Sometimes it comes down to context, says Jeffrey Salkin, the Anti-Defamation League’s New Jersey director.
Noting the tendency of the mainstream American media to oversimplify events in the Middle East, Salkin said that “by and large, the American media has been appropriately sympathetic to the plight of everyday Israelis.” But, he added, “this is a complex situation and we have to make room for nuance.
“There are those in the media who appear to think that if it cannot be said in a tweet or a sound bite, it’s almost as if it’s not worth saying,” he said. “You cannot discern the truth about what is going on with Israel and the Palestinians in a few short sentences. I wish people had more patience to learn this very complex tale.”
Salkin said that while Americans are generally supportive of Israel, “there are sectors of American society that are cooler than they need to be – and some would include the media in that department.”
Assessing media coverage of the current hostilities between Israel and Hamas, the ADL director said “while most of the media affirm Israel’s right to defend her citizens, there’s also a good deal of focus on losses in Gaza itself. The American eye moves very quickly to photographs of victims.”
That pattern of reporting has existed for as long as he has been watching developments in the Middle East, he said, adding that “many choose to portray the Israelis as the aggressors, even when they are responding to aggression. Things that would be permitted and celebrated [when done by] other nations are forbidden to Israel.”
Salkin emphasized that “it is crucial to understand geographic distances. Imagine Hamas operating out of Times Square. Residents of Edison, Morristown, Boonton, and Rockland County would all be within firing range. I challenge anyone to say they would find this tolerable.
“Certainly, people are dying,” he said. “That’s what happens in a war. But while we all mourn the death of innocents, the media needs to remind its readers that children and civilians have died because Hamas hides out in populated areas, such as schools, mosques, and hospitals. You might even say that they manipulate the situation so as to create the biggest media bang for the buck.”
In addition, Salkin noted that Palestinian media sources may be engaged in distorting the news. There is some speculation that those sources are providing photographs of wounded and dead children who, in fact, were killed in riots in Syria.
“When Israel was weak, it was celebrated. But ever since 1967, when Israel showed that it would no longer accept a vulnerable position, the world has in some measure found that lack of weakness difficult to understand and accept,” he said, adding that this posture is more prevalent in Europe than in the United States.
“It has been my experience that many Americans understand and appreciate what Israel is enduring and what it must do,” Salkin said, recalling that during the 2006 Israeli incursion into Lebanon, he was approached by a man who overheard him discussing the Mideast situation.
Bracing himself “for what might have been a barrage of invective,” he instead received a high five. “I want to thank you for fighting that war for us,” said the stranger, “demonstrating his recognition that Israel is the front line of the West and an Israeli defeat would be a defeat for us all.”
Salkin said the ADL’s job is to be vigilant against local manifestations of anti-Semitic behavior, monitor the media, and lend its support to the Jewish community by interpreting ongoing events and advising on security concerns.
While one of his jobs is to challenge the media, that is something everyone should be doing, he said.
“Every Jew needs to know he or she is an ambassador for Israel,” he said, pointing out that when an anti-Israel group recently placed ads in a network of local newspapers featuring a distorted map and accusing Israel of stealing land, the ADL sent a memo to rabbis and lay leaders reminding them how they could take action against this kind of falsehood.
“Whenever we at the ADL see a gross distortion of the truth in the media, we immediately act on it, but we all have a responsibility to be able to interpret the situation for friends, relatives, colleagues, and neighbors,” he said. “In fact, there is far more support of Israel’s position than anyone might have thought.”
Salkin noted as well that people should be very circumspect about the websites and media outlets they consult.
“Not all of them are reliable,” he said. “Many are biased and have their own agendas. Stick to the known – the tried and the true.”