Saturday, April 4, 2009

The Soft Challenges of a PR Warrior

Extracts from a talk presented at the AGM of the Bnoth Zion Association WIZO, 17 Feb 2009.

I have been engaged for about 10 years now in the defence of Israel in the context of an often shallow, biased, amoral and actively hostile media environment. Since it is this environment which shapes the views of the South African population, my task entails setting the record straight where it has been distorted, contextualising actions and pointing to lapses in logic or honesty of those who criticise Israel.

Human history is, as we know only too well, littered with miscalculations, wishful thinking, unpredicted consequences and missed opportunities. Afterwards, with time, more information and insulation from the pressures and passions of the moment, it may be possible to point to the mistakes made and options missed. But even these are bitterly contested by scholars with irreconcilable views.

Indeed politics is conducted under a veil of ignorance through which we desperately try to discern a path through an intractable reality.

Few of these difficulties appear in the popular media. If the truth be told, politics is much more complex, subtle and unpredictable than “rocket science”, the supposed gold standard of high intellectual endeavor. The media, however, does not sell hard cognition; it sells emotion.

At its not infrequent worst, it sells indignation, righteous rage, and a sanctimonious sense of self-righteousness. It sells prejudice. It sells softcore and, sometimes, even hardcore political pornography.

I could give you many examples, but I’ll take a recent report from Damascus by a Harvard graduate student conducting research there:

“This morning, while I made my coffee and eggs, I tuned in to the best show on television. ...
The show is the conflict in Gaza. On Al-Jazeera.

Even if CNN could sneak a camera crew through the checkpoints, it's hard to imagine they would produce anything like what's on Al-Jazeera - an all-day, ever-shifting drama that throws war in your face with all its gruesome cruelty. ... Their broadcasts routinely feature mutilated corpses being pulled from the scene of an explosion, or hospital interviews with maimed children, who bemoan the loss of their siblings or their parents – often killed in front of their eyes. Al-Jazeera splices archival footage into the live shots, weaving interviews and expertly produced montages into a devastating narrative you can follow from the comfort of your own home.

This is news without even the pretense of impartiality....”

There is much more to this quote, and Calderwood contrasts it to the “bloodless coverage” in the West. I would challenge him on that. Much of the West’s coverage is softcore as distinct from Al-Jazeera’s hardcore material, but judging by the reaction just as effective.

Of course, as we are only too painfully aware, the IPC receives attention disproportionate to the number of lives lost or damage caused by the struggle in the Middle East. While every life blighted or destroyed is worthy of regret, the painful truth is that any one of a number of African and other conflicts over the past half century have dwarfed the IPC on virtually any measure you may care to use.

One reason is, of course, that the IPC has become both a proxy and a diversion for the wider struggle of fundamental Islam with the West, the “culture wars” within the West itself and the struggle of Islam to modernise and escape the centrifugal pull of the totalitarian Islamist movement. Within the West, the IPC has become the focal point of much progressive activism and is kept alive on campuses and in the media partly through targeted funding from Islamist organisations.

Some indeed see this conflict as the focal point of a global struggle already in progress between opposing civilisations. While that may be a simplification, it is has sufficient truth to account in part for its disproportionate claim on the world’s attention.

So let’s look at the war for public support in the West more closely. Here is an extract of an account from the supposedly hard-headed, objective magazine, The Economist. It is titled “The war of words and images”, and I quote:

“Israel is now better prepared. The tactics it deploys on the media front are as cunning and punchy as those its army has been wielding against Hamas in Gaza”.

In case you missed the subtext in that extract here is more “Yet wider support among the American public for Israel in this conflict appears to be less robust than usual. (“Surprise, surprise” – my comment)...And that was before the bloody attack on a UN school and other such incidents. Global public opinion has also probably shifted against the Jewish state. Even inside Israel, human-rights groups, concerned that much of the normally outspoken local press has turned largely jingoistic, have launched a website to expose the mounting tragedy inside Gaza.” And so the softcore expose continues.

The Economist is not alone amongst the normally sober and balanced media in adopting the dark tools of the propagandist. The equally prestigious Financial Times saw fit to run an article by the Saudi Prince, Turki al-Faisal,entitled “Saudi patience is running out” January 22, 2009. This includes such comments as “In the past weeks, not only have the Israeli Defence Forces murdered more than 1,000 Palestinians, but they have come close to killing the prospect of peace itself. Unless the new US administration takes forceful steps to prevent any further suffering and slaughter of Palestinians, the peace process, the US-Saudi relationship and the stability of the region are at risk”. And this “Let us all pray that Mr Obama possesses the foresight, fairness, and resolve to rein in the murderous Israeli regime...”.

In case you may have thought, “well this is just the exercise of free and impartial coverage of all perspectives” you would have sought in vain for countervailing comment putting Israel’s case with similar forthrightness. On the contrary, the editorial section simply reinforces the FT’s selectively pro-Palestinian stance. For example, in condemning the BBC’s decision not to run an advert for a Gazan charity, the FT has this to say “Ordinary people, informed not least by the BBC’s own coverage of the destruction of the lives and livelihoods of Gazans, can distinguish for themselves the difference between acute humanitarian need and propaganda”.

Like hell they can and, of course, the FT knows it!

In an article published by The Institute for Global Jewish Affarirs, Tammi Rossman-Benjamin documents on-going anti-Zionist activity on the University of California at Santa Cruz. This involves the intrusion of such material into lectures and courses with little ostensibly to do with the conflict in the Middle East, accompanied by such unreferenced statements as “Israeli massacres are often accompanied by sexual assault, particularly of pregnant women as a symbolic way of uprooting the children from the mother, or the Palestinian from the land.”

A purportedly academic conference entitled “Alternative Histories Within and Beyond Zionism" was recently held which constituted a systematic delegitimization of Zionism. The number of Jewish participants was notably high.

Of course, this material is the relatively polite side of propganda. It can be passed off as “democratic opprobrium”, legitimately evoked by Israeli policies. Who are we kidding?

The mask comes off in many Muslim rallies or rallies in countries not afflicted with lingering guilt over the Holocaust. There chants of “Jews to the ovens” and “Hamas, Hamas, Jews to the gas” are perfectly acceptable. That such slogans are screamed by people who at the same time deny that the Holocaust ever took place should surprise only the incurably na├»ve. That Israelis are regularly compared to the Nazis and the Gazan invasion evokes comparison to the Holocaust is the stock-in-trade of the more open antisemites.

Prof. Frank Furedi carefully documents how anti-Zionism is increasingly becoming difficult to differentiate from open antisemitism: in his words “Anti-Israel sentiment is morphing into anti-Jewish sentiment, as more and more people project their disdain for the modern world on to ‘the Jew’.” Of course, this does not mean that every criticism or critic of Israel is antisemitic. But, increasingly, the sanctimonious and shallow left, the angry and bigoted right and the Islamic fundamentalist find themselves in bed together and prove amazingly accomodating to their new companions.

This is no longer news to many of us but, understandably, it still elicts great distress and anger.

But anger is not enough. Uncontrolled it leads to stupidity and to worse; becoming the narrow-minded, obsessed fanatic of our own worst nightmares and fulfilling the caricatures of our enemies. Not only would this seriously harm the best Jewish ideals of universality and tolerance, but it is the sure way to losing the battle for survival.

To flourish, Israel will need to continue on the path of idealistic realism. At times this will demand harsh action - hopefully rarely and always tempered by a consideration for human life. Most of the time it will demand firmness and tenacity, clarity of thought and a readiness to grasp opportuniy while not sacrificing appropriate caution.

Despite the sensationalism, I have faith that the universal human respect for honesty and fairness will win out over baser emotions.

(A not added afterwards:

It is my sense that such are the excesses of Israel’s enemies, that the tide is beginning to turn. There may well be a backlash in Europe and other countries against Islamic pressures, partly caused by sheer numbers and partly caused by violent Muslim behaviours both within the host country and elsewhere.

If indeed this does occur, it would relieve the pressure on Israel which most of us would welcome. But it would be a pity to see xenophobic nationalist sentiment return to a part of the world (wider Europe) which has been at the forefront of post-modern cosmopolitanism.

There are many ills in the world, including within the West and Israel itself, which need to be addressed. The atavistic extremism of the West’s enemies makes reform (or some sort of pragmatic justice in the Middle East) suicidal, thus encouraging the most intractable elements within our own societies.

Well at my age, I am neither surprised or disappointed – just vaguely regretful. But first things first. Stop Arab-Muslim extremism and then try to move beyond towards a sustainable raprochement. Neither will be easy and neither seems to be on the cards for the foreseeable future.)

Mike Berger