Writer catalogues flaws in Israel reporting

Matti Friedman sees ‘group think’ at play among world media

 Matti Friedman said the media obsession with Israel is “a topic that’s too important to ignore.”

by Elaine Durbach
NJJN Staff Writer

June 17, 2015

Matti Friedman says the media are portraying Israel and the Jews as epitomizing every ill the West despises in itself — from nationalism to racism, militarism to colonialism.

The author last year of a widely discussed indictment of the media’s obsession with Israel, Friedman describes how the West — Jews included — sees Israel as the epicenter of “Middle East conflict,” even as thousands die in Syria and radical Islam wreaks havoc in country after country. 

“If Israel disappeared this evening, those wars would be unaffected,” he said.

The Canadian-born journalist, who made aliya in 1995, gave the second annual Helen and Alfred Mackler Memorial Lecture at Temple Ner Tamid, in a series funded by the Alexander Foundation.

“This is not a right-wing polemic,” he told the Bloomfield audience on June 10. “This is not a call to support AIPAC [American Israel Public Affairs Committee], and I didn’t vote for the current government in Israel, but it is a topic that’s too important to ignore.” 

A former AP reporter who was based in countries around the Middle East, he noted the agency posted 40 staffers to Israel, more than to Syria, India, or China. The issue came to a head for him after the Gaza conflict last year, when he noted the conspicuous absence of stories that didn’t fit the prevailing paradigm — of Israeli violence against Palestinian victims.

Though more of a human-interest writer than a political one, he sought to raise awareness, with an article in the on-line Jewish publication Tablet in August condemning his colleagues for inflating Israel’s importance, exaggerating its flaws, and ignoring internal Palestinian affairs. 

“It hit at the heart of the news industry,” said Friedman, who lives with his family in Jerusalem. “I was bowled over by the response.” While few actually disputed his facts, there was a huge outcry, primarily from the human rights community, which, he said, is far too entwined with the press.

Breaking ranks with his colleagues could have been a career-killer, but — at 37 — he found himself in a position where, he said, “I could afford to burn a million bridges.” In part, that’s because of his successful first book, The Aleppo Codex, about the hunt to find missing pages from a treasured text of the Syrian-Jewish community. He has a new book coming out this year, Pumpkin Flowers, about an Israeli soldier serving in Lebanon.

Asked whether he sees the anti-Israel bias as a conspiracy, Friedman described it rather as “group think and largely subconscious.” There is an inclination, he said, to “project your sins on someone else and then condemn them.” He added, “It’s not the first time Jews have been used for this purpose.”

He insisted his goal is not to cause greater paranoia but rather to call for a broader perspective. It is vital, he said, to “zoom out” from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, to see how greatly its importance is diminished if seen in a global context.

Jewish students discomforted by the criticism of Israel on campus might try that approach. Rather than defend Israel, Friedman said, they should ask activists “why they are so fixated on boycotting this one little country, and suggest that they ‘treat Israel just as another screwed-up country on Planet Earth.’”

With that broader outlook, he suggested, world leaders might have recognized the real danger facing the world — the growing threat of radical Islam — prior to 9/11, and, as the Arab Spring unfolded, with the emergence of ISIS.

A mundane factor contributes to the bias, Friedman suggested. In response to a question, he said the excessive coverage is in part because Israel is a much more comfortable place to be based than any of its neighbors and once there, reporters “have to justify their existence.” Whereas in Africa it takes dozens of bodies to justify a story, “a bruised leg” in Jerusalem makes headlines.

Though clearly preaching to the choir, Friedman drew some exclamations of surprise, making clear how bizarre it is for the media to treat Israel as the most important and persistent nexus of conflict in the world: While the entire region is exploding in violence, in 2014 — “a bad year,” because of the Gaza war — “there were 23 violent deaths in Jerusalem; there were 135 in Indianapolis.”

He urged those present to bring an extremely critical, questioning eye to all information in the news media. To his surprise, as a self-described liberal, he finds The Wall Street Journal better than most. “These days,” he said, “I prefer to read books.”