The Jerusalem Post, March 25, 2004

EYE ON THE MEDIA: What Media Bias?

By Bret Stephens

What is one to make of a panel of European and Israeli journalists discussing allegations of anti-Israel bias in the media when the panel itself skews sharply Left?

This was the scene Sunday evening at Tel Aviv University, at a conference jointly sponsored by the EU-Israel Forum, TAU, and the Chaim Herzog Institute. On stage: Avirama Golan of Haaretz, Ofer Shelach of Yedioth Aharonot, David Witzthum of Channel One, Andres Ortega of Spain's El Pais, Paul Gillespie of the Irish Times, Thomas Schmid of the Franfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung, and Ewan MacAskill of the Guardian.

Missing from this company were two things. First, anyone who thinks something is gravely amiss with the way Israel is reported in Europe. And second, anyone who believes the policies of the current government are morally defensible. A conference about media bias became instead an instance of it.

Here's a sample of the evening's remarks:

Gillespie: "The idea there is a wave of anti-Semitism [in Europe] is simply mistaken."

Shelah: "We use this belief that the world is against us as a shield against thinking through some problems... We relate to Europe only as to whether they love us or not, and they better not love us otherwise that shield is gone."

Ortega: "I tend to think the policies of Mr. Sharon contribute to anti-Semitic or anti-Israel sentiment in Europe."

Golan: "I know for a fact that Israel's policy is wrong and since the day Ariel Sharon became Prime Minister the way Israel behaves and even speaks is at the lowest point."

Now, an international conference on the subject of media bias is not necessarily the occasion to make Israel's case or lecture the Europeans on the error of their ways. Nor is it an occasion to exclude the kinds of views represented above. But it is, one would think, an occasion to have a representative dialogue.

Why, for instance, was there nobody present from pro-Israel Bild? The paper is the largest circulation tabloid in Germany; surely it represents some meaningful corner of European opinion. And why no one associated with the Right in Israel? Shouldn't it have a voice at this table as well?

HERE'S WHAT I would have said, if I had been asked to join the panel.

"Mr. Gillespie, you're right. There has been no anti-Semitic wave in Europe, at least if by 'Europe' you mean to exclude Europe's Muslims, plus the one-in-five French voters who cast their ballots in 2002 for Jean-Marie Le Pen, plus the one-in-four Austrians who did so for Joerg Haider's party in 1999. But among Muslims and particularly Arabs, I'm sure you would agree there has been a wave of anti-Semitism: arson attacks on synagogues and day schools, physical assaults on visibly Jewish persons, and so on.

"Now, as to those Muslims in Europe, aren't they Europeans, too? In France, they're roughly 10% of the population. There are millions of Muslims in Italy, the Netherlands, Spain, Britain, Germany many more Muslims than Jews. On current demographic trends high Muslim birthrates; flat or declining birthrates in the rest of the population the Muslim percentage is likely to double in the next decade or two. When that day comes, will you still exclude them from your definition of 'Europe'?

"Still, I agree that most Europeans are not anti-Semitic and abhor anti-Semitism. But what about anti-Israelism and anti-Zionism? Anti-Semitism concerns us all but the issue at this conference is the European attitude toward Israel, not toward the Jews. And here the picture from Europe, including the European press, is not good.

"When Europeans marched in their millions prior to the Iraq War, holding placards reading Zionism equals Nazism, clearly it indicated that Europe the Europe of the Left, the Europe of this panel has its problems with Israel. You and your colleague, Mr. Ortega, seem to think the name of that problem is Ariel Sharon. But then, was Europe really so much more sympathetic toward this country 30 years ago? In 1975, Idi Amin gave a speech to the UN General Assembly calling for 'the extinction of Israel as a state.' For this, he was warmly saluted by then Secretary General Kurt Waldheim, later elected president of Austria by a landslide.

"So let's be honest: Europe's problem with Israel long predates Sharon and it predates even the settlements, which hardly existed in 1975. I know this isn't apposite, quite, to the purposes of this discussion, but I think there's an element of deception, maybe self-deception, when European journalists like Mr. Ortega say it's all to do with Sharon or the settlements or this or that policy. It goes deeper.

"Still, let's talk about Sharon. The people at this table have pretty much made it plain they don't like him. Fine: that's a legitimate view, shared by many Israelis. But is Sharon another Milosevic, or another Hitler, as so many of the anti-war protestors insist? Isn't that a little far-fetched? I mean, when Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe visits Belgium and France and gets red carpet treatment from Guy Verhofstadt and Jacques Chirac, or when Syria's Bashar Assad gets the same at 10 Downing Street, where are the thousands of protestors then? What is it with this European fixation with Sharon over and above every other real or alleged rogue?

"I'm talking here about widespread European attitudes. These attitudes don't just come from nowhere. They are a response to what Europeans see on the TV news, hear on radio, read in the press. And what they see, hear and read is this: That Israel is wantonly aggressing against defenseless Palestinians; that the West Bank is becoming one giant Israeli condominium complex; that Palestinian terrorism is a response to Israeli repression, not the other way around.

"Now, I don't mean to say that the foreign media shouldn't report on settlements, house demolitions, checkpoints, the effects of the separation fence on Palestinian livelihoods and so on. But in Europe, it seems, that's all they see. When was the last time a European reporter checked in with an Israeli terror victim to see how well he's coping without a leg or an arm? Yes, it's happened: Der Spiegel, the German magazine, recently had a wonderfully sympathetic piece about Zaka, the group that picks up after terror attacks. But can the Europeans at this table honestly say Israeli suffering has been as extensively covered as Palestinian suffering?

"Then there is your overall approach to the conflict. Basically, the European media looks at Israel-Palestine as an occupation story. I know this because more than one senior European journalist has told me so. That's not necessarily the wrong prism through which to see things, but it's also not the only prism. You might also, conceivably, play this as a cycle of violence story, as much of the mainstream US media do. Or you might view the conflict as a function of the Arab world's abiding rejection of Israel's right to exist as a Jewish state. Each captures a different aspect of reality, and each contributes to our overall understanding. But you choose to capture only one aspect, which happens to be the aspect favored by the Palestinians. This is a form of bias.

"A word to my Israeli colleagues. Each of you is entitled to your opinion. But your rights are also your responsibilities. Ms. Golan here has just told us that all she does 'is write against the settlements and against the occupation.' She's also just told us of her disgust when, reading Le Monde in Paris on the day following the terror attack on the Dolphinarium disco, she came across a cartoon showing a suicide bomber and a settler running at one another in an act of mutual extinction. Well, why should she be shocked? Mr. Gillespie here has just told us that he often takes his cues from Ms. Golan's own newspaper. If a man like Brian Whitaker of the Guardian calls settlers, without distinction, 'thieves and brigands,' maybe it's because Haaretz has done such a capable job convincing him that's what they are.

"As for Mr. Shelach, it seems your view comes down to this: Israel's perception of a hostile world is a kind of neurotic convenience for a country that won't come to grips with its responsibility for its problems. Maybe, but it seems to me a bit strange coming from a man who occupies a plum slot on Israel's biggest daily. If Israel is in such denial, why isn't that reflected in the mass media (and the down-market media to boot)? I've lived in five countries in my life: America, Mexico, Britain, Belgium and Israel. Among these, none is more self-critical, more existentially aware, more agonized by the choices before it than this one. If Mr. Shelach doesn't know this, he hasn't seen much of the world.

"The fact is, it's people like you, Mr. Shelach, who are in a kind of denial. Do you ever wonder why every second or third UN resolution aims against Israel? Why 56 countries boycott Israel? Why the world's moral energies, Europe's particularly, are consumed by the tragedies of Palestine, as if there aren't tragedies aplenty elsewhere? Are the crimes this country commits even the imaginary crimes proportionate to the fury they inspire? Were Sabra and Shatilla just like Guernica or Katyn, and was Jenin the Warsaw Ghetto? It would all sound preposterous if it weren't the reality Israel has so deeply internalized, indeed almost forgotten."

THAT'S MY little speech. It doesn't much matter to me that I or someone of like mind was not able to deliver it there, since the pedestal from which I now write reaches a wider audience. But mine isn't the only pedestal, much less the tallest, and it worries me that our European guests will return from their visit reassured that nothing's amiss with what they write. Much is amiss. If Israelis won't point it out to them, who will?

bret@jpost.com