Are we obsessed with Israel?

Yesterday, I got into a Twitter conversation with Benjamin Weinthal, a Europe-based correspondent for the Jerusalem Post. Weinthal asked:

"How does one explain that 1,700 people died in Syria over last seven days and zero protests in Europe. Hardly any media coverage."

It's an interesting question but not an easy one to discuss in 140 characters or less, so I'll elaborate here on the answers that I gave via Twitter.

Besides the horrific levels of slaughter in Syria – which are higher than in Gaza – serious conflicts are also continuing in Libya, Iraq and Yemen but receiving far less attention from the media or the public. 

Given this situation it is understandable that some people, Israelis in particular, regard the current preoccupation with Gaza as excessive or unfair. Weinthal, for example, sees an element of "selective outrage" because the Israelis are involved. 

There is no single explanation, however. Let's start with the media coverage. News, by definition, is about what's new. The Syrian conflict has been going on for more than three years and the fatigue factor has kicked in: reporters struggle to find anything new to say about it and no matter how many are killed in the latest barrel-bombing, the readers tend to feel they have heard it all before. It has reached a stage now where that will only change when the dynamics of the conflict change in some way.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict, of course, has been going on far longer – more than 60 years – but the sudden outbreak of fighting over Gaza was an obviously newsworthy development, even if it's one that has taken a very predictable course. There's a fatigue factor here too, but it works in a slightly different way: people ask why the conflict has gone on so long, why no one seems able to resolve it, and why Israel seems so eager to resort to military action of a kind that has regularly failed to achieve its objectives in the past.

One reason for the massive coverage of Gaza at the moment, and the sidelining of other problems in the region, is that large numbers of journalists are there. News organisations have finite resources and many of the journalists in Gaza would normally be reporting on other parts of the Middle East. The fact that they are reporting from Gaza means they can't be reporting from Syria, Libya, or elsewhere.

The decision to pile editorial resources into Gaza is not at all irrational, as Jefrey Goldberg explains (in connection with the American media):

"Stories about Israel, and about Jews, almost automatically rise to the top of the [New York] Times 'most-emailed' list. Stories about Miramshah or Fallujah, not nearly as much. I'm guessing this is true for other American outlets as well."

So the media are to some extent responding to the demands of their audience, but they are also taking part in a necessary public debate. Goldberg continues:

"There is a sound political reason why this conflict becomes the focus of so much coverage. Israel is a close ally of the US, and a recipient of American military and non-military help. This may make you very happy, or very unhappy, but the fact of it is incontrovertible."

This still leaves people asking why there have been large-scale demonstrations against Israel in London and other western cities and no protests of a comparable size against Putin, ISIS, Boko Haram, etc. I don't think it's a sign that the public are unconcerned about these other issues but a sign that they are especially concerned about their government's attitude towards Israel.

To take Britain as an example, the government's response to Putin's antics over Ukraine is – as far as I can tell – broadly in sync with public opinion. Most people don't like what Putin is doing, and neither does the government. On Israel, however, there is clearly a gap. Many feel the British government is too supportive of Israel and demonstrations are a way of showing disapproval.

Another element, at least in Britain, is that the Israeli government's rhetoric about terrorism often sounds overblown and its methods for dealing with it wildly excessive. We've had our own experience of terrorism – both Irish and Islamic – and the British government's record in that area is far from spotless. But in Northern Ireland it stopped well short of sending in the air force to flatten republican areas of Belfast. There are probably cultural differences between Britain and Israel at work here too: for British people, the first and most important thing to do in an emergency is to keep calm.

Even so, it's probably true that people apply different standards when judging Netanyahu compared with the way they judge Assad, say, or Putin. That is not necessarily wrong. Assad is a dictator, doing what dictators do. It's horrible but not particularly surprising. Part of Israel's problem is that it seeks to cultivate a better image, boasting about being the only democracy in the Middle East, having the "most moral" army, and so on. If it wasn't so insistent on claiming the high ground people might see less of a discrepancy between the image and the reality.

One subtext here is that Israel's supporters often view criticism of Israel and its policies as a form of anti-Semitism by stealth, while Jews who dare to criticise Israel are maligned as "self-hating". Charges of anti-Semitism are bandied about far too freely – often as a way of shutting down debate – and the situation isn't helped by those who claim that you can't be a good Jew unless you support Israel's right-wing government.

Most criticism of Israel in the west – almost of it – arises directly from Israel's policies (policies that many see as damaging Israel's own long-term interests) rather than any hatred of Jews as people. If Israel and the Palestinians were to make peace tomorrow, I'm sure much of the criticism would evaporate. But there's only one way to test that.

In some cases, indignation about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict can turn into a preoccupation or perhaps an obsession – often as a result of direct personal experiences. Some also argue that they are right to be preoccupied with it, on the grounds that it is the most important issue in the Middle East.

That may have been true at times in the past, though it is probably not true today – which is one reason why I don't write about it in my blog posts very often. The conflict has certainly done much damage over the years, across the region. Arab rulers have acquired undeserved legitimacy by declaring their support for the Palestinian cause and Islamists have gained strength by claiming that the Arabs were defeated by Israel in 1967 and 1973 because they had strayed from religious faith.

These effects are by no means negligible but it is possible to over-emphasise them. Beyond Palestine, Arab governments have done more harm to their countries than Israel ever did and the Palestinian issue, much as it deserves attention, should not be allowed to conceal that.
Posted by Brian Whitaker
Thursday, 24 July 2014