Israel’s current quarrel with the Obama administration is as much a flap over terminology as it is over diplomacy, according to the Jerusalem-based director of a group seeking to improve Israel’s image in the media.
Last week, Vice President Joseph Biden criticized Israel for announcing, during his visit to the Jewish state, the construction of 1,600 housing units in a disputed area of east Jerusalem. Although Biden did not use the word “settlements” in referring to the construction project, media outlets that did were distorting the issue, according to Aryeh Green of Media Central.
While it’s true that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced a freeze on West Bank “settlements” last November, he did say the freeze would not apply in east Jerusalem. “I have my own attitudes about this, but there are disputed areas,” Green acknowledged. On the other hand, the proposed construction was of “homes,” not “settlements.”
Such terminology can shape government policy, Green said in a talk at Congregation Anshe Chesed, the Orthodox synagogue in Linden, on March 11. Over the past 30 years, he said, loaded language has converted Israel’s image from a feisty little “David” to an aggressive oppressor.
Green’s talk was cosponsored by the synagogue and the Jewish Federation of Central New Jersey as part of his 12-day, nine-city tour to raise funds for the center and awareness of its work. The center is a project of Honest Reporting, a group whose aim is to counteract what it sees as media bias against Israel.
Green’s appearance at the Linden shul, he and Rabbi Joshua Hess explained, was thanks to a friendship between them that began years back in Denver. Green, who made aliya from California 15 years ago, worked for six years as an adviser to Natan Sharansky.
Green spelled out what he sees as the media’s semantic minefield. For example, he said, journalists gloss over atrocities among Arabs and Palestinians, dubbing Palestinians “victims” while Israelis are damned as “occupiers.” The Israeli security barrier — 94 percent of which is a heavily patrolled chain link fence — is called a “wall,” adding to the image of Israel as an “apartheid” regime.
Arab despots are termed “moderate” whereas Netanyahu is called “right-wing.”
Green said he is baffled by the fact that foreign journalists seem to take on faith what is told to them by Palestinian civilians and officials, despite the well-known restrictions on what they can say — both as a result of intimidation and lack of knowledge. And yet those same journalists treat with skepticism what Israelis say, though they have the opportunity to speak far more freely and with widely diverging views.
After questioning 50 or 60 reporters, “the penny dropped,” he said. The Palestinians welcome the media, offering warm hospitality and the help of “fixers” to make contacts for them in the disputed territories and smooth their way. The American Colony Hotel in east Jerusalem was — and still is — a welcoming haven for foreign correspondents.
By contrast, Israelis tend to be much more reserved, and even combative.
Green said Media Central was set up as a welcoming place in Jerusalem where reporters and photographers can find, besides a place to work, drivers, guides, translators, and contacts with various information sources as well as briefings on different topics and press tours to places of interest.
The center functions with a staff of only five, with a small budget dependent on foundation grants and private donors.
Still, Green asserted, “after three years, we have a reputation for reliability that is unrivalled by any other organization, Israeli or Palestinian.”
He called on the audience to play their part to get fairer coverage for Israel.
“How many of you have written letters to the newspapers?” he asked. “How many have taken the foreign editor of your local paper to lunch?”
He challenged them to take such a step — not to dictate the nature of the coverage, but to help build bridges of understanding.