The Forward has a truly disgusting article by Lisa Goldman, entitled “Feel-Good Stories Obscure Ugly Mideast Truths.”
The Israeli government invests considerable effort in promoting its image in the foreign media. It’s called “hasbara,” which comes from the Hebrew root “to explain.” Israelis tend to be patriotic, with many believing their country is unfairly vilified in the foreign media. And so they embrace hasbara as a legitimate corrective measure. But for critics of Israel, even those who do not speak Hebrew, hasbara means official lies and spin designed to divert attention away from the military occupation of the West Bank and the settlers.
The Government Press Office, which provides journalists with press cards and keeps them informed of media events, contributes to the hasbara effort by sending out emails with carefully crafted pitches about human interest stories. Usually, these stories are meant to be both heartwarming and counter-intuitive — the kind that people post on Facebook with a comment about restoring one’s faith in human nature….
When I read a recent New York Times article about wounded Syrian children receiving treatment in Israeli hospitals, I posted it to my Facebook with a cynical comment: “So the Government Press Office sends an email to journalists in Israel, telling them about this ‘quiet’ story of Israeli hospitals treating Syrian wounded. Shhh…. We want to be modest about this. So don’t make too much noise and please don’t reveal the identities of the people who benefit from our generosity, because their own people might shun or hurt them. Just for seeking help for their children. Can you imagine? And the media obediently report this story, because who can resist cute Jewish and Arab kids getting treated in the same hospital…. And then the foreign ministry sends links to the articles to all the journalists they have on their global email lists. And voila. That, ladies and gentlemen, is how you do hasbara.”
My friend Gal Beckerman read the comment and decided to look into the matter, emailing Isabel Kershner, who wrote the article, and the New York Times’s Jerusalem bureau chief, Jodi Rudoren. And it turns out that I was wrong. They discovered the story on their own, and in fact the army tried to prevent them from covering it.
So does this reporter ask forgiveness for falsely accusing Israel of pushing this story when it didn’t? No! The Forward looks for the higher truth:
Gal’s conclusion — and I agree with him — is that the Israeli government’s relentless focus on hasbara efforts has tainted the way we report and consume news from that country. For partisan observers, news reports are judged not for their veracity and newsworthiness, but for how they present Israel. Far too often this is parsed according to binary clichés: Israel is presented either as the evil occupier or a light unto the nations.
But I would take Gal’s observation one step further. By reporting the Israel-Palestine story with an emotional subtext rather than some intellectual detachment, we are perpetuating a discourse that is disconnected from reality. Hasbara diverts attention from the very painful and difficult issues that must be addressed. It is much easier to smile at Arab and Jewish children sharing a hospital ward than to address the tough issues, like a military occupation that does not seem likely to end in our lifetime.
You see, according to The “Jewish” Daily Forward, any story that humanizes Israel – even when it was found by reporters doing their jobs, and against Israeli wishes – doesn’t reflect the “reality.” Who decides what reality is? Why, it is Lisa Goldman and Gal Beckerman and The Forward, of course!
Goldman has no compunction about humanizing Palestinian Arabs, as her articles attest.
On Friday afternoons in Nabi Salih, it starts like this. A few Israeli and foreign activists arrive at the village around noon, gathering at the home of Bassam Tamimi. His door is open, so there is no need to knock. Inside, villagers and visitors socialize, use the washroom and help themselves from the huge spread of homemade food laid out on the kitchen table. Bassam’s children run between the guests’ legs; and Sameeh, a neighbour from Jaffa, picks one of them up and tickles him. The atmosphere is relaxed, jovial and friendly. Most of these people see one another every Friday, under the same circumstances.
Bassam’s mother (or perhaps mother-in-law) sits on one of the chairs, her legs pulled up in a near-squat, observing the visitors through half-blind eyes. She looks like aPalestinian grandmother out of central casting, with her long white veil, embroidered traditional dress, deeply wrinkled face and thin, arthritic hands. I greet her by clasping one of them and muttering something in mangled Arabic. She responds by telling me to eat – a word I understand because the Arabic and Hebrew roots are the same (AKL), and also because that’s what grandmothers tend to do, the world over – urge you to eat.
After we have eaten and drunk our tea, Bassam says, “So, shall we start?”
No “emotional subtext” here, about the wonderful Tamimi family that also happened to produce a woman who blew up a pizza shop.
Oh, I’m sorry. The rule at the Forward (and the pretty indistinguishable +972 that Goldman also writes for) is that humanizing Arabs is quality journalism. Humanizng Israelis is evil hasbara.
Even when it is perfectly true! Even when it was not a story that the Israelis wanted to publicize!
Goldman doesn’t feel manipulated at all by eating lunch with the Tamimis. Her journalistic antennae are retracted because of the nice grandmother feeding her and the cute kids being tickled. How could a great journalist like Lisa feel manipulated when she is asked to visit a loving family home before the protest?
No, even though the Tamimi story is hand-fed to her, literally, by the protesters themselves, they are human. Zionist Israelis who seem human are the ones you have to check and double check to ensure that there is a dark side somewhere that you can report.
The conclusion is that The Forward believes that Israel is inherently evil. Those are the only facts that can fit its editorial policy. Anything that contradicts that narrative makes reporters not just feel conflicted, but angry. Because they already knew the truth before the story that makes Israelis look like decent people comes out. That is an unacceptable distraction from their own one-dimensional analysis of the situation.
Beyond that, we can see how bad a reporter Goldman is. In the earlier part of the article she describes how she feels “manipulated” when she covers a story that the Israeli government tips her (and other journalists) off about. So what is stopping her from digging deeper? Moreover, what is stopping her from looking to find out if there are similar “feel-good” human interest stories that are not pushed by the government?
That’s crazy talk! To Goldman and The Forward, Israeli cruelty is the only story, and everything else is a distraction, to be ignored or downplayed or belittled or cynically dismissed.
The Forward’s motto might as well be “Truth above all – unless we are uncomfortable with it.”