The Place of Journalism in Palestinian Cognitive Warfare (Talk at AIS, Haifa, June 2012)

[I thought I had posted this last year when I gave it, but find I haven’t. So here it is, particularly relevant in light of the latest Al Durah developments.]

The Place of Journalism in Palestinian Cognitive Warfare
Paper delivered at Association of Israel Studies, Haifa, Israel, June 2012

Everyone knows that the news media constitute a key battleground in the conflict between Israel and its neighbors, that both sides try to influence the manner in which the news depicts what’s going on. Indeed, both sides of the conflict and their ideological allies in the West have produced prodigious efforts to depict the “other” side as cheating.

Those inclined to even-handedness find such formulations as above attractive. There’s something balanced and fair about them, something approximating such prized journalistic values as objectivity and openness to “all sides.”

And yet, I argue, and I think that the historians of the next generation who look back on the Middle East journalism of the early 21st century will agree with me, that those very people who so valued these principles, systematically failed to either exercise or defend them against a systematic assault. Those journalists who could not distinguish reliable testimony from lethal narrative, who could not tell the difference from the arsonist and the firemen, who even as they sought to be “even-handed” played into the stratagems of one side, and the wrong side, these people failed to play their role as professional journalists, indeed, ended up often enough, willy-nilly, playing the role of arsonist. To paraphrase Pascale, more they more they sought to put out the fires of conflict, the more they fed those fires.

Having dealt with this problem close up for about a decade, now, I have come to the conclusion that we need to understand this phenomenon in terms of a cognitive war, in which campaigns that an irredentist Palestinian leadership has waged against Israel for half a century, mutated in the early 21st century into a larger Islamist war against the West. In the process, Israel played the role of that West’s soft underbelly, in which key maneuvers were first developed against Israel and later be turned against the West. The Islamists benefitted enormously from having journalists and academics adopt, with slight modifications, their zero-sum narrative in which Israel is the source of the conflict and the principle reason for its insolubility. Journalism plays a key role in the cognitive war that the anti-Zionist camp pursues; without the acquiescence of journalists they could not hope win this battle. And they need and want that cooperation so badly, there is little they would not do – including murder – in order to secure it.

Many, especially journalists and many academics, will hear what I have to say with great skepticism: They will think me an “Israel-firster” who cannot hear the other side, who is incapable of balance or fairness: a primitive thinker who’s motto is: “my side right or wrong.” And that may be true. Studies show that people are rather better at seeing the prejudices of others than their own prejudices; so why not me (rather than, say, you)?

However, if I’m right, then those who dismiss me have in actuality, put us – and by “us,” I mean the liberal west that produced the very principles of honest and free journalism as a critical part of any functioning democracy – in significant danger. So, if only as an act of intellectual and moral modesty and courage, it might be worth trying out my approach.

One need not adopt it as “the truth,” but engage in it as a mental exercise, as a working hypothesis. And if you find yourself bailing out and desperately seeking ways to contradict or dismiss what I’m saying, ask yourself if this might not have emotional, rather than intellectual roots. Why can’t you suspend your own convictions long enough to go to the end of the experiment? The consequences such a exploration may have for our democratic and progressive culture may be highly significant.


Cognitive warfare is the art of getting the more powerful enemy to unilaterally disarm. “In essence,” writes Stuart Green, author of a seminal work on the subject, Cognitive Warfare (p. 85), “cognitive warriors seek to shatter their enemies’ wills rather than their abilities to fight.” Ron Schliefer described its goal as “convincing your enemies to be pacifists and your own side to be patriots.”

On a strategic level, CW in the modern era operates from the following principles:

  • Democracies, while capable of fielding the most powerful armies, have profound vulnerabilities which CW exploits to dissuade democratic societies from using their military.
  • Goad the enemy into wasting blood and treasure — intensify the natural distaste for war of civil societies and remove the will to fight a “senseless” war, thus negating their military advantage.
  • Infiltrate the enemy narrative: exploit guilt, and exhaust them with cultural divisions among themselves.

Tactics employed by cognitive warriors include

  • Framing your narrative in cultural terms/memes familiar to the enemy, more specifically, attaching to the most self-critical elements of the target culture.
  • Exploiting cultural weaknesses in target culture: commitments to fairness and reluctance to “demonize” the other, sharpening politically correct inhibitions, etc.
  • Feeding lethal narratives into the information stream, demonizing a democratic enemy and pleading legitimate resistance on the basis of those accusations.
  • Disguising aggressive hostility as “legitimate aspirations,” manipulating the “moderate” memes of the target culture (fear of accusations of racism and xenophobia) to delegitimize criticism of your side even as you scapegoat the enemy.
  • Intimidating anyone who persists in criticizing you, if necessary, with violence.

Anyone who listened to this list of tactics and thought, “that describes just what the Israelis are doing,” just failed the test of this mental exercise: the working hypothesis here focuses on the Palestinians. Indeed that reaction illustrates one of the major victories achieved by the cognitive warriors on the “other side,” that is, forbidding you to think ill of them, and insisting that you lay a thick coat of their projection onto your own side. For them this demand that you adopt their projection is an honorable act of aggression; for you, it is an act of honorable self-criticism and even-handedness. The result is, as I shall argue, is a deadly marriage of pre-modern sadism and post-modern masochism.

Place in strategies of Palestinians

In the Arab-Israeli conflict, Israel’s foes pursue a four-pronged strategy.

  1. paralyze your enemies with guilt
  2. tie them down with lawfare and diplomatic stigmatization,
  3. incite your own side to violent and irredentist hatreds, and
  4. get bystanders to either cheer you on, or at the very least, give you a pass.

Tactics involve:

  • Framing the narrative as Israel, the colonialist-imperialist mega-power with links to international Jewry and America, against the tiny Palestinian resistance: the Palestinian David against the Israeli Goliath.
  • Create and launching lethal narratives that accuse Israel of deliberately murdering innocent civilians, preferably children.
  • Fire at Israeli civilians from Palestinian civilian areas, trying to draw return fire that will kill some of your own civilians, thus producing lethal narratives.
  • Inspire empathy for your own “innocent” victims among outsiders with the use of camera shots.
  • Suppress any negative coverage of your own side through a variety of techniques from cutting off access, to intimidation, to violence.
  • Spread the most virulent anti-Zionist memes – apartheid, nazi-like, genocidal – among useful infidels in the West.
  • Use every Israeli military campaign as an opportunity to spread memes of Israeli violence, Muslim victimization, cowardice of “moderate” Muslim rulers, guilt by association of any “ally” of Israel – US, Europe.

In this battle, journalism, especially “independent journalism” plays the single most important role. Without the cooperation – willing or unwilling – of outside journalists (still better, journalists from the enemy side), the Palestinian cognitive war strategy could not work. Thus an enormous amount of effort on the Palestinian side goes into affecting the product of journalists reporting on the conflict.

Obviously the Israelis too recognize this problem and work to effect coverage, although Edward Saïd’s claim that “Israel has already poured hundreds of millions of dollars into what in Hebrew is called hasbara, or information for the outside world (hence, propaganda),” would strike anyone aware of just how little funding Israel places in the cognitive war as risible.

His comment, however, illustrates just one aspect of the  cognitive war: each side accuses the other of “cheating” to influence the press, and succeeding. Thus even as CAMERA publishes the kinds of figures that make many a Zionist refer to NPR as “National Palestinian Radio,” FAIR publishes studies that put NPR in the tank with Israel-firsters. And, the mainstream news media complacently and triumphantly respond: “If we’re being criticized by both sides we must be doing something right.”

My purpose here is to discuss the role of the mainstream news media in the Palestinian Cognitive War strategy – all understandable strategies, however dishonest and malevolent their means and message. My point is not to point the finger at Palestinians pursuing “the weapons of the weak” (although at some point the West needs to pressure the Palestinians to abandon this use of the public sphere for war and engage in both building a civil polity and encouraging the independent journalism necessary), but rather to call this activity to the attention of Western journalists, without whose rather fulsome cooperation, especially since the outbreak of the Second Intifada, this strategy could not possibly work.

By 2008, the pattern involved had become almost routine: Jeremy Bowen of the BBC laid out the issues on the first day of Operation Cast Lead: “Israel always has one eye on what’s going on and another eye on international reaction… they have a certain amount of time to act to achieve what they want to achieve before international pressure on them stops [them] because of the pressure on [them for killing] civilians…”

To that end, one Gazan described Hamas’ approach to Italian journalist Lorenzo Cremesoni:

The Hamas militants looked for good places to provoke the Israelis. They were usually youths, 16 or 17 years old, armed with submachine guns. They couldn’t do anything against a tank or jet. They knew they were much weaker. But they wanted the [Israelis] to shoot at the [the civilians’] houses so they could accuse them of more war crimes [italics mine].

Of course, such a strategy would backfire if the news reporters emphasized both the way in which Hamas used civilians as shields, and the risks and casualties that Israeli soldiers suffered in trying not to kill enemy civilians while fighting an embedded Hamas. This cannibalistic strategy of bringing harm to their own civilians could only work if the news media not only emphasized the endemic suffering of the Palestinians, but also, and in accordance with the insistence of the Palestinian leadership that contributes so much to that suffering, that the media blame Israel for it.

Most journalists would view this last statement as a bald piece of Zionist propaganda, a point to which I will return. But weighed in the relatively impartial scale of cross-national comparison, Israel’s record for sparing civilians and risking its own soldiers’ lives to do so, stands head and shoulders above any military in the world, a fortiori, the record of armed forces who deliberately target enemy civilians and hide behind their own for protection. consider the following statistics: Israel in 2011 had a 9:1 target to civilian kill ratio in targeted killings whereas the USA keeps their ratios down by considering any male of combat age killed as a combatant. But instead, Israel has a reputation as the most brutal army in the world and, according to The Institute for Economics and Peace, one of the ten least peaceful countries in the world.

There could not be any greater contrast between the Israeli and Palestinian attitude towards the civilians, towards the children of the enemy side, and yet Palestinian cognitive warfare depends on the depiction of Israel as a brutal killer of civilians, and themselves as innocent victims. The degree to which this inversion of the moral picture has succeeded – and herein lies a critique of the Saïdian/FAIR argument which I cannot explore here – represents a key element in understanding the role of journalism in the Palestinian cognitive war. But the inversion seems hard to contend without extravagant recourse to moral equivalence if not moral inversion: the overall impression given by Western journalism has presented the world’s most disciplined army as the most brutal, and the world’s most vicious army of “resistance” as innocent victims of the merciless Israeli onslaught. Shahid Alam, a Pakistani professor of economics, who articulated the “Palestinian Victim Narrative” in the early aughts, rejoices in the shift of the last decade:

Let me tell you something: I have been teaching at Northeastern for 22 years and, you know, 10 years back, if I were to articulate the most modest, mildest of criticisms of Israel, there would be a group of students who would jump for my jugular; and not one student would speak for the other side. Today, over the last few years, that situation has been entirely reversed.

The victory of this inversion of reality, represents a major victory for Palestinian cognitive war. It has rendered Israel vulnerable to lawfare attacks, made every Israeli commander subject to the cautious advice of a legal advisor whose opinion reflects at least as much a climate of international opinion as any legal “reality.” This climate of opinion has so delegitimized Israel that it has produced, in the words of Irwin Cotler, a situation where Israel is the only country at once threatened with, and accused of, genocide.

Journalists in the field

I’d like to outline four characteristics of Western journalism in their coverage of the conflict over the last dozen years that I think reflect a large overlap with Palestinian cognitive warfare. These are not hard and fast rules, but repeating patterns that I am quite confident, systematic research will confirm as the dominant – even hegemonic – mode.

Methodology: The epistemological priority of the underdog

The basic approach of much Western journalism, especially during the Second Intifada, has been: Believe Palestinian claims until proven wrong; doubt Israeli claims until proven right; and when that’s the case, move on to the next story.

The long-term results of this epistemology over the course of the “aughts” meant that from Muhammad al Durah to Jenin to Gaza Beach, to Kafr Qana, to the UN School bombing in Gaza, to the Goldstone Report, to the Mavi Marmara, via a thousand quotidian claims of children shot dead by Israelis, the mainstream news media in the West circulated as plausible if not accurate claims, a series of “lethal narratives” about the IDF as deliberate killers of civilian, especially children. Audiences in the West consumed these lethal narratives under the impression that these stories had been vetted by professional journalists (which, alas, they had).

“Human rights NGOs” like Amnesty, HRW, Btselem and others, systematically supported this approach, and it undergirds much of the overall impression that outsiders have of the conflict. This methodology, known in pomo (post-modern) and poco (post-colonial) circles as “epistemological priority of the ‘Other’,” privileges the testimony of the suffering underdog. Hina Jilani, an internationally respected judge and member of the Goldstone Commission, articulated this principle without any self-consciousness about how inappropriate it might be as a principle for judges (and journalists). When asked about the reliability of the testimony she and her fellow panelists had heard in Gaza, and about which there was extensive evidence that it was given under conditions of intimidation, responded: “I think it’d be very cruel to not give credence to their voices.”[1]

Were one to do a systematic review of the past decade’s performance in delivering accurate news, of the four main sources of news from this conflict – Israeli sources, Palestinian sources, NGO and UN sources, and the news media – one would find the opposite of the impression most journalists have today: that the NGOs and news media performed only slightly better than the Palestinians (whom they systematically trusted), and dramatically poorer than the Israelis, in giving accurate information.

Framing: Palestinian David/Israeli Goliath

Perhaps the most striking evidence for this epistemology, perhaps even the explanation for much of it, comes from the framing narrative widely used in the  public sphere, and widely shared by the Middle East correspondents who stay here for even a relatively short period of time. This approach, explicitly adopted by the PLO in 1968, in a statement that lays out the basic lines of their cognitive war, frames the conflict not the Arab-Israeli, but the “Israeli-Palestinian” conflict. Such a restrictive frame makes Israel, well off, prosperous, the behemoth, the Goliath, and, by contrast, makes the Palestinians the plucky resisters, the David. Were this reframing merely a heuristic device to be used when appropriate, one might indulge the exegetical pleasure in reversing the David-Goliath imagery. Instead, as the Palestinian leadership desired, in the hands of people like Shahid Alam at NEU, this has become an exclusivist frame, intolerant of any other approaches to the understanding the problem, the traditional “Arab-Israeli,” or more recently increasingly “Muslim-Israeli” conflict.

The impact of this framing paradigm on the news media is enormous. Indeed, a picture taken on the first day of widespread rioting in Jerusalem at the onset of the Oslo Intifada, the AP relabeled a photo of a Yeshiva student, nearly beaten to death by rioting Palestinians, protected by an Israeli border guard menacing his attackers, as an Israeli beating a Palestinian.

The AP photo mislabeled in multiple ways (there are no gas stations on the Temple Mount), as it ran in the NYT, October 1, 2000.

Written out of such a frame, lies non-Palestinian Arabs, whose leaders were the principle victimizers of the Palestinians since 1948, and, indeed, had been victimizers of all Arab commoners, for the longue durée of  centuries and millennia, long before these particular Arab peasants knew they were Palestinians. This (mis-)framing has produced a double irony. On the one hand, even as the Arabs spoke of themselves as a great beast shrugging off a pesky insect – the original meaning of intifada – the Western intelligentsia insisted on narrowing the frame dramatically to scenes, primarily, of Israeli victimization of Palestinian. On the other, even as this post-colonial paradigm tightened its hegemonic grip, the opposite happened on the ground: rather than going from the Arab-Israeli conflict to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it rather metastasized in the Second Intifada into a much wider, fully global, Israeli-Muslim conflict. The overreliance on the Palestinian-Israeli framework will be one of the major “second draft” critiques of the journalism of the early 21st century.

Journalistic Procedures with the Palestinian Authority: Speak no Evil

In October of 2000, Ricardo Cristiano of the Italian TV News outlet RAI wrote a famously craven letter to Arafat explaining that his people would never have smuggled out the footage of the Ramallah Lynching because “we always respect the journalistic procedures with the Palestinian Authority for work in Palestine…” What he meant by those “journalistic procedures” was a widely observed commitment not to shed the Palestinians in a bad light, at the risk of suffering a range of punishments, from no more access to physical harm.

Within weeks, NYT veteran journalist William Orme illustrated the principle in an article specifically addressing the issue of Palestinian incitement. Orme gave but one example of the alleged incitement:

Israelis cite as one egregious example a televised sermon that defended the killing of the two soldiers [at Ramallah on October 12, 2000]. “Whether Likud or Labor, Jews are Jews,” proclaimed Sheik Ahmad Abu Halabaya in a live broadcast from a Gaza City mosque the day after the killings.

Such a quote may not strike the reader as particularly heinous, indeed it seems to confirm the claim by a Palestinian spokesman, also cited in the article, that “every word the Israelis hear… they think is incitement.” And yet, the original speech reads:

The Jews are the Jews. Whether Labor or Likud, the Jews are Jews. They do not have any moderates or any advocates of peace. They are all liars. They must be butchered and must be killed… It is forbidden to have mercy in your hearts for the Jews in any place and in any land. Make war on them any place that you find yourself. Any place that you meet them, kill them.

Readers of the NYT would have to wait until Steven Erlanger left the Middle East in 2007 before they even got a hint of the kind of incitement that PATV served (and continues to serve) up on a regular basis. Similarly, “Human Rights” NGOs have blanketed this incitement under heavy silence.

Peace Journalism and Advocacy Journalism

While the Cristiano context suggests intimidation as the main explanation for Orme’s behavior, one might also look to another context, that is the role of “peace journalism.” Peace journalists attempt to encourage peace processes. In the words of one of its Israeli advocates:

Peace Journalism [sic] is a normative mode of responsible and conscientious media coverage of conflict, that aims at contributing to peacemaking and peacekeeping, and changing the attitudes of media owners, advertisers, professionals and audiences towards war and peace.

Peace journalism problematizes the natural tendency of the news media to cover sensational stories (i.e. violence) from an “us-them” perspective, which tends to breed mistrust of peace processes. They deliberately focus on the long slow process of peace-making and understanding the “other side’s” point of view, in order to build trust and understanding. In principle, such an approach embodies much of the progressive values of modern civil societies (i.e. the culture that created the very notion of “free and independent journalism.”

But one of the key flaws to peace journalism in the Middle East conflict, concerns precisely the role of cognitive war. Those who value peace negotiations so highly that their breakdown represents an unacceptable failure, have a tendency to suppress evidence that might undermine faith in that negotiation process. Thus, for example, sites like Palwatch and MEMRI, which translate the kinds of things that Palestinians and other Arabs say in their own language to their home audiences, much of which is alarmingly belligerent, were labeled “right wing” and “militarist” by those committed to the Oslo Peace Process. Media committed to peace downplayed the extensive evidence that the PLO did not enter the peace process in good faith, such as Arafat’s remarks about the accord as the Truce of al-Hudaybiya (i.e., a temporary pause while war positions are improved).[2] Gadi Wolfsfeld, for example, in dealing with the breakdown of the Oslo Peace Process into the Oslo Intifada, never once mentions the incident or the multiple subsequent references to the Truce of Hudaybiya in his Media and the Path to Peace.[3]

One might understand Orme in this context: publishing what Palestinians really were saying, would justify Israeli belligerence, would contribute to Israeli “us-them” thinking, would threaten the possibility of returning to the negotiating table (something the Israeli PM Ehud Barak was determined to do). After publishing my movie on Pallywood in 2005 (see below), a colleague tried to arrange a talk at the Annenberg School at USC. When the chair of the department checked with the Israeli consulate, he was told not to invite me because I was “against peace negotiations.”

And yet, while peace might well be served by a news media that tries to help it along, war could not be better served than by a news media that systematically disguised the belligerent intentions of one side, while urging the other to continuously make concessions. If one side wants to use the peace process as a Trojan Horse, they could ask for nothing better than a press on the other side, committed to an unself-critical, radically constructivist “peace journalism.”

There is another, crasser form of peace journalism, a largely unconscious approach, that one can detect in much of the Western coverage of various Israeli “operations” against Palestinian operations that targeted Israeli civilians (Jenin, Lebanon, Gaza), a pattern particularly clear in the mainstream news media’s handling of Operation Cast Lead in Gaza (Dec. 2008-Jan. 2009). As a natural journalistic corollary to Jeremy Bowen’s remark cited earlier about Israel’s race to accomplish as much as possible before international pressure forces them to cease, the more the media emphasizes the civilian casualties, the more quickly international outrage will pressure Israel to stop the violence. Christiane Amanpour of CNN echoed this attitude just as the Israelis shifted to a ground invasion, by asking Tony Blair:

Amanpour: “Civilian casualties in Gaza are obviously going to put a big pressure on Israel, how long can Israel withstand this pressure?”

I suspect that many of the people in the studios who iconize this conflict, think that if they emphasize Palestinian suffering, they will, by intensifying outrage, contribute to the diplomatic pressure that will bring a speedy end to the (immediate) violence. Of course such an approach takes for granted a whole range of millennial memes (war is not the answer), that confuse stopping violence with contributing to peace. Such assumptions, like the confusion of peace negotiations (with anyone) as the key path to peace, confuses ending conflict with contributing to peace. Ironically, again, by running these lethal narratives of Palestinian suffering, journalists actually increase the anger and hostility of the most belligerent of the forces in the region, an anger and desire for vengeance not only directed towards Israel, but towards any of her allies, including Arab leaders cowards

Demonstration in London during Operation Cast Lead, January 2009


Leveling the Playing field: The Pallywood Advantage

In a documentary about Muhammad al Durah, Bob Simon quipped, “in the Middle East, one picture can be worth a thousand weapons.” He did not realize it at the time that the specific pictures worth that kind of ammunition were the “lethal narratives” of Palestinian cognitive warfare. Indeed, many journalists agreed when asked if their motto might be summed up as follows: The Israelis have all the weapons, let’s level the playing field by giving the Palestinians the PR victory. European reporters, more ideologically inclined, easily characterized and justified such lethal narratives as “the weapons of the weak.” Whether from ideological sympathy, or a reluctance to challenge the credibility of Palestinian witnesses and reporters, journalists repeatedly accepted without checking, accusation narratives and their resulting statistics of civilians and children killed. When confronted with this phenomenon, one journalist responded, “for you Israelis to complain about the media is like a general complaining about the weather.” Little matter to him that few generals ever had to complain about it raining only on his own troops while the sun shone on his enemy’s.

One of the more embarrassing manifestations of this systemic slant is the existence of an entire Palestinian film industry, dubbed Pallywood, in which cameramen, often Palestinian, film on-site semi-spontaneous routines illustrating the Palestinian-David/Israeli-Goliath narrative, from which Western TV reporters splice the most believable segments of action together to permit a report. For Palestinian youth in both intifadas, one of the reasons to demonstrate was to see if one could get on the evening news as part of these staged mini-scenes of injury and ambulance evacuation. When confronted with footage, taken the same day as the al Durah footage, by the same cameraman, that showed extensive, even comedic, “playing for the camera,” veteran France2 correspondent Charles Enderlin stated nonchalantly, “Oh yes, they do it all the time, it’s a cultural thing.” Enderlin’s superiors were later to respond the same way to French journalists who saw the tape in Paris: “Oh vous savez, c’est toujours comme ça.” Pallywood is an unacknowledged leitmotiv of Western journalism, the natural product of a reporting style that accepts most Palestinian claims no matter how implausible.




The overall effect of this methodological/paradigmatic/ideological approach becomes amplified by the undeniable appetite one finds in the West for stories of “Jews behaving badly.” When Palestinians attack Israelis, it is not news unless it reaches an exceptionally high level of violence (the slaughter of a family of five in Itamar, including the slitting of the throats of an infant and a two-year old, not making the grade). Israeli attacks on Palestinians are so high profile that even invented attacks received extensive attention from a media who were (and believed their audience was) hungry for a kind of moral Schadenfreude that delights in pointing the finger at the Israelis. At its worst, this appetite can mutate into a libido despiciendi, a lust to despise that embraces the kind of moral sadism that compares Israel with the Nazis.

In so doing, this systemic, even principled, credulity to Palestinian lethal narratives has created the post-modern version of the “blood libel.” Starting with the coverage of Muhammad al Durah, Pallywood’s greatest all-time hit, and weaponized at the hate-fest of the Durban Conference against Racism the following year, this image turned the Israeli Goliath into a monster, the embodiment of evil, the Nazionism, the very Dajjal of Islamic apocalyptic fevers.

Demonstration during Durban. Al Durah effigy in bottom center.

Durban UN Conference against Racism, August 27-September 9, 2001. Al Durah’s body was paraded in effigy (bottom center). He served as the patron saint of the conference’s demonization of Israel.

This tendency became especially visible in the coverage of the Jenin “massacre” in April of 2002. The overall effect of the blitz of uncritically passed on lethal narratives about the Israelis, like the original blood libel against the Jews, provoked public violence against diaspora Jews (especially in Europe), and had sincere observers like Kofi Anan asking, “Is it possible that Israel is right (fewer than a hundred dead, many ours) and the whole world is wrong (ruthless massacre of hundreds and thousands)?” In so doing, Anan produced an almost exact paraphrase of what Ehad Haam reports hearing from European gentiles about the Jews in 1892. Blood libels are a particularly virulent type of lethal narrative.

Not only was the blood libel against the Israelis operative, but part of what made it so effective, was denial from the intelligentsia. As a personal anecdote, at an international academic conference in Budapest in 2007, one of the organizers made the following “methodological” objection to a presentation I made on al Durah affair when I compared its effect to that of a blood libel:

“I’ve warned against sloppy use of terminology at this conference [except when Bush was the target], and your use of blood libel is a prime example: it’s just simple murder of children, which we know for a fact Israelis are doing every day. (Italics mine)

In her very “statement of fact” the speaker proved the efficacy of the blood libel she denied.

The (faulty) approaches described above as characterizing much mainstream news media coverage of the Oslo Intifada, help us explain how the picture of the conflict between Israel and her neighbors has inverted reality. I’m not arguing here that it’s impossible for some journalists and academics to look at the Arab-Israeli conflict and adhere to these attitudes, to come away, for example, like Tony Judt, with a post-colonial view of the conflict in which Israel is a late Western imperialist colonialist power and the Palestinians are a beleaguered indigenous people resisting that cruel colonial imposition. But given how many anomalies contradict so simplistic a view, given its (almost sycophantic) affinity for the openly  articulated Palestinian propaganda campaign launched in 1968, the fact that so many journalists and academics adhere to this view, that it has become virtually hegemonic in dealing with this conflict, should stir in any serious intellectual a severe case of cognitive dissonance. Such a consensus cannot reflect serious research and analysis alone; no free market of ideas would produce so grotesque a skew. Indeed, one might even argue that insisting on adhering to this paradigm has literally forced a process of stupefacation, in which we must make ourselves uninformed in order to believe in this presentation of the conflict. And hopefully, future generations of liberals and progressives will look back at this skew and rue the day their predecessors – that is, today’s journalists and academics – jumped on this particular bandwagon.

For the consequences here are destructive, not only for Israel but for democratic cultures the world over, including those countries, like Europe, whose intelligentsia delights in stories about Israelis behaving badly. In late 2000, for example, French journalistic culture engaged in an orgy of moral derangement around the picture of Muhammad al Durah. Showing it almost as often as al Jazeera, this image of Israelis allegedly shooting an innocent boy down in cold blood had an enormous impact on French culture, especially “high culture.” As one, highly respected news anchor put it, “This death erased, replaced the image of the boy in the ghetto.” Al Durah’s death [sic] erased and replaced an image that symbolized the deliberate murder of six million Jews, of which a million children. For the French (elite?), the al Durah story offered a “get out of Holocaust-Guilt free” card.


Picture from International ANSWER, Quote from Catherine Nay

Picture from International ANSWER, Quote from Catherine Nay

Comment by Catherine Nay, photo montage from the website of International ANSWER.

The French media elites did so without any awareness that at the same time, they were waving the flag of Jihad in front of their Muslim immigrant population. And when the evidence started to pour in, literally the day after the image appeared on European news, of a new wave of anti-Jewish violence, this time largely carried out by immigrant Muslims, the political elites denied the problem, and the media saw fit, after an initial show of solidarity, to either play down, or reinterpret the meaning of such violence. Jews, accused of communautarisme could not bear witness to aggressions against themselves in France, while Arabs, unchallenged in their communautarisme, received absolution for whatever violence they committed, in the name of the aggressions against their Palestinian brethren, lethal narratives mediated by the same information sources. As a result of this skewed epistemology that enabled violent hatreds, the “Arab/Muslim Street” took root in France, as did endemic bullying and violence against Jews, who, if they could, left the suburban communities they had once shared with fellow North African Muslim immigrants.

As goes Israel, so goes those who sent her on her way. In 2005, terrified at the prospect that a picture of a Muslim boy shot by French police would lead to a wave of suicide terror, the French police stood by impotently as gangs throughout the “zones urbaines sensibles” (ZUS) of France rioted wildly in protest at the death of a youth fleeing the police. They bullied those within and expanded the territory they dominated in and around the ZUS. And the media and academia, rather than report that the rioters shouted Alahu Akhbar, insisted that this was a largely secular phenomenon that protested against prejudice and disenfranchisement. Indeed, fully aware of the dangers of inflaming the situation, press agencies took the opposite tack they took with Israel-Palestine, of playing down the nature of the conflict.

Politics in France is heading to the right and I don’t want rightwing politicians back in second, or even first place because we showed burning cars on television.

In that same year, the first voice expressing deep pessimism about Europe’s ability to withstand an Islamist Jihad began to appear. The following year, the “Muhammad Cartoon Controversy” extended a particularly hard-line interpretation of Sharia to infidels in Dar al Harb. Israel was only the first victim of this kind of cognitive warfare.

We cannot afford another decade in which journalism continues to carry water for cognitive enemies of the very culture of freedom and progressive values, like peace in mutual dignity and prosperity, that makes honest journalism possible.

[1] Neither she, nor Haroon Saddiqi, her interviewer found anything problematic in this formulation: “Looking for Accountability in the Gaza War,” The Star, October 15, 2009,

[2] The speech was published in the Journal of Palestine studies. On the other hand, any attempt, even in the Western press, to discuss the implications of the remark were met with vigorous opposition by Muslims, who in some cases threatened Western news agencies if they did not apologize for their writing. Dan Pipes elucidation of the issue and its significance for determining Arafat’s attitude toward the Peace negotiations earned him the epithet Islamophobe.

[3] On the contrary, in his handling of the Beit Lid terrorist attack of January 1995 (hence half a year after the Hudaybiya remark) Wolfsfeld views the sudden revelation of any signs of bad faith among the Palestinians and remarks on Arafat’s motives as part of a belligerent framing of the narrative in a sensationalist “wave” of reporting (Media and the Path to Peace, pp. 62-71.

4 Responses to The Place of Journalism in Palestinian Cognitive Warfare (Talk at AIS, Haifa, June 2012)

  1. […] going to put huge pressure on Israel. How long can Israel withstand this pressure?” It is a main goal of the activist media to emphasize Palestinian suffering to such a degree that Israel will […]

  2. […] going to put huge pressure on Israel. How long can Israel withstand this pressure?” It is a main goal of the activist media to emphasize Palestinian suffering to such a degree that Israel will […]

  3. […] going to put huge pressure on Israel. How long can Israel withstand this pressure?” It is a main goal of the activist media to emphasize Palestinian suffering to such a degree that Israel will […]

  4. […] of Journalism in Palestinian Cognitive Warfare,” The Augean Stables, May 28, 2013; online:…. Muravchik, David into Goliath, pp. […]

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