Time magazine reminds me these days of the old Yogi Berra-ism: “Nobody goes there any more — it’s too crowded.” Only in the case of Time it’s, “Nobody reads it anymore — just its 3.4 million subscribers.” Newsmagazines are struggling in the Internet age, but, at least until the actuarial table catches up to its readers once and for all, Time remains a potent force.
That explains a lot of the Jewish upset over Time’s recent Israel coverage, which included last September’s cover story — noxiously and misleadingly titled, “Why Israel Doesn’t Care About Peace” — and now its latest opus, “Israel’s Rightward Lurch Scares Some Conservatives.” In terms of news value, there is little to surprise anyone who has been following Israel’s internal conflicts. What’s upsetting Jewish readers — conservatives and otherwise — is the article’s lack of context and the weird self-assurance in which reporter Karl Vick declares, if not the end then the imminent demise of Israeli democracy.
Not that he had to look far for some ominous trends — trends, after all, that have been widely noted and criticized by Jews both in Israel and abroad. A large group of prominent rabbis, after all, did sign a decree banning Jews from renting property to non-Jews; Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman has been sowing mistrust of Israel’s Arab citizens and proposing a series of laws meant to test their “loyalty”; and Israel-based human rights organizations have shuddered over legislation that would scrutinize their funding sources (although Vick doesn’t point out that the law specifically focuses on foreign funding of NGOs, a controversial topic in the United States as well).
For decades Time has allowed its correspondents more leeway in editorializing than, say, the average daily newspaper reporter. And yet even a piece of advocacy journalism should allow room for countervailing voices, and nuance.
At the very least, the Netanyahu government should have been given the ability to respond. Time eventually did append a response to the article by the prime minister’s office, and it’s a strong one. Netanyahu adviser Ron Derner points out some of the insidiously coded language used by Vick, puts the controversial legislation in the context of American laws regarding citizenship and foreign lobbying, and reminds readers that Benjamin Netanyahu “has publicly and forcefully condemned the racist sentiments that were mentioned in the article.”
You don’t have to agree with all of Derner’s response, but it suggests that the picture is not black and white.
Nor is it Left and Right. Even a reliable left-winger like Bradley Burston of Ha’aretz is willing to acknowledge that things in Israel aren’t as dire as some make it seem.
Here’s what’s giving Burston hope: Lieberman’s “anti-democratic bills” have largely stalled in their preliminary stages. A majority of Israelis continue to support a two-state solution. While the number of “unabashedly bigoted” rulings by state-employed rabbis is on the rise, so too is the public backlash against them.
Burston also notes a political rumbling that Vick misses entirely: Israel’s center, which “comprises around half of the total electorate,” is showing signs of impatience with Netanyahu’s right-wing coalition — good news for Tzipi Livni and her centrist Kadima Party. While accusing Netanyahu of “taking a page from neighboring authoritarian states,” Vick doesn’t acknowledge that, unlike those neighboring states, Israel allows its citizens to challenge and correct their own government.
In fact, Vick builds his case for Israel’s “rightward lurch” mostly on the words of Israeli critics. It was a group of leading Israeli intellectuals, not European anti-Zionists or Palestinian activists, who issued a letter declaring that the NGO bill’s supporters “will be remembered as being the ones who attempted to smash what is left of democracy in Israel and impose a fascist regime.” It is an Israeli historian — Ron Pundak of the Peres Center for Peace — who says the current atmosphere in Israel is “reminiscent of the dark ages of different places in the world in the 1930s. Maybe not Germany, but Italy, maybe Argentina later. I fear we are reaching a slippery slope, if we are not already there.”
(Maybe not Germany?)
Read the Israeli dailies on-line and you easily find columnists who take a similarly ominous line. “Israel can’t be a democracy with two classes of citizens,” declared an editorial in Ha’aretz. A Jerusalem Post columnist accused Lieberman of leading a “witch-hunt over the funding of Israeli human rights organizations.” Leaders of the Israel Democracy Institute issued a statement declaring that recent bills and rulings threaten “the very legislative foundations of this country and our sensitive and divided society.”
True, these writers no more speak for all Israelis than MSNBC (or Fox News, for that matter) speaks for all Americans. But at least they can speak.
Perhaps that’s what’s most galling about the Time piece and a lot of the recent criticism of Israel: The critics don’t even acknowledge that they are parroting voices emerging not from the fringes of society or from some exiled dissidents, but from the very heart of Israel’s media and political institutions. A hallmark of Israel’s robust democracy — its fierce impulse for self-criticism — is thus used against it.
“It’s become only natural, of late, to think of Israel as a lost cause,” writes Burston. “But it’s time to think again.” No pun intended.