My cheeky short letter to Business Day (previous post) got published in full. My careful review of Daniel Gordis’ brilliant new book “The Promise of Israel” submitted to the Opinion and Analysis section of the M&G was turned down: too long and too much pro-Israel stuff received. BUT it may be published in the Book Review section??? Holding breath.
How things change in a few days. After setting out tough scenarios, Obama has been at least stalemated by Putin. American weakness exposed badly! It is not the result of military or technological (or economic) incapacity, but the stranglehold of Leftwing fantasies which are the Achilles heel of successful democracies – and may be the downfall of our own.
From a Darwinist point of view, there is a quasi-equilibrium between democracies and autocracies which fluctuates depending on the nature of the external challenges. Democracies cannot react decisively and effectively until the writing is on the wall. It came off in WW2 but could fail in the face of a more diffuse and amorphous challenge from Jihadist Islamism and their totalitarian and ignorant-stupid Western allies. What it will do about the other huge challenges (environmental, demographic etc) of the 21st Century remains to be seen.
Since my article on The Promise of Israel has not yet been published I will hold it back temporarily. But I urge you all to read the book, together with Gordis’s previous one “Saving Israel”. Both are essential reading. But in the meantime the article below has been sent to me. I agree with much but not all of it. Let’s have your thoughts.
Manufacturing and Exploiting Compassion: Abuse of the Media by Palestinian Propaganda
Philippe Assouline, September 9, 2013
No. 597 September-October 2013
- Israel, a liberal democracy caught between tyrannies and sectarian violence, is increasingly perceived as uniquely evil.
- In the struggle for hearts and minds, feelings trump facts. Imagery and accusations that automatically trigger public compassion are incomparably more compelling than dry, defensive argumentation. We are “wired” by evolution to support those we perceive as innocent victims in distress, even when the facts do not mandate such support.
- The portrayal of Palestinians as innocent victims in distress has been the key to Palestinian propaganda’s popular success. Through the mass-production of heartrending imagery centered on children, staged “news,” manipulative rhetoric, and rigid censorship, Palestinian propaganda has successfully used the media to recast Palestinians as entirely blameless victims.
- Moreover, a number of prominent journalists for international news agencies have concurrently been salaried employees of Palestinian administrations. Both Agence France Presse and the Associated Press have employed journalists with close ties to the Palestinian Authority.
- Israelis have long tried to win minds with a multitude of defensive arguments and legal justifications, and have lost. Israel will have to define itself to the world in a way that is at least as emotionally appealing as the Palestinians’ saga of victimhood.
- Rather than fighting spurious accusations with impersonal facts, Israel must fight Palestinian propaganda’s exploitation of public compassion with a touching but morally correct narrative of its own.
Blaise Pascal once observed that “people…arrive at their beliefs not on the basis of proof, but on the basis of what they find attractive.”1 Today this is confirmed by science, and it explains why Palestinians have won the media war.
In 2011 – an age of abundant and verifiable information – opinion polls found that as many as 40-60 percent of Europeans believed that “Israel is conducting a war of extermination against the Palestinians.”2 That so many Westerners baselessly accuse Israel of genocide is all the more baffling when one considers that it is Israel that is regularly threatened with annihilation.3 Those poll results are not peculiar to Europe: similar worrying trends have been noted among American youth, liberals, and minorities.4 Israel, a liberal democracy caught between tyrannies and sectarian violence, is increasingly perceived as uniquely evil.5 Tired refrains can no longer obfuscate the truth: the success of the Palestinians in generating such widespread hostility towards Israel has been earned, and in fact can be scientifically explained.
In the struggle for hearts and minds, propagandists for the Palestinian cause intuited long ago that which science now proves: feelings trump facts. Imagery and accusations that automatically trigger public compassion are incomparably more compelling than dry, defensive argumentation. Indeed, compassion – a deeply rooted survival adaptation – has been shown to heavily skew our social attitudes in favor of those we perceive to be innocent victims in distress.6 Suffering children are the ideal triggers of this instinctive compassion.7 In fact, because our social judgment “may be influenced more by emotion than by reason,” we tend to favor those we see as victims in distress even to the detriment of more numerous, but faceless, other victims:8
A number of recent studies support the role of emotions in moral judgment….The researchers’ findings show there is a key relationship between moral judgment and empathic concern in particular, specifically feelings of warmth and compassion in response to someone in distress.9
Because “it makes us feel good when we can alleviate that suffering” (by siding with perceived victims), the repeated experience of compassion ingrains in our minds “self-other similarity to those who are vulnerable, who suffer, and who are in need.”10 This is a critically important fact: we are “wired” by evolution to support those we perceive as innocent victims in distress, even when the facts do not mandate such support.11
The portrayal of Palestinians as innocent victims in distress is the common thread running through all of Palestinian propaganda – and has been the key to its popular success. Through the mass-production of heartrending imagery centered on children, staged “news,” manipulative rhetoric, and rigid censorship, Palestinian propaganda has successfully used the media to recast Palestinians as entirely blameless victims of Israeli brutality. Having secured the public’s empathy and bypassed its critical reasoning by portraying Palestinians as helpless victims, Palestinian propaganda has created millions of Western allies for the Palestinians, and sheltered Palestinians from any accountability for their political choices.
1. Children as Weapons of Mass Deception
Since the First Intifada, Palestinians have deliberately used children as foot-soldiers in made-for-TV-riots, because images of vulnerable children most effectively and enduringly reframe the Palestinians as hapless Davids, regardless of whether the facts agree:12
[T]he emotions such pictures arouse are more likely to defeat than promote rational discussion. This tendency is so common that in the social psychology field it is titled the Fundamental Attribution Error (FAE). The FAE is “The tendency to make internal attributions over external attributions in explaining the observed behavior of others.”…So when a television viewer sees the thirty-second image of an Israeli soldier using deadly force on a sixteen-year-old who is throwing rocks, the observer is likely to make the attributions that the Israelis are cold, bloodthirsty murderers while the Palestinians are simply an oppressed people wanting their freedom and land. Attributions are made nearly instantaneously.13
In order to replicate these damning shots, Palestinian leaders have systematically indoctrinated their own children to hatred of Jews and “martyrdom,” and then placed them on the front lines for the cameras.14
The effectiveness of dead Palestinian children as propaganda tools was underlined by Yasser Arafat in 2002: “The Palestinian child holding a stone, facing a tank,” the Palestinian leader asked, “is that not the greatest message to the world, when that hero becomes a ‘martyr’?”15 Weeks prior, an AP photo of 15-year-old Faris Ouda stoning a tank had become an iconic symbol of Palestinian “resistance,” and Arafat wanted more of the same.16 When Ouda was later killed while rioting, a beaming Arafat declared to his young classmates, “We salute the spirit of our hero, the martyr, Faris Ouda!” After repeatedly chanting Ouda’s name to enthralled cheers, Arafat then encouraged the children – some looking as young as 11 or 12 years old – to emulate Ouda’s “steadfastness and his sacrifice,” i.e., to also attack soldiers and die for the Western media’s cameras.17
This indoctrination of children – at times by their own families18 – has been pervasive in Palestinian society since the Oslo accords.19 Children are relentlessly brainwashed from the most tender age and in the crudest way to strive for “martyrdom” – in schools,20 sports,21 summer camps,22 music,23 mosques,24 social media,25 culture,26 television,27 and even public celebrations of murderous terror attacks.28
As a corollary to this indoctrination, Palestinian children are sent to the front lines for propaganda, and “have assumed an integral role” in televised confrontations, “burning tires and shooting slingshots to attract the television cameras.”29 Thousands of Palestinian children have been arrested for stone-throwing, and yet “the phenomenon of unsupervised minors under the age of 12 throwing stones at cars on West Bank roads, at civilians and soldiers, and during riots” is only growing.30 Palestinian groups have frequently used playgrounds as rocket-launching pads, in the hope that reprisals directed at those same playgrounds will trigger sensational headlines.31 Worse, dozens of minors have been sent to carry out acts of violence and terror against Israelis.32 Hamas, which in 2009 boasted that Palestinians use “human shields of the women, the children…to challenge the Zionist bombing machine,”33 now openly trains child-soldiers in its high schools,34 while Fatah affiliates force other children, often less than 10 years old, to theatrically defy Israeli soldiers for the cameras.35 In all of these cases, children are deliberately endangered by Palestinian leaders and propagandists in order to make them appear as pitiable victims of Israeli cruelty.36
Casualties and arrests generated by this cynical exercise are then used, effectively, to defame and slander Israel.37 Palestinian officials and allied NGOs regularly accuse Israel of rank child abuse while activists circulate damning pictures of child casualties in order to further demonize the Jewish state.38 The responsibility of Palestinian leaders for the promotion of attacks by children on Israeli soldiers and civilians is seldom even broached in their indictments. Armed minors who have died in combat with Israel are instead counted as noncombatant children, without further inquiry.39 Israel is frequently blamed for the death of Palestinian children accidentally killed by Palestinian terrorists and even images of Israeli children injured by Palestinian attacks have been passed off as those of Palestinians injured by Israel.40 In fact, Palestinian propagandists have often recycled pictures of children killed in other conflicts as Palestinian victims of Israel, so confident are they of Western credulity.41
Western media, beholden to the “Palestinians-as-victims” line, have cooperated in this headline-making exploitation of children and, with time, have helped effectively rebrand all Palestinians as non-competent children. Indeed, the Palestinians are now overwhelmingly portrayed in western media as if they are entirely bereft of moral agency.42 Palestinian leaders have thus never been required to explain why they still allow so many of their young to be endangered for the purposes of propaganda, or why Palestinian governments have irresponsibly diverted foreign aid to brainwashing children.43 Responsibility for the welfare of Palestinian children, rather than being placed on Palestinian leaders or even on the parents of those children, is instead placed squarely and solely upon Israel. Rock throwing – which has often killed Israeli children – is whitewashed as a Palestinian “hobby,”44 and when Palestinian minors have died or been arrested while stoning Israelis, the Western media reflexively condemns the Jewish state.45 When Israelis bring to light Palestinian responsibility for the cycle of indoctrination, dereliction of parental and social duty, and violence, they are accused of racism.46
2. Staged Propaganda as “News”
In addition to manufacturing child-martyrs, Palestinian propaganda has for decades staged distressing “news” scenes in order to bolster the widespread perception of Palestinians-as-innocent-victims and thereby manufacture public compassion.47
The heart-wrenching footage of the death of Mohammed Al Dura in September 2000 may be Palestinian propaganda’s greatest coup in this regard. In that clip, a boy and his father are seen caught in crossfire, crouching fearfully behind a concrete cylinder. Moments later, the picture jumps, final shots ring out, and a cloud of dust dissipates to reveal the boy strewn, lifeless at his father’s feet. As a final note, French journalist Charles Enderlin reflexively decrees to the world that the boy and his father had been “the targets of Israeli fire.”48
Enderlin’s report immediately went viral and was instrumental in morally reframing (and fueling) the Second Intifada.49 Nothing had yet so conclusively branded Palestinians – who had just launched a horrific wave of violence against Israel’s civilians50 – as victims. The clip irreversibly indicted Israel in the West and provided unprecedented moral cover for Palestinian terrorism.51 Spurred by the clip of Al Dura’s death, numerous Western commentators equated Israel with Nazi Germany.52 In the Muslim world, Al Dura’s image was used on stamps, billboards, cartoons, in mosque sermons, and on endless TV shows to galvanize hostility to Israel.53
But it wasn’t Israel that shot Al Dura.54 In fact, he may not even have been killed: Al Dura was said to have died of blood loss but the footage shows no blood; the picture of his body in a Gaza morgue was that of another boy;55 the wounds that his father said he sustained from Israeli fire were from a stabbing, years prior.56 In the unedited reels used for the report,57 the boy miraculously moves his body, lifts his arm and looks out, post-mortem.58 And, importantly, instead of the gun battles purported to have happened, the footage shows Palestinian participants faking injuries, staging evacuations and choreographing “battles” in full view of dozens of reporters from leading news agencies – this, while children stroll past the alleged Israeli position, unperturbed. The Al Dura story – the trigger for a sustained media lynching of Israel – was a fiction.59
This phenomenon of scripted Palestinian “news” scenes is ongoing and so rampant that it’s been given a name: “Pallywood.”60 Professor Richard Landes and his colleagues have gathered extensive evidence exposing the practice of simulating injuries for Western cameras as well as “faked funerals, staged gun battles,…professional weeping grandmothers,” and bogus ambulance evacuations among other “distressing” events.61 The actors have become so brazen, and this fraud so common, that one now-infamous video of the “funeral” of a Palestinian allegedly killed by Israel shows the corpse falling out of its stretcher only to quickly jump back on.62 A recent report by the BBC has a Palestinian man feigning debilitating injury only to reappear in the same segment, seconds later, perfectly fine.63 In another clip, a man ducking to avoid purported Israeli fire decides to stop, answer his phone and have a conversation.64 In yet other scenes, actors are shown taking direction while Western news agencies “report” their performances as news.65 Italian photographer Ruben Salvadori’s recent photo essay captures how ubiquitous news staging by Palestinians in east Jerusalem (in collusion with Western journalists) has become.66
Tellingly, when confronted with the staged “news” in the Al Dura reels, France 2 officials officials and Enderlin are reported to have said, “You know, it’s always like that” and “Oh, they do that all the time.”67 Indeed, cinema posing as news has for years perpetuated the image of Palestinians as pitiable victims, and has assassinated Israel’s good name in the process. And yet the real power of choreographed scenes is that later corrections can never undo the damning emotional impressions that the fictions leave.
Perhaps for this reason, the practice of faking news has spread to Lebanon, where Hizbullah and leading news agencies were caught in 2006 placing toddlers’ toys and other sentimental trinkets on wreckage, photographing the same crying elderly woman next to different sites, parading the same dead children, and generally manipulating reporters in order to demonize the Israelis.68 More recently, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt has been caught staging “news” and faking casualties.69
3. Palestinian Propaganda Co-Opts the West’s Narratives of Injustice
Palestinian propaganda co-opts Western narratives of injustice in order to conflate the Palestinians with history’s archetypal victims.70 The morally charged mental images that are evoked by this rhetoric cause the public to automatically empathize and, therefore, side with the Palestinians.71 Palestinian aggressions are erased in the process.
As part of this strategy of moral reframing, Palestinian propagandists have recast Zionism, the struggle for Jewish self-determination in the Jewish homeland, as “colonialism” (and, by extension, Palestinians as victimized Native Americans).72 Palestinians refer to their terrorism as “resistance” (“mukawama”), thus equating themselves with Holocaust victims and resistance fighters during the Second World War.73 Reinforcing this Jew/Nazi imagery, Palestinians fashion themselves a nation of “refugees” that fled “massacres” and “ethnic cleansing.”74 Likewise, Israel’s counter-terrorism is depicted as “racism” and its arms blockade against Gaza, determined by the UN to be legitimate, is characterized as “collective punishment” in order to evoke injustices such as the Japanese internment in WWII.75 At other times, Palestinians liken themselves to Jesus being persecuted by the Jews,76 or to black victims of white supremacism: Israel is accused of being an “apartheid” state or, alternatively, Palestinians are equated with Rosa Parks.77 In every case, this calculated rhetoric recasts the Palestinians as entirely passive and innocent victims of unjustifiable Israeli cruelty.
In order to cement the impression of Palestinians as guiltless victims of Israel that is created by this rhetoric, Palestinian leaders regularly churn out spurious yet demonizing accusations against the Jewish state. Yasser Arafat’s speech at the 2001 Third World Conference against Racism and Racial Discrimination in Durban, South Africa, set the tone for a reinvigorated campaign of anti-Israel calumny that continues to this day. After having rejected Israeli peace offers78 and eleven months into a horrific onslaught of Palestinian violence directed at Israel’s civilians, Arafat informed the assembled dignitaries at the conference that Palestinians were in reality the victims of “racial discrimination” and a “new and advanced type of apartheid,” among an exhaustive list of purported Israeli atrocities:
As a result of this colonialist challenge against international legitimacy, the governments of Israel usurped our rights, land and natural resources. They destroyed many Christian and Islamic holy places. They robbed our water. They turned a majority of our people into refugees in the region and the world, deprived of return to their homeland and to their homes even after the adoption of Resolution 194, which guaranteed their right of return. Indeed the Government of Israel is now undertaking military escalation and imposing an economic, financial, provisions-supply and medical siege against our people and against all of our towns and villages as well as against our farms and industrial establishments, which they are destroying by all kinds of the American war machine, including those internationally prohibited.79
In one fell swoop, the Palestinians – who were at that very moment committing gruesome terrorism on Israel’s civilians80 – were remade into innocent and passive victims of Israel’s defensive measures, now recast as sadistic and irrational crimes.
Arafat’s Durban speech was seen as a model to emulate and a call “to rekindle the Arab campaign to delegitimize the planet’s single Jewish state – and thus prepare the psychological and political ground for its extinction.”81 NGO watchdogs have referred to this effort to isolate Israel through defamation as the “Durban Strategy,” a plan whose effects are still felt in the media today.82 Indeed, Palestinian spokesmen and numerous NGOs83 have persistently echoed Arafat’s tirade, regularly accusing Israel of committing massacres84 and genocide,85 of poisoning school children,86 spreading drug use and AIDS among Palestinian youth,87 harvesting Palestinians organs,88 torture,89 racial segregation,90 and generally of “war crimes.”91 All of these false accusations, again, have one thing in common: they pit Israel as a cruel monster afflicting the entirely blameless Palestinians as victims.
A number of these delegitimizing accusations – trotted out by Palestinian spokesmen when moral scrutiny trespasses onto Palestinian behavior – have found considerable traction with Western media. For instance, following a Palestinian massacre of dozens of civilians at a Passover Seder in 2002, Saeb Erekat and other Fatah officials shifted the spotlight back onto Israel by falsely accusing it of conducting massacres in Jenin and Nablus.92 More recently, to deflect attention from Palestinian rocket attacks on Israel, Palestinian officials falsely accused it of creating a humanitarian tragedy in Gaza.93 These accusations were parroted, unchallenged, by Western media and immediately refocused ire on Israel’s reprisals, absolving the Palestinians of any responsibility for the countless preceding suicide bombings, or for the indiscriminate firing of thousands of missiles at Israel’s civilian population.
Through repetition of this evocative propaganda, the false image of Palestinian victimhood has become ingrained as fact in public consciousness.94
4. “Say I Am a Victim, or Else”: Palestinian Control of Stringers, Fixers and Local Newsgathering
Palestinian administrations – whether the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, or Hamas in the Gaza Strip – strictly enforce the branding of Palestinians as blameless victims through the outright intimidation of journalists. In addition, Palestinian reporters on whom the West relies are often openly partisan and hostile to Israel.
In 2001, the Palestinian Authority’s information minister, Yasser Abed Rabbo, warned a Foreign Press Association delegation (which had complained that journalists covering Palestinian celebrations on 9-11 had been threatened) in no uncertain terms, that “Palestinian national interests would come before freedom of the press.”95 Indeed, numerous reporters were threatened under Yasser Arafat’s rule for reporting facts detrimental to the Palestinians’ image, claiming such reports “inflict…damage to the interests and reputation of the Palestinian people and their struggle.”96 In one remarkable incident, journalist Ricardo Cristiano found it necessary to publicly apologize to Palestinian officials for distributing his tape of the brutal lynching and dismemberment of two lost Israeli reservists by a Palestinian mob in October 2000. A number of camera crews were beaten and had their equipment confiscated merely for filming that gruesome scene.97 The Palestinians simply could not be shown as the aggressors, even when they were.
These examples of the enforcement of the Palestinian narrative through violence are by no means unique.98 In recent years, Fatah has cracked down, often violently, on journalists perceived to be threatening “Palestinian values” and has used press accreditation to bully journalists into toeing the line.99 Things are no better under Hamas’ government in Gaza where, according to Freedom House, “[t]he media are not free.”100 Hamas forces have “raided the bureaus of Reuters, Cable News Network (CNN), and Japan’s NHK, attacking journalists and destroying equipment,” and have shut down non-compliant outlets.101 Hamas has also tortured bloggers.102
Enforcement of the hapless-victim narrative does not end at intimidation. A number of prominent journalists for international news agencies have concurrently been salaried employees of Palestinian administrations.103 Both Agence France Presse and the Associated Press – whose dispatches are picked up by thousands of news outlets worldwide – have employed journalists with close ties to the Palestinian Authority.104 There is likely no other conflict in the world in which paid propagandists for one side are relied on to objectively inform the West.
Even Palestinian fixers and journalists not on Fatah or Hamas payrolls “often function overtly or covertly as ‘minders’ in the manner of old Soviet KGB media ‘escorts.’”105 Indeed, Hamas’ charter explicitly calls on “media people…to perform their role,” adding that “[t]he effective word, the good article, the useful book, support and solidarity…all these are elements of the Jihad for Allah’s sake.”106 Article 7 of the Palestine Liberation Organization’s Charter similarly calls for “all means of information” to be harnessed in service of the Palestinian struggle.107 Whether driven by these explicit enjoinments, or simply because they lack a strong tradition of democratic journalism,108 Palestinian fixers commonly see their job as fighting Israel and operate under “an unspoken but firm set of rules” not to impugn the Palestinians.109
According to media watchdog Honest Reporting, “Arab journalists working for CNN, Reuters, the Associated Press and other major Western news providers in the Middle East, [don’t] think there [is] any contradiction between working as a journalist for an international news outlet and holding extreme anti-Israeli views.”110
One “senior” BBC reporter, Fayad Abu Shamala – who in 2001 told a rally that journalists were “waging the campaign [against Israel] shoulder-to-shoulder together with the Palestinian people” – was exposed as a Hamas member by Hamas official Fathi Hamad (though the BBC refused to have him removed).111 Similarly, Talal Abu Rahmeh, the Palestinian cameraman who filmed Mohammed Al Dura’s death, said to a Moroccan newspaper in 2001 that he became a journalist in order to fight for the Palestinian people.112
In the words of Jay Bushinsky, a veteran member of the Foreign Press Association, Palestinian stringers upon which the West increasingly depends are rarely “fair-minded reporter[s]. They have a mission and they don’t give anything detrimental to their leadership.”113
It is not surprising that, according to Freedom House’s 2012 report on Freedom of the Press in the Palestinians Territories, “[t]he cumulative pressure” placed on so many covering the Palestinians “has driven many journalists to practice self-censorship.”114
Defensive Arguments Are Not Enough
Compassion is a powerful evolutionary adaptation that, when triggered by images of undue suffering, impedes our ability to make rational moral judgments. And just as sex sells, so too does compassion. The experience of compassion is in fact psychologically rewarding and compels us to enduringly side with perceived victims, regardless of mitigating context or facts. Through the deliberate endangerment of children, crafted imagery, manipulative rhetoric and the bullying of journalists, Palestinians have expertly recast themselves as innocent victims of cruelty, and have thus capitalized on public compassion. As a result, Palestinians now command the support of millions in the west. And, having cemented their image as innocent victims, Palestinians’ crimes are routinely assumed to be merely reactions to Israeli offenses. Factual defenses proffered by Israel to defend its good name only reinforce the impression that Palestinians have been wronged.
Israelis have long tried to win minds with a multitude of defensive arguments and legal justifications, and have lost. Palestinians have instead wielded their putative child-like suffering to wager on hearts, and have won. If Israel wants to reclaim its honor, it first needs to “de-infantilize” the Palestinians in Western eyes. More importantly, Israel will also have to define itself to the world in a way that is at least as emotionally appealing as the Palestinians’ saga of victimhood. Rather than fighting spurious accusations with impersonal facts, Israel must fight Palestinian propaganda’s exploitation of public compassion with a touching but morally correct narrative of its own.
Publication: Jerusalem Viewpoints
About Philippe Assouline
Philippe Assouline, Esq. is a lawyer, freelance journalist and political activist currently pursuing graduate studies (PhD) in International Relations at UCLA, with a concentration on culture and its influence on the Arab-Israeli conflict. He is a frequent contributor to the Times of Israel and blogs at the Huffington Post.