Guest commentary: Subtlety Lost (With apologies to Milton)
We’ve all seen the reports of death and destruction in Gaza, heard the claims by Palestinian spokespeople and their supporters of “massacre” and “genocide” and read the condemnation by UN (and U.S. and other) leaders of “disproportionate” force. The media’s almost obsessive focus on Israel and the Palestinians, and on Arab casualties in Gaza, is what Phillipe Assouline in the Huffington Post calls the “Pornography of Pain.”
Even in the literal, visual sense, it’s like pornography. Arabs enthusiastically publish photos of mutilated bodies (always injured by Israelis, never when Arabs are responsible); Israelis and Jews respect the dead and protect privacy, restraint that abandons the field of sympathy to the incessant images of Arab suffering.
The truth is, irrespective of one’s position on potential solutions to the Arab-Israeli conflict, the media’s nearly exclusive focus on Gaza and death tolls misrepresents what the conflict is about. It slanders Israel for protecting its citizens as any country would and incites hatred and anti-Semitism. It reduces prospects for peace; in fact, it prolongs violence and promotes war. Here’s why:
Facts are misrepresented, as is the language used to portray the reality. For example, civilian casualty figures are readily accessible from conflicts across the globe to help answer the question, “Is Israel’s response to Hamas’ terror attacks reasonable?” (Not “proportionate,” a legal term regarding the legitimacy of a military target and the advantage gained even when civilians may be harmed — which legal experts acknowledge Israel respects like no other nation.)
Specifically, ratios of civilians to combatants killed in recent conflicts are revealing. In the Iraq war, U.S./UK and coalition forces killed four civilians for every combatant; in Afghanistan, the ratio was 3 to 1. In Gaza, that ratio is 1 to 1. Like in the previous incursion in 2008-09, at least 50 percent of Arab casualties in Gaza are combatants. Why does the international media parrot Palestinian propaganda accusing Israel of “indiscriminate killing” by Israel when it is clearly not true? In NATO, operations in Kosovo, 90 percent — ninety percent — of casualties were civilians, some estimates suggest. Israel’s record of 50 percent is not only reasonable but in fact worthy of commendation, not condemnation.
Even the New York Times and the BBC — no friends of Israel — have admitted its original reports were incorrect. There was no “massacre” or “genocide,” nor were Israeli military operations “disproportionate,” no matter how many times Arab leaders or UN bureaucrats repeat the claim. It is irresponsible for newspapers to quote such propaganda and hide behind the quotation marks.
As media consumers, we should ask ourselves: Are we being manipulated?
Media focus on Gaza fatalities damages prospects for peace in three ways.
First, it places unreasonable pressure on Israel to halt its justified military operations, pressure not brought to bear on any other democracy. When operations cease prematurely, terrorists are able to resume their attacks and even declare “victory.”
Second, sympathetic portrayal of Hamas-controlled Gaza convinces them that increasing “civilian” casualties, by firing missiles from — and locating weapons and headquarters in — schools, mosques and hospitals (war crimes, all), actually works.
As Natan Sharansky wrote in the Washington Post, “For Hamas, using living shields serves the double function of increasing the number of martyrs and galvanizing a free world that values life to pressure Israel to stop fighting.”
Third, and most important, by focusing on Israel’s supposed misdeeds and not on Hamas’ calls for death to Jews (and Christians) and Israel’s (and America’s) destruction, the media presents a skewed picture of the Middle East, leading to poorly informed policymakers and ineffective policy, from Egypt and Syria to Iraq and Iran.
By not reporting the celebrations by Palestinians and other Arabs and Muslims after 9/11, and by not focusing on the pervasive hatred of Israel and the West, the media distorts opinion toward Israel and damages the prospects for peace between Arabs and Israelis.
Accurate coverage will lead to more informed understanding, and to policies reflecting reality rather than reporters’ biases (or political agendas). Accuracy in the media will also help portray Israel as it truly is: a unique democracy, surrounded by authoritarian dictatorships.
We don’t expect journalists to “bow and sue for grace with suppliant knee” as per Milton; but they may find “a paradise within thee, happier far” if they live up to their own professional standards. Until then, consumers of the media must question their basic assumptions — and those of reporters — and Think Again about the cliches that simplify, and distort, the messy reality we face today.
Aryeh Green, director of MediaCentral in Jerusalem (www.m-central.org), is a frequent visitor to Aspen and will be in town Sept. 7-10; he will be speaking at 6 p.m. Sept. 8 at the Chabad Jewish Center, 435 W. Main St. Reach him at email@example.com.