An Israeli carrot for the foreign press

There’s a “media war” against Israel, said many speakers at last week’s Herzliya conference in Israel. Terror groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas attack Israelis, using civilians as cover —- and then reap public relations benefits when Israel retaliates and accidentally kills civilians.

“The media” is, of course, not monolithic — there are bloggers and broadcasters, print and radio correspondents, anchors and interviewers, based in or visiting Israel from virtually every country in the world. Do they all hate the Jews? Are they all anti-Israel, willing pawns in Hezbollah and Hamas’ psychological warfare campaign to destroy the Jewish state?

Of course, it is not only the media. According to Robert Satloff of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, on a “popular level,” Americans deeply support Israel, but on the “elite level,” there is a “weakening” of that support.

After visiting dozens of universities over the past three years, former Knesset member Natan Sharansky has quipped that “campuses have become ‘islands of Europe’ in America” with virulent anti-Israel and anti-Semitic rhetoric accepted as the norm among faculty and students.

And as attorney Alan Dershowitz notes. even some U.S. leaders are “giving legitimacy to arguments that undermine Israel. Until now, such arguments have only been heard from extreme right and left,” he declared.

These facts should worry us all. A generation ago, European opinion elites in the media and universities began the process of accepting the “Palestinian narrative” and demonizing Israel and its leaders; today most European leaders, nursed on images of imperialist, racist Israel as the world’s worst human rights violator, view Israel as inherently evil, and thus view the questioning of Israel’s legitimacy as a reasonable part of public discourse.

With Israel’s existence up for debate, calls for its dismantling are not beyond the pale; and sincere demands for the elimination of a U.N. member country can’t be of only passing concern to all civilized nations.

When Israel’s anti-terrorist security barrier, 97 percent of which is a chain-link fence, is termed and photographed as an “apartheid wall” in the media and academia, we should worry. When Israel’s defensive military operations are condemned for accidental deaths of innocents while Hezbollah and Hamas’ targeting of Israeli civilians (and cynical use of their own civilians as “human shields”) are ignored by the media, the United Nations and human rights groups, we should be very worried. And we should truly be worried when Israeli leaders are depicted as Nazi baby-killers while Holocaust-denier Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas (leader of the terrorist organization Fatah with its Al-Aksa Brigade and Tanzin military wings, who last month called on his followers to turn their guns on Israel) is called a “moderate,” as are the dictatorial rulers of the countries supporting the leading publishers and promoters of anti-Semitism in the world, Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

What conclusions are being reached by the media-consuming public and college students who will be the next decades’ leaders? We need only to look at the appeasement policies of Europe towards the Islamo-fascists of Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas, and the prevailing European attitudes toward Jews and Israel and America, to see the results in real-time.

I am not by any means diminishing the very real hardships that Palestinians suffer under both the strictures of Israel’s efforts to protect its citizens and the oppressive authoritarian rule of their own leaders. But there is a difference between picturing Israel as taking difficult decisions while sometimes making mistakes as it balances security needs against Palestinian humanitarian needs, and presenting Israel as injuring and tormenting Palestinians for no reason, stealing “their” land and denying their “human rights.” This is the difference between fact and fiction; between reality and politics; between truth and promoting another agenda.

The media is the lens through which policy-makers and the public view issues about which they have no first-hand knowledge. So the media must be our first and primary focus if we are to address this crucial imbalance.

It is not enough to merely criticize the world’s media for being “biased” against Israel; proactive steps can be taken to help journalists see the whole picture and report the stories fairly.

Previous approaches to Israel’s “hasbara” (public relations) efforts have been, as the Hebrew word implies, attempts to “explain”, to tell “our side of the story” and to put across certain “messages.” Israel strives for peace; Israel has benefited the Palestinians; Israel is America’s ally in the war against terror.

A second approach has been to criticize the media and academia for a lack of balance. The drawbacks of both these approaches — which are certainly an important element in any defense of Israel — is that they are too shrill for credibility. Journalists and professors, when presented with an “explanation” or a critique of their bias, dismiss the correction as biased or politically-motivated.

But there is an objective reality that can be researched and reported, fairly, by the media and academia. I am convinced that accuracy is Israel’s best ally, and that we must help journalists to achieve their own goals of understanding and reporting the facts and providing insightful analysis.

Though many arrive in Israel with misconceptions and pre-conceived notions, simple observation of the actual state of affairs as they are is the best — and most effective — antidote, not strident and lengthy lectures on this or that “talking point.” The history of the region, the geography, the cultural and political milieu is right in front of them — they just need a credible helping hand to see it.

And they are, on the whole, open and accepting of such a service-oriented, gentle approach. The demand exists. As Simon McGregor-Wood, ABC News Middle East Bureau Chief and chairman of the Foreign Press Association in Israel, stated at the opening of MediaCentral, a new project in Jerusalem, “visiting foreign journalists always need good help. This can be a confusing place to work, where efforts to report the story accurately, are constantly undermined by attempts to influence our reporting.

If MediaCentral can offer journalists balanced and neutral assistance, we will succeed. Journalists are bombarded with unsolicited material, most of it, with an agenda, seeking to pull them one way, or another. We need access to everyone, and every shade of opinion. We need to talk to the newsmakers, and also to the people whose voices are rarely heard,” McGregor-Wood added.

The majority of foreign journalists serving in Israel do not hate Jews or Israelis; but they don’t know a great deal about them or about Israel either. There is — everywhere — a symbiotic relationship between the media and the authorities and society in which they function.

Journalists receiving incredible hospitality and help from the Palestinian Authority and its supporters — there are at least 12 official or semi-official well-funded NGOs serving the media in the disputed territories — are inclined to relate more sympathetically to their hosts. It’s time for Israel to use the carrot, rather than the stick, in our relations with the international media.

Whether discovering the acclaimed new Israeli film “Sweet Mud” — the first-ever Israeli film to be accepted to the Sundance Festival competition and Israel’s entry for the best foreign film Oscar — or witnessing Arab democracy activists interacting with Israelis, whether meeting “average” Israelis informally over a beer or learning about how Israel is the only nation on the planet increasing its forest acreage rather than decimating its natural forests, foreign journalists in Israel are open to a new approach.

Aryeh Green, who grew up in San Francisco and studied at U.C. Berkeley, is director of MediaCentral, a Jerusalem center providing support services for journalists based in or visiting Israel and the territories, and is an adviser to Natan Sharansky. He lives and makes wine in Beit Shemesh, Israel.

Aryeh Green will be speaking at a number of events in the Bay Area, including at the Conservative Forum of Silicon Valley (Tuesday, Feb. 6 at the American Legion Hall, Santa Clara, at 7 p.m.) and at DeAnza College, the University of Santa Clara and U.C. Santa Cruz on Thursday, Feb. 8. For more information call (415) 336-7831.