September 25, 2016

GUEST ROOM | On Israel, Media and Using Yaakov Katz’ Advice Against Him

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Yaakov Katz concluded his talk in Balche auditorium yesterday evening with some career advice: “I look for someone who is curious. Someone who asks questions. Someone who wants to learn…someone who sees something at the surface and says, you know what I can penetrate that, I can go deeper…” Seeing as how I am an aspiring writer and Katz is the Editor-in-Chief of the renowned Jerusalem Post, it would behoove me to take this sentiment as instruction. Let’s call it a one-sided job interview.

Time to penetrate the surface of Katz’ “Israel in a Changing Middle East” talk. First, that title is a little misleading. Katz’ spiel ultimately focused on Israel’s ingenuity, benevolence and resilience – the sum of these parts being a grand lauding of Israel’s unique military might. About this, Katz is not at all wrong.

First, Israel is among the most technologically dexterous nations. Israel easily boasts the best startup-to-population ratio in the world — a phenomenon inextricably tied to the military. Technological advancement in Israel is in part due to the country’s forever-precarious position as the lone Jewish state in a region full of adversarial Arab states. Therefore, the need for new defense technology is perpetual. As an article from Popular Science a few years back noted: “Israel’s [insecure] environment provides a primal urgency that headquarters in Silicon Valley strewn with kegs and Ping-Pong tables can lack.” So, ingenuity? Check.

What about benevolence? His theory finds good footing there too. Israel, while rightly considered internationally as an occupying force, genuinely does their best to treat enemies with respect. By policy, medical units must compulsorily attend to the most injured on the battlefield or in the streets, regardless of uniform or persuasion. Additionally, Israel assists those wounded in the Syrian conflict. Mobile hospitals line the nation’s border and, most incredibly, do not discriminate. Which faction the patient represents is of no consequence — anyone can receive impromptu care on Israel’s dime and leave, no questions asked. Therefore, while political sentiment in Israel can be quite xenophobic, I would say that Israel is rather benevolent, especially considering its geographic context.

And resilience? That’s an easy one. Israel has been at war since it was born. Rockets fall on Israeli cities as frequently as rain. Regardless, the country chugs along undeterred. Cities remain abuzz. People go out. They debate, smoke, sing, dance, fight and fall in love – all paying no mind to surrounding chaos. There is little question as to Israel’s irrepressible spirit. If you have ever met an Israeli, it is incredibly obvious. Katz amplified this this point with a story: only days after two terrorists staged an attack in a popular Jerusalem restaurant, that very same restaurant was full to capacity.

Throughout the entire talk — not just in regard to Israel’s resilience — Katz told these kinds of stories. He frequently used anecdotal evidence to support his ideological claims. For example, in order to illustrate Israel’s military-related ingenuity, he recounted the time the IDF basically invented drones back in 1969 in order to see what then-imminent threat Egypt was up to. In order to illustrate Israel’s military-related benevolence he spoke about the empathetic action he witnessed first hand when the commander of the unit he was covering allowed a terror suspect to hug his mother before being dragged away for interrogation.

Each anecdote had a place in relation to those other anecdotes around it. They were all politically charged yet emotionally driven. It was quite impressive, really. Katz is a marvelous storyteller.

But it is here, his storytelling, where I finally found ground on which to exercise Katz’ instruction. It is here that I found something lingering at the surface, something to dig into.

Near the end of his talk, Katz shifted to address the increasing scrutiny Israel faces from the media and discussed the careful role of journalism at large. His general point was this: we should be more active in our deployment, utilization and consumption of news. Acknowledging the media’s penchant for “sexy” stories in lieu of accurate ones, Katz rhetorically asked the audience: “how do we give over stories in ways that we get the whole picture, and how can we rely on what we’re getting?”

In order to amplify this point — just as he had done elsewhere — Katz discussed an incident the media had unjustly aggrandized just to sell a story. Apparently, several outlets misreported an Israeli attack against a UN sanctioned school during the 2008 Gaza strip war. The IDF had originally been accused of directly targeting the school and accumulating a death toll of 40. A few weeks later, the Associated Press diminished the severity of both these claims saying that no shells were found exactly inside school premises and that the death toll was actually only 12. Katz cited this episode as motivation to, “try to learn and educate yourself, to see what’s happening” rather than just lethargically consuming what you are told.

I took his advice.

That UN school? Katz didn’t mention that there were six other similar incidents at six other UN sanctioned schools throughout Israel’s foray in Gaza. He didn’t mention that the all that bombing resulted in 227 injured and 44 total deaths. He didn’t mention that Ban Ki Moon released a comprehensive 200 plus page investigative report that implicated wrongdoing on the behalf of the Israeli Defense Force and Palestinian militant groups, the former for negligence and the latter for putting innocents at risk by storing weapons near civilian safe zones.    

Yes, Katz’s talk was factually accurate. But did the manner in which he unfurled the information skew perspectives? Did it take on a slightly deleterious tone in regard to a certain neighboring enemy? This writer — scratching the surface and asking questions just like Katz himself instructed — would say yes.

Now, I should be clear: I admire Yaakov Katz. I applaud him for his levelheaded politics in an increasingly ultra right-wing Israel. I applaud him for unequivocally attacking Prime Minister Netanyahu when he deserves to be attacked; and I applaud him for not succumbing to the click-bait doomsday specials served up by many journalists while doing so. I applaud him for expressing the complexity of Israel’s socio-economic makeup in regard to comparatively disenfranchised minorities, be they super orthodox Jewish men or Arab women. And, lastly, I applaud him for his capacity to weave an engaging narrative. He definitely knows how to craft a story. But in regard to that last note, I’d warn him: sexy stories aren’t always full ones. I know this because he said so.

Andres Vaamonde is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. Comments may be sent to [email protected]. Guest Room appears periodically this semester.