The Washington Post’s Israel problem – and ours

The Washington Post’s Israel problem – and oursIsrael News – Haaretz Israeli News source..

(I’m waiting to hear from CNN’s ombudsman.  They seem to be out=BBCing BBC. – JW )

The ombudsman of a respected and influential newspaper cannot afford the luxury of reducing real people and real suffering to caricature.

By | Nov.29, 2012 | 1:28 PM | 1
Israelis running for shelter

Israelis running for shelter after Red Alert sounds, warning of incoming rockets, November 10, 2012. Photo by AFP

I can understand how the ombudsman for a respected and influential American news organization would have a problem with the Mideast conflict, in the same way that people tend to dislike chronic degenerative diseases. Depending on the state, the can give the clinician those partners’ names or simply get prescriptions written anonymously. Often the patient can then fill all those prescriptions at the pharmacy and give the medications—with typical drug inserts outlining proper use and side effects—to those contacts.

I can understand the ombudsman of the Washington Post having a particular problem with Israel – beginning with strident, even threatening letters from subscribers whose support of Israel is passionate to the point of extremism.

During the war, many of them were livid over the perceived imbalance of a powerful and important front-page photograph of a Palestinian father, wrenched in grief, cradling the swathed body of his 11-month-old boy, killed by an Israeli air strike.

The public has every right to its opinion. The pressure on anyone dealing with the story can be immense, as any journalist who covers it knows. You struggle to do your job faithfully describing the reality from close up as best as you can, while faraway armchair warriors on both sides do everything they can to sway you or stop you. We’re only human. At that point, anyone might well lose control. I believe that at some point last week, the Post’s ombudsman did just that.

After a reasoned defense of the use of the photograph, ombudsman Patrick Pexton wrote the following:

“I think we can all agree that the Gaza rocket fire is reprehensible and is aimed at terrorizing Israeli civilians. It’s disruptive and traumatic. But let’s be clear: The overwhelming majority of rockets fired from Gaza are like bee stings on the Israeli bear’s behind.”

There it is. The Washington Post’s Israel problem. Which is pretty much the same as the Israel problem of the left as a whole. From time to time, I readily confess, it’s my Israel problem too: Anger blinds. Frustration oversimplifies. We lose it.

People –the human, feeling, equally legitimate essence of each one of them –disappear. There is little balance left to look at the facts as anything more than the cartoon that we expect. There is little energy left to sort through the thicket, process the facts, leave our opinions and prejudices where they belong: on the cutting-room floor.

“These rockets are unguided and erratic, and they carry very small explosive payloads,” Pexton continued. The ombudsman did what none of us should: belittle the impact on real people of being targeted with missiles packed with up to 200 pounds of high explosive. The weaponry is written off as little more than toothless toys, jury-rigged in garages.

The targets, the Israeli people in missile range, were not a menacing beast. They were human beings, flawed, occasionally heroic, frequently moral. They deserve better than the cheap wisecrack of the bear’s behind.

From a distance, you might well think nothing’s changed. From a distance of 6,000 miles or so, it might elude notice that every single war destroys Israel. Every one, every time. Each war here is a watershed. It leaves an entirely different Israel and different Israelis in its wake.

You can’t see it, but this war changed everyone here. Out of view, deep inside, something shifted. For some, it may have been the horrifying sense that this is what we can expect – from the other side and from ourselves as well – every couple of years. Forever. Like hurricanes in Haiti. Bombs, rockets, a new cohort of children with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. And every single time, it comes closer to your own home. Wherever you are.

A news ombudsman cannot afford the luxury of reducing real people and real suffering to caricature. The job of a news organization is exactly the opposite – to go beyond the easily merchandised story of Villain vs. Victim, the brutish, loutish predator against the virtuous, resourceful, all-but-defenseless prey.

Yes, as Pexton points out, just as in Operation Cast Lead four years ago, many, many more Gazans were killed than Israelis. What he fails to point out is that Israel conducted this war entirely differently. Whether out of fear of a second UN Goldstone inquiry or for other reasons, the military expended extraordinary efforts to minimize civilian casualties, from some 600 Palestinian civilian deaths in the 2008-2009 conflict, to 66 in this war.

It’s too soon to know what this war has done to us, and to Israel. The signs are still too contradictory, too vague. The ultra-hawkish government that came to power promising to topple Hamas with ferocity kept its ground troops from going in to Gaza. The ruling Likud, which has veered fiercely right, will muzzle itself –to an extent – during the UN vote on Palestine. Young moderates may elect a new Labor Party this week, or they may stay home.

The Washington Post covered the war well. But Patrick Pexton let his paper down. He did his colleagues a disservice. The Post deserves better than this. So do those millions of people whom leftists and journalists, this one included, so often stereotype and condemn rather than listen to with openness and respect –Israelis.

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