TERRA INCOGNITA: Journalists Vs Jerusalem

One couldn’t confuse Peyton Manning and Eli Manning, the quarterbacks, or confuse rugby and cricket teams. But when it comes to reporting on Jerusalem, there is a collective shrug of the shoulders.

A view of al-Aksa mosque on the Temple Mount from the Jerusalem neighborhood of Silwan. (photo credit: REUTERS)
A view of al-Aksa mosque on the Temple Mount from the Jerusalem neighborhood of Silwan.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
‘The latest spasms of random bloodshed in and around Jerusalem have caused horror.” This was only one of the problematic sentences in a 3,000- word feature story published on December 4 by Newsweek titled “the young woman at the forefront of Jerusalem’s new holy war.”
The piece was full of errors, bias, callous discussion of Jerusalem and a dismissive attitude toward accuracy. The piece is emblematic of a long tradition of bad coverage of Israel and the Palestinians.
This issue has been addressed in two incisive articles by former AP reporter Matti Friedman. He noted in The Atlantic that “the news tells us less about Israel than about the people writing the news.” Why address it again? Because the issue goes beyond just bias. It is about the purposeful propagation of ignorance and the lowering of journalistic standards. In a BBC radio broadcast on December 5 Tim Franks said, “Jerusalem has been in the news for most of recorded human history... the most contested patch of real estate on earth.” If it is the most contested place, reported on since time immemorial, then why is so much information about it so wrong?
In its strictest sense journalism is about the collection and editing of information for public consumption. Journalists serve as gatekeepers between the information sources and the public. As such, journalists can play a meaningful role in manipulating that information, ideally to make it easier to understand. They also go out and find information, investigate stories and ask critical questions. So how do they get it so wrong and why is it that all too often when it comes to reporting about Israel and the Palestinians, simple things like fact checking get thrown out the window? Let’s look at the blunders in the Newsweek piece. Ostensibly the article was about a Palestinian woman named “Latifa” who is leading Muslim efforts against Jewish prayer on the Temple Mount. Latifa has no last name, which is strange to begin with.
Why would you write thousands of words about a protagonist who has no full name and not provide any explanation as to why? The author, Sarah Helm, claims that recent days have brought “more evidence of a planned Jewish take-over, including a new law proposed in the Israeli Knesset giving Jews the right to pray on the Haram [al-Sharif, or the Temple Mount].” The author implies that a law proposed by Bayit Yehudi is part of a plan, without bothering to interview the sponsors of the law or discuss whether it has a chance of passing. The article claims that “under the status quo agreement, set when Jerusalem was captured by Israel in 1967, the Jordanian King was established as guardian of the Haram al-Sharif, and everything that happens here must be agreed by him. On 4th November, after Israel started unilaterally changing the status quo the King [of Jordan] withdrew his ambassador from Israel.” That is what the king of Jordan did on November 5, but what was the “unilateral” action that caused it? The article doesn’t say.
IT GETS worse. The article mentions “the Herodian walls of the Haram, and of the Old City” – but the walls of the Old City are Ottoman. Describing Israeli responses to Palestinian terrorist attacks in Jerusalem she claims, “As Palestinians were rounded up, homes blown up in punishment, talk of intifada began.” Except Israel doesn’t blow up homes as punishment; it has demolished some. Describing Jewish communities in east Jerusalem, she claims, “Thick banks of Jewish settlements which belt the city, cutting it off from its hinterland in the West Bank.” What is a Palestinian “hinterland”? The West Bank is not a rural area, it is the heartland of Palestinian communities, such as Ramallah and Hebron. Describing Jordan’s relations with Israel, “Others point out that if Jordan tears up its peace treaty, Israel will have Isis at its borders.” By “Isis” the author means Islamic State not the Egyptian god, but who are these “others” who claim that if Jordan severs relations with Israel, Jordan will become dominated by Islamic State? It makes not sense.
Explaining driving in east Jerusalem the article notes, “Jewish new towns and parks, all linked by a maze of tunnels, light railways and roads that speed the settlers back and forth so the Jewish residents barely need to see a Palestinian.” But there is only one light railway, and it goes through Shuafat and Beit Hanina, both Arab neighborhoods.
The proposal to build 2,600 housing units in Givat Hamatos becomes “a large new blob on his map, where Israel is about to plug the last gap in the Jerusalem settlement ring by building a major new town on Palestinian land at Givat Hamatos.” How did an established neighborhood become a “new town”? The writer claims, “Last week Israel announced that Muslim guards would be banned from working on the Haram al-Sharif.” This supposedly refers to a proposal by the Public Security Ministry to advance a bill to outlaw guards on the Temple Mount. But it is a proposed law, not an actual law.
Lack of basic fact checking, sources being described as “others,” omission of information about the difference between laws and proposed laws – some of this can be explained by ignorance. But blatant factual errors and outright bias can’t be explained so easily.
The article claims that in “early summer...three Israeli teenagers were murdered on the Israeli-occupied West Bank and the charred body of a 16-year-old Palestinian boy from Wadi Joz, an area near the Old City, was found.” No names are given, but we know that the Palestinian boy was Mohammed Abu-Khdeir, kidnapped and brutally murdered on July 2. He was from Shuafat, not Wadi Joz. The “finding” of the body ignores the fact that the police have indicted people for the murder. The article obfuscates further: “After the Gaza cease-fire, Jerusalem’s spasms started again.
A Palestinian bus driver was found hanged in his bus.” The cease-fire was on August 27, while the bus driver, Yusuf Hasan al-Ramuni, was found dead on November 17, and an autopsy ruled he was not murdered. That is an important detail. And why does the author eschew mentioning the names of the victims, Jewish and Arab? It gets worse. The author uses the term “settler” to refer to most of the Jews she describes, without determining where they are from.
“The previous night, two Jewish settlers had been stabbed at the nearby Jaffa Gate.”
That refers to the November 24 stabbing of two Jewish students from Shuvu Banim Yeshiva in Bnei Barak. Why were they “settlers”? Helm writes, “A mother sits amid the rubble of her home – demolished because her son drove his car into a line of Jewish settler commuters, killing two.” The victims were Karen Yemima Mosquera, a 22-yearold Ecuadorian citizen, and 3-month-old Chaya Zissel Braun. Why were they “settlers”? Because they were Jewish? What did the three-month-old “settle”? They weren’t residents of the West Bank. Their crime was to be Jews, and the article dehumanizes them, as it does Mohammed Abu-Khdeir, by not naming them and spreading false information about them.
The callous nature of this article is fully evident in its description of the November 18 Har Nof synagogue massacre: “a rabbi and three other men were killed in a Jerusalem synagogue.” Actually all four men were rabbis, Moshe Twersky, Calman Levine, Aryeh Kopinsky and Avraham Shmuel Goldberg, and the article doesn’t mention the policeman, Zidan Saif, who was also killed. The off-hand “three other men” sort of sums up this article’s total disregard for collecting basic information.
One could write this off to Newsweek’s declining journalistic standards. But that would be letting it off the hook. This article symbolizes how the supposedly crucial and globally important story of Israel and the Palestinians, of Jerusalem, is too often told. Journalists don’t bother to collect basic facts, learn about laws or even get people’s birthplaces correct.
Consider that a journalist writing about the Large Hadron Collider, black holes, or the Tampa Bay Buccaneers wouldn’t be allowed to simply pass off nonsensical information in an article. One couldn’t confuse Peyton Manning and Eli Manning, the quarterbacks, or confuse rugby and cricket teams. But when it comes to reporting on Jerusalem, there is a collective shrug of the shoulders. Mohammed, Ahmed, Moshe, settlers. Oh well. After all, even Latifa didn’t have a last name.
Follow the author @Sfrantzman