Their Ideal Israel

Israel Air Force House event. Herzliya, June 2013.

Larry Gordon assured me that it was all a big misunderstanding. Sure, his Long Island newspaper, the 5 Towns Jewish Times, printed an article by his son and staffer, Yochanan, titled “When Genocide Is Permissible.” In considering how Israel can protect itself from rocket fire the author ponders the unthinkable, and while the paper officially apologized, Gordon insisted that the outraged public got it wrong. “It was meant to be a hypothetical,” he said in a phone interview, hastily throwing down the anti-Semitism card, adding that the piece was singled out because the author was a Jew.

The larger world wouldn’t have even noticed if the article had never left the suburban rag. Instead, it was briefly posted at the website the Times of Israel, where the author was also a regular blogger, and although the article was eventually removed, it was cached, sent around on social media and written about in mainstream political outlets worldwide. In Israel’s latest assault on Gaza, Times of Israel articles are frequently repurposed as  rhetorical ammunition amongst English-speaking supporters of Israeli government policy, who are tired of their friends droning on about the high number of civilian casualties and international law.

The incident opened up some of TOI’s other callous commentary, but defenders of the publication in the genocide controversy offered a strange excuse: Many articles go up without actual review. That explanation doesn’t do a lot for its users, who use its attacks on criticism of Israel if the stuff isn’t fact checked. But even worse, the site isn’t some free floating bulletin board. It’s in part the creation of ex-Jerusalem Post editor David Horovitz, who is best known for overseeing his former paper’s transformation into an extremist, right-wing publication, from a historically middle-of-the-road, Zionist periodical. Horovitz’ new project has a clear agenda to be sure — the Forward found that many of its investments are linked to ventures that fuel anti-Islamic sentiment, aid settlement expansion and support Republican candidates — but even the partisan press is expected to adhere to basic standards.

The “genocide” piece helped highlight how the Times of Israel, like other news outlets of its persuasion, is used to counteract the ugly news coming out of Gaza, deploying such tropes as civilian deaths are the result of human shields, and that Hamas is ultimately at fault. There’s a perverse current in the apologies for Israeli policy, that the red alerts are terrifying for the Israeli family cowering in their personal bunker, without a second thought to the Palestinians who just watched their entire families perish.

Another example is the New York-based Tablet, which for the most part offers seemingly benign coverage on arts, Jewish religious culture and, of course, cuisine, and in the past has tended to have its politics as a kind of side dish. In the summer of 2012, Tablet won legitimate journalistic accolades for bringing down New Yorker writer Jonah Lehrer, exposing how he fabricated quotations. It was a great piece, and Lehrer deserved to be taken down. But as the human suffering in Gaza has gripped the world this summer, the outlet’s Israel coverage has reached a level of defensiveness that at first seems like a self-parody; rest assured, the quackery is all too real.

One article suggests that Muhammed Abu-Khudair, an Arab teenager murdered in revenge for the three Israeli boys who were kidnapped and killed, was actually the victim of apolitical soccer violence. A self-described black Zionist, who is on the payroll of a fiercely pro-Israel media organization, blasted Palestinians who invoked civil rights on incoherent grounds with bizarre appeals to authority (“Count Basie was a Zionist.” Well, that settles things.) But nothing is better than the headline, Hey, Liberals Who Oppose Israel: You’re All Right-Wingers Now. While in just ten words the author manages to display a mountain of misunderstanding, such as not getting that liberals support Israel while leftists are divided on the one and two state solutions, the author’s ultimate thesis is that any support of Palestinian political objects is tantamount to endorsing Hamas’s theocratic core in its entirety, a smear that becomes thinner and thinner as the Gaza death toll continues to mount.

Cobra over Jerusalem. Herzliya, June 2013.
Cobra over Jerusalem. Herzliya, June 2013.

Such journalistic slapstick, principally performed by the New York-based Israeli writer Liel Leibowitz, ceases to be funny when it swims into the realm of deep offense. Take, for example, an un-bylined evaluation of New York Times photographer Tyler Hicks: “[He] really sucks at his job.” Hicks has risked his life in more crisis zones than most people can name, even being captured by pro-Gaddafi forces in Libya and watching his colleague Anthony Shadid die while exiting war torn Syria. His crime in Tablet’s view? He hasn’t filed a photo of a Hamas fighter yet in Gaza, despite grabbing captivating images of dead Palestinian civilians. Because he’s not providing the visual narrative that Tablet wants, the man who won a Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of the infamous terrorist attack on a Nairobi shopping mall “sucks.” The whole thing smacks of PR spin, with SEO-sensitive viral wording, and the like.

The unnecessary personal insults are part of the insinuation popular among Zionist pundits that all foreign media is inherently anti-Israel, and therefore can’t be trusted. The New York Times hates Israel, even though many of its correspondents there have ties to the political establishment. Al-Jazeera, by virtue of being run by Arabs, must hate Israel, even though it is based in Qatar, a Western-friendly regime, irrespective of the fact that the monarchy-owned network has faced searing criticism from Arab leaders and pro-Palestine activists, too. So the only thing a loyal Israel supporter can do is ignore the headlines and the photos and trust only places like Tablet and the Times of Israel brave enough to tell Benjamin Netanyahu’s side of the story. It’s that simple.

How did we get to such a pathetic state? In part, right-wing pro-Israel media in America have aged into obscurity, and thus propaganda has been in deep need of a renewal. Commentary is as dusty and graying as the old left periodicals its founding cohort grew out of, and eventually opposed. At the same time, the vanguard of the pro-Israel right has trembled upon finding that some of the most thoughtful and informative reading on the Internet that is also skeptical and critical of Zionism and the Israeli government actually comes from outlets staffed by Jews and Israelis, such as Tel Aviv’s widely-read 972 Magazine, and New York’s incendiary Mondoweiss. For years, the English website of the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz has served as an invaluable resource for anyone between liberal Zionism and the pro-Palestine left. Its columnists, like Amira Hass and Gideon Levy, are considered primary sources for leftists, and count themselves amongst the world’s best-read journalists covering the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Tablet came out in 2009, at the peak of a period of intense creativity in American Jewish publishing. Following such DIY publications as the social justice-oriented Zeek, and the Jewschool blog, the late Guilt and Pleasure, and the legendary media darling Heeb, Tablet was the odd man out, trying to strike a balance between being politically right-wing, while embracing left-wing cultural icons such as Ian MacKaye and one-time Zionist Tony Judt. It was a curious balance, which, in its own way, reflects the conflicted Jewish readership Tablet is after. Culturally sophisticated, somewhat religious, and supportive of Israeli policy towards the Palestinians.

Five years later, Tablet survives, and appears to be thriving in an atmosphere where Zionist organizations are fearful of losing the American flock. Indeed, a recent Gallup poll showed younger Americans are dramatically more skeptical of Israel’s actions and motives than their elders. It stands to reason that younger American Jews, farther from the Holocaust and more assimilated that previous generations, are less likely to see Israel as a part of their identity or as a kind of savior. This ennui sparks desperate media action, that manifests itself in comical form. As an example, Souciant editor Joel Schalit points out in his book Israel vs. Utopia, in 2007 the Israeli government was responsible for organizing a semi-pornographic spread called Women of the IDF in the American lad mag Maxim, precisely to “help reverse the declining interest in Israel among Jewish men between the ages of eighteen and thirty-five.”

The madness bleeds beyond the legitimate press. On August 6, Israel supporters participated in the Positive Israel Campaign, where people were urged to use social media to show their “favorite places in Israel, the best selfie we have on a camel, and the delicious falafel we ate in Tzfat on our last visit” with the hashtag #PIC. The logic is clear: such fond memories are meant to drown out the violence of the Israeli state, by promoting a Shangri-la image of Israel that’s easier to sell than a land caught up in war, ethnic tension and political extremism. It’s a case study in sentimentality trumping thought. Zionism wins hearts, but minds, so it appears, are another story.

What that means is that this crisis in Gaza has allowed for the amplification of media voices that attempt to strike down debate, inquiry, on-the-ground reporting, or contrarian thinking, let alone Jewish voices that don’t profess fealty to Israel, and left-wing Zionists like Peter Beinart, who find political homes living in opposition to the current Likud-led government. That’s a pretty big betrayal to Jewish pride, our history of scholarship, and the diversity of our interests. How could we let things deteriorate so? If anything, the reactionary behavior of these publications, at a time when Israel’s actions are so contemptible, will force their voices to go into the shadows, and leave the work of journalism and commentary to more responsible and reasonable parties.


Photographs courtesy of Joel Schalit

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