Responding to bias fight or flight?

The stunning power of headlines, photographs, daily newspaper reports and television footage to skew public sentiment has deeply shaken those concerned about Israel’s fate. In all too many media outlets, jaw-dropping disregard of existential threats and lack of awareness of Israel’s restraint in the face of terrorist bloodletting have prompted near-panicked efforts in some quarters to win public understanding.

The great debate underway is how best to counter media shortcomings and reach citizens of the world and government policymakers with a full, accurate picture of the Jewish state.

Numerous efforts seek to present the good face of Israel to audiences – the normal face beyond the conflict. Look, say proponents of this approach, at how much Israel gives to mankind: medical advances, agricultural invention, high-tech brilliance. Look at the value added to world culture and comfort by the resourceful Israelis. All that has to be done, according to this thinking, is to change the paradigm; to separate Israel from its tainted association with the endless conflict involving the Arabs by injecting stories about Israeli innovation and good works into the news stream.

Such efforts may, indeed, engender positive feelings in some news consumers. Likewise, publicizing (as other endeavors have) the fact that Israel’s Arab citizens, including Arab women, participate in its democracy can add in a constructive way to appreciation of the country’s commitment to pluralism and tolerance.

But there are profound strategic flaws in any efforts to advance public understanding of Israel’s circumstances that do not tackle and defeat false and damaging information about the Jewish state.

The notion that telling the world how clever and beneficent Israel is will garner public affection founders on the grim evidence of Jewish history. The Jews of Germany won 37% of the Nobel prizes for science and literature awarded to German citizens between 1905 and 1936, even though they were only 1% of the population. Needless to say, their accomplishments won few hearts or minds.

In late 19th and early 20th century Vienna, a time and place renowned for dazzling achievement in music, Jews were central. Composers Gustave Mahler and Arnold Schonberg were Jewish, as were many of Vienna’s other composers, librettists, musicians, performers, patrons and audiences in a population where Jews were less than 10% of the population. But Austrians welcomed the Nazis, and soon constituted 40% of those engaged in Hitler’s exterminations.

The lesson then and today is that denigration and defamation are likely to nullify any positive images of Jewish generosity, creativity and good works if the epithets and misinformation are left unchallenged.

When Chris Hedges, for instance, wrote in Harper’s in the fall of 2001 that Israeli soldiers in Gaza “entice [Palestinian] children like mice into a trap and murder them for sport,” the incendiary, baseless charge became a feature of anti-Israel comment. National Public Radio’s Fresh Air promptly enlisted Hedges for an interview in which he spread the smear across the air waves.

Consider: would those who read or heard Hedges recite his false charges of child murder be persuaded to like the Jewish state on the basis of learning that it leads in nanotechnology?

When basic facts such as the terms of UN Security Council Resolution 242 are misreported to claim that Israel is required to cede the entire West Bank and Gaza, and is therefore violating core principles for settling the conflict, what are news consumers to think but that Israel is obstructing peace? When the terms of the so-called “road map” are continually misrepresented to cast Israel as a violator and the Palestinians as the aggrieved, what is the cumulative effect on readers?

When Hamas and Islamic Jihad are depicted as seeking an independent state in the West Bank and Gaza – reasonable goals in the minds of many – rather than working to extinguish Israel, Israeli measures in self-defense appear excessive.

All these are cases in which serious errors and distortions must be and have been extensively challenged. The end result has been to correct errors and halt their repetition in key media; or, where no correction has been forthcoming, to widely expose and debunk the misinformation.

Yes, there are lessons to be learned from the world of public relations, but they come from such instructive examples as the “war room” of former president Bill Clinton’s election campaign. There, media coverage was monitored intensively, and every news account deemed incorrect, distorted or incomplete was swiftly challenged. The strategy worked so successfully that it was later applied to promoting president Clinton’s policy initiatives.

No less an effort is necessary in defending the facts about Israel. Just as all that is required for evil to triumph is for good people to do nothing, so too distortions and lies about Israel triumph when they go unchallenged. Those who argue that there is an easier way, a shortcut to making Israel’s case, are simply ducking the essential task.

This column was originally published in the Jerusalem Post.

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