The month of May 2021 taught us Israelis many unfortunate things—things we hoped were not true (and continue to hope are not true)—about the sad straights of Israeli democracy; the relentlessly authoritarian nature of Palestinian or, for that matter, Arab and Muslim political culture; the troubled relationship between Jews and Arabs in Israel; the rising strength of religious hatred in the region and the world; and, at least for me, the most senseless yet persistent phenomenon that crops up every time open conflict between Israelis and Arabs breaks out: namely the own-goal, lethal war journalism of the Western media and the wave of hatred it predictably unleashes around the world.
A brief preliminary discussion about the three types of unethical forms of “war journalism” is in order. There is patriotic war journalism: reporting as news your own side’s war propaganda; lethal war journalism: reporting as news a foreign belligerent’s war propaganda; and own-goal war journalism: reporting your enemy’s war propaganda as news.
Modern, professional journalism considers patriotic war journalism unethical, a prostitution of its high calling. While reporters sometimes sympathize with one “side” in a foreign war, lethal war journalists systematically give credence to one belligerent’s narratives, depicting the other side as an atrocious enemy. The third category seems wholly improbable, since why would anyone do something that stupid?
And yet, in the 21st century, the land “between the river and the sea” has given birth to a peculiarly virulent case of both lethal and own-goal journalism among Western news providers. From 2000 to 2002, a wave of the most ferocious and provocative lethal journalism in the history of modern, professional journalism came from Western journalists who published dishonest Palestinian claims about Israeli evil-doing (targeting kids, massacring civilians) and ran them as news.
When those claims were disproven, as they all were, these news outlets did nothing to correct their errors. In the spring of 2002, when lethal journalists filled the global public sphere with reports of Israeli massacres in Jenin (just like the Nazis in Poland), progressives in Europe protested by wearing mock suicide belts in solidarity with an enemy about to attack their own countries. Own-goal journalism scored a massive blow for an enemy whose viciousness was embodied in those very suicide belts that these demonstrators, inebriated with virtue, wore so proudly.
(N.B.: Just before the outbreak of the recent hostilities in Gaza, The Guardian did a review of its major “errors” in its 150-year history. While it did not list its appalling and unrepentant “Jenin massacre” coverage, it did list the editorial approval of the Balfour Declaration. In other words, it covered up its journalistic error about the news and reversed a moral judgment call from 1917 on the basis of a view of Israel inspired by that uncorrected lethal journalism.)
Since then, Western media have continued to practice this lethal and own-goal war journalism where Israel is concerned and beyond (e.g., the dismissal/banning of the Chinese lab origin of COVID-19 “conspiracy theory”).
Here in the Middle East, it goes like this: Run Palestinian (Hamas) propaganda—lethal narratives about evil Israel—as news; treat Israeli denials as propaganda; when proven wrong, move onto the next lethal narrative.
This seemingly unbreakable pattern of press behavior in the 21st century has given birth to one of the most grotesque (and profoundly inhumane) war strategies in the history of asymmetrical war: Provoke the enemy to attack, so as to maximize your own civilian casualties, exploiting the compassion of outsiders to get outsiders to hate your enemy as badly as you do.
This cannibalistic strategy of inflicting damage on your own people to win a propaganda war against your enemy can only work if the outside media tell the story as you want it told: highlight your suffering; use your statistics; blame the enemy for disproportionate response; accuse it of war crimes and ethnic cleansing. This means that the foreign media must not report how you fire from the very midst of civilians, including members of the foreign media; not report when your stray bombs kill your own people; not report on the genocidal hatreds with which you stoke the conflict; and, of course, since it takes considerable intimidation to get journalists to behave so unprofessionally, to deny categorically the “nonsense” (Jodi Rudoren’s famous phrase) that they are intimidated. The Arab and Middle East Journalists Association issued a similar set of guidelines for Arabs working for Western news outlets.
One might have thought that the lessons learned from “Operation Protective Edge” in the summer of 2014 might have produced some changes. The cooked statistics from the Gaza “Ministry of Health,” all corresponding to Hamas protocols for the news media; Hamas’s extensive intimidation of the media, domestic and foreign, and the categorical denials of the upper echelons of the Western media; the reports blaming Israel for Hamas killing children, and the violence those headlines engendered; demonstrations themed on Holocaust inversion (“the Israelis are the Nazis!”); the widespread hatred towards Jews all over Europe, including hours of mobs shouting “Death to the Jews” from European capitals. After that, one might have thought journalists would think twice before running Palestinian incitement as news.
But instead, when the fighting broke out last month, the press immediately regressed to the lethal, own-goal pattern. As soon as the first strike occurred, Hamas published a casualty report that highlighted civilian and child casualties, and the media ran with it: “Israeli airstrikes on Gaza kill 24 people, including nine children, Palestinian officials say,” was the headline in The Washington Post, with Reuters producing Pallywood B-Roll in the hospital to illustrate the claims.
Not one mention that 17 of these 24, including six children, were killed by a stray Hamas rocket. According to the Meir Amit Center, whose statistics have proven far more accurate than the Gaza Health Ministry, in the first two days, Israel killed 58 people, of whom 42 were identified combatants, a 3:1 ratio unheard of in urban warfare. More significantly, Hamas rockets killed more than a fifth of dead civilians in Gaza.
Instead, people seized on the Gaza Health Ministry’s statistics to denounce Israel’s cruelty, from Twitter to the finest news outlets, to the halls of Congress. Ilhan Omar used an early Gaza Health Ministry statistic about 20 dead to accuse Israel of terrorism and call anyone who doesn’t condemn these attacks during the week of Eid, “unconscionable.” (Imagine here the depressing effect on all this outrage of a headline that read: “Hamas, trying to target Israeli civilians during Eid, hits its own: 16 dead, 8 children.”) Instead, major news outlets like the BBC and CNN have been using “journalists” who thought #HitlerWasRight to cover the conflict.
And so it went: journalists using statistics from the “Health Ministry;” obeying Hamas rules to inflate civilian and minimize combatant deaths as much as possible; offering headlines blaring Palestinian claims as if they were reliable. Any effort to be more precise and say, “Hamas-run Ministry of Health,” ran into rapid opposition. All the lessons learned in 2014 about the dubious credibility of Hamas statistics reduced to the ambiguous tag line, “Palestinians say.”
After hostilities ceased, The New York Times published a front- and inside-page spread of pictures of those killed (all of whom wanted to be “doctors, artists and leaders”). This lavish invitation to emote—“They were just kids”—was a joint production of the media arm of a Palestinian propaganda organization whose non-fact-checked product included two teenage soldiers, and at least eight children killed by Hamas.
Perhaps the most striking aspect of the response in the West to the latest hostilities was its uniformity, its decisive parti-pris for the Palestinian “side.” Journalists badgered Israelis with the Palestinian position, interrupted efforts to discuss Hamas’s genocidal ideology, fawned over Palestinian spokespeople and insistently “Westsplained” the conflict in terms of Israeli occupation and oppression, and Palestinian resistance and desire to be free.
Scholars from Princeton, Harvard, Rutgers, MESA, the American Anthropological Association, gender studies and even Jewish studies issued disturbingly similar statements that defied basic principles of scholarship and moral sanity.
Human-rights NGOs hammered away with false statistics and distortions of international law to frame Israel as an “apartheid” state. Comedians ranted about how Israelis (who use bomb shelters for civilians and rockets to shield them) suffered disproportionately less than Gazans, whose rulers use bomb shelters for bombs and civilians as shields. “Eight children in one strike,” ranted John Oliver, unaware that six were killed by Hamas rockets.
“First-rate” newspapers published cartoons hammering home the message, and Twitter suspended Faith Quintero’s account for objecting. Google’s Jewish employees signed a document calling on the information giant to use Palestinian terminology, and not to censor any criticism of Israel as hate speech. YouTube blocked videos defending Israel and gave a green light to anti-Israel tirades. Facebook shut down a page dedicated to prayers for Israel while giving free play to the politically correct version of anti-Semitism—anti-Israel delirium. It was a massive and coordinated display of what Matti Friedman calls the “Cult of the Occupation,” in which the Israeli “Occupation” is a unique evil (unlike, say, the Chinese occupation of Tibet or Hong Kong, or their treatment of the Uyghurs), which demands immediate redress for the sake of world peace.
Thus, even as “human rights” NGOs, academics and those supporting the Palestinians waxed indignant over the terrible damage, Israel’s 11-day operation actually had a remarkably low number of deaths (10 percent of the 2014 seven-week totals), and a very high proportion of combatant deaths (2:1, when the urban-warfare norm is 1:3). When UNRWA’s director admitted this in an interview with Israel’s Channel 12, he got mobbed by Palestinian propaganda channels and was relieved of his duties.
Through the alchemy of online outrage, the better Israel performs in its atrocious battle with enemies who hide and fire from behind their own civilians, the more outraged the world becomes at the “slaughter” that has to be “worse than ever.”
Nor is this cost-free for those who indulge in this lethal warfare. As so often before in the last two decades, Western lethal journalism inspired a wave of hatred and violence. (Triumphalist Muslims in democracies are, in this, privileged; there are virtually no remaining Jews in the Arab world for Muslims there to attack.) In the early years, this happened mostly in Europe, starting with France, where on Oct. 6, 2000, the cry of “Death to the Jews!” went up for the first time since the Nazi era, followed by a wave of attacks on Jews, such that by 2002, the word was out to Jews, “Do not wear your kippah in public.” By 2014, the genocidal cry had become banal in France and spread all over Europe.
Now, after a dramatic deterioration in the United States, in part, thanks to the summer of 2020 riots, and the weaponization of the Black Lives Matter and BDS movements, the violence against Jews spills out from “demos” in America to places where Jews live and work, and a Biden administration official advised Jews not to wear kippot in public. Even Jonathan Greenblatt of the ADL had to admit that, “None of the people committing these crimes [were] wearing MAGA hats, right?… [W]e have people waving Palestinian flags and then beating Jewish people.”
In places where the new pattern has been in place for two decades, like England, attacks on Jews quintupled, the vast majority (90 percent) of which specifically related to news from the Middle East, with the most dangerous aggressors being British Muslims. And, as in all the previous cases for the last 20 years, the same media that eagerly report the lethal narratives, don’t report at all or dramatically under-report the aggressions they inspire, and promote the indifference with which a misinformed public responds to these aggressions.
These attacks against Jews that this lethal war journalism against Israel inspires in Western democracies reveal the own-goal nature of the enterprise. It literally gives followers of a cult of death permission to aggress. Those engaging in this demented anti-Israel invective, just like those cheering on Hamas in 2002, still don’t seem to realize that the Jews are just the first victim of jihadi hatreds. They don’t realize that “Free Palestine” is a jihadi battle cry, and that, in the guise of liberation ideology, they’ve invited jihadi militias into their midst. Who could have imagined that 20 years after 9/11, Muslim gangs would roam the streets of the U.S., looking for Jews to beat up? And even as these gangs roam, The New York Times splashes hate-inciting Palestinian propaganda across its front pages.
If one steps back from this tale of Israeli settler-colonial evil victimizing innocent Palestinians and looks at the “Cult of the Occupation” in action, a disturbing picture emerges. Hamas is also a cult, an organization dedicated to global jihad, an advocate of genocidal hatreds, theologizer of suicide terror, a literal cult of death. And true to its attitudes towards human life, it has developed a cannibalistic strategy that turns its own people into sacrificial pawns in a propaganda war against its self-declared mortal enemy, Israel.
It does this because the only way its leaders can survive attacking Israeli civilians (which they feel, periodically, compelled to do), is to have an outraged world intercede for a “humanitarian” ceasefire, thereby saving them, strengthening the toxic masculinity in their political culture and blackening Israel’s face in the eyes of the world. They deem this victory well worth the price, in their long war of elimination: “The more my people suffer, the better. If we kill our own children, that’s fine, as long as we can blame Israel.”
And yet, this terrible strategy can only work if the outside world does, indeed, blame Israel. Thus, the massive “support” that Westerners think they are showing for the “poor Palestinian victims” actually encourages their rulers to further victimize them. By not distinguishing between Palestinian rulers, who sacrifice their people for P.R. advantage on the one hand, and their sacrificial victims on the other, Western progressives become dupes who literally do the bidding of a movement that opposes everything they consider “good.” Lethal irony: Those obsessed with ending the Israeli “occupation” have their minds colonized by a narrative that aims at their own destruction.
Entomologists have identified a group of fungal and viral parasites that take over the brains of ants and force them to behave in ways that are at once self-destructive of the host and highly beneficial to the reproduction of the parasite. In one viral case, cited by Daniel Dennett as an analogy for religion, it forces the ant up the blade of grass so a cow will eat it, and the virus reaches the stomach where it thrives.
I think the better analogy here to human beliefs is to certain apocalyptic, sacred memes (religious or secular), which literally “mount” believers and “ride them,” drive them to deeds with no concern for the physical well-being of the zealots or their communities. In other words, both certain apocalyptic memes and certain physical parasites can colonize the minds of their hosts and, after serving their purpose, dispose of those hosts.
In this case, the progressive left seems to have ingested a key meme from the jihadi death cult: “The U.S. and Israel are the two Satans, apocalyptic enemies who must be destroyed for collective salvation.”
Western progressives seem unaware of the larger apocalyptic narrative of which this is a key element, the one that ends in Islamic world conquest and the annihilation of every value they hold sacred: empathy for the other, ecumenical diversity and toleration, equality and dignity for all, women’s self-sovereignty, freedom from religious coercion, elimination of power-abuse.
And yet, progressives and liberals seem powerless to resist this demon-meme as long as it expresses itself in the language of human rights. They are mesmerized by the imbalance of deaths. The honor brigades that pursue anyone who break ranks with the narrative (like the head of UNWRA in Gaza), police the social-media players the way that the fungus exercises direct control over the ants’ muscles.
Like the afflicted ants they resemble, these occupied minds clamp down with their mandibles on the subject of wicked Israel, awaiting their moment to be devoured. Having repeated jihadi propaganda, refrained from discussing jihadi behavior and beliefs, and hated the enemies whom jihadis hate, the people who are products of this discourse are utterly disarmed. They can literally hear moral madness and donate money to the cause. No matter how obvious the danger, they will not stop, because they cannot even imagine that they might need to stop.
And so, inexorably, we are drawn to our own destruction: Western and global institutions built by civil society, based on demotic principles of equality, dignity and fairness—courts, international assemblies, academia, journalism, our public sphere—all corrupted by the colonizing meme, all, in widening gyres of dysfunctionality. The hatreds that progressives so abhor take wing from within: Jew-hatred flourishes in their midst, driven by their Muslim “progressive” allies.
Bullying online and in real life invades the public sphere; forces of order are paralyzed. The very national conversation becomes a clash of hatreds. People infected with the anti-Zionist meme, and the Holocaust inversion that feeds it, rise higher on their imaginary blade of grass by displaying their inflated moral indignation.
In the case of one fungus, the parasite “eventually grows into a bulbous capsule full of spores that rain down on the ants below, zombifying them in turn.” In our case, what first invaded the Western press corps “between the river and the sea” in 2000, has now, 20 years later, created a bulbous capsule of anti-Zionist spores that, in 2021, rains down all over the West, poisoning the paths of information with malevolent fake news designed to exploit our compassion in order to spread hatred. And this suicidal, genocidal spore is carried by agents who claim to oppose hatred and love peace.
The difference between us and the ants is that we have a choice, and our fungus is “just” a meme. We don’t have to sacrifice ourselves to our stupidity. Thank you, Mark Ruffalo, for unlocking your moral mandibles even briefly. It’s clearly not easy.
Richard Landes is a historian living in Jerusalem and the chair of the Council of Scholars at Scholars for Peace in the Middle East. He maintains a blog critical of western journalism, The Augean Stables. He has a book manuscript in press: “Can the Whole World be Wrong? A Medievalist’s Guide to the Millennial Wars of the 21st Century.” He tweets at @richard_landes.