Salma: Good afternoon everybody. Welcome to the Jerusalem Fund, and to our educational program, the Palestine Center. My name is Salma Shawa and I’m an intern here at The Palestine Center for the summer. With everything going on right now in Palestine, from Gaza, to Jerusalem, and to every single part of Palestine, we, the interns at the Palestine Center, found it very important to talk about the media and the role that the media plays in portraying the Palestinian people and the struggle of Palestinians as a whole whether they’re in Palestine or if they’re abroad in the diaspora. We also really wanted to portray what gets into the media and what’s hidden, what’s released and what’s not, [and] which sides play the most important role in giving this image to the world.
In our lecture series, which is titled “The Media’s Distortion and Misrepresentation of the Palestinian Issue,” we hope to explore the full scope of media bias effects on both readers/viewers as a whole and on those involved in the conflict as well and on those suffering the consequences of what’s happening there. For this purpose, we invited media analyst Omar Baddar who is going to be the keynote speaker for our lecture series. And he’s going to provide an overview of the subject as a whole.
As someone who has spoken publicly about the Israeli bias, Baddar is uniquely positioned to detail his experience in explaining how Palestinians are marginalized as a consequence of the media biases. Omar Baddar is a political analyst, he’s a digital producer and he’s also a human rights advocate. He’s also the deputy director of the Arab American Institute. He’s going to detail his work in combatting the misrepresentation of Palestinians in the media. Baddar holds an M.A. in International Relations and Comparative Politics from the University of Memphis where his research focused on U.S.-Middle East policy. He is the former Executive Director of the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee of Massachusetts, and the former Director of the Palestine Cultural Center for Peace in Boston, Massachusetts. He has participated in dozens of panels, lectures, and debates on college and university campuses throughout the U.S. His media appearances include the BBC, Al-Jazeera, Sky News, Voice of America, Russia Today, and many other different panels and has obviously also written on several different platforms as well. This is why we knew right away that Omar Baddar would be the perfect fit for our lecture series and we were very delighted that he accepted our invitation. So, without further ado, let’s welcome Omar Baddar.
Omar Baddar: Thank you very much, Salma, for a very kind introduction and for the Palestine Center for hosting me and Dana, Salma, Khadijah, and Liam, especially, for putting together the series and the invitation.
I think that watching the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on television, for anyone who is informed on the conflict, can be a very frustrating experience. [It’s] frustrating first and foremost because of what is actually unfolding on the ground; there’s occupation, apartheid, ethnic cleansing, and a situation of injustice that is absolutely infuriating. So, when you watch it, that’s a natural source of frustration. I think that that frustration is then compounded when we look at how mainstream American media coverage of this issue fails to convey to the average viewer what is actually really going on.
And the primary way that that happens is because of the missing context and primarily the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories. Without that context, nothing in the conflict makes sense. So the story usually runs, “Palestinian youth throw rocks at Israeli soldiers, Israeli soldiers then open fire killing a couple of them,” and then the entire debate is on whether the soldiers overreacted, whether it was disproportionate… but what’s actually is missing is the fact that the soldiers do not belong there in Palestinian towns in the first place, that they are an illegal occupying force.
And so that is the first act of aggression. Not the rock throwing; it’s the fact that these soldiers are there in the first place. You know, if someone broke into your home tonight with a gun and then a scuffle ensued between the two of you, that intruder could not claim the right to self-defense in your home. And in that same sense, Israel can no more claim the right to self-defense in the Palestinian territories than that intruder can in your home when they’re fighting against the rightful owners and residents of that home. Or take for example the events that are currently unfolding in Jerusalem: you know, there was a Palestinian attack on some security guards and then there were new metal detectors that were placed there.
And now there’s this whole debate about the protests: “Don’t the metal detectors make sense, isn’t there a security concern?” But if you take a moment and flip the scenario around, imagine if some attack happened in Tel Aviv and then the Palestinian Authority deployed armed security guards and metal detectors around Tel Aviv. Nobody would be talking about whether these measures make sense or don’t, everybody would be talking about, “What on Earth does the Palestinian Authority think? That it could possibly deploy armed security guards in an area that does not belong to the Palestinians?”
But that is not the first question that is asked about the events that are currently unfolding in Jerusalem. The first question ought to be, when you turn on the television is, “Armed illegal occupiers setting up security checkpoints around areas that don’t belong to them.” That is the starting point. So, you take the occupation away and suddenly this basic understanding of what is actually taking place and what the driving force of this conflict is becomes missing, and, without it, you lose everything.
Another issue is the unequal value on human life that we say. Now, I don’t want this to be taken for individual cases where a media outlet reports something that is unfair to the Palestinians or reports something that is unfair to the Israelis and then to issue a correction. These incidents can be pulled by anyone in any direction, but I’m talking about something much more systemic: of how our casualties are portrayed. You’ll notice that time and again Israeli casualties, which happen far less frequently, are very well humanized—and they should be humanized—they’ve got pictures, they’ve got names, they’ve got the background stories and by contrast, Palestinian casualties, when they do occur, they’re very often statistics that run at the bottom of the screen. “That many Palestinians were killed” and we move on.
And I think one of the more egregious examples of the disparity in how the media values different lives is this headline from The Washington Post which was posted three years ago during the Gaza war. Incidentally, we’re at the three-year anniversary, by the way, of Israel’s assault of Gaza that killed 1,500 civilians including 500 children. And early on, there were hundreds of Palestinian casualties, overwhelmingly civilian, and eventually there were two soldiers that were killed. The Washington Post ran this headline, where the main text reads “2 Israeli soldiers killed in Gaza clash” and the hundreds of civilians come a little be later, much less emphasized. Obviously, that is one degree of how a headline like this is problematic but if you look a little closer you’ll notice that even at the bottom where the hundreds of people killed do get mentioned, it says, “Death toll tops 330 as Hamas militants…” It reads a little farther down, for some reason it’s cut off here: “…step up attacks” or something to that effect. So you leave the reader with the impression, if someone’s not going to read the article in full and figure out the details, you leave them with the impression that it’s actually the Hamas attacks that are causing hundreds of Israeli casualties when the reality I it’s actually Israeli indiscriminate attacks on civilian areas that are leaving hundreds of Palestinian casualties.
Now, another aspect of this is also [that] it affects what starting points of conflicts are pointed out. So, it was widely stated around the time of that war three years ago that the starting point was the kidnapping of three Israeli settlers and their murder and that was supposedly the starting point which led to the full scale bombing of Gaza. The day before these three settlers were killed, a Palestinian man and a ten-year old child were killed in an Israeli airstrike. But it doesn’t occur to anyone to think of that as a potential starting point for a cycle of violence because there is conditioning—internalized conditioning—in the media that the narrative is “Palestinians attack and Israelis respond.” So whenever we’re talking the kind of human loss that justifies war, it’s typically Israeli loss of human life [and] not Palestinian loss of human life.
Now why does this happen? Where does this bias come from? I think it comes from two primary places. The first one is that American corporate media just naturally follows American political power. And when we have a situation in the U.S. where support for Israel is a bipartisan issue in both the Republican and Democratic Party establishments that it only makes sense that the media start adopting and internalizing that bias. A second aspect is that so many so called “pro-Israel” organizations brag about the fact that they mobilize against media outlets when they perceive the coverage to be unfair to Israel. You have in some cases, like the organization called “Honest Reporting,” where they bragged about shifting coverage on Fox News in one instance where it went from covering the issue accurately, conveying the facts, to actually conveying inaccurate and incorrect facts and this has happened on more than one occasion. So these are a couple of the factors that actually influence media coverage.
And I think that a third problem in the portrayal of this conflict in mainstream media outlets is direct Israeli government propaganda. You know, Orwellian discourse is quite a problem. And frankly, we’re getting a good taste of it in right now with the Trump administration as well, where Trump claims his crowds at the inauguration were bigger than anybody else’s, people look at him and say that’s fake news, [and] then the media reports something accurate and he looks back at them as says you’re fake news. And suddenly for the average viewer you’re looking at this, and all you see is people exchanging accusations that news is fake and the average viewer loses interest in actually figuring out what is actually true and what is false. And I think that you’re seeing something very similar here with Israeli government influence on media coverage.
So for example, I’m sure many of you are familiar, which is at this point a standard talking point, the reason why so many Palestinian civilians were killed in the Gaza War was allegedly because Hamas uses them as human shields. You can hardly talk about this with anybody who wants to talk about the Gaza War without bringing up that talking point. There’s a small problem. There is zero evidence for that. Zero. Human rights organizations say that Hamas operated in civilian areas. That is absolutely true. That type of operation does increase the risk to civilians. But at the same time that’s the sort of thing you would expect from a small militia that doesn’t have an army that can confront another army, no air force, none of that stuff. So that’s basically a natural outcome of the imbalance of power that you’ll have one side operating in civilian areas.
Human shields has a very specific definition. It is coercing civilians to be put in front of you in danger and preventing them from leaving in order to prevent the enemy from shooting at you. Do you know who does that? The Israeli military does. And that is very well documented by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International and UN reports. And somehow the narrative is entirely flipped on this. In 2005, the Israeli Supreme Court, knowing that the Israeli military uses Palestinian civilians frequently as human shields when they go on military operations, said, “We’ve had enough of this, this can’t go on, we are banning the practice of human shields.” The IDF and the Defense Ministry objected to that ruling and they went and challenged it in court. They lost. So officially, as a matter of law, there is now a ban on the Israeli military using Palestinian civilians as human shields. But nevertheless, the practice actually continues and there are cases where in that particular war three years ago, a young Palestinian boy was also used as a human shield. And when they were caught doing it, Human Rights Watch described the punishment the soldier received as a slap on the wrist. So, what you’re actually seeing is an encouragement of the use of Palestinians as human shields because they can get away with it. Because it’s a tactic that the Israeli military actually wants to employ.
Another aspect of this is Benjamin Netanyahu whose government is actually engaged in a level of ethnic cleansing in the Occupied Territories. There are ongoing home demolitions in East Jerusalem. But yet he gets on YouTube and says the Palestinians want to ethnically cleanse the Jews from the Palestinian areas. It’s an outrageous claim. Opposition to settlers taking over Palestinian land is not a desire for ethnic cleansing. That’s just an insane way to frame it. But Netanyahu says, “You’re committing ethnic cleansing.” Then a Palestinian official gets on TV and says, “You, the Israelis, are committing ethnic cleansing.” And what does the average viewer think? “OK, they’re exchanging accusations. Who cares? Just change the channel and move onto something else. The Arabs and the Jews are going to fight each other forever.” You create a level of disinterest in what is actually taking place because you can’t figure out what is actually true.
And then there is the issue of simplified talking points, effective Israeli government talking points. It’s a lot easier to throw a rock in a river than to figure out how to get the rock out of the river. And there are talking points that appeal on an instinctive level to the average viewer that they are very easy to throw out there even though they are completely factually incorrect. And to demonstrate that they are completely factually incorrect ends up taking a lot of effort. One example is the talking point that Israel left the Gaza Strip and all they got in return was rockets. Every time you talk about Israel, not conceding, but actually returning some of the land that they illegally occupied to the Palestinians, the immediate talking point is well, we gave them Gaza back and all we got is rockets. Now as a matter of fact, Israel never left Gaza. They withdrew settlers out of the Gaza Strip. They pushed them into the West Bank. They continued the occupation of the West Bank and the expansion of settlements there. They continued to place the Gaza Strip under a siege. For a while they were not even letting soda pop and bags of chips and cookies into the Gaza Strip as a means of coercing the civilian population there into changing its political behavior. Israel carries out frequent bombings of the Gaza Strip. They shoot at fishermen when they try to fish off of the coast. They don’t allow an airport to exist there. And they shoot at Palestinians when they get a little bit too close to the border and in many cases they’ve killed unarmed civilians when no combatants were around. All of that is documented by human rights organizations.
So to explain all of this, that requires a very long sentence. When you compare what I just described to the sentence of, “We left the Gaza Strip and they shot rockets at us,” it’s a much shorter clip. And when you’re in a TV situation where you have to speak in sound bites, their sound bite is much more effective than the one you would have to do to explain what is actually wrong with what they are saying.
In light of all this, the question is, then, how do you fight back against that bias? I think every person who cares about this has a skill set, and I think that it ultimately comes down to what each individual thinks their skill set is and what they can contribute. I think that I have a particularly good skill set in terms of debates and in terms of making videos. I’ve studied multimedia/graphic design. So what I do with a lot of my time is actually create short videos that I post on YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook that debunk individual Israeli myths about random things: incitement of violence, human shields, apartheid, what have you, all of that stuff. And now that I’m working at the Arab American Institute, we’re taking that skill set to the institute and I really recommend that you guys follow the Arab American Institute on social media. You’ll be getting a lot of these videos that might actually be very, very useful to you as well. But then it becomes up to each individual person in this room and anywhere else about what skill set do you have and how can you contribute. That’s really up to you to figure out.
One thing that I would say is we need more Palestinian voices in mainstream American media coverage and media outlets should hear about it when they’re covering our issues and we’re not included in the discussion. So there were breaks during that Gaza War three years ago where people like Yousef Munayyer and Noura Erakat were actually on mainstream outlets. They were on MSNBC and CNN. But that still is much more rare than it should be. The fact that we’ve had a few breaks here and there does not change the fact that we are still grossly underrepresented when topics of the Middle East actually come up.
Another thing that I think is important is learning debate skills. And I would like to distinguish that from knowing what is actually happening in the conflict. The person who wins the debate is not the person who knows more. You can get a professor who knows everything there is to know about every last detail and they’re not necessarily the person who is going to perform the best in a TV debate situation. There’s a way to make sure that the conversation happens on the ground that focuses on what is actually important and what is driving the conflict.
I’ll give you an example. I was invited on an Israeli channel not long ago to talk about the infighting between the Palestinians over the Gaza electricity situation. What do you think of what Mahmoud Abbas is doing and the PA cutting money and all that stuff? Even if you make all the best points there are to make. You know, I think this is a very important conversation for Palestinians to have, for people who care about Palestine to have in an open setting like this where we have a lot of time. These are important topics to talk about. But when you’re invited on a TV program where you’re speaking for a couple of minutes, to me, I think it does a disservice to focus on that particular aspect of it and I think it’s much more important to shift the blame to where it actually belongs. Yes, there is Palestinian infighting, but the problem is the siege on Gaza. That’s the driving force of why there is a humanitarian catastrophe at this point in the first place. And all you have to do is switch things around. If Hamas had placed Israel under siege and Tel Aviv was dark because they could not afford to pay their electricity bill because Hamas prevents Israel from doing commerce with any outside country, would anybody be talking about infighting between Israeli groups and political organizations? Or would everybody be saying, “Look at this monstrous siege that Hamas has imposed on Israel. It must end.” So I think it’s important to know where to take the conversation not just to know all the facts and dispute every last detail that is said that is incorrect.
And the last thing I would recommend is to get out of echo chambers. I think we have a tendency to speak to ourselves a lot. We come to talks like this where a lot of us are sympathetic to the same issues. And whether you’re talking about education or complaining, it’s really important that we start reaching out. The main focus always ought to be a mainstream audience. What can I say and do to make sure that this message is going beyond people who are already sympathetic and reach people who don’t know. You’re never going to reach the other side, right? That’s done. But the American public by and large is really misinformed about this issue. Now there’s progress. We’re making a lot of progress on that front. You see it in opinion polls. It’s becoming increasingly also a partisan issue. The Trump administration has worked very hard to make sure that’s the case as well. So you’re seeing a lot more liberal, democratic leaning populations when you do polling are getting it. They’re much less down with the occupation. They’re not OK with settlement expansion. They oppose it. They think there should be punitive measures for it. And that’s increasing. At the same time it hasn’t reached the political establishment level yet. Bernie Sanders attempted to and he did a great job but at the end of the day when it comes down to the party platform, Bernie Sanders’ efforts to push more progressive language into the platform was successful on virtually every front with the exception of this issue. So you can see that there’s still a lot of resistance in the political establishment about dealing with this issue correctly and fairly.
And I think that getting out of the echo chamber also extends to complaining about media bias. Instead of us telling each other how frustrated we are that media coverage is inaccurate and missed this and didn’t do that, I think these media outlets should be hearing from us every time they cover an issue in a way that you think is inaccurate or unfair. They should get an email from you. People should write letters to the editor, write op-eds. Push for that messaging to actually penetrate mainstream media. And I know that social media is a great tool. It has democratized the way we communicate. But I still think we need to pursue serious efforts to get mainstream corporate media coverage on this issue to be better than it is.
I guess I’ll leave it here and we can do a Q&A from here.