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.Read the whole thing.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
Only a couple of weeks ago, Khaled Abu Toameh said virtually the same thing about journalists in Israel, and he was roundly criticized by the good-old boys club.
And the same thing happened to Matti Friedman, formerly of AP.
Are a Zoroastrian, Arab and Jew all in cahoots with the international Zionist conspiracy while the reporters who copy each others' stories to get back to the bar at the American Colony hotel are the paragons of journalistic integrity?
An example of Ravji's unbiased reporting from Israel is here.
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