Are Israeli media afraid of Arab voices?


I read an article recently about Haifa. It was interesting. The author looked at the city that is often held up as an exemplar of tolerance and coexistence in Israel. In comparison to “divided” Jerusalem, Haifa is integrated. Or is it?

The article included a discussion with the Jewish mayor Yona Yahav, Ayman Odeh the leader of the Joint List (who is from Haifa). There is some mention of  Ghassan Kanafani and Emile Habibi and Toufik Toubi.  “The Israeli idea of coexistence is about a majority and a minority – the strong and the weak,” Tom Mehager of Adalah tells the writer. Then the article quotes Merav Ben-Nun, a “community organizer” and someone named Asaf Ron. Then the article explores Arabic culture in Haifa, a strategy paper and theatre. We hear from Al-Khashabi’s director, Bashar Murkus.

The article felt balanced. It was interesting. And it reminded how rarely in Israeli media we hear Arab voices in media. The article about Haifa was not in Israeli media. It was at The Guardian. That is partly why it included more Arab voices. But even if still held the systematic bias in favor of quoting non-Arab experts and community activists to “explain” the situation.

There is no shortage of Israeli media addressing certain types of issues relating to Arabs in Israel. First, the article identifies the “problem”: Discrimination, racism, violence, “honor killings”, poverty, or “coexistence.” Then the article will open with some color, to get the reader interested. Maybe it will be a recent incident. An imam shot outside a mosque. A beduin community being bulldozed for the 125th time. Guys driving around the Negev shooting in the air to celebrate a wedding. A new coexistence school somewhere. Hate graffiti sprayed on a mosque in the Galilee. An Arab woman who succeeds in something that seems interesting, like high-tech, a cooking show, fashion, politics. Racism at the airport.


Ayman Odeh and members of the Joint List pose for the cameras on election night 2015 (Seth J. Frantzman)

When articles go beyond just short tidbits of news they tend to want to bring in experts to “explain” the issue. And that’s when we see that what is ostensibly an article about a minority community, actually reinforces the majority and its need to hear from it’s own group to understand the other group. So there will be an endless list of experts, in Israel’s case this means Jewish Israelis usually, paraded in front of the reader or viewer. These are generally people who have made careers off of talking and writing about Palestinian Arabs. They take up the space that might otherwise be provided to Arab experts. They sit on panels. They attend conferences. They run organizations. And they work quietly to ensure that they are the only experts that are available and quoted, thus reinforcing their own essential part of the story. Media, rather than searching for new voices, has a ready-made “go to” list of these experts. After all, it’s difficult at a moments notice to get a hold of other people.

For years this was almost always the case in Jerusalem. Who explains “east Jerusalem”? Well, one or two Jewish Israeli city council members who are active “on behalf” of Palestinians in East Jerusalem. Then there are a few university experts or others. East Jerusalem has no voice. A community of hundreds of thousands of people, around a third of the city’s population, simply has no voice in Israeli media. Now one could argue that this in itself is an example of how divided the city is. But even when focusing only on the Arab community in Jerusalem the tendency is not to bother to meet any Arabs, or have any of them on a show or quoted in a piece.

Is this because Israeli media is afraid of Arab voices? This is part of the reason. Palestinian Arab commentators will inevitably tell the audience things that are not in line with certain ready-made narratives. This may challenge certain aspects of the story. In the article on Haifa there is an interesting paragraph that exemplifies this.

Its Arabic-language performances are translated into English, but conspicuously not into Hebrew. “Independent Palestinian institutions do not believe in coexistence,” explains Al-Khashabi’s director, Bashar Murkus. “We believe in dialogue from a position of strength and independence.” His colleague Khoulood Tannous flatly refuses even to use the “c” word. “No one is shelling us here,” she adds. “It’s no Gaza, nor the West Bank. It’s mind games.”

So what’s being said here? Well it seems that the commentators are arguing that actually they don’t want coexistence and they prefer a form of cultural segregation until such point as they are speaking from strength. That’s an important aspect of what “coexistence” means. Is coexistence something that only happens under the umbrella of a superior group and an inferior one where the superior one dictates the terms of coexistence? Or is it one that takes place as equals.

Narrow cultural milieu

For many years coexistence groups in Israel primarily did operate on a “superior-inferior” guideline. Most groups were run and funded by either by Israeli Jews or foreign non-Arabs and most of them worked with Palestinians on their own terms. That tended to mean that even if the members of the group actually appeared to be pro-Palestinians and actually worked hard to understand and accept entirely the Palestinian narrative, the coexistence issues was clearly defined by power. This certainly the case in the West Bank where the group would go into the West Bank to meet Palestinians and then go back to Israel.

Media simply replicated this. But it also replicates what it has already done when dealing with other disadvantaged groups in Israel. Whether it is Haredim, Ethiopian Jews, “Russians” (the term used for all immigrants from the Former Soviet Union), or Mizrahi Jews, there was a tendency historically to not have voices from these communities but rather to “explain” them through the lens of the elite voices.

It’s not a surprise for media in Israel to behave this way since those who work in media tend to come from a a relatively narrow section of society within the majority. Newsrooms in Israel, like in most countries, are some of the least diverse parts of the country. So it’s hard for people in a non-diverse environment to produce anything but products that represent a lack of diversity. That means quoting and interviewing people like themselves, and not being familiar with minority groups. In a sense therefore elite media primarily operates for other members of the majority and an elite within that majority. This issue of “whose voices” are being heard has been researched in other settings. Even when minorities are highlighted they are treated as some exotic “other”, not as a genuine voice, an equal voice and one that can speak on its own terms.

Lack of resources

But it’s not just about majority-minority, elite structures, and fear. Obviously one of the major issues involved is budget, resources and time. Media works in a 24-hour news cycle and has tremendous pressure to produce more content with less resources. So the ability to find and develop voices from minority communities or “the other” is constrained. As noted above, it is partly constrained by the fact that those producing the media are unfamiliar with and not from other communities. Obviously in Israel, for instance, a wealthy member of what is often called the “Ashkenazi elite” will know lots of other Ashkenazi or European-origin, colleagues. So when they need a quote or someone to speak they inevitably go to their network and find one. And that tends to be an academic or “activist” who is like them. If they have a few minorities they know then these will become their token voices for the “other.” So lack of resources feeds a cycle that reinforces systematic discrimination and actually makes media more insular.

The irony is that even as as media expands online that the number of voices “explaining” things to us, in Israel or elsewhere, is more narrow than before. It’s actually less diverse. There are actually less voices from other communities, despite the supposed more “liberal” aspect of major media. The ability of minorities to gain a foothold and find a place in major media is curtailed because there are less spaces. With more competition for less spaces the old networks of elites and those who have resources have an advantage to gain access. Contacts, nepotism and social networks play a greater role in hiring in 2018 than decades ago.

One of “our own”

A final reason for the lack of Arab voices must refer back to the question of fear. There is a preference for Israeli Jewish activists to explain what happens in the Negev or in Gaza or elsewhere because they can present it in a more palatable way for the audience. There are certain terms and concepts that they might advance, or even their own agendas, that listening to Palestinian Arab voices would not advance.

All the discussion about “Jewish values” or “we were strangers once” doesn’t work outside of a narrow context. A lot of the discussion about asylum-seekers in Israel, for instance, is primarily an internal Jewish discussion of “what it means” to be a Jewish state. When the treatment of Arabs is also predicated on “what it means to be one of us” and not “what it means to be one of them”, that feeds a cycle in media of not having “one of them” on air. If the conversation is about “our values” then it doesn’t include “them.” So the larger question has to do with who is consuming the media product and who is producing it and wha they think the public “should” have.

Comfortable viewers are what is wanted. There are certain types of radical left voices who are acceptable but certain types who are not. For instance in the recent clashes along the border with Gaza where thousands of Palestinians were wounded by live fire, no media wanted to talk to Gazan voices. They didn’t mind hearing Jewish human rights voices saying “our Jewish values” mean Israel should do X or Y. After all, Natalie Portman’s reference to Gaza got more play than all the Palestinian voices about Gaza. Because Portman somehow is perceived as closer to the public and palatable. Her views matter more. She speaks the viewer’s language. “Values” and things like that. “One of us,” sort of. But who isn’t “one of us.” The Palestinian journalists shot by live fire are not. So their voices are not included. Actually there is a fear to hear from them. There is less fear to hear from Israelis who think that a video of a sniper shooting a Palestinian might be the new “Elor Azaria” because that reinforces a concept of “we will prosecute those who commit crimes” and “we are a law abiding society.” To hear from a voice in Gaza who might say something about how all the snipers are criminals wouldn’t sit well. It might only sit well if it were a radical leftist in Israel, then it is just “one of those crazies on the fringe” who is brought on the show in order for others to be more moderate and “reasonable.”

Quantifying how media covers Palestinian Arabs is worthwhile. For every article ask “whose voice is being presented”? Even when Palestinian Arab voices are included, ask who are they. Are they the same voice that seems to exist in every article about “Palestinians”? Or is it a new voice? Are they young or old, men or women, religious or secular, and from which community. The same problem that media has including poorer voices or rural voices from its “own” community, exists when dealing with minorities or “the other.” Elite voices tend to recruit other elite voices. Even when they are comfortable with “the other” they only want a certain segment. Because in general they are not comfortable with marginalized or voices outside what they consider the mainstream.

Seventy years after the creation of Israel the media in the country have a tendency to ignore Palestinian Arab voices, inside or outside the Green Line.



One response to “Are Israeli media afraid of Arab voices?

  1. This is valid for all countries with their “minorities”.

    On Sat, Apr 28, 2018 at 9:09 AM, Seth J. Frantzman wrote:

    > Seth Frantzman posted: “By SETH J. FRANTZMAN I read an article recently > about Haifa. It was interesting. The author looked at the city that is > often held up as an exemplar of tolerance and coexistence in Israel. In > comparison to “divided” Jerusalem, Haifa is integrated. Or is i” >

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