Israel Pulse

Why is Israeli media attacking itself?

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Article Summary
Freedom of speech, vital to any democracy, is under attack by the Israeli media.

“Magazine,” a Saturday night news show on Channel 10, announced Feb. 20 that it had a major scoop. Dor Glick, its correspondent in Germany, had obtained exclusive footage of film director Udi Aloni referring to the Israeli government as “fascist.” The incident took place toward the end of this year's Berlinale, one of the most important film festivals in the world. Aloni’s entry, “Junction 48,” won the prestigious Audience Award in the Panorama fiction film category.

“Pay close attention to what our Channel 10 news camera caught,” the correspondent stressed to the show’s host and his audience at home, drawing everyone’s attention to his journalistic coup. “He didn’t realize that he was on camera.” Glick couldn’t emphasize it enough. He continued to repeat Aloni’s comment that by providing Israel with submarines, German Chancellor Angela Merkel was aiding and abetting Israel’s fascist government. On three separate occasions, the correspondent and hostess reiterated that Aloni's award-winning film, about a hip-hop performance in the Israeli town of Lod that was used to protest the occupation, had been funded by the Ministry of Culture and the Rabinovich Foundation for the Arts. “This was highlighted at the beginning and end of the film,” Glick noted.

It is quite safe to assume that if the Channel 10 correspondent had proposed footage of Aloni saying the same thing to an audience in Tel Aviv or Dimona, the show’s editor would have responded with a gaping yawn. Stories about how the Israeli government is applying fascist policies in the occupied territories have long since attained the status of “dog bites man” journalism. Not a week goes by without investigators from B’Tselem, Yesh Din and Rabbis for Human Rights offering TV news shows video of settlers attacking Palestinian farmers or destroying their property while Israel Defense Forces (IDF) soldiers stand to the side, looking on indifferently. Clips like these only receive airtime when the violence is extreme.

Articles sharply critical of Israeli excesses in the occupied territories appear regularly in the Israeli press. Public figures, artists, thinkers and journalists along with peace and human rights activists openly condemn the way Palestinians living in the territories are constantly being robbed, not only of their land but also of their most basic freedoms. Terms like “fascist” and “racist” are bandied about casually, as are their counterparts, "traitor" and “enemy of Israel,” mostly on the right. They can be heard echoing through the corridors of the Knesset and are repeated incessantly on radio talk shows. The Ministry of Culture supports films and plays staring actors like Eitan Tiran, Moshe Ivgi, Gila Almagor and Rivka Michaeli, all of whom have expressed opinions similar to those voiced by Aloni. Yet despite threats by Culture Minister Miri Regev to withhold support, the government continues to fund them.

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For an Israeli artist’s critique of the government to be worthy of broadcast on a major news show, it must first traverse the country’s borders. Israel's patience for its critics stops abruptly at the departure lounge of Ben Gurion Airport. Regev said that Channel 10’s investigative report underscores how right her approach is. She insists that Israel should not have to fund “artists who undermine the state and challenge its legitimacy.” She said, “A sane country should not help those who defame or criticize it or ‘bring up an evil report upon the land.’”

Regev’s predecessor, Limor Livnat, used that same biblical expression — “bring up an evil report upon the land” (Numbers 14:37) — three years ago, in February 2013. At the time, Livnat was explaining why she didn’t feel bad that two films, “Five Broken Cameras” and “The Gatekeepers,” both nominated for Oscars, had lost in that prestigious competition. “Over the past few years, there have been too many films that ‘bring up an evil report upon the land’ all around the world,” she said.

One of the six former heads of the Shin Bet, who “brought up an evil report upon the state” in “The Gatekeepers,” was none other than Likud Knesset member Avi Dichter, a close friend and colleague of Regev and Livnat. In the film, one of Dichter’s predecessors, Avraham Shalom, stated explicitly that young Israelis serving in the territories experience “a brutal occupation force, comparable to Germany in World War II.” Michael Oren, Israeli ambassador to the United States at the time and now a member of the Knesset for Kulanu, said that “The Gatekeepers” was damaging to Israel’s struggle against the campaign of de-legitimization being waged against it.

This approach reminds me of a dinner I once attended at the home of an Israeli ambassador in a major European capital. My host lashed out at me, saying, “You and [Israeli author] David Grossman are destroying all my work here.” Using less than diplomatic language, the ambassador told me that whenever he complained to the editors of newspapers about articles critical of Israel, they responded by saying, “What do you want from us? We were just quoting an interview with Grossman and an article by Eldar.”

I wondered how the ambassador failed to recognize the fatal flaw in his argument. It is impossible to claim that Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East while at the same time using the public coffers to censor films and plays, as Regev wants to do, or by “self-censorship,” as Livnat demanded. What was the benefit of this decree, as the Babylonian Talmud asks (Ketubot 71)? Will Amos Oz or opposition leader Isaac Herzog be considered traitors if they express their thoughts on the pages of The Washington Post or The New York Times? Furthermore, even if we, as Israeli journalists and screenwriters, agree to sweep the occupation under the rug, won’t foreign journalists find it anyway? Is that what will prevent articles critical of Israel from appearing in The Guardian, El Pais or Le Monde? What about Israeli journalism in English, like in Al-Monitor and The Jerusalem Post? Should it be silenced to avoid impeding Israeli diplomats from doing their job?

A few days ago, I had a chance to attend a screening of the documentary “Censored Voices,” directed by Mor Loushy, as part of a series of events organized by the New Israel Fund in Melbourne and Sydney. The film features harsh testimonies by soldiers who fought in the 1967 Six-Day War. They described the killing of prisoners and the massacre of Palestinian refugees who tried to return to their homes. In a series of conversations with the Israeli author Amos Oz, the subjects pricked the IDF’s myth of “purity of arms,” repeatedly, using some very sharp pins. They presented the ugly side of war and the high cost paid by the fighters themselves.

I was upset as I left the theater, but my pain mingled with pride in that I was an Israeli. I was upset because my generation had failed to extract peace from the jaws of our war with our Palestinian neighbors. I was proud because our society is still capable of producing such bold works as “The Gatekeepers,” “Five Broken Cameras” and “Censored Voices.” When I watched Glick’s report on Channel 10, on the other hand, I felt anger and worry. I was angry about how the Israeli media is collaborating with the enemies of freedom of expression, which is the lifeblood of any democracy. I was worried because I was watching how the immune system vital to Israeli democracy’s seemed to be attacking itself.

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Found in: shin bet, miri regev, media, israeli occupation, germany, freedom of speech, film, censorship

Akiva Eldar is a columnist for Al-Monitor’s Israel Pulse. He was formerly a senior columnist and editorial writer for Haaretz and also served as the Hebrew daily’s US bureau chief and diplomatic correspondent. His most recent book (with Idith Zertal), Lords of the Land, on the Jewish settlements, was on the best-seller list in Israel and has been translated into English, French, German and Arabic.

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