Israel’s stand in Britain has suffered a serious blow since the start of the Al Aqsa intifada. Skewed, biased and misleading reports on Israel have created a hostile environment and fertile ground for antisemitism. But is Israel doing enough to counter this trend? Ori Golan.
On January 27 this year, on Britain’s Holocaust Memorial Day, the British daily, The Independent, published a cartoon of PM Ariel Sharon biting off the head of a Palestinian child as helicopter warships bombard villages and call out "Vote Sharon!"
The drawing deeply offended the Jewish community, not least because of its antisemitic undertones. In response to a high volume of complaints from readers, the newspaper carried out full-page responses from two prominent Jewish public figures: MP Gerald Kaufman and Ned Temko, editor of the Jewish Chronicle. Kaufman insisted that the cartoon was little more than satire and that its time to tell the Israeli government to ‘buzz off’; Temko described the cartoon as not only shocking - but appalling. Finally the cartoonist himself, Dave Brown, had his say. It was all allegory, he explained, inspired by Goya’s painting, Saturn.
Shuli Davidovich, the Israeli press attaché in London, lodged a formal complaint to the press complaints commission which has written to the newspaper asking for its response. She responds to anti-Israel bias in the British media and tirelessly fights Israel’s corner. And in the current climate, there’s much work to be done.
Israel’s stand in Britain has suffered a serious blow since the start of the Al Aqsa intifada. Twisted, biased and misleading reports on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have created a hostile environment and given rise to fierce criticism of Israel. So why has Israel’s image in the British press taken such a battering?
"Firstly, there’s the issue of morality", says Davidovich. "Israel will only publish photos of terror attack victims after receiving permission from the victim’s family and go-ahead from the photographer. Some of the families are so distressed by the photos that they ask us not to use them. Even though other media outlets publish these horrific scenes without compunction, we will refuse to do so, as a matter of respect to the families. On the other hand Palestinians often invite camera crews to film ‘their massacres’ and what you get is an unbalanced, distorted picture."
"In terms of substance, Israel is not made up of one official body" says Davidovich, "There is the Prime Minister’s office, the Government Press Office, the Police, the Foreign ministry, and the IDF. This multiplicity of spokesmen can slow down the process before an official statement can be made. Before we can comment on any specific issue or incident, it has to be verified and checked by a chain of commands. Unfortunately sometimes, by the time we go through all the channels, the story has done the rounds in the press and we lose the momentum."
This slow response-time can be critical, because news outlets live and die by deadlines.In the absence of an Israeli response, Palestinian commentaries fill the airwaves and the newspapers.
One glaring example was the IDF’s incursion into Jenin, last April. Initially Saeb Erekat, spokesman for the Palestinian Authority, spoke of 3,000 Palestinian dead, then of 500.
Meanwhile Palestinian ‘eyewitnesses’ described it as a ‘massacre of epic proportions’. The British media relayed these unverified figures and soon tales of mass murders, cover-ups, common graves, and war crimes began filling the front pages of the newspapers and dominating television and radio airtime. "We are talking here of massacre, and a cover-up, of genocide" wrote columnist A.N. Wilson, in the Evening Standard, London's main newspaper. By the time a more accurate picture emerged, and it was evident that no massacre had taken place in Jenin, the damage had been done. In the British psyche, Israel had killed, maimed, pillaged and destroyed.
A newspaper reporter who was based in Israel (and asks to remain unnamed) describes the Israeli PR as ‘abysmal’: "More money is spent on promoting Bamba than on promoting Israel’s image. Dover Tzahal’s personnel are young girls who are unable to cope with the work and unable to supply the goods. Basically there’s a non-presence; Israel is disabled by the fact that there are no good people responding to what people want in real time. As a reporter in Israel you learn quickly that a lot of it is about fiefdoms, you can run around all day before you get a comment from an Israeli source. The Palestinians know their stuff. They’d spin us one line and they’d give it immediately."
Some of these sentiments were echoed last October in State Comptroller, retired Supreme Court Justice Eliezer Goldberg’s report, in which he severely criticised the Foreign Ministry and the Israel Defense Forces for the absence of coordination between them and their inability to explain Israel's side in the conflict with the Palestinians.
Director of the Israel Government Press Office Dani Seaman, fails to understand what all the fuss is about. In an interview with French writer Yona Dureau he says: "The term: hasbara" comes from ‘lehasbir’- to explain. Israel has nothing to explain. Why does Israel have to explain itself? Do other countries have to constantly justify themselves? […] There is nothing to explain and if other countries don’t understand, too bad for them. Israel has nothing to explain."
Winston Pickett, head of external relations for the London-based Institute for Jewish Policy Research (JPR) sounds a shrill warning. "Israel needs to understand that hasbara is not a luxury—or an afterthought. It is a strategic necessity. There is a constant need for hasbara to get the message out in good times as well as bad. It also must not be episodic or crisis-oriented. You cannot expect the media to cover ‘your side’ of the story when you haven’t bothered to cultivate it."
Veteran radio commentator Michael Freedland claims that Israel’s image problem is not new, but an issue which has long been overlooked by successive Israeli governments. "In 1973, shortly after the Yom Kippur war, then-Prime Minister Golda Meir came to Britain. I was running a Jewish radio program at the time called You don’t have to be Jewish, which boasted an audience of 150,000 listeners. I asked her for an interview while she was here. ‘Darling’ she said to me, ‘I don’t have time’. She then spent 10 minutes telling me she didn’t have 5 minutes for an interview. The Arabs would appear on British TV and have someone articulate and bright and the Israelis would find a Knesset member who hardly spoke English. There is no doubt that Israel doesn’t consider anything outside the US as very important."
Yoav Biran, former Ambassador to Britain and director-general of the Foreign Ministry, rebuts these claims. "I concede that there is a problem with quantity, but not quality. We take the whole issue of ‘hasbara’ very seriously and have some excellent, eloquent English speakers who are able to put Israel’s stand across. It is a sad fact that much of the reporting about Israel lacks context and there are more and more bastions of unfair and unprofessional reporting."
But if the government is taking ‘hasbara’ seriously, then it is unclear why it is not investing in it. The current budget allocated for this purpose stands at NIS 40M. This covers all Israeli embassies around the world, including the salaries of paid staff specifically employed in promoting Israel’s image. And with this paltry budget about to be cut back, the situation does not look likely to improve.
Despite the pecuniary constraints, Davidovich says that the embassy is making inroads. "We meet as many journalists, presenters and editors as possible. We put them in touch with officials in Israel, academics and individuals who are affected by the situation. We also offer them ideas and facilitate meetings for them. It’s important for us that they get to know us. Whenever there’s a debate or interview on television or the radio, we try and get Israel’s version also represented. If there is no Israeli side, we will lodge a complaint. Sometimes it works – sometimes it doesn’t; it’s Sisyphean work. "
The British Israel Communications and Research Centre (BICOM) was set up by members of Britain’s Jewish community in the wake of the second intifada. Its aim is to bring speakers who can explain Israel’s position, as well as to effect a shift in opinion of Israel among the general public and opinion-formers. So urgent do they perceive the situation, that they have enlisted the help of two senior American political strategists, Stanely Greenberg and Frank Lunz to counter the general anti-Israel atmosphere that pervades the media circles.
But should Israeli policy be financed and undertaken by non-Israelis?
Biran: "The fact that there are organisations, in a number of countries, whose aim is to promote Israel’s stand in the media, is an expression of concern for Israel, alongside the financial constraints on Israel. I view it as a very positive thing. I wish we could say ‘don’t worry about us’, but we can’t and their help is greatly appreciated."
Professor Barry Kosmin, executive director of JPR takes a different view. "I think it is more than a little embarrassing—and in a public relations sense perhaps, ill-advised—to have Israel’s only effective strategic communication coming out of a British Jewish communal organization. If I were an Israeli taxpayer I would be incensed that my government has never put sufficient resources, time, or sophistication into this crucial area.
"Israel," continues Kosmin, "is one of the few states in modern times that has been engaged in a war without establishing a centralized ministry of information or propaganda. Instead it has relied on incoherent messages from various ministries controlled by different—and often rival—political parties. Not being ‘on message’ is bad. Not having a message at all is patently dangerous. Having numerous and contradictory messages only guarantees a public relations disaster."
BICOM recently carried out research on anti-Israel attitude in Britain. Its report highlights that much of Israel’s negative image in the British media is attributed to presentation. It is not getting its message across. Blunt and unequivocally language, concludes the report, particularly with an Israeli accent, is much too confrontational for British audiences.
"Some of the negative images of Israelis", says a foreign editor of one of the broadsheets papers, "must be attributed to mentality: when you meet Israelis often they come across as plain rude: they shoot from the hip. They see themselves as being ‘dugri’ but are perceived as being rude. The Palestinians are more refined; there’s a whole protocol they follow. I think it’s important to bear these things in mind because it causes antagonism."
My own experiences confirm this. On a recent visit to the embassy, after presenting my Israeli passport, a security guard asked me to remove my coat. I was then instructed to remove my trousers belt, then my shoes, and finally to present my keys and wallet for inspection. I was rather surprised at this seemingly incongruous rigorous check on an invited Israeli guest. Standing barefoot at the entrance, with one hand trying to keep my trousers from falling, I asked the guard whether this was the standard welcome all invited journalists were treated to. "If you don’t like it, you can leave", he replied.
Still, accent, age or arrogance cannot fully account for Israel’s negative image. At issue is coverage lacking in truth, fairness and context. Many of the Israel-based correspondents are journalists with a minimal knowledge of the area, its history or geography. Dudevitch agrees: "There are many journalists who’ve never met an Israeli in their lives. Some have no idea how big – or even where – Israel is. I was once asked by an editor of a magazine about the number of Israeli soldiers manning the Suez Canal. He was surprised to hear that the Suez Canal is no longer part of Israel."
Tom Gross worked in Israel for 6 years as a reporter for the London Sunday Telegraph and the New York Daily News, until 2001. In a number of seminal articles on unfair reporting on Israel, Gross charts inaccuracies and misleading coverage of Israel in the international press. Most journalists, he says, follow a pack mentality, assuming similar views as their colleagues. "Many of them are lazy, they don’t speak the language and they pick up their stories from what colleagues tell them. Some know what they are going to write before they even arrive in Israel."
"You have to understand that most BBC staff read the Guardian and the Independent" says Gross, "and they draw their opinions from these sources. I remember one journalist who had no knowledge of the Middle East. He was sent out to Israel to write a human-interest story on dead children. In conversation with him it was clear he did not know that there were Israeli children who have been killed in this conflict. He assumed they were all Palestinian. The guy had no political agenda; he simply picked up this impression from the media."
While some journalists are careless, sloppy, or ignorant, others are on a crusade. Robert Fisk, the Beirut-based correspondent for the Independent, is a prime example. Israel-bashing has become his stock and trade and he is famed for his biased, often malicious dispatches. A colleague of Fisk’s says: "He [Fisk] is just a person whose mind has been closed. He writes very well; his main trouble is the size of his ego. He makes the facts fit his views and mixes up between reporting and campaigning. It is common knowledge that he plays loose and fast with his facts and his 'eyewitness' accounts."
But it’s not just Fisk, or his newspaper.
A BBC reporter, who refuses to be named or identified, recalls reporting from Israel and the territories. "I found a pervasive mindset inside the BBC which dictated that the narrative was that the Israelis were killing the Palestinians.
"There was a failure to give credence to Israeli sources but to believe Palestinian ones. I once filed a story about [a certain incident] which, I found out, was wrong. I immediately called the BBC to tell them that the story wasn’t true, but they decided to run it anyway, a number of times that day. Operation Defensive Shield was a huge failure on their part. It’s not just the BBC of course. Suzanne Goldenberg [former Guardian correspondent in Israel] is a campaigner, not a reporter. Her political opinions were reflected in her reporting. One wonders if the Guardian’s choice of a reporter with a Jewish-sounding name was a coincidence or a fig leaf."
This touches on a prevailing feeling among the Jewish community of Britain that the anti-Israel bias has an anti-Semitic subtext.
"A lot of it", says the BBC reporter, "is about bringing down the Jews a peg or two. Until I started working as a correspondent I did not believe for a minute that anti-Israel attitude in the media were in any way antisemitic. Unfortunately, working closely with foreign journalists in the last few years has made me change my mind in some cases. The post holocaust honeymoon is over for the Jews. No one is suggesting that Israel is perfect, but if you look at the tone of criticism, it is out of all proportion of any rational or objective analysis. I’ve covered a number of conflicts around the world, but the wholesale dehumanisation of Israel makes me very uncomfortable. It also encourages anti-Semitic incidents, which is hardly surprising. If Israel is portrayed as a killer of children how can readers not have negative feelings towards Israel – and by extension towards Jews? The reporting during the intifada has shown that antisemitic attitudes are still ingrained in European societies deeper than many Europeans are themselves aware or prepared to admit."
Leader writer and foreign affairs specialist for The Times, Michael Binyon, rejects the idea of antisemitism as a factor in the anti-Israel reporting. "I don’t think antisemitism has anything to do with it, nor do I think it’s a decisive factor in British life. What does happen is that there’s anti-Israel campaigning, which is then transferred to Jewish lobbyists of Israel: Malanie Philips, Barbra Amiel (wife of Conrad Black) and other commentators who are naturally very sensitive to this. In general, playing the antisemitic card gets people annoyed.
"The anti-Israel shift is related to the Likud government. Barak was criticized for wasting chances, but he wasn’t seen to be doing the wrong thing. There’s tremendous suspicion of Sharon’s and Netanyahu’s motives. The press department can only do so much, it cannot change government policies. The Palestinian leadership is also bad, but Israel has forced Arafat into a martyr role.
Reporting on a conflict, says Binyon, is a question of getting the balance right. "This is true not just in Israel but also in Cyprus or Northern Ireland. However there’s particular scrutiny of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict due to its implication: it has gone right across the Muslim world and is causing all kinds of reactions, a lot more than Kashmir. This is because it’s one of few foreign issues which America takes an active interest in, since it’s a domestic issue there."
But even if Israel is getting bad publicity in the British press, can it have any serious consequences?Antisemitic incidents in Britain are on the rise. At the same time a number of boycotts have been officially announced against Israel within academic and commercial circles as well as the entertainment industry. Calls for the boycotting of Israeli goods have proliferated; anti-war demonstrations are regularly hijacked by pro-Palestinian supporters waving anti-Israel placards and racist banners; and Israel-bashing has become the ‘bon ton’ at dinner parties.
Gross, however, isn’t over duly concerned. "It doesn’t make a great amount of difference. It does effect European diplomatic initiatives because most European diplomats are affected by what they read, but European diplomatic efforts are not that important in the region."
Pickett sees the British media as being of vital importance in the electronic war against Israel. "The global reach of the BBC, for example, must be recognized. Its World Service—in dozens of languages—is transmitted throughout the Muslim and Third World —precisely in those regions where Israel is demonised the most. If Israel wants to counter its negative image there it has to try to find ways to offset the BBC here."
Indeed, Britain - with its integral place in the E.U. and Nato, its historical links with the Middle East, its special relationship with the US, and its veto power in the UN Security Council – is key to redressing the balance. In the war of words, truth, integrity and honesty, are the first casualties. It is in Israel’s interest to insist that these are upheld.