Israel/Palestine,  Media


This is a cross-post from Ben Cohen of the Z-Word blog

To anyone who knows the medium of television, the statement that a news program is probably the last place to have a serious discussion about a serious matter is hardly a revelation. The allotted timeframe, generally three or four minutes, precludes any in-depth analysis. Discussants are acutely aware that they have to communicate in soundbites, so rather than engaging with each other, they artfully twist the presenter’s questions into answers that emphasize the talking points they arrived at the studio with. That’s how it’s always been.

A key assumption here is that the anchor will keep a respectful distance, editorially-speaking, between his or her guests. The anchor will allow each guest equal time to speak. Whether the anchor is in passive listening mode or acting like an amphetamine-fueled interrogator, the accepted norm is that all guests will receive the same treatment.

True, this conception of the anchor’s role now seems almost quaint, a throwback to the days when journalism placed a supreme value on objectivity. Nonetheless, it remains valid, particularly when it comes to straight news shows (as distinct from the more charged talk show environments.)

Keeping the above template in mind, I want to relate what happened to me when I appeared, in my capacity as AJC’s Associate Director of Communications, on CNN International earlier this week. In a segment anchored by Jim Clancy, Jeremy Ben Ami of J Street and myself were discussing the diplomatic row between the US and Israel sparked by the announcement, during Vice President Biden’s visit to Israel, of a new housing development in the east Jerusalem district of Ramat Shlomo.

I expected a rough ride as I watched the introductory clips: Palestinian propagandist Rami Khouri, Israel Lobby author Stephen Walt and some Italian journalist I’d never heard of called Loretta Napoleoni, all waxing lyrical about the inordinate power of the Israel Lobby. There was no dissenting view.

When it came to the “discussion,” Clancy was extremely deferential toward Ben Ami, beginning and ending the segment with him and not interrupting him once. In marked contrast, he interrupted me no less than ten times in a three minute segment. Moreover, he insisted on portraying AJC – a decidedly centrist organization that has long supported a two-state solution – as a collection of wild-eyed fanatics.

For my part, the most telling moment came when I tried to raise the ten-month moratorium on West Bank settlement announced by the Israeli government last November. This is what transpired:

Ben Cohen: …one thing Jeremy did not mention is that there has been a 10-month moratorium on settlements by the Netanyahu government, that was a very important concession…

Jim Clancy (interrupting): …Now wait a minute, settlements…Ben Cohen, you’re drawing lines here that are absolutely false, you know well when you say that that Israel continues to build in occupied east Jerusalem. Ok, I know it is not completely sorted out, but there is no sense in you looking the audience straight in the eye and not telling the truth….

BC: I am looking the …

JC (interrupting): The last word here, I’ve got to give it to Jeremy.

BC (sarcastic): Of course you do, Jim.

Had Clancy allowed me to continue, I had planned to say that the announcement was significant for two reasons: firstly, because it came from Netanyahu, in spite of the fragile coalition he heads and his long-standing reputation as a hardliner, secondly, because when the announcement was made, it was explicitly welcomed by the US, even though east Jerusalem was outside the terms of the freeze.

By any standards, what I wanted to say was reasonable and relevant, even if not everyone would agree with my analysis; yet I was rudely shut down. Why this happened is really the heart of the matter – much more than the personal discourtesy shown towards me, which resulted in an apology from Clancy when he called me the following day.

Recall the three clips I mentioned which introduced the segment: all the speakers advanced the thesis of a shadowy, unaccountable “Israel Lobby” that runs policy and “controls the discourse,” as Mearsheimer and Walt put it in their shabby book, “The Israel Lobby.” It’s a thesis which has pierced the mainstream to the point where it has become unremarkable, despite its psychedelic assertion that a cluster of loosely-connected non-governmental agencies exercise more power over Middle East policy than the White House, the State Department and The Pentagon.

Once you buy into this thesis, you cannot help but regard any representative of one of the “Lobby’s” constituents as a born liar whose prime loyalty is to the West Bank settler movement (as Clancy said to me, before I’d addressed the substantive point he put to me, “you’re drawing lines here that are absolutely false…there is no sense in you looking the audience straight in the eye and not telling the truth.”)

Therein lies the paradox: just as those who indignantly deny that antisemitism is a problem are usually the same people doing their utmost to promote it, those who protest that the “Lobby” is muzzling honest debate are invariably the first to close down the viewpoints they object to, on the grounds that these viewpoints must really be lies. In other words, they do to us what they accuse us of doing to them.

There is plenty to think about here, and not only for those of us doggedly combating the portrayal of Israel as the source of every ill, whether a terrorist bomb on a Madrid commuter train or a slain American soldier in Afghanistan. J Street also needs to ask itself whether it wants to be the “good Jew” in a universe of “bad Jews.” I certainly don’t blame Jeremy Ben Ami for what happened to me on CNN; he was there to put across his own position, and he did so in an accomplished manner. That notwithstanding, does he want to be regarded as an ally by those whose objection is not to Israeli policy, but their bigoted, half-baked conception of what Israel is?