Analysis from Israel

One of the most insightful commentaries I’ve read about last week’s terror attacks in France was Ben-Dror Yemini’s column in Ynet yesterday. Yemini pointed out that someone who gets all his news from mainstream Western media would have no reason to believe Islamic extremism was a problem–not because the words “Islamist terror” aren’t used, but because the vast majority of the attacks themselves aren’t reported.

The handful of attacks on Western targets get extensive coverage, alongside a few particularly egregious attacks in non-Western countries, like last month’s assault on a Pakistani school. But the “routine” attacks that occur almost daily in the Muslim world, which have killed hundreds of thousands of people in recent years, go largely unreported.

Thus, for instance, the New York Times did report an exceptionally bloody Boko Haram attack last week that may have killed up to 2,000 Nigerians. But buried in the 12th paragraph is the shocking fact that Boko Haram killed around 10,000 people last year alone. How many of the thousands of attacks that produced those 10,000 victims did the Times report? Almost none.

Similarly, Al-Arabiya’s Hisham Melham noted last week that 74,000 people were killed in Syria last year, while in Iraq, the death toll averaged about 1,000 a month. But how many of the thousands of attacks that produced those grim totals did the mainstream Western media report? Again, almost none.

Yet the problem doesn’t end there, Yemini argued–because alongside its failure to report on Islamic terror, the mainstream media obsesses over Israel. And this has consequences not just for how people view Israel, but for how Muslims view the West.

To understand why, a brief illustration might help. On the Times’s website, the article about Boko Haram killing up to 2,000 people merited 540 words. By comparison, an article last month about a Palestinian who died at an anti-Israel demonstration (whether due to ill-treatment or a heart attack remains disputed) merited 1,040 words. Thus one Palestinian allegedly killed by Israel merited 4,000 times as many words as each Boko Haram victim–and the ratio would be much higher if you included all of the latter who never get reported at all. And every Palestinian killed or allegedly killed by Israel gets similarly extensive coverage.

Thus a Muslim who relies for information solely on the mainstream Western media would rationally conclude that Israel, not Islamic extremism, is the greatest source of death and destruction in the world today, Yemini argued. And in fact, though he didn’t mention it, listening to any Western leader would produce the same conclusion: All spend far more time condemning Israel than they do, say, Boko Haram or Syria’s Iranian-supported regime.

Yet when that same Western Muslim looks at his government’s policy, Yemini said, he sees that its actions contradict the rational conclusion he drew from the media. After all, Western countries are currently bombing ISIS, not Israel. And they imposed economic sanctions on Syria, not Israel. Thus the rational Muslim news consumer would conclude that Western governments are not only hypocrites, but anti-Muslim hypocrites: They engage in military and economic cooperation with Israel while employing military and economic force against Muslims, even though Israel, judging by Western media, would seem to be a far worse offender. And such anti-Muslim hypocrisy rightly makes this rational Muslim angry, Yemini wrote.

Of course, Western governments’ policies are actually far more closely aligned to reality than the distorted impression our hypothetical Muslim gets from the media. But he really has no way of knowing that, because the people he depends on for information–the media–consistently tell him the opposite.

Once upon a time, Western liberals understood the critical importance of truthful information. They genuinely believed, as the New Testament proclaims, that “the truth shall set you free.” That’s precisely why the West invested so heavily in media outlets like Voice of America and Radio Free Europe during the Cold War: Many Westerners genuinely believed that letting Eastern Europeans and Soviet citizens hear the truth, rather than the propaganda published in Soviet media, would help bring the Iron Curtain down. And history proved them right.

But today, it seems, Western liberals no longer believe in the power of truth. If they did, they would realize that the road to defeating Islamic extremism starts with reporting faithfully on all its victims, day in and day out. For only when people know the truth about the carnage this extremism has wrought might they begin to turn against it.

Originally published in Commentary on January 14, 2015

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Why Israel Needs a Better Political Class

Note: This piece is a response to an essay by Haviv Rettig Gur, which can be found here

Israel’s current political crisis exemplifies the maxim that hard cases make bad law. This case is desperate. Six months after the coronavirus erupted and nine months after the fiscal year began, Israel still lacks both a functioning contact-tracing system and an approved 2020 budget, mainly because Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is more worried about politics than the domestic problems that Israel now confronts. The government’s failure to perform these basic tasks obviously invites the conclusion that civil servants’ far-reaching powers must not only be preserved, but perhaps even increased.

This would be the wrong conclusion. Bureaucrats, especially when they have great power, are vulnerable to the same ills as elected politicians. But unlike politicians, they are completely unaccountable to the public.

That doesn’t mean Haviv Rettig Gur is wrong to deem them indispensable. They provide institutional memory, flesh out elected officials’ policies, and supply information the politicians may not know and options they may not have considered. Yet the current crisis shows in several ways why they neither can nor should substitute for elected politicians.

First, bureaucrats are no less prone to poor judgment than politicians. As evidence, consider Siegal Sadetzki, part of the Netanyahu-led triumvirate that ran Israel’s initial response to the coronavirus. It’s unsurprising that Gur never mentioned Sadetzki even as he lauded the triumvirate’s third member, former Health Ministry Director General Moshe Bar Siman-Tov; she and her fellow Health Ministry staffers are a major reason why Israel still lacks a functional test-and-trace system.

Sadetzki, an epidemiologist, was the ministry’s director of public-health services and the only member of the triumvirate with professional expertise in epidemics (Bar Siman-Tov is an economist). As such, her input was crucial. Yet she adamantly opposed expanding virus testing, even publicly asserting that “Too much testing will increase complacence.” She opposed letting organizations outside the public-health system do lab work for coronavirus tests, even though the system was overwhelmed. She opposed sewage monitoring to track the spread of the virus. And on, and on.

Moreover, even after acknowledging that test-and-trace was necessary, ministry bureaucrats insisted for months that their ministry do the tracing despite its glaringly inadequate manpower. Only in August was the job finally given to the army, which does have the requisite personnel. And the system still isn’t fully operational.

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