Thursday, September 18, 2014

On Narratives and Tactics

Sar Shalom

A common refrain in the pro-Israel community is that the media are biased against Israel. Coverage of the recent fighting in Gaza has been such that even Gary Rosenblatt of The (NY) Jewish Week, who previously has been a staunch defender of the media against charges of bias, felt forced to admit that there was something untoward in the media's coverage of the conflict. In addressing the media's bias, it would help to look at how the narrative frames developed that lead to today's skewed coverage in order to develop our own strategy to counteract it.

Recently, Columbia Journalism Review recarried an article about The New York Times' coverage of Israel. Early in to that article was a vignette about how narratives at the Times changed from Israel as a scrappy upstart fending off those who would exterminate her to Israel as cruel overlord:
During the winter of 1974, Seymour Topping, the assistant managing editor of The New York Times, and his wife, Audrey, visited Jordan as part of a tour of the Middle East.

On their stops in Egypt, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, and Syria, Topping often had to confront criticism that the Times’ coverage was too favorable to Israel. It was a familiar enough situation for him; to be the editor of the Times in charge of international coverage meant you were a magnet for complaints. They were usually about the paper, but sometimes about US policy, which foreigners often believed was refracted through the Times’ coverage.

In Jordan, King Hussein took a different approach: He arranged for the Toppings to visit a nearby Palestinian refugee camp. The visit affected Topping markedly—he saw both the squalor of the camp and the festering hatred of Israel—and he recounted afterwards that he realized he had not understood the role of the Palestinians in the region’s future until then.
What this episode demonstrates is that King Hussein caught on to a strategy that I have seen mentioned during my days following the DLC: if you want to convince the public to support you against your opponent, tell them something that they don't know about your opponent but would not like if they did. Before the West saw how the Palestinian refugees were living, the narrative was that the victims of the worst genocide from Europe were attempting to restart their lives in the face of nihilist opposition. The new information that Jordan presented to Topping showed that instead of the opposition to Zionism being nihilistic, there was an actual victim of Israel's birth. This led to a new narrative that the victims of Europe's worst genocide sought to rebuild their lives at the expense of innocent, as most westerners came to see them, others. Unfortunately, when this new narrative began to gel, our only response has been to reiterate the facts underlying our old narrative more loudly.

In the absence of facts supporting the Palestinians' claims, the facts underlying our narrative would carry the day. However, if the Very Serious People of the world think that the facts underlying the Palestinian narrative are more significant, no amount of telling our old narrative will change their perception. This applies equally to Holocaust and Hamas' rockets. What we need to do is to tell the Very Serious People something about the Israeli-Palestinian that they don't know, but would make them not like the Palestinian national movement if they did. Since the Very Serious People's love affair with Fatah is based on the belief that Fatah is the last-best hope for peace, the facts we reveal would have to undermine that notion. Further, the Very Serious People are loathe to admit that there is no hope for peace, so undermining the notion that Fatah is the last-best hope for peace will require showing that there is an alternate partner to get to peace.

Accordingly, the next time dignitaries (political candidates, media editors) visit Israel, instead of showing them what Israelis are living through under Hamas terror, show them genuine voices for peace on the Palestinian side. The first example should be a gathering of Sheikh Jabari with what the Very Serious People call "settlers." This information would serve two purposes. It would show that if Fatah is dethroned, that hope is not lost for attaining peace. Further, it would show that the "settlers," are an excuse for Fatah to refrain from making peace rather than a real obstacle, as proved by the willingness of Palestinians like Jabari to meet with them. Preferably, the dignitaries would witness one of these meetings in Jabari's home in Hebron, but if they are unwilling to go where Israel "has no right to be," the meeting should be moved to where the dignitaries would be willing to go to witness it. This could be followed by more similarly minded Palestinians, such as the followers of Mohammed Daoudi Dajani's Wasatia movement. However, more important would be to see how the Palestinian national movement reacts to the Palestinians who genuinely seek peace as is evident in the anti-normalization crusade.

Ultimately, the goal is to supercede the current narrative the way the Arabs got the current narrative to supercede the one that existed until 1967. The new narrative should be one which acknowledges that there is Palestinian suffering, but which attributes that suffering to the national movement using the people as pawns and that the people who actually are trying to help the Palestinian people do not measure their progress by how far they roll back Jewish aspirations.


  1. On the one hand, I think that you are entirely correct that we need to roll-back the false Arab narrative of Jewish malice, conquest, and persecution of the "native" population.

    "What we need to do is to tell the Very Serious People something about the Israeli-Palestinian that they don't know, but would make them not like the Palestinian national movement if they did."

    I think it's a smart tactic and your historical example apt, although I am not entirely certain that showing that Jews in the territories also want peace would have that much of an effect. It certainly couldn't hurt, I don't think and therefore represents one tactic among others.

    I have to say, though, I find myself exceedingly wary of this notion of "narratives." I know a thing or two about how historians do their work and I am therefore very well aware of the inherent subjectivity of the endeavor. However, recognizing this does not mean that we given in to false relativities or equivalences.

    And, understand, I am not accusing you of doing so, but we need to be aware of how the concept of narratives is used by people to suggest that any one narrative is as good as another so long as the narrative has political utility.

    The problem with the whole notion of narratives is that it erodes respect for the truth.

    Truth is an ideal to be striven for while recognizing that we are all nonetheless bound by our biases.

    However, having said that, I do think that we have history on our side and thus have no need to rely upon narratives. Let the Arabs spin narratives. We'll tell the truth.

    Anyways, I do like the idea, but I need further elaboration. When you get a chance, tell us more about Sheikh Jabari.

    Oh, and by the way, you need a title so I am simply going to call this piece On Narrative and Tactics.

    Feel free to change it according to your will.

    Good piece, Sar Shalom

    1. Narratives should not be abandoned, and a narrative need not vary from truth.

      When narratives misrepresent facts, or omit important info that creates a false impression, then it is fair to correct the record.

      What many people who should know don't is the dots connect all the way back to the start of Islam and Arab imperialism, and the full extent of the manner that non-believers, including other Muslims, have been treated.

      The obsession to impose an ideology, to obtain submission by ANY means necessary, evidenced by the way non-believers have been and still are treated, has stolen opportunity from the people who suffer under the ideology to improve their quality of life. No wonder there is virtually NO creative contributions from these societies. They are too much about abject subjugation through raw power, whether religious or secular.

      The narrative is the culture of this subjugation, and these violent groups, including Palestinian Hamas, do more to promote the cause than anything else, especially many theoretical discussions of the matter.

      I would like for more people to ask why Palestinians usurp aid that others need much more, and obtain special treatment that no one else gets, and why, when they act with impunity to violate human rights, so many look the other way and then lecture Israel and Jews about morality.

    2. "Truth is an ideal to be striven for"

      If only the media would take that approach. Unfortunately, the media care about truthiness, an expression coined by Stephen Colbert, more than they do about truth, where something is truthy if it conforms to the narrative. Thus pictures of dead children from the Syrian civil war are truthy illustrations of Israeli brutality in Gaza and the image of a bloodied Tuvia Grossman in front of an IDF soldier wielding a knight-stick was a truthy representation of Israel's rough treatment of the Palestinians (Grossman is a Jew who was beset by a Palestinian mob which the soldier was trying to control).

      The problem with countering narratives with the truth is that narratives dictate what facts are relevant. Further, they often determine how readily the media accept factual claims. A way to look at it is that narrative is to history what theory is to science in that a narrative provides a unifying explanation to what would otherwise be a bunch of unrelated factoids.

      Unfortunately, narratives are often a shortcut for verifying information coming from sources. Invariably, if a claim is made that conforms with the narrative, no matter how self-serving the claim is for the source making it and no matter how poor the accuracy of that source's track record, the media outlets will give report the claim in their own voice. On the other token, a claim that contradicts the narrative, no matter what corroborating evidence is available, will be presented as coming from a particular source as if the source was some weasel that is unwilling to accept the consequences of the truth. This phenomenon is not unique to Middle East coverage, just look at how the media covered Campaign 2000 and the deficit debate between 2011 and now.

      As to Sheikh Jabari, you can read a little about him from EoZ here: . The point about highlighting Jabari is not just to show that the settlements are not about lording it over the Palestinians, it is also to show that there is an alternative Palestinian polity that could make peace if the West were to give them the respect they would need to gain enough influence to do so. For too long, the Very Serious People have characterized Israeli society into "good Israelis" and "bad Israelis" where the "good Israelis" are the one who accept the VSP consensus, including the notion that Jewish rights end at Jordan's 1949 line-of-conquest and all others are "bad Israelis." Introducing the VSPs to the likes of Sheikh Jabari would hopefully induce a reevaluation of who the "good Palestinians" are.

  2. "What does it take to be a left-wing icon in today’s America? There are multiple elements, but one requirement is a visceral hostility to Israel. That hostility was on display when Warren appeared at Tufts, I believe earlier today. A member of the audience said:

    Eva Moseley, I’m not a student, I’m not an alumnae, but was a faculty wife. I was also a Holocaust refugee and I’m extremely concerned that Jews don’t do to another people what was done to them.

    This received thunderous applause, in the midst of which Warren responded, “I think that’s fair.”