Opinion

Why are liberal Zionists embracing Matti Friedman’s Islamophobia?

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I was at first shocked by the tone-deaf heartlessness of ex-AP correspondent Matti Friedman’s now-infamous Tablet piece that criticized the attention US news media gave the Gaza war. On August 26, the very day the truce took hold—marked by deliberate IDF attacks on Gaza’s civilian professionalsFriedman wrote dismissively: “When the hysteria abates, I believe the events in Gaza will not be remembered by the world as particularly important. People were killed, most of them Palestinians”—mostly “innocents,” he acknowledged, whose deaths would change nothing. Ugh.

So unreconstructed was Friedman’s logic, and so superficial and transparent his complaints about too much Gaza coverage, that I held out hope that serious journalists would ignore it. But positioned as objective criticism of press bias, bolstered by Friedman’s years in the AP Jerusalem bureau (his beat was religion and archeology), I knew it might gain traction among people who don’t always favor squashing stories.

In fact, the mainstream attention the piece has gotten shows that Gaza changed everything—especially the rhetoric embraced by Israel’s liberal supporters. The collapse of John Kerry’s supposedly last-ditch peace process, then the June pogrom on the West Bank and July-August bloodbath in Gaza—and the settlement expansion, the nationalist rallies, the explosion of racist expression even Israel’s Likud president has to acknowledge—shredded Israel’s carefully crafted image as a beleaguered but vibrant and egalitarian, peace-seeking democracy respectful of civil rights. Arguments in Israel’s defense, even from liberals, came to depend more nakedly than ever on cultural superiority and fear-mongering about Muslims who make up Israel’s “bad neighborhood.”

Friedman’s media critique, at its core, is cherry-picked “whataboutery.” At the close of a US-funded onslaught that killed over 2,000 and leveled entire neighborhoods, he suggests the Portland, Oregon, crime rate would be more newsworthy:

The volume of press coverage that results, even when little is going on, gives this conflict a prominence compared to which its actual human toll is absurdly small. In all of 2013, for example, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict claimed 42 lives—that is, roughly the monthly homicide rate in the city of Chicago. Jerusalem, internationally renowned as a city of conflict, had slightly fewer violent deaths per capita last year than Portland, Ore., one of America’s safer cities. In contrast, in three years the Syrian conflict has claimed an estimated 190,000 lives, or about 70,000 more than the number of people who have ever died in the Arab-Israeli conflict since it began a century ago.
Matti Friedman, by Sebastian Scheiner
Matti Friedman, by Sebastian Scheiner

And why, according to Friedman, did the media give such disproportionate emphasis to the Gaza carnage, rather than the allegedly under-covered conflicts he cites in Pakistan, Tibet, Congo, the Central African Republic, Mexico, India, and Thailand? Shocker: it’s an “old, twisted pattern of thought and its migration from the margins to the mainstream of Western discourse—namely, a hostile obsession with Jews.”

Of course, the idea that the amount of coverage should mirror the death toll is simplistic. Many factors go into news organizations’ judgment about what should be covered, from viewer interest, to strategic importance, to the US’s role in creating the problem and its ability to solve it. Were the 3000 deaths on 9/11 over-covered? (And if you’re counting how many are affected, 11 million Palestinians are either in exile, under occupation, or Israeli citizens with severely curtailed rights.) So it’s obtuse to blame anti-Semitism for the volume of Gaza coverage, particularly after the US media’s obedient reflection of Israel’s disingenuous narrative (i.e., that the war was self-defense against rockets and “terror tunnels,” rather than an avoidable war that Israel provoked).

Instead of six million close-at-hand Palestinians who Israel displaced, and discriminates against, Friedman wants us to see a familiar clash of civilizations: what he insists is not an “Israel-Palestine” conflict, but rather “Israel-Arab,” “Jewish-Arab” or even “Israel-Muslim.” He offers the same self-pitying scenario Ari Shavit sketches in the gloomy final chapter of My Promised Land: 6 million brave, symphony-loving democrats surrounded by 300 million Arabs who wouldn’t give up a mere 0.2% of their land for a Jewish state. Considering the eagerness of authoritarian regimes in Egypt, Jordan, the UAE and Saudi Arabia to line up on Israel’s behalf during the summer war, it’s hard to see how this argument sustains itself.

When Friedman’s piece appeared, Twitter friends reassured me it wouldn’t get much pickup. But a few days later on August 26, I was dismayed to see the essay approvingly tweeted by Todd Gitlin, a leading authority on the protest movements of the 1960s, who called it “a necessary argument.” I’d seen Gitlin speak at UC Berkeley in 1991 during the first Gulf War, on a night when the US had just bombed a Baghdad shelter killing scores of civilians. Quaking with anger, he screened ABC’s news report for the antiwar audience who’d come to hear him speak. Now he was approvingly citing a diehard essay that blamed anti-Semitism for too much news coverage of Israel’s latest massacre. I answered his tweet:

seriously? Affirming someone who plainly states Palestinian deaths don’t matter?

Gitlin replied:

Garbage. Why, Peter Feld, do you bother claiming something so transparently false?

responded with a screen grab highlighting Friedman’s “When the hysteria abates…” quote. Gitlin:

If it makes you feel more self-righteous to read it thus rather than deal w whole article, mazel tov.

When I answered, “ok but rest is so dismall [sic]. Every self-pitying fantasy: 6m Jews battling 300m Arabs for a mere 0.2% of their land,” the great chronicler of the New Left was done talking with me. “You are a master at picking sour cherries. Not serious. Over and out.” So much for substantive engagement.

Then on August 31, with some horror, I saw CNN’s Brian Stelter plug Friedman as a guest on his Sunday morning show Reliable Sources. Stelter is a friend from Internet/media circles, and a journalist I respect, so I tweeted him with alarm:

omg Brian why does the biased ex-archeology reporter get airtime for his juvenile, shallow, heartless rant?

Like his CNN colleague Jake Tapper, Stelter deserves respect for being willing to engage critics. He replied: “judge the segment separately from the essay…” and then asked me “can you point me to an essay responding to his? I’m interested in hearing the POV.” Finding no Friedman rebuttal, I dashed one off on my Tumblr (with points similar to the ones here) and pointed Brian to it in hopes he’d see it before his interview, minutes away.

Stelter has been fantastic in countering his network’s generally pro-war push, recently examining whether the media is provoking hysteria about ISIS. But the Friedman interview was awful and infuriating. Unlike Friedman’s recent interview with NPR’s “On The Media,” which at least offered “balance” from ex-NYT Jerusalem bureau chief (and former IDF parent) Ethan Bronner, there was no opposing guest. Nor did Stelter raise any challenges. For six minutes on national television, Friedman spilled out his Tablet essay again.

In September, Friedman’s ex-boss at the AP, Steven Gutkin, published a compelling rebuttal to the Tablet piece clearly debunking the charge that the Jerusalem bureau suppressed stories critical of Palestinians or supportive of Israel. Friedman’s AP ex-compatriot Mark Lavie then wrote an account repeating the bias accusation, also featured on Tablet. Top Hillary Clinton advisor Howard Wolfson—undoubtedly deeply involved with the  2016 Democratic frontrunner’s recent, unmistakeable tack to the right on Israel that has won praise from the likes of Jeffrey Goldberg and David Brooks—tweeted approvingly:

This story of anti Israeli bias keeps getting worse for the AP: “Former AP Reporter Confirms Matti Friedman Account”

“Keeps getting worse,” of course, is a favorite trope of conservatives gamely trying to gin up scandal from modest origins. I tweeted the Gutkin piece to Wolfson, and when he directed me back to Lavie (“read the link — 2nd source confirms original account”), I did a little digging. In August, Lavie had published “Why Everything Reported from Gaza is Crazy Twisted” in The Tower Magazine arguing, like Friedman, that coverage of the Gaza war was overblown and biased against Israel. I replied to Wolfson: “Lavie has same strongly anti-Palestinian & anti-Gaza coverage bias as MF […] perhaps why AP chief reined in?” I got no further response.

Friedman was wrong when he wrote that this last Gaza war will not “mark a turning point.” The Gaza operation, and its support from 95% of the Jewish Israeli public, dealt a critical blow to the hopeful view of Israel that long nurtured its liberal supporters. That’s why they’re so upset at all the coverage, which thanks to a more mature social media environment, spread like never before.

And that also explains why liberal Zionists are suddenly citing clash-of-civilization rationalizations that are essentially racial, ones that would otherwise have little appeal to anyone who values equality, coexistence and civil rights. After the bloody summer of 2014, there’s nothing left. No more shining vision: Israel is Mississippi now. Whoever needs to side with Israel despite this, even “liberals” like Gitlin and Wolfson, have no choice but to get on board with Matti Friedman.

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“He offers the same self-pitying scenario Ari Shavit sketches …6 million brave, symphony-loving democrats surrounded by 300 million Arabs who wouldn’t give up a mere 0.2% of their land for a Jewish state. Considering the eagerness of authoritarian regimes in Egypt, Jordan, the UAE and Saudi Arabia to line up… Read more »

Thanks for this article, Peter Feld.

“Why are liberal Zionists embracing Matti Friedman’s Islamophobia?”

Because they are Zionists.

Do the 6-million (somehow, whatever the topic, it’s always 6 million) brave, symphony-loving Israelis include those who scrawl “Death to Arabs” on Palestinian walls, mow down Palestinian children with their cars, and uproot olive trees, etc.? Actually, I like symphonies myself, and so do all sorts of people. So do… Read more »

Why do the “liberal Zionists” embrace Matti Friedman’s distraction? Because they readily latch onto anything that will allow themselves (and they hope will persuade others) to overlook Israel’s murderous excesses. I think that Israel is in the hands of extremists who are pushing the country inexorably in a poisonous direction.… Read more »

There’s no such creature as a “liberal zionist”. At a pinch, there maybe such a thing as a “zionist liberal”. Zionism always trumps liberality. A zionist cannot achieve the supremacy s/he may believe to be a gawd-given right in any other country but Israel, so supports equality of rights in… Read more »