Nothing betokens the power of the media like its ability to lift peripheral issues onto center stage and to relegate profound stories to passing mention – or silence. In the case of Israel, the capriciousness of news judgement is especially striking. While the country is subjected to intensive scrutiny of its daily conduct in every imaginable arena, there are also at the same time stark omissions.
Thus the New York Times' Deborah Sontag chooses to include gay issues in Israel ("Matan Has Two Mommies, and Israel Is Talking,"June 4) and, along with the Los Angeles Times' Tracy Wilkinson and others, to cover alleged tree-planting irregularities by the Jewish National Fund.
But neither these publications nor any American mass media outlet has provided serious news coverage of the astounding occurrences now underway on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. The Muslim Waqf, which administers the Temple Mount, has launched far-reaching, unilateral, unauthorized alterations of the most sacred site in Judaism, the place where both the ancient Jewish Temples stood and where, according to religious belief, the Holy of Holies exists.
Israel's press, including English language media read by American journalists, has been filled with coverage of the momentous activity. Nadav Shragai, reporting for Ha'aretz, wrote on June 18th :
The most blatant violation of the status quo on the mount so far since 1967 is the preparation of the area known as Solomon's Stables for the construction of a mosque – the third on the Temple Mount and the first for the last thousand years. In addition, the huge underground area under the Al Aqsa Mosque, known as 'Ancient Al Aqsa,' has been cleared for prayer.
He described how the action unfolded.
Four months ago, the Waqf made mockery of the laws of the State of Israel. Waqf officials requested and received a permit to open an emergency exit in the new mosque in Solomon's Stables. In fact, the Waqf tried to break through four of the underground arches in the northern part of Solomon's Stables. To do so, it dug a huge hole 60 meters long and 25 meters wide in the earth of the Temple Mount. For the first time since 1967, a fleet of dozens of bulldozers and trucks was put to work on the Temple Mount, and 6,000 tons of earth from the Mount was dug up and removed. Some of it was scattered at dumpsites. Some was dumped in the channel of the Kidron River. Antiquities dating back to a number of periods [including the first and second Temple eras] were tossed on garbage heaps. The Antiquities Authority managed to salvage but a small part of all these treasures.
The reaction in Israel to this plundering of the ancient Temple Mount, one of the most important historical, archeological and religious sites in the world, was bipartisan shock. The director of the Antiquities Authority, Amir Drori, called it "an archeological crime." Attorney General Elyakim Rubenstein denounced it as an assault on Jewish history. Two hundred prominent Israelis from every sector of academic and political life deplored the ravaging by the Waqf.
Thus were Meretz MK's and Left-leaning authors like Amos Oz and AB Yehoshua joined with Likud MK's, Israel Prize winners and university heads in nearly unprecedented unity.
But American journalists, who regularly pick up stories from their Israeli counterparts, were studiously uninterested.
How different it was in the fall of 1996 when Israel opened a small exit onto the Via Dolorosa from an existing archeological tunnel that abuts the Western Wall of the Temple Mount. Although the action touched no Islamic religious site and entailed only minor physical alteration of the area, Israel was excoriated in a fusillade of news reports and editorials that routinely distorted the locale of the tunnel and its exit, the history of the Mount, the motives of the Israelis and the role of the Palestinian Authority. Israel was accused of outrageous provocation and its officials were subjected to relentless journalistic questioning about the affront to Islam allegedly perpetrated. CNN repeatedly recounted the anger and "frustration" of Palestinians.
In the recent case, there is a calculated, ongoing Muslim assault against Judaism's holiest site, but for the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, CNN and the rest of the media, the irreversible desecration is simply not news. And that should remind everyone of the daunting media double standard Israel faces every day – and the need to challenge such bias.
Appeared in the Jerusalem Post on this date
Copyright © 2000 by the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America. All rights reserved. This column may be reprinted without prior permission.