TEL AVIV, Israel—A couple of weeks before the Gaza riots began, the pro-Israel media watchdog CAMERA put up across from the New York Times building a massive billboard: "The New York Times At it AGAIN: Defaming Israel with distorted ‘news.'" Although its strategic location made it impossible to miss, Israelis nearly universally agree that the Old Gray Lady didn't get the message—and that the Times is but one of a slew of global media outlets copying from the same script, according to which IDF soldiers randomly kill peaceful protesters.
While the Israeli public is accustomed to anti-Israel bias in the international media, coverage of the Gaza riots appears to have a struck a nerve, perhaps because foreign coverage of "peaceful protests" is so at odds with what Israelis see on their local TV. On Israeli TV they see swastika-painted kite bombs setting alight Israeli fields, bullets lodged into the window sills of nearby Sderot homes, Hamas fence-cutting units crying "Khaybar, Khaybar"—a battle cry referring to the Muslim massacre of Jews in that Arabian town in 628 A.D. When these aspects of the story don't make it to Western media outlets, Israelis are understandably aggrieved.
Nizar Amer, a deputy spokesperson at Israel's foreign ministry, says that from the Israeli government's point of view, most of the coverage in the international media fails to provide the full picture. "You didn't see many media outlets saying that Hamas led and organized this campaign. There's a gap between what's happening on the ground and what the media is reporting." A pundit on Israel’s Channel 20, a news channel with a nationalistic bent, argued that the country should start ejecting journalists who print falsehoods about Israel. Amer says given the importance of freedom of the press, he doesn't see Israel doing that.
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Israelis rarely agree on anything political, so it's surprising the extent to which Israelis agree on the subject of media bias. Michal Har-Tal, a 30-year-old biologist and research assistant who voted for the far left Meretz Party in the last few elections, says she normally tries "not to dwell" on the media's anti-Israel narrative. But a Buzzfeed headline calling Israel's actions a "massacre" was too much for her, particularly after Hamas admitted that 50 of the 62 people shot by Israeli soldiers were Hamas operatives, suggesting that far from committing a massacre the IDF had been remarkably precise in its targeting. (Later it was revealed that another three were members of Islamic Jihad.) Har-Tal was so upset that for the first time she wrote a letter to Buzzfeed’s editors. Her letter read in part:
"Israeli soldiers do not thrive on shooting innocent Palestinians or even Hamas activists. However, it is their job to protect the state of Israel and its citizens from attacks. And when the protesters (and militants hiding among them) get too close or throw things or try to set bombs, Israeli soldiers react. Unfortunately, people get shot and killed. But this is not a massacre. When Hamas militants infiltrate houses of Jews and murder them, that's a massacre. When terrorists attack churches, shopping malls, crowded markets, etc., that's a massacre. These kinds of ‘sensational' headlines are misleading and hinder your journalistic integrity."
The media coverage sometimes causes splits within families, particularly when they are divided between Israel and the diaspora. Stanley Dalnekoff, an Orthodox Jew and retired owner of a travel business, immigrated to Jerusalem with his family three years ago. His wife’s cousin recently sent him an excited note saying the move to make Jerusalem the capital "is creating major upset," "we are reading about major human rights abuses," and this is "against the precepts of Torah." Here is part of Dalnekoff's reply:
"[N]ot one of our critics tells us what to do when tens of thousands of hate filled demonstrators wish to break through our borders and spread death and destruction in their wake. The total annihilation of the state of Israel is the only agenda of Hamas and its supporters.… I don't think that you have any right to morally judge us. Indeed, what really saddens me is the total ignorance you and those who think like you have of Jewish history. If you did have this understanding then instead of questioning such things as the American Embassy move to Israel you would hail it as another step in the 3,000 year aspirations of your people. With almost 50 percent of world Jewry now living in Israel, it is time for diaspora Jewry and especially American Jews to wake up and smell the coffee! It is time for them to feel pride in our achievements and overcome what I see is a growing feeling of self-hatred."
Helen Har-Tal, Michal's mother, a job developer in Tel-Aviv who made Aliyah (immigrated) from America decades ago, says there is a limit to what Israel can do to counter foreign-media distortions. "No matter what Israel says, everybody's talking about babies being shot. Nobody's asking ‘Why would a mother or grandmother bring a baby to a place where live ammunition is being shot?' Nobody asks that question." She feels that the real impact is outside of Israel. "All you have to do is look at what's happening to the Jews in Europe. Look at what’s happening to Jewish students on American campuses." Michal agrees with her mother. "It keeps feeding the fire of BDS. The perception is that to be a liberal you have to be anti-Israel." The Har-Tals have a point. Thousands of Jews are moving from France to Israel because of rising anti-Semitism, and Britain's Jews may be next now that anti-Semitic ideas have been openly embraced by members of Britain’s Labour Party.
Freddy Vangas, a designer who immigrated from Colombia 25 years ago, echoes these sentiments. He says biased media coverage feeds anti-Semitic trends in the rest of the world and hardens attitudes toward Israel among the general population. Unlike Har-Tal, however, he is optimistic that it is within Israel’s power to change things for the better. "It's already happening," he said. "When Netanyahu showed the world the information about Iran’s nuclear program, this was a start. It showed the world that we are right, that we are not lying about the situation. I believe it will be a turning point."
Rabbi Zev M. Shandalov expresses similar optimism. He moved to Israel from Chicago with his wife and three daughters nine years ago. He found the recent coverage by New York's Daily News the most egregious. (The paper showed a picture of a smiling, beautifully dressed Ivanka Trump at the ceremony opening the American embassy. In real life she was pointing to the bronze plate with details of the opening, but the Daily News had her pointing to a picture of demonstrators being shot in Gaza.) But he says that the media's reportage shifted after 48 hours from the worst of the Gaza riots on May 14. He says it went from "hang Israel to Hamas has blood on their hands." He partly attributes the shift to Hamas’s own admission that those who were killed were overwhelmingly its own operatives. ‘I was pleasantly surprised and pleased to see that the newspapers, when they get the facts, are willing to say the right thing," Shandalov said.
Still, he admitted, for the media's consumers, as in most things: "First impressions are the most important."