When journalists call Israelis ‘scum’

By SETH J. FRANTZMAN originally published at The Jerusalem Post

On July 17, 2014 CNN’s Diana Magnay stood atop a hill in Sderot, and after having filmed Israelis cheering the bombing of Gaza, tweeted “Israelis on hill above Sderot cheer as bombs land on #gaza; threaten to ‘destroy our car if I say a word wrong.’ Scum.” Her castigation of the young people from Sderot who often gather to watch the war is part of a larger outrage by international media at the “Sderot cinema.”

There are excuses for this “slip-up” by the journalist. She deleted the tweet quickly, realizing it was inappropriate or would call into question her coverage (she was subsequently transferred by the network to Russia). Others noted that it is hard to deal with the negative behavior of people who sometimes insult journalists.

But the Magnay libel comes against a backdrop of how journalists and others view the Israel-Palestinian conflict. In January 2014 The Guardian’s Harriet Sherwood, wrapping up several years of reporting there, wrote a love letter to Gaza, recalling the “resilience, creativity and humor of its people,” detailing their “fortitude” and “spirit.”

The words “the people” of Gaza appear at least nine times in the 2,000-word piece. We must “understand the people”; “the people are reeling”; “I had been fascinated by this place, its people”; “Israel’s grinding oppression of the Palestinian people”; “acute impact on ordinary people”; “humor of ordinary people”; “overwhelmingly decent people”; “the people of Gaza need luck.”

When Israeli journalist Avi Issacharoff was attacked by Palestinians near Ramallah, he wrote that he wouldn’t stop doing his “job,” which he defined as “to inform the Israeli and international public about Palestinian reality.”

Journalists covering Palestinians often place themselves not as unbiased observers, or even those purporting to be unbiased, but rather as narrators for the “people” and the “reality.” They are always “struck by how hospitable, genuine, gentle and kind the [Palestinian] people are,” as another journalist wrote on Facebook.

This appears to reflect a sympathetic point of view, but in fact stems from Orientalist superiority. The Palestinians are a “people” precisely because the British, French or Israelis are not. They are not seen through a romantic prism – because they are perceived as “us,” not as “them.” No journalist who leaves Paris waxes romantic and poetic about “the people.” Maybe they worry about missing the baguettes and wine, but the “masses” are not involved – because local people are perceived as individuals, rather than a collective mass of romantic humanity.

Similarly, few mainstream media commentators based in Israel leave such melodramatic prose about the “People of Israel” upon leaving. Many expressed outrage at Magnay for “anti-Semitism,” but this misreads what actually happened. The Magnay comment is not really directed at Israelis; it is rather a mirror that Magnay holds up to herself and many who think as she does.

Let’s step back and recall the attacks on journalists in Egypt in 2011, when CBS reporter Lara Logan was sexually assaulted. At no time, despite harassment and assaults on many journalists, did any of them publicly call Egyptians “scum.” Similarly you won’t find such comments about Syrians, Iraqis or basically any group of people. When Palestinians celebrated the Ramallah lynching of two Israeli reservists in 2000, they were not “scum,” and neither were the Arabs at Damascus Gate last week shouting “Allahu akbar” when rockets were hit by the Iron Dome defense system above Jerusalem.

The “scum” comments are reserved for Israelis. The real motivation for the zealous and visceral hatred directed at Israelis, and the lack of compassion for them, is that many observers see themselves in Israelis. They see in Israel the dark past of Western racism. When longtime Channel 4 host (now of ITN news) Jon Snow tore into Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev and claimed the Jewish state was purposely targeting children, it came from a place of hatred – but it was misplaced hatred at Israel, in fact directed at the past.

Another journalist claimed that only in Israel had she seen people putting ideology and religion above humanity. But she knows very well that in conflicts in Iraq, Syria, Tibet, Sri Lanka, Nigeria, Sudan and hundreds of other places, people put religion and ideology above humanity. What she really meant is that in Europe, people have learned to put humanity first; Israel is like a museum of Europe’s past and therefore the hatred is directed at the self, the “old Europe.”

For that reason, the revulsion at Israelis and lack of it for Palestinians, despite ostensibly similar behavior, such as cheering on “martyrs,” represents a Western superiority complex; Israel is considered Western.

Foreign commentators, and even some Israelis, see Palestinians as unredeemable savages, and Israelis as badly behaving Europeans. These commentators are in a process of negotiating their identity, and their outrage at racist manifestations in the West is presented often through the lens of outrage at racism from “us,” vs understanding and complacency at vulgarity or homophobia when “the other” expresses it.

For instance, anti-Semitism from Turkish immigrants in Germany is more “understandable” than anti-Semitism among Germans; homophobia among Christian whites in the US is judged worse than among African-American adherents of the Nation of Islam.

THE SAME reaction fueled anger about the killing of Mohammed Abu Khdeir. Many Israelis said “We are better than this” and “Jewish morality is superior to that of our cruel enemies”; the revulsion was not tempered by notions of equality, such as “We are one of them,” but because of a sense of being above it, a “Light unto the nations,” as some claimed.

This is the essence of questions such as “How can we behave like that” or comments like “I expect more from them.” From a point of view of overall equality, it is obvious why “we” might behave badly, because every culture produces evil as well as good. To assume otherwise is to assume perfection and superiority. Although a superiority complex guides revulsion for Israeli behavior, one wonders why amid the outraged European extremism directed at Israel’s actions, one still does not find sympathy even for Israeli victims. All the years Sderot sat under the rockets, few foreign observers wrote glowingly of “the people of Sderot.” This is because of a disconnect in the West that has developed with the understanding of self-victimhood.

Indeed, after the terrorist attacks in Madrid, London and 9/11, few commentators wrote about the victims the way they dwell on, with almost religious devotion, Palestinian children. Western media purposely hides victims; their images do not appear as we don’t want to “inflame tensions” or “shock” people. There are no “martyrs.” Passion is replaced by dispassionate responses.

At the same time, revulsion is reserved for “lowbrow” patriotism: Americans that chant “America!” at events, the “white trash” who enjoy the Fourth of July a little too much. Some people wonder why commentators who critique Israel for targeting civilians in Gaza don’t also critique the French actions in Mali or the British in Afghanistan. Mostly because they don’t even remember their countries are in those far-off lands, they see themselves as post-national.

Such is the need to pretend patriotism does not exist, and to reserve revulsion for groups that violate that post-modern norm.

Follow the author @sfrantzman

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