An important documentary Jenin: Massacring the Truth, premiered recently at the Menachem Begin Heritage Center. Already screened on Canadian TV, the documentary will show next month on Israel TV.
Jenin could have done with a bit more emotional frisson, more scenes like that in Costa-Garvas’ Z where Greek colonels are marched in for interrogation one by one. How about U.N. Middle East envoy Terje Larsen being asked: Mr. Larsen, you informed the world that an overwhelming stench of death permeated the Jenin camp. Yet we now know there could have been no such stench – there simply were not enough bodies. Why did you lie?
Veteran war correspondents compared the destruction in Jenin to what they saw in the Balkans and Chechnya. Yet the entire area destroyed in Jenin was four hundred square meters. In Grozny, the Russians leveled an entire city of over 300,000 people. A cursory glance at a map of Jenin immediately demonstrates how limited was the area of destruction. Again, reporters made up what they could never have seen.
Those same reporters had to know, especially after 13 Israeli reservists were killed in a ambush while going house to house, that Israel was showing greater concern for civilian life than any other army in the world. In Kosovo, and today in Fallujah, allied forces relied almost entirely on aerial bombardment, despite the inevitable killing of hundreds of civilians. Had Israel done the same in Jenin, our losses would have been less than half.
Though I would have enjoyed seeing more journalists squirm in the box, filmmaker Martin Himel does extract some gems. Tim Benson, director of the British Cartoon Society explains why Dave Brown won the society’s best cartoon award for best political cartoon for a caricature of a grossly fat and naked Sharon dropping Palestinian babies into his mouth: It’s emotional power. What about the emotional power of photos of Jewish children killed in suicide bombings, Himel asks. "Jews don’t issue fatwas against journalists," Benson replies.
One who refused to squirm was Times war correspondent Janine Di Giovanni. She is unrepentant about comparing Jenin to the worst she had seen in Grozny. Israel commits massive human rights violations, she tells Himel, and it’s either excused or very rarely reported.
Leaning back languorously on plush pillows, Di Giovanni shows emotion only when introduced to Yonatan Van Caspel, an IDF reserve officer, who lost 13 comrades in Jenin. Di Giovanni refuses to talk with him in the room. A bit later, she asks Himel, "Are you Jewish?"
A strong animus to Israel helps explain much European reportage. Dr. David Zangwein, a medical reservist in Jenin described, in a panel discussion after the screening, an interview with a reporter from La Nouvelle Observateur. When Zangwein scoffed at Palestinian "eye-witness accounts" of Israeli troops forcing Palestinian children to lie on possible booby-traps, and pointed out that the eye-witnesses were the same ones who were claiming 5,000 Palestinian casualties a few days earlier, the reporter started shouting that Israel should end the occupation.
Political bias, and even anti-Semitsm, explains some, but not all, of the reporting from Jenin. More important, in the long run, is the way European reporters have been habituated to view Israelis as brutal aggressors, heedless of Palestinian lives. Filtered through that constant narrative, Palestinian accusations of executions and mass graves lying under the rubble seemed creditable to many European reporters.
I do not wish to make too much of the comparison, but we often see the same process with respect to reporting of the hareidi community in Israel. The most persistent stereotype of haredim is that they could not care less about any Jew outside their narrow community. Yet that stereotype is easily refuted by evidence known to most secular Israeli.
The largest volunteer organizations in Israel were founded by haredim, and serve the entire population. Yad Sarah and its 6,000 volunteers save the government an estimated $300,000,000 in hospitalization costs a year by providing medical equipment for home care and monitoring the sick and elderly at home. Ezra Le’Marpeh handles 50,000 medical referrals a year, and has been described by Harvard professor Dr. Ivo Janko as providing "integrated services unparalleled in the world. The largest bone marrow registry in Israel – 180,000 names -- was created by Ezer MiTzion. The organization’s thousands of volunteers supply 50,000 meals monthly to families of hospitalized patients, and staff summer camps and afternoon activity centers for special needs children.
Panim Meir and Chazon Yeshaya run soup kitchens serving hundreds of thousands of meals a month. Panim Meir provides 7,400 hot meals daily to schoolchildren. Less than 5% of its beneficiaries are haredi. Chayeinu and Zicharon Menachem work intensively with young cancer patients and their families, including offering summer camps, trips abroad, and outings.
And the list could be expanded endlessly. These organizations are well-known, and their very existence belies the stereotype of the indifferent haredi. Yet the stereotype is so engrained that the media can frequently not see the counter-evidence in front of its nose.
European reporters are not the only ones hoisted on their own entrenched narratives.