Nightline’s Moral Equivalence

Journalists covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are often accused of drawing a false moral equivalence between Palestinian terrorist attacks and Israeli military anti-terrorist actions – what they frequently refer to as “the cycle of violence” or “tit-for-tat violence.”

ABC Nightline’s Ted Koppel tried to deflect such criticism in advance by introducing an August 21, 2003 segment by Mike Lee about Israeli and Palestinian mothers who lost children as follows:

…We will not, tonight, delve into the issues of original sin in the Middle East. If you are the parent of a dead seven-year-old, the question of who did what, when, to begin the cycle of violence is of incidental interest. You will meet the mothers of two such children tonight, one Israeli, the other Palestinian. In their grief, there is moral equivalence, even if it is all but impossible to find it in the history, the politics, and the diplomacy….

While Koppel is right that the grief of mothers who have lost children is comparable regardless of the circumstances, he is misleading in his claim that this broadcast does not try to impose a false moral equivalence on the overall Israeli-Palestinian positions. Koppel and Lee do not limit themselves to showing the similarities of the mothers’ losses and pain, disclaimer notwithstanding. By trying to portray each mother as victim of a nebulous “cycle of violence,” they obscure the truer parallel — that both have lost their daughters as a result of Palestinian terrorism.

The broadcast forces a further false equivalence on the story by omitting essential facts.

Noam Leibrovitch, the 7-year-old Israeli profiled in the story, was a direct victim of Palestinian terrorism. She was directly targeted and murdered by a Palestinian sniper who fired on her family’s car as it exited the Trans-Israel Highway inside the Green Line.

Amel El Jarusha, the 8-year-old Palestinian profiled, was an indirect victim of Palestinian terrorism. She was accidentally killed in an Israeli military counter-terrorism operation against Abdel Aziz Rantisi, a senior Hamas leader responsible for a terror campaign that has killed almost 250 Israelis and wounded almost 1,500 over the past three years. Rantisi who, according to the Israeli Defence Ministry, personally supervised Hamas killing operations during the past several months, installed himself in a densely populated civilian center, endangering his family and community by living as a wanted man among them. The Hamas leader’s presence in El Jarusha’s neighborhood led to the Israeli military response that killed Amel.

ABC correspondent Mike Lee asserts that the two mothers “sound like soul mates when talking about their losses” and attempts to force an equivalence that does not exist on the reactions of the two mothers. He says:

But even compassionate mothers here have their limits when it comes to accepting that their side might just be as much to blame for violence as the other side.

However, the women’s words indicate the contrary. When asked who is responsible for the violence, the Palestinian, Magda El Jarusha, responds:

Who is responsible? The Jews are responsible. They are the ones who launch shells and rockets on the Palestinian people. Hamas is not responsible.

The Israeli, Galit Leibovitch, on the other hand, makes no attempt to defend Israeli actions nor to blame “the Muslims” or “the Palestinians” as a group. She faults the terrorists themselves, the glorification of martyrdom and the teaching of hatred for the loss of her daughter. She says:

…I won’t teach my other kids to hate Arabs because an Arab killed my daughter. I hope that they won’t teach their kids to hate Israelis because Israelis killed her daughter.

Responding to this comment, El Jarusha adds:

She [Leibovitch] is right.And we do not want to teach our children to hate Jews because there are some Jews who want peace. [emphasis added]

El Jarusha exonerates the terrorists and sees the majority of Jews as responsible for the violence, while acknowledging in response to Leibovitch’s comments that some might want peace. By contrast, Leibovitch sees the teaching of hatred and glorification of terrorism as responsible, but makes no blanket condemnation of Muslims or Palestinians.

Despite Koppel’s lip service about the impossibility of finding “moral equivalence” in “the history, the politics, and the diplomacy,” the broadcaster does his best to do just that. While Koppel talks of “two mothers united by…tragedy,” he describes them as “casualties of that [Israeli-Palestinian] war” – not of Palestinian terrorism. The fact that one was accidentally killed in anti-terrorist operations while the other was directly targeted by the terrorists is blurred. Koppel further blurs the distinction by “not[ing] the death” of Hamas leader Ismail Abu Shanab as the latest victim of the same “war.”

Rather than point out that the innocent children, Noam and Amel, were both victims of of Palestinian terrorists like Abu Shanab, Koppel lumps them all together. In fact, he goes out of his way to cast the Hamas leader as favoring peace, saying Abu Shanab told him in an earlier interview that he was ready to participate in a cease-fire. Unmentioned by Koppel is the fact that despite Abu Shanab’s assurances to him on TV, the Hamas leader was directly involved in the group’s policy decisions and campaign of terrorism which included the August 19 bus bombing which killed 21 Israelis, targeting families with young children.

The subsequent discussion between Koppel and Lee goes even further. Koppel declares:

You’re absolutely right when you say that the cycle of violence has never stopped. There seemed to be a brief lull for a few weeks. But, in the wake of the assassination of Abu Shanab, another Hamas leader said today that a red line has been crossed…

Lee responds:

That was Sheik Yassin, the spiritual leader of Hamas. And I agree. Many people would say the red line had been crossed over and over again. I think, if there’s one thing that the Israelis and the Palestinians can agree upon, it is that they believe that the United States government has not put enough pressure on the other side…The Palestinian Authority leader, Mahmoud Abbas, has promised the Palestinian people a better life. They’ve not gotten that under the road map in any way. So, it’s hard to see, at this point, what kind of progress can be made in the short-term or how it can be made in this road map.

Not only does Lee admit he agrees with Hamas leader Yassin that Israel crossed a red line, not only are terrorist attacks and counter-terrorist actions equated, but the overall blame for the continued violence is implicitly placed upon Israel, not on the Palestinian Authority which has refused to clamp down on violent Palestinian groups.

ABC repeated Lee’s segment on Good Morning America on August 25, 2003 and posted an online article by Mike Lee based on the segment.

ABC producers and broadcasters cannot escape the valid accusation that they continue to impose a simplistic, false moral equivalence on a complex situation by simply stating – as Koppel tried to – that they are not doing so. Viewers must hold them accountable for what they actually report.

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