We often hear the terms “the Middle East” or “the Israeli-Palestinian conflict” bandied about as clichés of inscrutability, as unlikely to be resolved peacefully as pigs are to fly. There is, however, a distinct imbalance in the distribution of blame for every clash in the region. Take these headlines for example:
All of the stories that follow these headlines feature Palestinians who committed terrorist attacks, yet they frame the headline as if Israeli forces attacked them unprovoked. The Guardian reported on Israel over one thousand times and mentioned Iraq only 504 times in 2011, a year in which Israeli forces killed 115 Palestinians and British soldiers killed over 4,000 Iraqis.
These media outlets didn’t create this bias on their own; it stems from public and political attitudes surrounding the existence of the state of Israel. According to his former aide Dennis Ross, President Obama’s “instinct [is] to see the Palestinians as the victims in the conflict.” The UN Human Rights Council has passed more resolutions against Israel than any other country, including North Korea, whose government still maintains concentration camps for people whose grandparents fought with the South Koreans in the Korean War, and Syria, whose militias send children into battle and intentionally attack densely populated areas in the civil war effort.
In fact, the last hundred years of conflicts in Israel has seen the deaths of 25,000 Palestinians, whereas the current death toll of the Syrian conflict is over 250,000. So why does Israel receive so much press coverage, and why is so much of it misleading?
The answer is complicated. First of all, modern Israel is a first world country, with all its amenities and comforts, making it an attractive location for foreign correspondents to set up shop.
I spoke with Dr. Amichai Magen, senior lecturer at the Lauder School of Government, Diplomacy, and Strategy at IDC in Herzeliya, Israel. He remarked on the influence of race in the western world’s view of Israel. He noted that application of the colonists-versus-colonized narrative to the Israeli occupation is a faulty one. Westerners tend to see Israelis as white Jews oppressing the darker-skinned indigenous Palestinians. However, Jews are indigenous to the Middle East as well, and many Israeli Jews come from the Middle East and North Africa, having been expelled from their native countries. Dr. Magen termed this viewpoint a “symptom of white guilt” as westerners want to believe that supporting the “Arab underdog” will bring about justice.
Antisemitism factors in here as well; nobody questions the some 29 national flags with crosses or the 13 with the Muslim crescent, yet the star of David somehow incites controversy. Antisemitism and antizionism are often conflated in what Israeli politician Natan Sharansky has dubbed “the new antisemitism.” Several shootings at synagogues throughout Europe, notably in Denmark and France earlier this year, have been rationalized as protests against Israel’s treatment of Israeli Arabs and Palestinians.
Just as all Catholics are not responsible for the actions of the Vatican, all Jews are not responsible for Israeli policies; yet Israelis are often asked to answer for them. The common comparisons of the Israeli government to the Nazi regime and Palestinian refugee camps to concentration camps are blatant, antisemitic oversimplifications. While it’s true that the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) employs racial profiling in its security measures, one should bear in mind that the daily Israeli death toll only recently began to decline from 22 deaths per month, leaving that statistic fresh in the minds of Israeli policy-makers. Though the rationale behind these practices is far from airtight, the immediacy of the terrorist threat makes them a bit more understandable.
A simple lack of context represents another cause of this bias in public opinion. Calling Israel’s land “stolen” is downright inaccurate, as Jews bought and paid for most of it before 1948. Whether territory conquered in the Six Day War should be considered legitimate is often debated, but questioning this particular instance more than other cases of land won in war sets a dangerous double standard. Compromise in the region ranges from unlikely to impossible because the Palestinian leadership and much of the Arab world deny Israel’s right to exist in general; the Israeli occupation did not instigate the last fifty years of Arab-Israeli tension. The leaders of Lebanon and Iran, for example, have called for Israel’s destruction, despite the lack of Israelis in those countries. While the plight of the Palestinian refugees is legitimate, it is important to realize that Israel is fighting to preserve its own existence, and it has the right to do so.
Several media outlets, including the New York Times, have attributed the recent rise in Palestinian terror attacks to a rumor that the Israeli government intends to restrict Muslim access to the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, a holy site for Jews as the Temple Mount and for Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary. Netanyahu has negated this rumor time and again, yet calls for a third Intifada persist throughout social media. Consider these recent headlines, which focus the reader on the violence towards Palestinians, despite any provocation that caused that violence.
This new wave of violence in Israel is no exception to the trend of media bias. News sources continue to apply the convenient colonialist narrative of oppressor vs. oppressed to an age old ethnic and religious dispute that just isn’t that simple. As the Israeli-Palestinian conflict returns to the public eye, I encourage everyone to consider the complex historical context of the issue before condemning either side entirely.
Drawing by Aliza Katzman.