Who is ‘right-wing’ and what is ‘pro-Israel’?

Labels attached to news pieces frame stories in the readers’ minds and ultimately, shape political views. Haaretz as a case study.

In Haaretz’s recent expose “How the state helped right-wing groups settle East Jerusalem,” the use of the term “right-wing” is both superfluous and disingenuous. Whether one sees the agenda of settler organizations, like Elad and Ateret Cohanim, as left or right, it is being implemented through illegal, crooked means. This is the central aspect of the story and, while saturated in politics, should speak for itself.

So why did Haaretz feel compelled to qualify the settler groups as “right-wing” and Dror Etkes, the “activist” who initiated legal proceedings against them, as “leftist?” The use of political labels is a common journalistic tool for identifying a group or individual on the political spectrum; a way to help orient the reader. But in many cases such labels may actually obscure the real story. Here, the familiar left-right distinction detracts from the fact that the upper echelons of the state and its authorities are in contempt of law and encourages the reader to deduce, from the headline itself, whose “side” he should be on.

This report is just one example of the misuse of labels in news stories, but it is a strong one precisely because it is not a piece about two competing political visions, as is the issue surrounding the cultural center in Ariel, one could argue.

“Left” and “right” are not the only labels being used extraneously in the paper. Last spring, around Israel Independence Day, Elie Wiesel published an ad in three major American newspapers stating: “For me, the Jew that I am, Jerusalem is above politics.” Haaretz then published a story about American reactions to the ad, taking the liberty to call it the “‘pro-Israel’ Jerusalem ad.” (Barak Ravid. “U.S. Officials Slam Pro-Israel Jerusalem Ad.Haaretz. April 21, 2010).

What prompted Haaretz to classify the ad as “pro-Israel”? At first glance it seems that the paper is weighing in on the matter by equating the insistence that Jerusalem is beyond political discourse with a “pro-Israel” stance. However, anyone familiar with Haaretz’s journalistic style who has also read the ad must conclude that the paper’s insertion of the adjective “pro-Israel” could only mean one of two things: Either it was an error committed by the copyeditor when formulating the headline, or, more likely, Haaretz intended to communicate that since Wiesel’s ad expresses unmistakable support for the Israeli government line (which currently is, in fact, that Jerusalem is not up for discussion), it therefore qualifies as “pro-Israel.”

However, the ad did not convey that Jerusalem’s future should be determined unequivocally by Israel’s government, but that Jerusalem is beyond the bounds of political negotiation altogether. Wiesel is not interested in Jerusalem’s status as a segregated, conflict-ridden city administered by the State of Israel, but rather with his own personal conception of historical and primordial entitlement to the city as a Jew (not an Israeli). The newspaper’s choice to label this as  “pro-Israel” is therefore misinformed at best and biased at worst. But more importantly, it shows how the use of such dichotomous labels in the news can obscure, rather than elucidate, a story.

After all, the term “pro-Israel” has become a highly contested concept, specifically among American Jews, as exemplified most plainly by the fact that there are now three rival Israel lobbies in the US – AIPAC, J Street and the Emergency Committee for Israel –that all identify as “pro-Israel.”

Whereas for the first 20 years of Israel’s existence, being “pro-Israel” in the American Jewish community largely meant unconditional support for the Israeli government line, since the 1977 shift from Labor to Likud rule and the subsequent war in Lebanon, engaged American Jews increasingly define “pro-Israelism” in relation to what they deem to be in Israel’s best interests – and there are many different notions of what those interests are and how they should be implemented.

When a group of Israelis and Americans interrupted Netanyahu’s speech at the General Assembly of North American Jewish Federations earlier this month, Haaretz had an item on its ticker in Hebrew that labeled them as “anti-Israel protestors.” In the report in Hebrew that appeared later on, this label disappeared, and instead they were called “leftwing activists.” (The article in English chose the term “hecklers.”) In this case the ticker was clearly an embarrassing faux pas, since Haaretz does not endorse the notion that criticizing the occupation is an “anti-Israel” stance, and should not be making such judgments one way or another.

These cases call into question the newspaper’s use of political demarcations as descriptive, when in fact they primarily function as prescriptive and normative. Journalists are obviously not objective or apolitical, but they are supposed to tell a story or present an analysis. They should not perpetuate slogans and broad political designations, especially when they do not serve to illuminate any aspect of the story. Although the intention behind using popular markers may be to level with the reader, often the effect is that the terms guide the content, instead of the content guiding the terms.