Exposing dirty laundry &mdash can Israeli press go too far

I believe in a free press, but a cartoon that appeared in a recent edition of Ha’aretz was too much for me. It showed a muscle-bound Israeli army officer holding a machinegun and saying, in Clint Eastwood style, “Make my day, kiddo.” It alluded to the case of an officer who is now on trial for firing shots into the body of a wounded Palestinian girl in order to make certain that she was dead.

The cartoon might be faulted on the basis of taste, but not as regards its relevance; the incident it comments upon took place. What bothers me is the fact that the drawing will be exploited by Israel’s many enemies just as they have used the negative reports that appear with great regularity in Israel’s extraordinarily free press.

A few days beforehand, the mass circulation Yediot Achronot carried a four-page story complete with grisly photographs about how Israeli soldiers had mutilated the bodies of dead terrorists. In an echo of the Abu Ghraib affair in Iraq, it was based partly on a film of the mutilation taken by one of the soldiers involved.

This is all grist for the mills of those who portray Israel as no better than its adversaries, indeed even worse. If the issue is raised with people in the Israeli media, most argue that such stories reflect reality and a free press is supposed to report upon reality, whatever the consequences. Also, they add, if such behavior is to be eradicated, it must be exposed for Israel’s own good.

My own sense of unease may stem from the fact that I am still a product of the diaspora, a person brought up to feel that Jews should keep their misdeeds to themselves lest the “goyim” learn about them and retaliate against the Jews. Even so, worrying about how the “goyim” will react may have some relevance in our situation, particularly since our neighbors keep their dirty laundry well hidden.

Media people are well aware that there may be a conflict between their obligations as professional reporters on the one hand and their responsibilities as citizens of an embattled country on the other. A recent article by Professor Gabriel Weinman of the University of Haifa’s communication department dealt with this issue and presented the conflicting views of those involved.

For example, he showed how various newsmen reacted to a suggestion by Acting Minister of Internal Security Gideon Ezra that the Security Services should keep an eye on two journalists, Amira Hass and Gideon Levy, whose reports back Palestinian claims that they are being mistreated. Ezra’s proposal was sharply rejected by journalist Uzi Benziman in the magazine Ha’ayin Ha’shvie, an Israeli media review. Benjamin wrote: “Hass and Levy are fulfilling their responsibilities when they report from Palestinian areas, and are not enemy agents. They are performing a public service by giving Israelis firsthand reports about the views and conditions of the Palestinians.”

An opposite viewpoint was expressed by Amnon Dankner, editor of Ma’ariv. “Gideon Levy and Amira Hass,” he declared, “have an anti-Israel outlook and present Palestinian viewpoints rather than those of their own people. Shouldn’t journalists, in a time of great conflict, show a little more consideration for their own people and country?”

Nechemia Meyers is a journalist who lives in Rehovot, Israel.