When it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, few issues are as freighted as how the media, especially The New York Times, cover the story. And when there is a war on, like this summer’s hostilities in Gaza, the emotions are amped up even more. So when Daniel Gordis, the American-born Israeli author, commentator and Shalem College senior vice president, and the Times’ Ethan Bronner, the paper’s deputy national editor and former Jerusalem bureau chief, stepped into that charged landscape, it wasn’t surprising that fireworks sounded.
The two discussed “Israel in the Eyes of the Media: From Menachem Begin to Today” at a Jewish Week-sponsored forum Nov. 5 at Temple Emanu-el’s Skirball Center; Jewish Week editor and publisher Gary Rosenblatt moderated the sharp but civil dialogue.
Gordis, whose biography of Menachem Begin is just out, framed the discussion by saying that the media’s image of Israel was transformed dramatically in 1982, when Begin was prime minister. The Lebanon war (Israel’s first offensive war), the expanding settlement enterprise and Yasir Arafat’s public relations campaign on behalf of a stateless people all contributed, he said, to the tarnishing of Israel’s once-heroic image in the media’s eyes.
Regarding coverage of the recent Gaza war, Gordis, who stressed the lack of context in much of the reporting from Israel, suggested that the conflict began when Hamas “rained down rockets on Israel.” Bronner challenged the timeline, saying, “It depends where you start the clock.” He argued that the hostilities might have instead begun after Israel’s crackdown of Hamas operatives on the West Bank following the murder of three Israeli yeshiva students at the hands of Palestinians.
When Gordis asserted that Hamas’ strategy during the war was to have as many Palestinian children as possible killed, in a bid to score PR points, Bronner challenged again. Saying that he had met many times with Hamas leaders and never heard such a strategy articulated, he urged the audience of about 350 (many of whom were audibly upset with his comments) to reject the simple, Hamas-is-evil equation.
In the end, the discussion seemed to prove that perspective is all. There was Gordis, passion on his sleeve, ardent defender of Israel; and there was Bronner, at a professional remove from the story, cool defender of journalism. The gulf between them, like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict itself, was a mile wide.