Occupation: The missing context in Matti Friedman’s ‘inside story’

For several months now, a former Associated Press reporter in Jerusalem has been on a mission to ‘expose’ the media’s bias against Israel. Glaringly missing from his argument, however, is the occupation.

By Daniel Reisel

Following this summer’s bloody campaign in Gaza, former AP journalist Matti Friedman has dedicated himself to a series of media analysis articles purporting to provide the “inside story of the story.” In a widely reported piece for Tablet, with a follow-up piece, CNN interview, Haaretz coverage and now in The Atlantic, he has tried to make the case for media bias against Israel.

Friedman wants to look at context, but it would be fairer perhaps to question the context of all this context-seeking. Israel finds itself at a crisis point today. There is bad news from successive European governments lining up to recognize Palestinian national rights, there is bad news on the home front with unprecedented racism, arson attacks and renewed violence in the streets of Jerusalem. In all this, Matti Friedman tries to convince us that there is a media bias against the Jews and that the world should stop obsessing about Israel. Does that not feel a bit disingenuous?

Disregarding the current fires, Friedman picks sour grapes with the media coverage of the Goldstone Report which investigated Cast Lead, and the reporting of the 2008-9 Gaza war itself. He accuses his former employer, AP, of burying stories that might present Israel in a better light. The relevant AP bureau chief, Steven Gutkin, has written rebuttals here and here, calling Friedman’s Tablet article “well-written hogwash.”

Friedman bemoans the fact that right-wing outfit NGO Monitor is being silenced by powerful editors. Could it not be that many editors believe NGO Monitor to be a morally bankrupt, hysterical organization obsessed primarily with harming and delegitimizing those who tirelessly work for peace and coexistence? Do no other right-wing sources satisfy his sense of objectivity because NGO Monitor has been kept out?

Perhaps the most insidious of Friedman’s claims is the wrongful reframing of the conflict. In his mind, the problem is is not the occupation and the growth of settlements. He writes, “This summer, with Yazidis, Christians, and Kurds falling back before the forces of radical Islam not far away from here, this ideology’s local franchise launched its latest war against the last thriving minority in the Middle East.” This statement captures how Friedman views the conflict: the Jews are the beleaguered victims of an Islamic onslaught, defending themselves against the tyranny of radical Islam. Is this not a bit too convenient?

Friedman writes that the real problem is not the occupation and continued lack of a solution for the Palestinians, instead the problem is the Arab world’s hatred towards the Jews. Inconveniently for him, the Arab League Initiative is currently being revived, showing that with withdrawal from the Palestinian territories, Israel would in fact find itself with a completely new diplomatic horizon.

Sure it is important to be critical of one’s sources. Friedman is quite obviously biased himself. So the question in this conflict is not, where can we obtain a neutral point of view, but rather, which set of biases are you working with? What are you foregrounding and what are you treating as secondary? Is the problem really that the world has it in for the Jews?

I won’t pretend to understand the intricacies of race politics in America, but say for instance that with Ferguson burning, America is having a much-overdue conversation about race and police brutality. If a journalist insisted on making the case that the real story is how African-Americans are more likely to be involved in violent crime and that this is being repressed  and under-reported by a conspiracy of global media, would this not outrage our sense of justice?

Every point of view should be given a fair hearing and Friedman has of course every right to claim that Israel is the victim of a global Hamas-scripted conspiracy to silence him and others. But his case is so riddled with its own bias and inconsistencies that it’s hard to understand why anyone would take him seriously.

Daniel Reisel is a research fellow at University College London and a founding board member of Yachad.

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