We must learn to consider narratives opposed to our world view - opinion

A senior executive of an NGO praised The Jerusalem Post and said it wasn't a serious paper within minutes in response to two separate articles.

 Young Jewish men hold Israeli flags as they dance at Damascus Gate in Jerusalem’s Old City on Jerusalem Day on Sunday. (photo credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)
Young Jewish men hold Israeli flags as they dance at Damascus Gate in Jerusalem’s Old City on Jerusalem Day on Sunday.
(photo credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)

Politics are polarizing and divisive. That we know. But sometimes the situation gets out of hand.

Opposing messages

On Monday, a senior executive at a prominent left-wing American Jewish organization tweeted the following: “I still remember a time, many years ago, when The Jerusalem Post was a serious newspaper. Not anymore.”

In the tweet, he attached a screenshot of an article written by a member of our staff who had reported from the Jerusalem Day parade on Sunday. The headline read: “Israelis march on Jerusalem Day to ‘show love for Jews, not hate for Arabs’.”

The reporter interviewed people who were attending the march, heard what they had to say, and wrote a nice color piece. That was it. It reflected the huge majority of Jerusalem Day celebrants, those who did not assault Arabs, provocatively march through the Muslim Quarter or shout racist slogans.

 CELEBRANTS MARCH on Jerusalem Day toward the Old City. No mention was made of the myriads like us who were there to celebrate our pride in, and love for, Jerusalem, write the authors. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM) CELEBRANTS MARCH on Jerusalem Day toward the Old City. No mention was made of the myriads like us who were there to celebrate our pride in, and love for, Jerusalem, write the authors. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

Considering the person tweeting the article was a left-wing activist, his tweet made sense: he did not agree with the headline, and wanted to attack it. Completely within his right.

But a few minutes later, the NGO executive tweeted another article from The Jerusalem Post, this one written by me. He wanted to share it with his followers: “Good commentary by @yaakovkatz the editor in chief of The Jerusalem Post,” he wrote, and also cited the headline: “Israel has a racism problem – and it comes out on Jerusalem Day.”

Again, completely within his right. But let’s examine this.

Here is a high-ranking member of a prominent organization in the United States who in one tweet can declare that the newspaper I work for is not serious, and then in another tweet just a few minutes later call on his thousands of followers to read my article.

What’s the difference? Why the flipflop? You already know: one piece – mine – served his interest and therefore was a “good commentary.” The other, written by a reporter, did not serve his political interest so it made the paper “not serious.”

This all happened in the span of a few minutes, all by the same person, who to his credit deleted the snarky tweet when called out on Twitter.

That same evening, a well-known right-wing social media activist took to Facebook and called on his followers to stop reading The Jerusalem Post. Why? Because the headline in our paper on Monday morning read: “Jerusalem Day march marred by chants of ‘death to Arabs’, clashes.”

“The editorial board of The Jerusalem Post,” the activist wrote, “represent[s] voices of Jews who are lost, do not know what it is to be indigenous Jews, ignore the reality of the Arab Muslim world that surrounds us, and just want to be Israeli, as French are to France and British are to Britain.”

Asked by his followers what he recommends reading instead of the Post, the social media activist listed three far-right websites and one that caters to American evangelical Christians.

I mention all this because it illustrates to me how something wrong is happening in conversations we have as a society, and in a fundamental understanding of the role the media plays in those conversations and what we here at The Jerusalem Post do as a newspaper.

The bottom line from both of these stories is that people only want to read what fits the narrative they already are telling themselves; and if something is published that does not match their preexisting notions then there is something wrong, and the publication where it appeared should be boycotted and no longer considered serious.

This is exactly what happened with our coverage of the Jerusalem Day parade. Instead of noting how a newspaper decided to provide its readers with two accounts from the parade so that both types of participants can receive attention – those who came to genuinely celebrate and those who came to celebrate their racism – we get attacked.

Call me old school or a traditionalist, but I wonder how we got here.

I’ll share another story. A few months ago, I received a phone call in my office from a subscriber – a woman with a European accent – who asked me to retract an op-ed by one of our longtime columnists, Gershon Baskin.

If you read this paper, you have come across Gershon’s columns for years. They are well-written, but oftentimes, especially if you come from the center-right of the spectrum, they can get under your skin. In this specific column, Gershon was arguing for east Jerusalem Arabs to field a candidate in the next municipal election.

“The goal should aim to model the haredim in Jerusalem and to have power."

Gershon Baskin

“The goal should aim to model the haredim in Jerusalem and to have power, control of portfolios, and the reallocation of budgets that they already pay for with their local taxes,” Baskin wrote in February.

The reader could not understand how I allowed such an op-ed to be published – it serves Israel’s enemies, she told me; The Jerusalem Post was betraying the state.

I explained to her how I view our role as a newspaper. We believe strongly in being as objective as possible when it comes to our news reporting. But when it comes to opinion pieces – of which we publish six to seven a day – we strive to provide ideas from across the political spectrum, from the Right to the Left and of course the Center.

Branching out

If you only read what you already believe, I asked, what is the purpose? Isn’t there value, I wondered, in being challenged? Reading something different will give you the opportunity to come up with the counterargument and reinforce your existing belief. On the other hand, you might change your opinion about something. Is that so dangerous?

Sadly, in today’s world that is considered dangerous. The mere thought of having preexisting notions and ideologies challenged is terrifying for some people. It is so much easier to stay isolated in the echo chamber and continue hearing what we already believe.

The danger should be obvious: it is harmful to democracy, and it is part of why so many people are losing their trust in the media as well as in our democratic institutions. And it also combines with another phenomenon – the one that freely allows the proliferation of blatant lies and fake news.

When Arabs marched through Tel Aviv University a few weeks ago on Nakba Day, you were told – if you read the social media accounts of Likud members and followers of Benjamin Netanyahu – that this was the first time such a demonstration had taken place. It was, they claimed, because Prime Minister Naftali Bennett had sold out to the Arabs.

Was it true? Of course not. Israeli-Arabs have been holding demonstrations with Palestinian flags on the TAU campus for over a decade.

Netanyahu has no problem, for example, claiming that Bennett is giving NIS 50 billion to “Hamas” – his reference to the Ra’am Party that is part of the coalition – when the number is actually NIS 30 billion, which is just NIS 10 billion more than what Netanyahu himself allocated to the Arab sector just a couple years ago when he was prime minister.

Does any of this make a difference? Probably not. People read it, they believe it, they disseminate it, and it becomes the hard, cold truth.

The problem is that they are lies. All over the world we see this happening. It takes place in the United States, in Europe, and elsewhere, and it is probably the greatest threat today to the future of democracies: that elected officials have no shame in lying and making up “alternative facts,” as one adviser of former President Donald Trump famously called fictitious depictions of reality.

I’ll give you another example. Six years ago, upon becoming editor of this newspaper, our policy was to refer to the territories over the Green Line as the “West Bank.” A number of readers reached out and asked me to consider changing the policy and to have our writers start referring exclusively to the land there as “Judea and Samaria.”

Keeping the existing policy was clearly upsetting our right-wing readers. On the other hand, changing the policy would be making a blatant political statement. So, after careful internal editorial deliberations, we decided we would use both terms, and interchange them throughout the articles. One time we will start with West Bank and in the second reference use Judea and Samaria, and vice versa.

We thought it was the right decision (and still do), but do you think it has satisfied the people who did not like our previous policy? You can guess the answer.

As Tovah Lazaroff, who covers the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for the paper, told me recently: “There is barely an article I don’t get attacked for. One time it is because I am too right-wing, and then the next one because it is considered too left-wing.”

This weekend is an opportunity to consider truth, facts and our relationship with information. The holiday of Shavuot marks the celebration of the giving of the Torah by God at Mount Sinai to the Jewish people shortly after their exodus from Egypt.

It is a time of study, scholarship, and, of course, cheesecake, but also an opportunity to reflect on our beliefs and how we manage information. Are there facts or just alternative facts? Is there value in other ideas or just in our preexisting notions? Do we want to be challenged or not? And do we care to even hear what is happening on the other side, no matter how painful the truth might be?

Chag Sameach!