by Dominic Davies
On the evening of Wednesday, September 3, 2014, on the ground floor of the Jerusalem Cinemateque , people piled into an already crowded auditorium. They were gathering to participate in what would prove to be an animated and hotly-debated discussion. As the seats filled up people began congregating in the aisles, so that by the time Kerstin Müller, Director of the Heinrick Böll Stiftung (HBS) in Israel, began her introduction, there was hardly a patch of floor, not to mention a seat, that wasn’t occupied. The Israeli branch of HBS, with its headquarters in Berlin and its self-definition as “an intellectually open, civic organization”, is currently running a series of events under the broad and appropriate title “Jerusalem Talks”. The aim of these events is to foster discussion about different perspectives on Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories and their relationship with Europe, especially Germany.
This particular event – the second in the series – took the role of the media during war time as its primary focus, drawing together a politically and journalistically diverse group of commentators from both Germany and Israel. Hosted by Doris Simon of German National Radio, the high profile line-up was comprised of Avraham Burg, a former speaker of the Knesset and Haaretz blogger; Gideon Levy, noted Haaretz columnist and member of its editorial board; David Witzthum, chief foreign affairs editor and commentator for Channel 1 of the Israel Broadcasting Authority; Bettina Gause, a political correspondent for Die Tageszeitung in Berlin; and the Heinrich Böll Foundation’s co-President, Ralf Fücks.
Given the proximity of Israel’s most recent war with Gaza – the ceasefire was not even a week old – it is perhaps not surprising that these circumstances provided the basis of the discussion. Directed by Doris Simon’s questions, the speakers began by each offering a thought on the media’s representation of the war that has dominated headlines over the summer, both in Israel and in Europe.
Was this the first religious war?
Avraham Burg began with the rather contentious statement, though albeit one that offered a useful point of departure, that the war we have witnessed in the last couple of months was the conflict’s first overtly religious war. This quickly bled into a heated debate over a general inability on behalf of not only the Israeli media, but also its government and society, to define Hamas. David Witzthum drew attention to the way in which Hamas’ had avoided being filmed outside of their own propaganda videos, a technique that meant the war had been framed, by the international media at least, as a war between Israel and Gazan civilians. Within this international context, the conversation about the representation and definition of Hamas was also haunted by the shadow of Islamic State, the militant group that is currently moving through Iraq and Syria. Whilst Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recently claimed the two organizations were identical in their radical political and religious goals, none of the panel members took this obvious rhetoric seriously. Indeed, Witzthum offered further insight by pointing to the recent shift in the sorts of organizations that are participants in war, one that, he highlighted, is of specific concern for Israel. The wave of wars that have engulfed the Middle East in the twenty-first century are no longer between nation-states, and certainly not in the way that Europe’s First and Second World Wars were. Rather, they are taking place between groups that operate within and across state borders and along and between ethnic and religious, rather than national, lines. Israel, Witzthum pointed out, was one of the few states in the region that continued to understand itself as a nation in this sense, and even then, as Burg added, it still has not defined its own territorial borders, even if its ideological ones are becoming increasingly rigid.
2200 Palestinians and 74 Israelis
Though the trajectory of the discussion outlined here might seem a long way from the relationship of the media to war, it does in fact bring to the fore one of the key ethical dilemmas, or moral debates, which underpinned the conversation. Though remaining “unasked” in any explicit sense, all the speakers reflected on the obligations that an Israeli media might have towards its national interests. Commenting on the imbalance between the levels of coverage given to the 2200 Palestinians and 74 Israelis that died in this most recent war, all of the contributors, even Gideon Levy, conceded that it is not only natural, but necessary, for a nation to document its own deaths with a certain bias, particularly in times of war. It was rather the level of this imbalance that Levy had a problem with, commenting in his reflections on the Israeli media more generally that its journalistic machine is the biggest collaborator with the occupation.
Whilst Witzthum commented that many reporters see themselves first as Israelis, and only second as journalists, Levy responded that one either is a journalist or not – the job of a journalist is to present stories from as neutral a perspective as possible. But even then, journalism can never present “simple facts”. As Witzthum explained, despite attempting to be as objective as possible all journalists must frame facts in certain ways, deciding which are the most important and excluding others, and thus imposing a narrative on a string of events that will inevitably express some form of opinion. Journalism is not an exact, empirical science, the panel seemed to conclude. It is perhaps for this reason, then, that as wide a range of perspectives as possible should be made available within the mainstream media. As Burg commented, even if he doesn’t like some of what Levy has to say, he would not want to live in a society where that voice cannot be heard. Indeed, Burg ascribed a much larger sociopolitical weight to the issue, claiming that the imbalance in the coverage of Palestinian and Israeli deaths was not only a problem for Israeli journalism. He argued that in the “hand wrestle” between Israel’s self-definition as a Jewish or democratic state, the imbalance in this reportage meant that “the Jewish has won”.
The dangers of social media and the need for dissent
Levy was the first panel member to raise the issue of social media, contemplating its role in voicing, amplifying and to some extent shaping the intensification of right-wing opinion that seems to be pervading Israeli society at the moment. For Levy, this is a recent phenomenon born of the technological advances that have had a colossal impact on news coverage over the last ten years, most obviously the Internet. He said with concern that he sees racist, anti-Palestinian sentiments of a kind that people wouldn’t have dared to think, let alone write down in a public sphere, just a few years ago, now being given vocal support in social media across Israel and beyond. In response to a question from the audience about his controversial attack on the morality of IDF Air Force pilots in a column written for Haaretz at the beginning of the war, Levy expressed no regret for the piece. Levy’s central concern – beyond simply being a provocative, dissenting voice – was to highlight the de-humanization of Palestinian civilians as they are reduced to black spots on an F-15’s radar. This was also his main problem with Israel’s media coverage of the war: whilst any nation will document its own casualties with a certain bias, the complete lack of the humanization of Palestinians in any mainstream reporting is a contributing factor, he argued, to the heightened right-wing feelings circulating on the Internet and elsewhere. Interestingly enough, Burg explained that he had given Levy’s controversial article to his son – who is himself an IDF pilot – to read, and rather than being outraged by Levy’s words, Burg’s son had in fact agreed with most of the article’s observations.
German approaches to Israel and Palestine
These voices from within Israel were fruitfully juxtaposed with those of the German commentators. Bettina Gause observed that coverage of the recent war – and especially the discrepancies in the number of civilian deaths on each side – has caused a new generation of young Germans, who are now more distant from the atrocities of the Holocaust than their parents and grandparents, to become vocally critical of Israel, and especially of its policies towards the Palestinians. The bombing of the UN school, in particular, had, she explained, become “the symbol of this war” for many Germans. By contrast, her fellow German, Ralf Fücks, said that in his view, Germans feel a special sense of responsibility towards Israel, given the historical circumstances. And casting his eye to the West Bank, he said that while he felt an equally great sense of empathy for the Palestinians and their suffering in Gaza, the violence used by Hamas in the recent war increased support for a more violent approach to the struggle against the occupation, a development which he regretted and felt was counter-productive.
"Be realist enough to believe in miracles"
Combined, then, the speakers’ various contributions present a frightening geography of polarized, though ever-shifting opinion, from within Israel and the Occupied Territories to Europe and back again. It is of course difficult to draw neat conclusions from such a wide-ranging discussion, especially considering the complexity of the historical, journalistic, and even philosophical issues that were raised. However, citing the late 1980s, a decade that was returned to by a number of the speakers as a point of historical comparison, Levy observed that very few had then predicted the fall of the Berlin Wall, the end of the Cold War, or the dismantling of the apartheid state in South Africa, just a few years later – “We have to be realistic enough to believe in miracles”, he concluded. Journalism has a duty to be realistic, yes: that much this panel discussion made clear. But it is the miracles, the stories that are beyond the everyday, that really sell the newspapers. This reviewer left with the feeling that journalism has the power both to sustain, but also to subvert, various power hierarchies. It’s not so much the journalism itself, but the way in which it is used, and ensuring an open, varied, and uncensored platform is surely a step in the right direction.