Part of the series Symposium on US-Israel
The limits of permissible debate on Israel are changing. In terms of the media, what has occurred over the last couple of months must be seen in two contexts. The first is a swing away from an idyllic depiction of Israel and toward a more realistic depiction of the Palestinians. Such swings have occurred repeatedly in the past, at moments when it was impossible to completely ignore the brutal nature of Israel’s actions. The old media saying is that “when it bleeds, it leads,” and at times the blood shed by Israel was so copious that it could not be ignored. This happened during the invasion of Lebanon and the siege of Beirut in 1982. It happened again during Israel’s fierce repression of the first intifada, starting in 1987. And it happened after Israel’s assaults on Gaza in 2008–9, 2012, and 2014. What happened in Beirut in 1982 couldn’t be hidden because of seventeen thousand Palestinian and Lebanese people being murdered and entire buildings being brought down by Israeli bombs. Some things in the public consciousness changed as a result, but eventually the media coverage went on as before. A leading NBC News broadcaster, John Chancellor, said during the siege of Beirut, “This is not the Israel we knew.” Each time, there was a swing away from an almost entirely false depiction of Israel, and the media was obliged to describe accurately the atrocities taking place before its reporters’ eyes and the lenses of their cameras. But soon afterward, news reporting returned to the status quo, in part because of the Israel lobby’s extremely effective backlash against the media that had told the truth. The late historian Amy Kaplan was the first to fully explain this dynamic in her brilliant book Our American Israel.
The events of May 2021 are different, however. The reason this coverage has had such impact is linked to the second context, which is that this media shift takes place against a background of questioning fundamental issues about Zionism, Israel, and the Palestinians: the settler-colonial nature of the state, inequality, racial discrimination, and injustice. Because this escalation, and media coverage of it, started in Sheikh Jarrah — because it started with Jerusalem, and then went on to escalate over Gaza — those aspects of the situation came out in unprecedented ways. In other words, there was finally attention to the fundamentally discriminatory nature of Israeli law and of the Israeli system of control over the Palestinians, inside Israel and in the occupied territories, and to the profound injustices that result. The fact that Palestinians cannot legally recover property on one side of a line, and Jewish organizations can claim property on the other, as was shown in Sheikh Jarrah, is a fundamental injustice that can’t be unlearned once you’ve learned it. The fact that a synagogue is sacrosanct but tear gas can be fired into the holiest Muslim site in Palestine, the al-Aqsa Mosque, during Ramadan, during prayers — things are now understood that cannot be forgotten.
May does appear different, and it has to do with those aspects. Israel’s kill rate in Gaza in 2014 was far higher than in 2021: they murdered over 2,200 people, of whom the overwhelming majority were civilians: women, children, old people, the disabled. This time, at least 250 people were killed, with the same high proportion of women, children, and the elderly. So the difference was not based on the barbarity of what Israel did in Gaza, or the attack on the al-Aqsa Mosque, or the ongoing theft of Palestinian property in and of themselves, but on the fact that these things are beginning to be understood in terms of basic inequality and the fundamental settler-colonial nature of Zionism, and of the Israeli state, and of its flaws. That makes this distinct.