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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.

Peter Feld

Peter Feld is a writer, editorial consultant, market researcher and former political strategist at Democratic polling firms. He is @peterfeld on Twitter, Tumblr and Instagram.

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22 Responses

  1. a blah chick on October 31, 2014, 2:59 pm

    “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 on Israel’s behalf during the summer war, it’s hard to see how this argument sustains itself.”

    This is the thing that stood out for me, how some Arab elites have found that they have many things in common with the “Zionist entity” and are perfectly content to connive with them and the US…and the foreign aid is so sweet! Sisi is as loathsome as Butcher Bibi. At least the Butcher isn’t torturing and imprisoning massive numbers of Jewish people.

    • Horizontal on November 3, 2014, 8:26 pm

      Yeah, just look at Egypt. Bought off, and the second largest recipient of American largess after — you guessed it — Israel.

  2. just on October 31, 2014, 3:19 pm

    Thanks for this article, Peter Feld.

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

    Because they are Zionists.

    • bilal a on November 2, 2014, 10:38 am

      or put differently, rage born of a deeply ingrained sense of supremacist, narcissistic entitlement resulting in a pathological hatred of the Other , and sorry, but it exists outside of zionism, and typical of white collar manic (short term-ism) criminality we associate with modern American elite financial manipulations.

      Narcissistic Rage and the Sense of Entitlement

      When the expectation is strong but meets with frustration, the response is often narcissistic rage — whether in Narcissistic Personality Disorder, Bipolar Disorder, Borderline Personality or any other superficially discrete category of diagnosis. The person may spew venom at a friend or relation; she may become violent, either destroying objects in her environment or launching a physical assault on someone nearby; he may seek to belittle or destroy someone whom he envies. In these cases, the element of rage is obvious, on the surface.

      Sometimes it’s less easy to detect. A person in manic flight may not appear to be enraged but nonetheless expresses hatred for the frustrating limitations of reality by defying them — going on a spending spree; attempting to do something all at once (rather than slowly over time) in order to get the desired benefit right now; behaving in omnipotent ways, as if they held magic powers, because they hate the demands of hard work. In other words, I’m suggesting that most manic episodes in part reflect a hatred of and narcissistic rage against the frustrations of reality.

      • Horizontal on November 3, 2014, 8:31 pm

        Dealing with the public for many years, I’ve only consistently encountered this superior sense of entitlement among two groups of people: Jews & conservative Christians.

  3. pabelmont on October 31, 2014, 3:19 pm

    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 Palestinians. Maybe my focus should be on the characterization “brave”. How brave are these Israelis who rain death on Gaza while taking every precaution, at the cost of many additional Palestinian lives, that no Israeli soldier be injured?

  4. pabelmont on October 31, 2014, 3:26 pm

    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. They have inured themselves to the idea that everybody hates the Jews and thus see no harm from giving more cause for such hatred. They have also accustomed themselves to the idea that they can do what they like without fear of reprisal: being a Zionist means never saying you’re sorry and never fearing punishment, no matter what. “After all, the holocaust” (that all purpose explanation): the Jews must not be punished because they’ve suffered enough.

    • pabelmont on October 31, 2014, 4:33 pm

      I forgot to conclude: because the progress of Israel into the unspeakable is apparently inexorable, the problem it presents to the “liberal Zionists” will get more severe as time passes, and therefore (one imagines), as time passes, except for the indefinitely morally flexible, one by one they will lose either their passion for defending the indefensible (“Israel, what’s that?”) or will, in fact, come over to the other side (anti-Zionism or the like).

      No one wants to be aboard a sinking ship. I feel sorry for Israeli Jews who cannot avoid being Israelis and also cannot do anything to steer the boat in a better direction. We Americans have the same problem if not so blatantly.

      • Horizontal on November 2, 2014, 4:25 pm

        I don’t think this is a new condition. The idea that Americans can be very liberal and progressive with issues here but on the wrong side regarding Israel goes back to the thirties, at least. Many of the American Zionists were the progressives of the day, at least as far as workers’ rights, unionization, and fair treatment of minorities in the US were concerned.

        Many had never been to Palestine and so either imagined it devoid of people or that any Arabs there were backwards and would benefit from being a part of a Jewish State. Basically, the old handmaidens of ignorance and racism working their charms again.

        I think until recently, there was no such thing as a decent Palestinian in the public mind, so there was nothing for Israeli excesses to bounce against. If they were thought of at all ,it was only as a backward terrorist, unworthy of consideration. The media in this country work hard to keep that earlier prejudice alive.

  5. Bumblebye on October 31, 2014, 7:31 pm

    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 the diaspora. Meanwhile, superiority of rights are a must in Israel/Palestine, of which no criticism is permitted!

    • eljay on October 31, 2014, 10:14 pm

      >> Bumblebye: There’s no such creature as a “liberal zionist”.

      A “liberal Zionist” is a kinder, gentler Zio-supremacist. He believes in Jewish supremacism in a supremacist “Jewish State” and he justifies and/or glosses over all sorts of past and on-going acts of injustice and immorality committed by Zio-supremacists and the supremacist “Jewish State” of Israel, but:
      – he holds his nose while his hardier co-collectivists do the dirty work; and
      – although he doesn’t rule out ethnic cleansing (“currently its not necessary”), he seems to prefer the idea of excising threatening demographics by re-drawing borders.

  6. JLewisDickerson on November 1, 2014, 4:10 am

    RE: “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.”

    MY COMMENT: Israel’s Gaza onslaught (turkey shoot) got a lot of American TV coverage for the same reason the lava flow in Hawaii has gotten so much coverage: good (free/inexpensive) visuals (i.e., “chewing gum for the eyes”)! It’s not news, it’s “disaster TV”! ! !

  7. American on November 2, 2014, 10:44 am

    Cant believe anyone following I/P for any years didn’t catch on to AP long ago.
    AP has always been slanted for Israel.
    Cant believe any careful reader hasn’t caught onto AP’s dishonesty period.
    AP’s way of doing it’s slants is not to ‘totally lie about the facts”…its a little slicker than that—-what AP does is headline their reports where the headline of the article *doesn’t match the content*. So for readers who ‘skim’ papers the headline becomes a fact–when its not.

  8. Horizontal on November 2, 2014, 4:14 pm

    Tell Matti I’ll stop worrying about Israel and start worrying about Pakistan, Tibet, Congo, the Central African Republic, Mexico, India or Thailand when any of those countries receive more than $3 billion tax dollars a year with no strings attached; when any of those countries employ hundreds of lobbyists to swarm over our congress, preventing any negative consequences for their illegal activities; when their PAC becomes a required stop for any and all presidential candidates regardless of party or philosophy, all pledging undying support; or when my criticism of their countries’ policies is automatically met with the accusation that what I really hate are the individuals who make up those countries.

    Till then, I’m going to keep holding Israel up to a civilized standard of behavior.

    • Qualtrough on November 5, 2014, 2:48 am

      Horizontal–thank you for writing exactly what I (and I am sure many others) think about this sickening example of ‘whataboutery’. You not only saved me time in writing my own response, but did a much better job at articulating my feelings than I would have.

      • Horizontal on November 7, 2014, 9:22 am

        A tip o’ the cap to you, Qualtrough.

  9. Pretext on November 2, 2014, 9:36 pm

    If somebody wrote a piece saying that Jewish deaths don’t matter, what do you think the odds are that television pundits would legitimize them with airtime as subject matter experts and dismiss any concerns with “judge the segment separately from the essay…”?

    • Horizontal on November 3, 2014, 10:31 am

      Great point, Pretext.

      You only have to insert “Jewish” for “Palestinian” or “Arab” to instantly see the gross insanity of some of these pro-Israel comments which are taken seriously by our self-appointed Deep Thinkers & Serious People who control the debate in this country. Obviously, these types of remarks aimed at Jews wouldn’t stand for a second.

  10. Qualtrough on November 5, 2014, 2:57 am

    Whataboutery for Zionists: The handful of Israelis killed by rockets from Gaza over the years probably amounts to less than a couple days death toll from traffic accidents in Israel. So, why make a big deal about those? Why all the coverage? Why is there a need to kill thousands of Palestinians to stop the rockets? Many more people have died from falls in their bathrooms in Israel than from rockets, why this murderous obsession over a tiny number of deaths?

    • Horizontal on November 7, 2014, 9:30 am

      The real reason is that Jewish lives matter more than other lives, which is the dark, chewy, racist center at the middle of the Zionist bonbon.

      Since that can’t really be defended openly, we get phrases attesting to “Israel’s right to defend themselves” along with a multi-million dollar ad campaign advertising the perennial blockbuster double-features known as Victimhood and Disinformation.

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