Words matter. Words can kill, as the Talmud says. (See the Babylonian Talmud tractate Arachin 15b.) Words the media use — and fail to use — have helped set off a worldwide explosion of Jew-hatred and have helped justify to many people the most horrific act of hatred against Jews since the Holocaust, the Shoah. They also have caused some Jews, among the young especially, to become Israel bashers rather than Israel supporters.
The most incendiary of these words are “war crimes,” “militant,” “occupied,” and “occupier,” with “ceasefire” added to that list for now. Because these words lack necessary modifiers, they inevitably lead too many people to conclude that Israel is the aggressor, not Hamas, as a Harvard Center for American Political Studies (CAPS)-Harris poll demonstrates.
That poll of American voters was conducted in the wake of October 7. It found that 49.5 percent of voters between the ages of 18 and 34 — the group from which the next generation of America’s leaders will come — believe that Hamas’s attacks were “justified by the grievance of Palestinians.” Overall, just under one out of every four American voters believed that.
After examining much of the evidence of the October 7 atrocities when he was in Jerusalem last week, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said that what he saw was “almost beyond the human capacity to process, to digest.” Yet just under half the voters in this country between ages 18 and 34 believe Hamas was justified in what it did, and so do 24 percent of all Americans.
Hamas, a/k/a the Islamic Resistance Movement, was founded in December 1987. In 1988, Hamas adopted its charter, the preamble of which calls for Israel to be “obliterated.” According to Article 7, Muslims are obligated to “fight Jews and kill them.” Article 13 rejects “so-called peaceful solutions and international conferences” as “a waste of time, an exercise in futility.” Any Arab country that engages in such efforts with Israel is guilty of “high treason and cursed be he who perpetrates such an act,” according to Article 32.
Hamas has been lobbing deadly rockets into Israel since the early 2000s. It resulted in three Gaza wars — in 2008, in 2012, and in 2014. Each time, there were demands for a ceasefire. Each time, Israel agreed. Each time, Hamas interpreted the ceasefire as a victory, encouraging further rocket attacks, and culminating in the events of October 7, the darkest day in Jewish history since the Shoah.
Hamas vows to repeat October 7 again and again until every last Jew in Israel is dead.
As Hamas political bureau member Ghazi Hamad said on Lebanese TV on October 24: “[This] is just the first time, and there will be a second, a third, a fourth, because we have the determination, the resolve, and the capabilities to fight.”
The world understandably cringes at the devastation caught by Israel’s air strikes, and demands yet another ceasefire. The media dutifully report these calls but do not report the context that would help the world to understand the consequences of a ceasefire.
Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently said that a ceasefire “is not possible” because it “would be such a gift to Hamas because they would spend whatever time there was a ceasefire in effect rebuilding their armaments…, creating stronger positions to be able to fend off an eventual assault by the Israelis.” Her remarks are strangely missing from most reports.
Remarks that former Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.) made on “The View” a week ago Thursday also rarely are reported. “[T]his call for a ceasefire by Hamas’s perspective has one goal — to buy them time to reorganize….,” Kinzinger said. “It is really sad, obviously, what is happening to the people in Gaza. But that is the fault of one organization, the fault of Hamas….Instead of building bomb shelters in Gaza for the people and then clearly marking them so Israel knows where the innocent folks are, they are instead spending that effort building tunnels underneath to shuttle military equipment [and] to move men around to fight….”
Clinton, Kinzinger, and even former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican presidential hopeful who said much the same thing on CNN last week, understand that a ceasefire is a non-starter. They argue that Hamas must be totally eliminated, regardless of the immediate cost, because it would lead to a long-term benefit for both the Gazans and the Israelis. Their comments, however, rarely appear in the media.
The media also allow Hamas and its supporters to argue that the deadly October 7 pogrom was justified because Israel is Gaza’s occupier, whereas Hamas seeks to be its liberator.
Yet what the media all too often fail to mention is that Israel does not occupy Gaza; Hamas does. Israel completely withdrew from Gaza in August 2005, turning it over to the Palestinian Authority, which was violently forced out of Gaza by Hamas in 2007. From then until today, it is Hamas that occupies Gaza, not Israel, and Hamas has shown no interest in making a better life for the people it rules. Even worse, perhaps, it refuses to protect the people of Gaza from Israeli retaliatory strikes because, as Ghazi Hamad boasted in his Lebanese TV interview, “we are proud to sacrifice martyrs.”
As Kinzinger said on “The View,” Hamas prefers building tunnels to use in its war with Israel over protecting the people of Gaza. On October 27, a member of the Hamas Political Bureau, Mousa Abu Marzouk, told a Russian television interviewer that the nearly 311 miles of tunnels Hamas has built in Gaza are meant only to protect Hamas. Protecting the civilians Hamas governs, he said, “is the responsibility of the United Nations.”
A noted Egyptian TV host, Ibrahim Eissa (he was named International Journalist of the Year 2010 by Britain’s Society of Editors) called that statement disgraceful on his November 1 broadcast. Hamas, he said, is in charge of Gaza’s government, and a government’s first responsibility is to protect the people it leads. If Hamas will not protect its people, Eissa said for all to hear — on Egyptian television no less — it should turn Gaza’s government over to those who would protect the people. Yet his remarks are strangely absent from most news reports.
The media also consistently refer to Hamas as a militant group, but without qualifying it by adding the word “terrorist.” That actually libels other groups the media labels militant, such as Nelson Mandela’s anti-apartheid movement in South Africa, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s civil rights movement here in America, and so on — none of which ever resorted to the violence that characterizes Hamas.
Then there is the war crimes issue. It is argued and dutifully reported by the media that by destroying civilian targets Israel is guilty of war crimes under international humanitarian law and the Geneva Conventions. I dealt with this falsehood in my last column. Hamas unapologetically boasts that it uses civilian areas as bases for offensive actions against Israel. Hamas leader Khaled Meshal said so in 2014. Ismail Haniyeh, the chairman of Hamas’s political bureau, said so in 2018. A senior Hamas spokesman, Sami Abu Zuhri, said so just earlier this year.
Under Article 28 of the Fourth Geneva Conventions, Hamas, not Israel, is committing a war crime by using civilian locations for military activities, because Hamas turned those sites into legitimate targets.
Israel’s bombing raids fall under what international law calls the doctrine of necessity. It requires, however, that attacks on civilian targets must be carefully planned and executed to minimize civilian casualties, which is something that is not easy to do but that Israel says it at least tries to do.
The media neglect to report this, as well. They report the number of casualties Israeli bombs have caused as Hamas spokesmen provide those numbers, even though it is known that Hamas exaggerates death tolls. Hamas said that there were more than 500 dead when an Israeli bomb destroyed a hospital that actually was hit by an Islamic Jihad rocket and in which the dead numbered around 100 people.
One example of how the media reports casualty figures should suffice. Glenn Kessler, the in-house fact checker at the Washington Post, recently accused President Biden of being “remarkably uninformed” when he said he had “no confidence in the number [of casualties] that the Palestinians are using.” After all, as Kessler put it, “the Hamas-run health ministry…has a good track record on reporting death tolls.” Besides, the health ministry’s numbers are independently verified by the United Nations. The U.N., however, has said it “has so far not been able to produce independent, comprehensive, and verified casualty figures,” adding that the numbers being reported must “await further verification.”
Yet media outlet after media outlet continues to report these numbers without the slightest qualification.
The media also dutifully report Hamas’s claims that Israel’s bombing is deliberately indiscriminate even though Hamas’s exaggerated casualty figures alone suggest otherwise, as Adam Kinzinger also noted last week on “The View”:
“When … I hear people say that Israel is indiscriminately bombing, they’ve dropped, let’s say, 5,000 bombs. If you drop 5,000 bombs indiscriminately, you would have massive casualties everywhere.” The number, he said, would “be about 200,000 dead right now in Gaza,” not the 9,500 or so Gazan health officials say have been killed so far.
This shows, Kinzinger said, that the Israelis are “attempting to do the best they can to minimize collateral damage.” The reason “Hamas surrounds itself with innocent people,” he added, was because Hamas knows it “can get some good PR from it.”
The media know that, too, but they give Hamas such public relations victories by reporting uncritically and without context every word that comes out of terrorist mouths or press releases. By doing so, they help paint Israel as the aggressor and the terrorists as Israel’s victims, whose actions against Israel
If the media would use words with greater care, and if it would also add necessary context to its reporting, the cry from the world — and even from a larger majority of 18- to 34-year-olds here — would not be “Ceasefire Now.” It would be “Ceasefire No! Hamas No!”
Shammai Engelmayer is rabbi of Kehillat Torat Chayim v’Chesed — a virtual congregation, and an adult education teacher in Bergen County. He is the author of eight books and the winner of 10 awards for his commentaries. His website is www.shammai.org.