Monday, January 10, 2011

The State of Israeli Media

If you read one thing today, make it Ronen Shoval's calm and lucid defense of the Knesset investigation into funding sources for Israel's radical left. Compare this balanced, measured article from the chairman of Im Tirzu, published on Haaretz (I had to pinch myself to make sure I wasn't dreaming), to the vitriol and hysteria permeating the paper's English language section. The difference in tone is so stark, the rhetoric so divergent, that Ronen's piece really sets a model for responsible, civil political discourse; an outcome sure to infuriate to new heights the already apoplectic radical left.

Indeed, while the Knesset committee is focused on examining and releasing to the public the sources of foreign funding for non-governmental groups, no understanding of Israel's domestic political environment and international challenges would be complete without taking into account the activities of the Israeli media.

In Israel, there exists a situation where the media, or large parts of it, are fundamentally opposed to the policies of a series of governments, and are in the present circumstances among the primary actors confronting government policy in national life. This, in itself, is not unusual and, indeed, sets an example for robust critique of government policy which is often absent, including in Western societies.

What is unusual is that the radical left among Israeli media are increasingly conducting this challenge to Israel's government not within Israel, in the legitimate public space, but outside of it, and broadly concurrent with the efforts of like-minded and foreign funded NGOs. Such actions reflect not an attempt to impact the public debate within Israel, but to rally or, failing that, manipulate and coerce respectable international opinion to confront and batter into submission democratically-enacted Israeli government policy. This is really a fundamental break from the traditional role of media in Western societies, where a free press is thought vital to holding government accountable to the people for its duties and promises and preserving freedom of expression and a democratic way of life - what we Americans term the Fourth Estate. For, while it is not uncommon within democratic (and not-so-democratic) societies for political factions to generate sympathetic media outlets which fight in the public space, rarely, if ever, is the primary audience of those outlets outside the country in question.

Indeed, the democratically elected government of Israel represents the will of the people to a greater extent than the media, which is unelected, and which increasingly derives its revenues from news and opinion it produces for foreign consumption. In a sense, portions of the Israeli media are today unhinged from the market forces which first birthed them, and are thus unaccountable to the public constituency they were designed to serve. This, itself, is a situation which is perhaps unprecedented, anywhere in the world, and should be noted, though in an era of globalization, not exaggerated.

At a time when a growing challenge to democratic Jewish sovereignty in the Levant is spearheaded not by Arab armies or Islamist terrorism but implacable Israeli radicals, including within the Israeli media - zealots who threaten to burn down the city's storehouses in a time of siege should their demands not be met - the basic and necessary refrain must be sounded: What should be done? Further inflaming passions is that such activity on the part of the radicals is reminiscent of other times in Jewish history, where a minority within Jewry informed on our people and collaborated with our oppressors - the Yevsektsia (the Jewish section), as they were known in the Soviet Union - and that this time, the Jewish majority is not impotent to act against them.

In an effort to protect the country and its people, it may seem right and just to excoriate and persecute those who, having lost the public debate, now intend to impose their will through foreign intervention. Any such efforts and tendencies, and they are not many, are counterproductive and must be resisted in the extreme. The likes of Ronen Shoval provide a sensible, effective and Jewish way forward - a stubborn civility, ground in the bitter reality but determined to respect intellectual pluralism and democratic norms. If that is the way we would act in the minority, then all the more so we should remain calm and clear-headed in the majority.

Those who stand in opposition to the extreme left's mendacious tactics must remember that the peace camp's vision - once a genuine, and well-meaning effort - faltered not through resistance on the part of the political right, but on account of a devastating reassertion of reality over idealism. It is that same reality which the former proponents of peace, now embittered zealots, marginalized in the public square as they are, have obscured to harness international opinion in pursuit of their aims, with some success. It is that same reality we must present, in a cogent and honest way, to roll back the tide.

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