What do these recent headlines about the conflict in Gaza have in common?
“Israel launches waves of strikes across Gaza after soldier killed.”
“Israel carries out Gaza strikes as soldier dies from gunshot.”
“Israel carries out deadly air strikes in Gaza after one of its soldiers is killed.”
“Israeli warplanes pound Gaza in response to burned fields.”
“Israeli kindergarten yard hit by flaming balloon.”
The answer is simple for anyone who has taken English 101 or Intro to Journalism: All actions by Israelis are in the active voice while all actions by Hamas are in the passive voice. The difference is not merely a minor rhetorical point. When we use the active voice, for example “Israel attacked,” we know who committed the action. In the passive voice, “Israeli killed” or “fields are burned,” the agent lurks unidentified.
When a journalist presents all violence committed by Hamas in the passive voice – “Israel hit by rockets” – it leaves the impression that there was no perpetrator. When the same journalist uses the active voice – “Israel carries out strikes” – to describe Israel’s response, it attributes blame to Israel and portrays Israel as the aggressor. Headlining “Soldier dies from gunshot” omits the shooter and implies that no one pulled the trigger. Too many headlines and articles lack explicit reference to an actor unless the actor is Jewish/Israeli.
Sometimes the passive voice is useful when you don’t know who the agent is. The mayor was arrested. We don’t know the officer who arrested him, nor do we need to. However, it is clear to every journalist exactly who fired the weapons that targeted Israelis and who launched the burning kites that destroyed Israeli land and crops. They are just not saying who.
Culprits who use this technique frequently employ the passive voice to blunt criticism. A child with crumbs on his shirt may say, “All the cookies were eaten.” In the same spirit, a new company executive who has just fired a significant number of employees may hope to direct blame away from himself with, “The workforce has been downsized.” In Washington, a hundred million dollar misallocation of funds might be explained as “A mistake was made.” Using the passive voice seeks to evade accusation of responsibility. Political scientist William Schneider referred to this usage of the passive as the “past exonerative” tense. Informed readers should ask why some journalists are choosing language that exonerates Hamas terrorists.
To test the aggressive use of passive language in reporting about Israel, flip the voices. Instead of “Israel carries out deadly air strikes in Gaza after one of its soldiers is killed,” let the headline read, “Following Hamas deadly attack on Israel, Gaza is hit by air strikes.” Change “Israeli kindergarten yard hit by deadly flaming balloon” to “Hamas targets kindergarten with deadly flaming balloon.”
Journalists know that one of the most egregious uses of the passive voice is to hide blame or obscure responsibility, yet some do exactly that when it comes to attacks against Israel. Readers who are aware of such a biased style of reporting understand why George Orwell included the passive voice among the “swindles and perversions” of writing, and they will not be swindled by the aggressive-passive language.
The writer is the director of StandWithUs Midwest, an international Israel education organization.