By Barry Rubin
It is truly amazing how anti-Israel forces generate so many false stories every day. At a time when revolutionary Islamists are taking over most Middle Eastern countries and the democracy dream in the region is collapsing, one would think that the main threat and evil force in the region is Israel. After all, we live in a time when Thomas Friedman, court jester for Middle East issues, can openly write antisemitic canards in the New York Times (the Israel lobby bought a standing ovation for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Congress!).
What is even more remarkable is how new anti-Israel themes are generated without any evidence whatsoever.
The new one is the idea that Israel, and its democracy, are in danger (moderate version) due to internal extremism or are (radical version) falling apart altogether. At least two new commercially published books make this claim, as do scores of articles and even a speech by the secretary of state. The New York Times publishes an op-ed saying that gays are persecuted in Israel while, of course, they aren’t but they are reviled and murdered in every other country in the region.
Yet what actual evidence can be accumulated for all of this campaign? The Knesset had a bill to supervise foreign money received by non-government organizations, a law not so dissimilar from those in Western democracies. And? And? What else happened? Well, nothing at all.
Oh yes, a bus driver took it upon himself to tell a woman to sit in the back of a bus because her sitting elsewhere might disturb Haredi men. She took it to court and, of course, won. A man who is a member of a tiny extremist cult in a small town spit at an Orthodox eight-year-old girl, apparently he belongs to some extreme sect or is somewhat disturbed. Even the strictest reading of Jewish law does not justify such an action.
There were huge demonstrations against the actions of this one person or tiny sect. President Shimon Peres publicly called for protests and Jerusalem’s police chief asked rabbis to condemn such behavior. The state and the public is clearly against any violation of democratic norms. Oh, and incidentally this group in Bet Shemesh has something in common with those trying to blow this up into a big issue–they are anti-Zionist. Haredi extremists who are against accepting Israeli norms on the rights of women are also against accepting Israel altogether. So how are they examples of Israeli values and democracy? They aren’t.
In contrast, in Egypt political parties openly advocating the minimization of women’s rights received three-quarters of the Muslim vote. Polls show vast majorities favor death for converts from Islam, amputation punishments, etc.
Yet the doings of individuals–condemned by the overwhelming majority of the community–supposedly prove that Israel is illegitimate or non-democratic. It would be fascinating if Western countries were to be judged by such standards. Serial murderers? Child pornography? Mass killings in schools? Aha! They are terrible, illegitimate, and undemocratic. Wipe them off the map!
As previously noted an op-ed in the New York Times claims Israel–by far the country in the Middle East (and even in the world) that treats gays fairly–Israel’s army medical corps was commanded by an openly gay man when gays couldn’t even serve openly in the U.S. military, for example–is said to be persecuting homosexuals. A Palestinian teenager is said to be imprisoned for just throwing stones when the published indictment shows he was arrested for the possession of weapons and explosives. Israel is accused of being insufficiently enthusiastic and actually critical of the “Arab Spring,” a claim proven correct by events without anyone so admitting that they were wrong and the Israeli assessment was correct.
Trying to make Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a dictator, a New York Times reporter informs us that the government’s refusal to subsidize channel 10 is censorship and that “Mr. Netanyahu has strong influence over other media outlets: the state-owned Channel 1, State Radio and a freely distributed and successful newspaper, Yisrael Hayom, owned by a close American friend, the billionaire Sheldon Adelson.” Everyone in Israel knows that Channel 1 and Kol Israel are left-leaning and have never favored Netanyahu. The same applies to Channel Two, the most popular.
As for Yisrael Hayom, it was started because every other Hebrew-language newspaper– Yediot Aharnot with around 60 percent of the readership; Maariv with more than 30 percent, and Haaretz with around 12 percent (the preferred newspaper of the intelligentsia)–have been critical at best and hostile at most. Let me put it this way, saying that Netanyahu has strong influence over the Israeli media is only a bit more exaggerated than saying that George W. Bush had strong influence over the American media.
A large portion of Western television stories and articles on Israel is designed to give the worst possible impression of the county as dictatorial at home and evil in its foreign policy. We used to think the coverage was slanted but we never dreamed it would reach such levels.
The list is endless. Every day hundreds of stories are invented, distorted, or magnified. Hundreds of reporters and researchers are dedicated to searching out some alleged crime or evil in Israel, magnifying the tiniest incident into an international headlined story. Yet this same army of scribblers and talkers can’t seem to discover the radicalism of the Muslim Brotherhood or the intransigence of the Palestinian Authority.
I wish this was a exaggeration and if someone had written such things 10 or 20 years ago I would have ridiculed it as such. But times have changed indeed. The near-monopoly in the mass media and in academia for a narrow range of opinion (in the “age of diversity”!); the dominance of ideology over professional ethics (in which the New York Times, for example, can run op-eds 90 percent of which are anti-Israel with no shame); and the failure of most Jewish organizations (the Anti-Defamation League has not yet discovered that left-wing antisemitism exists and actually tries to intimidate people from criticizing Obama!); along with other factors have created a bizarre atmosphere of conformity or else.
America and Europe are now divided into two groups, and I don’t mean “left” and “right.” There are those who think that the school and university system along with the mass media function just fine. Nothing has changed from, say, twenty years ago. And those who understand that these institutions have been incorporated into a propaganda apparatus.
There are those who understand that the main threat in the Middle East is revolutionary Islamism, and those who think that the main threat is Israel. There are those who understand that Obama has done more than any previous president to undermine Israel’s security and those who believe he is the great defender of Israel because he keeps saying so.
How does one deal with this mess? The answer is to build and strengthen an alternative elite, an alternative media, and alternative ways of educating people. It is to demand evidence to prove claims that are made and logic in setting forward arguments. In short, what’s needed is to restore academic and journalistic ethics; Enlightenment values; and logic from those who have abandoned these things.
We are not dealing mainly with Israeli sins–though these exist in proportion to those of other countries (and a lot less so than in most) but with anti-Israeli propaganda disguised as news, analysis, and scholarship. This is not a series of regrettable errors but rather a war consciously aimed against Israel and not just Israel.
In one of my recent lectures in the UK, a member of the audience asked: We understand that one of the reasons the European left has allied itself with Islamists is because they both hate the United States. But why do people in the United States do this?
I answered: Same reason. They also hate the United States.
PS: More readers than usual have written me about this story to say that they’ve heard all sorts of wild exaggerations on the “Haredi spitting” story and other such things, including from “liberal” Jewish friends who cite it as a reason not to support Israel. Are you people nuts?
PPS: While some Israeli secularists–particularly in Jerusalem where tensions are high and Haredim are sometimes more aggressive as they dominate new neighborhoods–hate Haredim. I recently spoke to a group of supposedly enlightened (non-Jewish mainly) Americans who clearly loathed Haredim and claimed they were taking over Israel.
I do not regard hatred of Haredim (mistakenly called “ultra-Orthodox” which is a meaningless term in Judaism) as any more acceptable than other such prejudices. And of course the Haredim are quite diverse, too. It’s funny how “liberals” and leftists find acceptable people to hate nowadays (Israelis and Jews being at the top of the ok-to-hate list). Recently while travelling abroad, I had a person regale me with criticism of Israelis as supposedly horrible racists, compared to the speaker’s virtuous Political Correctness, only to hear this same individual go into a racist rant against Asians a few minutes later!
Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center, editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal, and Middle East editor and a featured columnist at PajamasMedia http://pajamasmedia.com/barryrubin/. His latest books include Israel: An Introduction (Yale, 2012); The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan).