coverage of the Arab-Israeli conflict […] which nourishes the ‘Israel as Goliath, Palestinians as David’ myth.”

Just imagine for a moment that the media in Britain (and elsewhere) would mention in every report about Israeli settlement building that after more than four decades of supposedly relentless building and expansion, these settlements gobble up all of about 1.1 percent of the pre-1967 West Bank territory…

Israeli hasbara usually tries to point to such simple facts in order to provide the often neglected context that would allow audiences to understand that the simplistic – and simplistically inverted – Goliath-David-narrative doesn’t really capture the “substance of what is going on” in the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Yet, Ambassador Gould is in a way right to say that the “problem is not hasbara.” There is a bigger problem which is easy to overlook when we focus primarily on Israel, and I think there is a solid case for the argument that the media bias that shapes a largely negative image of Israel is only one manifestation of the dominant left-wing perspective that colors the media coverage of many issues.

Consider these observations by Walter Russell Mead on the media coverage of Mitt Romney’s recent trip abroad:

“Much of the global press is, if anything, to the left of the U.S. mainstream media, and the conventional wisdom among global elites is closer to the views of George Soros than it is to those of, say, John Bolton.

This is a fact, and it is something that any Republican president and his foreign policy team must develop a strategy for managing. President Obama is killing people right and left through drone strikes, has kept Guantanamo open for business in violation of his campaign pledges, is on a course for war with Iran, and is continuing Bush policies on a variety of key issues in the Middle East and elsewhere—but he isn’t encountering anything like the hurricane of hatred and resistance that George Bush had to face every day. […]

Much of the criticism Governor Romney encountered this week was unfair […] If he wins in November, he will face four long years of unrelenting, bitter criticism at home and abroad. He will be the target of orchestrated disinformation and propaganda campaigns. Enemies and opponents (not always the same thing) will seek to turn global and domestic public opinion against him, exploiting every blunder and manufacturing blunders where no real ones exist. He will be judged by entirely different standards than President Obama—he will certainly not get a Nobel Peace Prize just for showing up.”

A few days later, Mead delivered yet another scathing verdict on the mainstream media. Comparing the coverage of the Tea Party and the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement, Mead noted:

“no one can deny the political power of the Tea Party anymore; for a movement that is now over three years old, this is no small thing.

Contrast this to the fate of what was supposed to be the left’s answer to Tea Party populism: OWS. It’s odd, but we don’t seem to hear much from them any more. This is especially surprising when you think about how the MSM treated that movement to begin with. It did everything in its power to ignore, disparage or kill the Tea Party, and everything it could think of to celebrate and hype OWS.

One movement remains a powerful force in American politics; the other is as dead as the dodo. […] But perhaps the contrast of Tea Party staying power and the genuinely total and ignominious collapse of OWS can serve as a teachable moment for mainstream media editors and reporters who actually want to understand and fairly report the news, as opposed to manipulating it in the interest of a political agenda. […]

The lunge to dismiss the Tea Party as a racist and comical fringe while celebrating OWS as a genuine upwelling of American populism reflected serious errors about American history and culture. The simplistic conflation of populism with a left-progressive agenda is the kind of mistake college undergrads (and excitable professors) make when they’ve read too much Howard Zinn while imbibing too much caffeine. And the simplistic dismissal of right populism as racist and backward is equally flawed; Jacksonian America has its flaws but it is much more complex than its cultured despisers understand. These stereotyped views of American populism are caricatures and those who rely on them will repeatedly misunderstand the significance of events taking place before their eyes […]

More than the internet, what’s killing the MSM is bad ideas and superficial thinking. The group think mentality of the media herd rests on weak intellectual and historical foundations so that over and over the media take on a given event turns out to be fatally flawed. The public grows tired of this, and either tunes the news out altogether or turns to alternative media with alternative views.

To survive and thrive, the MSM needs to tweak its business models, but even more importantly it needs to reset its intellectual models. They don’t work. They are outdated.

This doesn’t mean the MSM needs to flip and embrace the Tea Party or appoint Glenn Beck to head NBC news. This is about sophistication much more than it is about partisanship. But make no mistake: without a richer, deeper, more layered view of how the world works, the MSM will continue to wither away.”

Mead’s point about the media’s lack of sophistication is very relevant when it comes to the left’s antipathy towards Israel: once the simplistic Israel-as-Goliath-Palestinians-as-David-narrative takes hold, leftist ideology requires sympathy and identification with the perceived underdog David – and indeed, it then becomes easy to argue that this is not just a question of political ideology, but human decency.

At this point, facts and rational debate are often replaced by appeals to emotion, and because this dynamic inevitably includes also negative emotions, the political discourse that is so important for liberal democracies can quickly become poisonous.

Leftist elites in the media and elsewhere may not be too concerned about that as long as the poison is directed against Israel, but Jews and the Jewish state are often just the canary in the coal mine: this is true, for example, when it comes to the abuse of international law by terrorist groups and their state sponsors, and it’s also true when it comes to a once widely trusted newspaper like the British Guardian.

To paraphrase Professor Mead’s criticism quoted above, it’s a good bet to assume that if there is plenty of evidence for “group think mentality of the media herd” when it comes to Israel, this is a pretty good indication for “weak intellectual and historical foundations” that will also affect the coverage of other issues.  Or, as I put it for my Twitter profile: The punditocracy that gets Israel wrong also gets a lot of other things wrong…

* * *

This is a belated cross-post from my JPost blog, where this piece was published on August 13. Due to traveling, I didn’t have a chance to post it right away; but I was now reminded of it when I read a report about the final column by the outgoing public editor of the New York Times, Arthur Brisbane. Brisbane noted that NYT writers “share a kind of political and cultural progressivism” that “virtually bleeds through the fabric of The Times” and he pointed to the coverage of the Occupy movement as one example of news being treated like a cherished cause. Indeed, echoing Walter Russell Mead’s point about the “group think mentality of the media herd,” Brisbane wrote that “the hive on Eighth Avenue is powerfully shaped by a culture of like minds.”

 

Bad taste at the Guardian: Coleslaw with a pinch of Polonium

Under the memorable headline “Making Cole-slaw of history,” Martin Kramer documented some years ago just how hilarious it is that Juan Cole calls his blog “Informed Comment” (and for “Cole-slaw”-fans, there is in fact a rich archive of additional helpings).  However, it’s apparently no joke that Cole, who is the Richard P. Mitchell Collegiate Professor of History at the University of Michigan, encourages the readers of his blog to send him money because “Informed Comment is made possible by your support.”

 In any case, it’s arguably hardly surprising that editors at the Guardian are fans of Juan Cole, and when the professor recently vented his displeasure at Mitt Romney’s visit in Israel, the Guardian secured Cole’s “kind permission” to cross-post the piece on its Comment is Free (CiF) site.

The Guardian made a minor change to Cole’s original title – which read on CiF: “Ten reasons Mitt Romney’s Israel visit is in bad taste” – and added a sub-title: “The Republican presidential hopeful is holding a fundraiser and playing war enabler in Israel – it’s wrong on so many levels.”

The astonishing claim that Romney was “playing war enabler in Israel” is taken from Cole’s reason #7, which reads in part:

“Romney is promising his donors in Jerusalem a war on Iran. When George W Bush promised his pro-Israel supporters a war on Iraq, it cost the US at least $3 trillion, got hundreds of thousands of Iraqis killed, destabilised the Gulf for some time, cost over 4,000 American soldiers’ lives and damaged American power and credibility and the economy.”

Of course, Cole’s link to an AP report does not show Romney “promising his donors in Jerusalem a war on Iran” – indeed, why should this blood libel be different from all the other invented accusations against blood-thirsty Jews over the centuries?

What Cole is claiming here is plainly that Romney’s “donors in Jerusalem” want a war on Iran, just like the “pro-Israel supporters” of George W Bush wanted and got an incredibly costly and bloody war on Iraq. It’s really just another version of a paragraph from Article 22 of the Hamas Charter:

“They were behind World War I, when they were able to destroy the Islamic Caliphate, making financial gains and controlling resources. They obtained the Balfour Declaration, formed the League of Nations through which they could rule the world. They were behind World War II, through which they made huge financial gains by trading in armaments, and paved the way for the establishment of their state. […] There is no war going on anywhere, without having their finger in it.”

The day after the Guardian featured Cole’s fantasies about Israel’s insatiable appetite for bloody wars and its mysterious ability to get the US to fight them, it was time for a Guardian-sponsored rehash of Al Jazeera’s pathetic attempts to revive rumors about Yasser Arafat’s death.

Some four weeks earlier, Al Jazeera had announced with great pomp and circumstance that it had conducted an “investigation” that pointed to poisoning with radioactive Polonium; however, conspiracy theories about Arafat’s death have been around ever since he died in November 2004, and even the specific claim that he was poisoned with Polonium is nothing new. While Al Jazeera’s new program succeeded in unleashing a veritable “orgy of conspiratorial theorizing” – with Israel as a favorite target – the people behind Al Jazeera’s “investigation” are apparently hoping to get yet more mileage out of this story, and the Guardian seems only too willing to provide a platform to the assorted conspiracy theorists.

There have been already countless reports and commentaries refuting the Al Jazeera “investigation,” but it’s perhaps worthwhile to add one particularly interesting testimony on Arafat’s death from a long and fascinating Atlantic report that was published in September 2005 under the title “In a Ruined Country: How Yasir Arafat destroyed Palestine.” One of the people interviewed for this report was the Palestinian billionaire businessman Munib al-Masri; here are the relevant parts of the report:

“Talk of Arafat’s last illness makes al-Masri sad again. “Every morning I used to go see him and give him the medicine because he would not take it from anybody else,” he remembers, looking moodily out over his lawn. “Yeah, and I never thought he would die.”

“How long did you know that he was sick?” I ask.

“For the last year. Last year in September he told me he doesn’t feel well. So, and he felt that something was not right, and it looks like he had the same symptoms again, but the last time he had enough immunity. Yeah, he knew.”

I am struck by al-Masri’s use of the word “immunity,” which is a word characteristically associated with aids. Rumors that Arafat died of “a shameful illness” spread quickly through the West Bank and Gaza. […] The Palestinian leadership denounced reports that Arafat was a homosexual as lies spread by Mossad, the Israeli foreign-intelligence agency. Accounts also circulated that a secret agreement had been reached between the Israelis and Arafat’s heirs, stipulating that the truth about Arafat’s fatal illness would not be released, the Palestinian leader would be buried in Ramallah and not in Jerusalem, and the wanted men who had accompanied him in his captivity would not be pursued by Israeli forces.

“He knew that it was the same disease that he had a year ago?” I ask. Al-Masri nods his head.

“Same symptoms,” he answers. “But look how strong he was. I mean, when Abu Mazen came,” he says, referring to Arafat’s longtime deputy, Mahmoud Abbas, “we brought him from one bed in his small room to a bigger room where we could sit. I sat on the bed. Abu Mazen sat in front of him and Abu Alaa sat in front of him. He said, ‘Ah, Mazen.’ His face was very red, and you know that he was very sick, but he wants to show that he was still in control of the details with Mazen, you know? He said, ‘I have this flu, ah, ah. I have this flu. Came and went to my stomach.'”

There is another very interesting part from the meeting with al-Masri in this report:

“The money he [Arafat] spent to buy the loyalty of his court, al-Masri gently suggests, could easily have paid for a functioning Palestinian state instead.

“With three hundred, four hundred million dollars we could have built Palestine in ten years. Waste, waste, waste. I flew over the West Bank in a helicopter with Arafat at the beginning of Oslo, and I told him how easy we could make five, six, seven towns here; we could absorb a lot of people here; and have the right of return for the refugees. If you have good intentions and you say you want to reach a solution, we could do it. I said, if you have money and water, it could be comparable to Israel, this piece of land.”

But if you don’t have good intentions and don’t really want to reach a solution, you can always blame Israel – as is regularly done on Al Jazeera, the Guardian, and Juan Cole’s blog…

Quote of the day

Rubin: In view of all this, how to explain the great optimism of the Western media beginning with the Arab spring in January 2011 concerning the prospects of the democratic-revolutionary movement — the dawn of a new glorious age?

Laqueur: I wish I had an answer. To read now the comments of the correspondents of the New York Times reminds one of Alice in Wonderland. They were so utterly mistaken. It is probably unfair to single out one specific newspaper because the illusions were so widely shared even by the experts. In part, the roots of the misunderstandings were, of course, psychological. For so long, reports from the Middle East had been negative and depressing: autocratic governments, riots, terrorism, corruption, civil wars, and so on. And now suddenly, there was this great, intoxicating promise of freedom and progress — a beacon of light to the whole world….

There was a total misreading of the Egyptian situation and the prospect and the reasons should be examined very, very carefully.”

Barry Rubin, An Interview with Historian Walter Laqueur on the Arab Spring.

Laqueur may be right to argue that it would be important to critically examine the pre-dominant “Alice-in-Wonderland”-reporting and commentary on the so-called “Arab Spring,” but there is little reason to think that there will really be serious efforts to do so – not least because a more realistic view of the Middle East would shatter some of the most cherished media “narratives” about the Arab conflict with Israel.

However, the BBC did have an investigation of its “Arab Spring” coverage, which reportedly uncovered only relatively minor shortcomings. By contrast, we will probably never know the findings of the 2004 Balen Report on the BBC’s coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, because the BBC fought – and won – a long and costly legal battle to keep the report from being published.

 

Palestine politics at the Olympics

The upcoming Olympic Games in London mark the 40th anniversary of the massacre of Israeli athletes by Palestinian terrorist during the 1972 Olympics in Munich. But there won’t be any official commemoration, and it’s not hard to figure out why. As Jennifer Lipman put it:

“It seems clear that the IOC [International Olympic Committee] is worried about rocking the boat, angering Arab nations by honouring men who were killed by Palestinian terrorists. It’s afraid to take Israel’s side; it does not see it as a gamble worth the cost.”

To be sure, the Olympic Games are supposed to be apolitical, but the IOC’s refusal to commemorate the attack during the Munich Olympics is inevitably political. And the message is clear: the IOC accepts that up to this very day, Arab – and indeed Muslim – nations are unwilling to tolerate anything that would imply a condemnation of terrorism against Israeli Olympic athletes.

Lipman argues that this ultimately violates the Olympic charter, which “is clear on prejudice, namely, that ‘any form of discrimination with regard to a country or a person on grounds of race, religion, politics, gender or otherwise is incompatible with belonging to the Olympic movement.’”

But the anti-discrimination provisions of the Olympic charter are probably not taken too seriously when it comes to the world’s only Jewish state. As one example, consider the fact that the National Olympic Committees are organized according to regions and that Israel is a European member, while Palestine is an Asian member.

It seems that the discriminatory dynamics at work here are similar to the one at the UN, where Israel was for decades the only UN member state excluded from a UN regional grouping because the Arab states opposed Israel’s membership in the Asian Group, which would be the appropriate geographic regional group.

Interestingly enough, a recent Reuters report mentions that “the Palestinians compete in Asia and Israel are affiliated with European sports bodies,” but no explanation for this curious fact is provided. Perhaps it would be inconvenient to acknowledge that Israel was originally a member of the Asian Games Federation, but was excluded in 1981/82, when this organization was succeeded by the Olympic Council of Asia – which, incidentally, has its headquarters in Kuwait City and is currently chaired by Sheikh Fahad Al-Sabah.

True, this exclusion of Israel looks a whole lot like Apartheid in the most literal sense – but since it keeps the world’s only Jewish state apart from the Arab and Muslim states that are staunchly opposed to any “normalization”, it’s a “politically correct” form of Apartheid that is tolerated by the UN and the IOC, and is hardly ever even mentioned in the media.

Judging from some of the media reports that have been published in the run-up to this year’s Olympic Games in London, there is every reason to expect more of this “political correctness.”  Both a recent BBC article and a Reuters report follow a similar recipe: Let’s pretend it’s all about sports, while not missing any opportunity to uncritically echo the Palestinian “narrative” and give Palestinian sport personalities ample opportunity to voice their political views – and obviously, all this without even hinting at the unique Palestinian contribution to Olympic terror.

Consequently, Palestinian judoka Maher Abu Rmeileh simply has lots of reason “to be proud as he will carry the Palestinian flag at the opening ceremony on July 27.”

The recent BBC article on Rmeileh (Rmelleh) opens with the claim:

“After struggling to pursue sport for years because of the impact of the conflict with Israel, Palestinians now have a rare chance to celebrate success.”

Abu Rmelleh is presented as “modest” and is quoted as saying:

“I’m so happy to be representing Palestine. And it’s great that I’m from Jerusalem, the capital.”

Immediately following this quote, there is a subheader that reads: “Transcending politics”

Here’s one example of what the BBC means by ““Transcending politics:”

“For the past two years one man has been behind the promotion of sports in the Palestinian territories – Jibril Rajoub, former head of security for the Palestinian Authority, now President of the Palestinian Football Federation and of the Palestinian Olympic Committee.

His latest initiative is an annual football tournament to commemorate the Nakba, or ‘catastrophe’, the Palestinian name for the creation of the State of Israel in 1948, when hundreds of thousands of Palestinians fled their homes or were displaced. […]

‘Sport transcends politics,’ Mr Rajoub says, but he is also aware of its political message, seeing it as ‘a peaceful means of exposing Palestinian suffering’.

It’s not the first time that the BBC quotes Jibril Rajoub: as I noted in a post on the “Palestinian blood and soil fixation,” a BBC report about a World Cup qualification game from July last year quoted Rajoub as saying:

“Palestinian blood, Palestinian flesh, the Palestinian national anthem on Palestinian territory. It’s good. It makes me feel proud.”

Apparently, nobody sees anything wrong with that if it’s the President of the Palestinian Football Federation and of the Palestinian Olympic Committee who says it. I guess it would be a whole different story if a German official said it: German blood, German flesh, the German national anthem on German territory…  Even if you substitute French, English , or any other nationality, it doesn’t sound much better.

But as it turns out, the President of the Palestinian Football Federation and of the Palestinian Olympic Committee sometimes sounds even worse (or maybe that’s just me?): During a recent event for the first Forum for Arab women sports journalists, Rajoub declared to the roaring applause of the audience:

“Normalization with the occupation is impossible, impossible, impossible, with no exceptions…
I understand by normalization that the relationship between me and you will be normal, that we’ll play [sports] together and there will be a joint program. I say: There will never be normalization in sports. Next time we are prepared to bring the Executive Committee in helicopters… so they will see no Jews, no Satans, no Zionist sons of bitches. Come by helicopter and go back by helicopter.”

Well, there won’t be any journalist who would ask Mr. Rajoub how he feels about the Palestinian terror attack during the Munich Olympic Games 40 years ago. But perhaps the sympathetic media coverage of all things Palestinian and Palestinian sports in particular will bring some donations that would allow the President of the Palestinian Olympic Committee to realize his vision of how best to avoid the awful sight of “Jews, … Satans, … Zionist sons of bitches.”

And perhaps, if Mr. Rajoub attends the London Olympcis, somebody will arrange helicopter transportation for him to avoid any encounters with the local “Jews, … Satans, … Zionist sons of bitches?”

* * *

Cross-posted from my JPost blog.

Update:

Here is a gripping piece remembering the Munich massacre and, importantly, emphasizing its grim legacy that is usually left politely unmentioned: Gerald Seymour “The horrific legacy of Munich ’72: I was there the day Palestinian terrorists kidnapped and killed 11 Israeli athletes.

(via @RichMillett)

Update:

The BBC article I linked to ends with a section that describes “the Israeli occupation” as the “biggest obstacle of all” for Palestinian athletes. As an example, the BBC refers to

“the case of Mahmoud Sarsak, a footballer from Gaza, detained by Israel as he set off to compete in a match in the West Bank in 2009. […] Israel says Sarsak belongs to the Islamic Jihad militant group and is a threat to national security, an allegation Sarsak denies.

In the Israel-Palestinian conflict, even the beautiful game can turn ugly.”

Sad, isn’t it?

Well, Sarsak has just been released, and that’s how he was welcomed back home in Gaza:

“senior Islamic Jihad officials were present during a welcoming ceremony for him in Gaza City on Tuesday, and one of the group’s leaders, Nafez Azzam, praised the soccer player as “one of our noble members.”
Later Tuesday, as Sarsak approached his family home in the Rafah refugee camp, dozens of Islamic Jihad gunmen fired in the air from SUVs and motorcycles. Women waved black Islamic Jihad banners from nearby homes and streets were decorated with huge photos of the player.”

Update:

As Adam Holland just reports on his blog, the BBC actually published a piece on Sarsak’s release and his return to Gaza, failing to mention that Islamic Jihad acknowledged him as a member: “It seems that BBC had a predetermined idea of the story they wanted to report and didn’t let the facts interfere with it.”

 

Prominent Iranian ‘anti-Zionist’ shows his true colors

A few days ago, I quoted from a post by Walter Russell Mead on “Iran and the Bomb.” Mead is one of the very few influential political analysts who regularly highlights and comments on instances of antisemitism. In his recent post on Iran, he argued that the debate about the question whether Iran’s theocrats were rational actors who would be deterred from using nuclear arms by MAD, i.e. “Mutual Assured Destruction,” was pointless because “anti-Semitism is never a rational policy, yet it persists.”

Just a few days later, Iran’s Vice President Mohammad-Reza Rahimi was kind enough to prove Professor Mead’s point by stunning delegates at a UN-sponsored conference on combating drug-trade with a speech that the New York Times (NYT) described as “baldly anti-Semitic.”

Rahimi declared that the “Zionists” control the illegal drug trade and announced: “The Islamic Republic of Iran will pay for anybody who can research and find one single Zionist who is an addict […] They do not exist. This is the proof of their involvement in drugs trade.”

Rahimi also used the opportunity to talk about “gynecologists killing black babies on the orders of the Zionists;” he noted that “the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917 was started by Jews”, adding that “mysteriously, no Jews died in that uprising;” and he also mentioned his view that “the Talmud teaches Jews to think that they are a superior race.”

Commenting on Rahimi’s speech, Israeli Iran expert Meir Javedanfar described it as an “unprecedented, public anti-Semitic tirade in front of local and international dignitaries.” In Javedanfar’s view, Rahimi was breaking with “the usual practice of the Islamic Republic — which demonizes Zionists while purporting to respect the Jewish religion.”

But according to Javedanfar, Rahimi’s “outburst” also marked “the culmination of a recent rise in the public use of anti-Semitic language in Iran.” Javedanfar notes that in the Iranian media, “the term ‘Yahoodi Sefat’ meaning ‘of Jewish character’ is being heard more often as a character assassination tool.”

It is noteworthy that Javedanfar traces this “new trend” all the way back to late 2005:

“The new trend appears to date to Ahmadinejad’s public denial of the Holocaust in a speech on Dec. 14, 2005. On that day, Ahmadinejad became the most senior politician in Iranian post-revolutionary history to adopt this narrative. More significantly, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei did not stop Ahmadinejad. The president’s frequent Holocaust denial appears to have legitimized the shift from public attacks against Israel to attacks against Jews and Judaism.”

I’m doubtful that in our fast-paced times, it makes much sense to describe an almost seven year old “trend” as “new”. If there is anything new here, it is arguably the willingness of Javedanfar and others to finally acknowledge the persistent antisemitic incitement by Iran’s regime.

After all, ever since this “new” trend clearly emerged at least seven years ago, prominent guardians of political correctness have tried their very best to downplay the viciousness and danger of the unrestrained hatred against Israel that has regularly and openly been voiced by Iran’s leaders. Documenting some of these efforts, Sohrab Ahmari and James Kirchick emphasized:

“There is something deeply pernicious about the attempt to whitewash the grossly anti-Semitic ideology of Iran’s leadership—as if nitpicking over repeated mistranslations of one statement could exonerate Iran when nearly two dozen other choice utterances refer to Israel in eliminationist terms. Reasonable people can disagree about what should be done with respect to Iran’s nuclear ambitions, but not about the overt hostility embedded in the Iranian leadership’s rhetoric on Israel.”

The problem here is of course that Iran’s theocrats know all too well that “overt hostility” against Israel is widely and wildly popular not just all over the Muslim world, but also in the West.

Javedanfar emphasizes that Iranian regime officials usually take great care to talk only about “Zionists” and not about Jews, and he points out that Iranian efforts to downplay Rahimi’s remarks followed exactly this tried-and-true recipe: “where Rahimi said in Farsi that ‘Jews see others at their service,’ [Iran’s] Press TV changed that to ‘the Zionists regard themselves as the master race and they view the other races as their slaves.’”

While it is pretty ridiculous to claim that Zionists regard themselves as a “race,” the damage controllers at Press TV had every reason to think they had done their job – after all, the claim that “anti-Zionism” is usually just an innocent and above all politically-correct consequence of opposing Israel’s policies is one of the most sacred cows of the Jewish state’s many devoted critics all over the world.

This deceit is greatly helped by the reluctance of Western media to report about the widespread demonization of Jews and the Jewish state throughout the Muslim world. Organizations like MEMRI and Palestinian Media Watch document how frighteningly common this demonization is, and one could therefore perhaps argue that something that is a regular phenomenon doesn’t qualify as news. But there is no doubt that many in the mainstream media share the concern once so memorably expressed by NYT correspondent Isabel Kershner, who agonized that media reports about anti-Jewish and anti-Israel incitement in the Middle East could be turned into politically inconvenient “propaganda points.”

Against this backdrop, I think one can only welcome the fact that Iran’s vice president chose an international forum to deliver a speech that even the NYT couldn’t help describing as “baldly anti-Semitic.” In a lengthy blog post devoted to the question “What Should We Make of Iranian Anti-Semitism?,” Adam Garfinkle makes exactly this argument:

“From my perspective, Vice President Rahimi’s remarks in an open international forum are very welcome. They demonstrate to all who care to listen the true nature of the Iranian regime, and they do so at a time when the U.S. government is pressing its allies to join very stringent sanctions against Iran on account of its nuclear ambitions in the hope that some non-violent solution to this problem can be achieved.”

The caveat here is of course that not everyone might “care to listen.” Well-qualified experts such as the historian and acclaimed author Daniel Jonah Goldhagen have long emphasized that “Iranian leaders speak of Israel using Nazi-like language and metaphors” and that “such speech has been shown to be the rhetorical prelude to genocide;” similarly, prominent public leaders and professionals like Robert Bernstein, Irwin Cotler and Stuart Robinowitz have made the case that with its persistent “genocidal anti-Semitic and anti-Israel rhetoric,” Iran has already violated the United Nations Genocide Convention, which is intended to prevent acts of genocide and therefore also outlaws incitement to genocide.

Yet, as Garfinkel rightly notes in his post, it is remarkable “how reluctant supposedly serious analysts are to credit the significance of the Iranian regime’s anti-Semitism in their assessment of the dangers inherent in the Iranian nuclear program.”

But this reluctance is arguably only part of a much broader phenomenon. Garfinkel provides a short outline of “how modern Muslim anti-Semitism came about,” where he points out that “many governments in the Muslim world have actively engaged in anti-Semitic propaganda as a means to deflect discontent onto others.” If “supposedly serious analysts” were to take this into account, the contemporary debate about the Middle East and the Arab/Muslim conflict with Israel would look very different. The unabashed antisemitism expressed by Iranian Vice President Rahimi may have made a difference for a few days, but it will soon be conveniently forgotten and it will remain as popular as ever to defend the “anti-Zionism” of those who believe that doing away with the tiny Jewish state will bring peace and harmony to the Middle East and the world.

* * *

Cross-posted from my JPost blog.