The American media’s laser-focus on Gaza was finally broken last week by two factors: the end of Israel’s Operation Protective Edge and the beginning of a new military campaign, this one by the United States against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.
For more than a month, it often seemed that Gaza was the only thing happening in the world. Everyone from Anderson Cooper to Wolf Blitzer to Sean Hannity went to the region to cover the story. Newspapers and websites published daily updates, and elaborate graphics, on the number of casualties on the Israeli and Palestinians sides. Photographers recorded the carnage.
Coverage of the Israel-Gaza crisis seemed to eclipse everything else: the Ebola outbreak in Africa, the downing of a Malaysian passenger jet over Ukraine and the massacre of hundreds of Yazidis in Iraq.
Even the Yazidis, a persecuted religious minority rooted in Zoroastrianism, seemed to notice. “I don’t see any attention from the rest of the world,” a Yazidi named Karim told George Packer of The New Yorker.
“In one day they killed more than 2,000 Yazidi in Sinjar and the whole world says ‘Save Gaza, save Gaza.’”
The Arab-Israeli conflict has long gotten excessive coverage in the American media. The reasons are the result of a stew of factors. For one thing, Israel is a story as familiar to American audiences as the Bible itself; the names of its conflict zones, from Jerusalem to Bethlehem to Gaza, are familiar. For another, Israel is an easy place to cover for journalists, much more accessible (and much safer, even during wartime) than northern Iraq or Crimea or Liberia, where Ebola is raging. And third, America sends $3 billion in military and economic aid to Israel a year. Americans care about Israel and are invested in it.
Until recently the Yazidis were not on the American radar screen. They are ethnic Kurds who originated in Iraq and were dispersed to Iran, Syria, Turkey, Armenia and Germany. Their faith incorporates pagan and Zoroastrian beliefs but also borrows from Christianity and Islam. ISIS considers Yazidis infidels and heretics who must be converted to Islam or murdered. ISIS fighters routed them from their homes and trapped thousands of them in a barren mountain range in northwestern Iraq.
While the tiny Yazidi community in the United States complains that the plight of the Yazidis in Iraq gets virtually no press coverage, many American Jews complain that Israel gets too much — and that most of it is unsympathetic. An emotional rally held at the CNN offices in New York included renewed please to boycott both CNN and The New York Times. (See N.Y. Lens story on page 4.)
Last week President Obama cited the Yazidis as the primary reason for launching airstrikes against Islamic militants operating in Iraq. As part of the military campaign, food and water were dropped from planes to stave off what Obama warned could be “genocide.” The military action was also designed to save Americans and American interests in Iraq and to guard against what one American official called “another Benghazi.”
From a political point of view, the relief and airstrikes could bolster Obama’s faltering image and poor approval ratings. There was broad support for his actions, although many Republicans and Democrats alike said that he was doing too little too late.
Obama noted his poor approval rating in an interview with Tom Friedman of The New York Times. When asked about if he should be more vigorous in pressing the Israelis and Palestinians for a land-for-peace deal, Obama said that the negotiations had to start with their leaders. He noted that Prime Minister Netanyahu’s poll numbers “are a lot higher than mine” and “were greatly boosted by the war in Gaza.”
To be sure, Netanyahu, who enjoys a lot of support from Israelis for the war in Gaza, faces condemnation — and even war crimes accusations — from his enemies abroad. He held a news conference to say that Israel “deeply regrets every civilian casualty” in Gaza but laid the blame for their deaths squarely on Hamas. He told the news media: “What we’re seeing here with Hamas is another instance of Islamic extremism, violent extremism that has no resolvable grievance.” He likened Hamas to ISIS, al Qaeda, Hezbollah and Boko Haram.
It is a link that Israeli officials will continue to make as the media attention shifts toward American military action in Iraq. As Chemi Shalev pointed out in Haaretz: “It goes without saying that if U.S. aircraft were to get involved in combat, and civilian casualties are incurred, Israeli hasbara types will be hard put to hide their smiles.”
Shalev added: “Any confrontation between U.S. forces and extremist Islamic forces could change the negative dynamics of Israel’s image in the U.S. in the wake of the Gaza campaign.”
With an Israel-Gaza cease-fire in place but uncertain, we can’t expect that Israel will disappear from the media either. And that may not be a bad thing. “I’m in favor of the world over-covering us,” said my friend Gershom Gorenberg, an Israeli-American journalist who leans to the left. “Perhaps it will force a solution to the conflict. After all, the world intervenes more quickly for a cease-fire in Gaza than a genocide in Iraq.”
Ari L. Goldman, who writes the Mixed Media column, is a professor at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism.