Analysis from Israel

Back in July, trying to make sense of developments like the Brexit vote and the rise of Donald Trump, New York Times columnist Roger Cohen argued that we live in an age when people are indifferent to truth–when facts are “little annoyances easily upended.” That, however, is a self-serving excuse. The real problem is that people no longer trust the media and other gatekeeping institutions to tell them the truth, and therefore feel the “facts” provided by these institutions are unreliable things on which to base decisions. And that distrust is merited, as two recent examples show.

The first is the obituary for Shimon Peres that ran in the print edition of the International New York Times. It described the collapse of the Oslo peace process as follows:

Mr. Peres, Mr. Rabin and Arafat were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1994.

But the era of good feelings did not last. It was shattered in 2000 after a visit by the opposition leader Ariel Sharon to the sacred plaza in Jerusalem known to Jews as the Temple Mount and to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary. The next day, the Israeli police fired on stone-throwing protesters, inaugurating a new round of violence that became known as the second intifada.

Needless to say, this picture of events is totally false. The “era of good feelings” didn’t sail serenely on until Sharon “shattered” it by visiting the Temple Mount. It was actually shattered almost immediately after the Oslo Accords were signed by a wave of Palestinian terror that claimed more Israeli victims in two and a half years than all the terror attacks of the preceding decade.

Yet two things make this warped presentation of reality particularly remarkable. First, in an obituary for Shimon Peres, you’d think it would be hard to ignore facts that played a seminal role in his political career. The multiple suicide bombings of early 1996, which the obituary omits, were the direct cause of his narrow loss to Benjamin Netanyahu in the 1996 election, a loss that permanently ended his prime ministerial ambitions.

Second, this wasn’t an innocent mistake stemming from ignorance. The obituary’s online version actually does include a paragraph about the bombings and the election, right after the paragraph about the Nobel Prize. It also correctly says that the violence “accelerated” after Sharon’s visit to the Mount, rather than depicting this visit as shattering a nonexistent calm.

In other words, some editor in the Times’ European offices deliberately distorted the obituary writer’s facts to present a false picture of how the Oslo Accords collapsed. He or she cut any mention of the 1996 bombings; substituted the false sentence about “the era of good feelings,” which doesn’t appear in the online version; and then replaced the “acceleration” of the conflict with the false assertion that Sharon’s visit “shattered” the peace.

Nor is the reason for this distortion any mystery. The standard narrative in most of Europe, and also at the Times, is that Oslo’s collapse was Israel’s fault, while the Palestinians were largely blameless. Informing readers that massive suicide bombings began immediately when Oslo’s architects—Rabin and Peres—were still in office contradicts that narrative. So faced with a conflict between the facts and his or her preferred narrative, an editor at one of the world’s most prestigious newspapers chose to rewrite the facts. And then Cohen wonders why so many people are indifferent to the “facts” as promulgated by his profession.

The second example was last week’s astonishing report by the Council of Europe’s human rights agency, the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance, which effectively urged the British media stop informing readers that terrorist attacks committed by Islamic extremists are in fact committed by Islamic extremists. Granted, it didn’t say so explicitly. If you read the recommendations devoid of context, they merely urge “more rigorous training for journalists to ensure better compliance with ethical standards” and that “the authorities find a way to establish an independent press regulator.” But it’s quite clear what ECRI intends by these seemingly innocuous recommendations because they are immediately preceded by the following paragraph:

ECRI urges the media to take stock of the importance of responsible reporting, not only to avoid perpetuating prejudice and biased information, but also to avoid harm to targeted persons or vulnerable groups. ECRI considers that, in light of the fact that Muslims are increasingly under the spotlight as a result of recent ISIS-related terrorist acts around the world, fuelling prejudice against Muslims shows a reckless disregard, not only for the dignity of the great majority of Muslims in the United Kingdom, but also for their safety. In this context, it draws attention to a recent study by Teeside University suggesting that where the media stress the Muslim background of perpetrators of terrorist acts, and devote significant coverage to it, the violent backlash against Muslims is likely to be greater than in cases where the perpetrators’ motivation is downplayed or rejected in favour of alternative explanations.

So unless you assume the recommendations have no connection to the paragraph immediately preceding them, it’s hard to avoid concluding that ECRI, in fact, wants the press to hide the Muslim identity of Islamic terrorists and attribute their motive to something other than Islamist ideology. In other words, it wants the press to lie to the public about who the terrorists are and why they’re committing attacks. And then Cohen wonders why so many people are indifferent to the “facts” as promulgated by the European Union.

I don’t like our brave new fact-free world any better than Cohen does. But it’s the inevitable result of one very ugly fact: Institutions people used to trust, like the media and the EU, have forfeited that trust by repeatedly lying to the public in order to promote their own agendas. And the only way to start repairing the damage is for these institutions to acknowledge their own role in destroying the credibility of “facts” and then finally start telling the truth as it is, rather than as they would like it to be.

Originally published in Commentary on October 10, 2016

4 Responses to The Fruits of Lying to the Public

  • tim johnson says:

    Just on a logistical level: the online version had more and more accurate information probably because it was edited later than the International print edition; not th eother way around, that an European editor excised stuff for print….the way it works, is online stuff can get up and out faster, but it also can be edited later after the “paper paper,” is put to bed….
    which would mean the early version was inadequate: could be a product of the rush to deadline or bias or both….
    Your thesis on this is possible but probably not what happened….

    • Evelyn Gordon says:

      Though what Tim says is valid for many news stories, it’s actually not true for obits: Most major newspapers prepare obits of major public figures well in advance. At the very latest, the Times would have prepared its Peres obit the moment he had his stroke, which was two weeks before his death, and it’s quite likely that it had the obit on file even before then. Thus the print editor would certainly have had access to the full web version when he prepared the print obit.

  • Sam says:

    How convenient it is that you totally neglected to mention in your post the Hebron Massacre committed by Baruch Goldstein on February 25th, 1994 in which he killed dozens of Palestinian civilians worshiping peacefully at the Ibrahimi Mosque. This was indeed the act that ended the “era of good feelings”, as it preceded by six weeks the first of the bombing attacks carried out by the Hamas movement’s armed wing in retaliation in April 1994. Even if you omit the actions of the Israeli state from your definition of terrorism, surely, the terrorist crimes of an avowed Zionist radical such as Baruch Goldstein and the terrorist Kach movement should fit the bill. And the fact that it was Goldstein’s terrorist outrage that shattered “the era of good feelings” and changed the rules of the game should feature in your narrative. After all, the Hamas movement’s armed retaliation that took place 6 weeks later in April 1994 were the first ever bombing attacks by Hamas against civilian targets inside Israel. According to Matti Steinberg (former advisor to the head of Shin Bet on Palestinian affairs), prior to Baruch Goldstein’s terrorist attach, the Hamas movement’s military arm had a firm policy of refusing to target Israeli civilians inside the Green Line, and wholly focused its military measures on attacking military targets inside the territories occupied by Israel after June 5th, 1967. This policy was only changed as a direct result of the Israeli terrorist Kach movement’s shocking escalation. What do you say to all of this?

    • Evelyn Gordon says:

      First, that suicide bombings aren’t the only way to kill. According to the Foreign Ministry’s list of Israeli victims of terror, Palestinians killed around 30 Israelis between the signing of the Oslo Accords and Goldstein’s massacre, and the pace was accelerating toward the end of that period: In the weeks preceding the massacre, Israelis were killed roughly every few days. This does not, obviously, justify Goldstein’s act; nothing could. But to say that everything was hunky-dory until Goldstein committed his massacre is nonsense.
      Second, that you’re overlooking a more important correlation. The big spike in Palestinian terror wasn’t after the Goldstein massacre, but later: The Israeli body count rose after Israel’s first territorial handover in mid-1994 and again after its second territorial handover in late 1995. In other words, terror rose whenever the Palestinians acquired more territory to serve as a secure base for planning, training and launching attacks. It’s a bit unconvincing to try to blame that on Goldstein.

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The International Criminal Court’s fundamental flaw

In my last column, I noted in passing that the International Criminal Court’s blatant anti-Israel bias is merely a symptom of a more fundamental flaw. That isn’t self-evident; court supporters would doubtless argue, just as many people do about the United Nations, that while the court’s anti-Israel bias is regrettable, it’s an isolated flaw that doesn’t outweigh the benefit of ending impunity for atrocities.

What convinced me both that the ICC is unredeemable and that the impunity problem has a better solution was actually a book by one of the court’s ardent supporters—Philippe Sands, a law professor and international lawyer who has worked on ICC cases. In East West Street, Sands traces the development of two key concepts in international law—crimes against humanity and genocide—to their respective culminations in the Nuremberg Trials of 1945 and the Genocide Convention of 1948. But for me, the real eye-opener was his description of the international wrangling that preceded the Nuremberg Trials.

Nuremberg is sometimes derided as victor’s justice. And in one sense, it obviously was: Four of the victors of World War II—America, Britain, Russia and France—decided to put senior officials of their vanquished foe on trial. But what was striking about Nuremberg was the massive degree of international concord required to hold those trials. Lawyers representing several very different legal systems and several very different systems of government nevertheless had to agree on every word and even every comma in the indictments. And since those lawyers were acting on their governments’ behalf, political approval by all four governments was also needed.

In contrast, the ICC needs no international buy-in at all to pursue a case. Granted, its prosecutors and judges come from many different countries, but they represent neither their home governments nor their home legal systems. Politically, they represent nobody but themselves. Legally, they represent one particular interpretation of international law—an interpretation popular with academics and “human rights” organizations, but less so with national governments.

At first glance, both of the above may sound like pluses. Prosecutorial and judicial independence are generally good things, whereas many governments and legal systems leave much to be desired when it comes to protecting human rights.

But the ICC’s version of prosecutorial and judicial independence is very different from the version found in most democracies because the latter is not completely unconstrained. In democracies, prosecutors and judges are constrained first of all by democratically enacted legislation, and usually by democratically enacted constitutions as well. They’re also constrained by the fact that they, too, are citizens of their country, and therefore share concerns important to most of their countrymen—for instance, national self-defense—but unimportant to judges and prosecutors from other countries (which those at the ICC almost always will be).

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