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The Media's Double Standard for Israel

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A few months ago at this site, out of a growing concern that a small but vocal segment of American progressives were making common cause with virulent anti-Zionists, I laid out "The Liberal Case for Israel."

In my column, I argued that Israel's extraordinarily progressive record on a wide range of social and economic issues -- from gay rights to women's choice to universal health care to immigrant empowerment -- implored liberals like myself to support the Jewish State.  I demonstrated why Israel is, in many ways, a liberal Mecca... uh... Paradise.

But my column also begged a critical question: With its remarkably progressive polity, why do so many of Israel's loudest critics come from the American Left?

I'm not qualified to expound upon the dynamics of the anti-Zionist groupthink of radical academia, nor understand its persistent preoccupation with Israel's reluctant occupation of lands it captured in its defensive struggle for existential survival during 1967's Six Day War.

Neither can I comprehend how this tiny nation (Israel can fit into Lake Michigan!), within a vast sea of countries that conspire toward its annihilation, can be considered the Goliath in that overused Biblical metaphor. (And remind me again whose flag bears David's star?)

I can, however, dissect one of the troubling sources of the confounding disconnect between Israel's liberal policies and American liberals' support.

And borrowing from the text-speak of my teenage daughters, I will call it "TMMMI": Too Much Media Mis-Information.

Now, I'm not one of those malcontents who complain incessantly about a liberal or mainstream or corporate media conspiracy. With a few notable exceptions, media outlets are rarely driven by ideological agendas.

However, since the time of Gutenberg (Johannes, not Steve), the media has been driven -- even animated -- by controversy. As the yellow journalists of the last fin de siècle proved, controversy sells papers.  And in the current era of decimated news budgets and intense, instantaneous competition from the often-angry, always-polarizing blogosphere, news editors are further incentivized to publish provocative pieces that will generate the maximum number of hyperlink clicks.

So, for instance, while there may be thousands of instances of the Israeli military taking extraordinary precautions to protect innocent bystanders when they act to defend themselves from terrorist attacks (often by forces that don't value human life), the American media is much more likely to focus attention on the much rarer episode of a young soldier overreacting or making a split-second mistake.

Of course, I don't pretend that Israel is perfect.  Like the U.S., Biblical literalists and far-Right politicos hold disproportionate political sway and regularly stoke public anger by demonizing their perceived enemies.

But far too often, the American media holds the Jewish State to a far different -- and far more unfair -- standard than other Western democracies, and certainly than other countries within its region.

Take, for example, the imperative issue of women's rights.  Israel is a pro-choice, pro-maternity-leave, pro-equality beacon of feminist progress within a grim and shadowy region, a region whose ingrained culture often subordinates and disempowers women, who can be arrested -- or even beaten -- for such simple offenses as driving or failing to cover one's face.

Yet if you were a casual American media consumer, you might think that Israel was one of the world's prime culprits in the international subjugation of women.

In recent weeks, it's been widely reported by the American media that Israel's ultra-Orthodox (über-fundamentalist) leadership had forced bus lines that ran within their communities to segregate the sexes, sending women to the back of the bus. Indeed, one of Israel's loudest critics, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, cited these segregated buses as an indication of Israel's rightward lunge and an explanation as to why many American Jews were "just drifting away" from support of the Jewish State.

Such rhetoric is extremely misleading.  Unlike the media's implications -- and Friedman's direct swipe -- the segregation of buses is widely unpopular in Israel, engaged in by a small, radical fringe of the ultra-Orthodox community.  Segregation in public busing was declared illegal by Israel's highest court and has been denounced vociferously by a broad swath of Israeli political leaders from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ("Fringe groups must not be allowed to tear apart our common denominator. We must preserve public space as open and safe for all citizens of Israel), to opposition leader Tzipi Livni ("Those who relegate women to the back of the bus consign them to the edge of society.") Even the country's ultra-Orthodox Chief Rabbi pronounced that segregated buses are contrary to Jewish law.

Now compare Israel's consensus reaction against female segregation to the American Right's recent response to the latest Rush Limbaugh episode: El Rushbo's well-reported slander of a young woman, whose advocacy for contraceptive insurance coverage deemed her, in Rush's jaundiced eyes, a "slut" and a "prostitute."

House Speaker John Boehner termed Limbaugh's language "inappropriate."  (As conservative columnist George Will commented, "Using the salad fork for your entrée, that's inappropriate. Not this stuff.")  Likely Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney meekly suggested that "slut" and "prostitute" were "not the language [he] would have used."  And presidential contender Newt Gingrich took this as yet one more opportunity to criticize the "liberal media."

See no evil... Hear no evil... And evil.

Did the media take this opportunity to suggest that American society is dramatically retreating on women's rights?

Of course not. The Rush incident has been rightly cast as yet another example of how the GOP's right-wing is far out of touch with society's mainstream, and how its national leadership risks the party's viability by its failure to forcibly reject such unpopular rhetoric.

There's no question that extremist forces also make mischief in Israel, as they do in every country since the dawn of civilization. Reporting on their activities is not only fair game, it's critical to the functioning of an open and transparent democracy.

But focusing disproportionate attention on the flaws of the radical Israeli fringe and failing to report them in the context of Israel's broad and loving embrace of progressive values is not only unfair; it's destructive to the decades-old and much-valued alliance between American liberals and the Jewish State.

And it's up to us to keep the record straight. Please join me.

(Interest in debating this issue? Click here to join me in an interactive video debate of "The Media's Double Standard for Israel," using Punndit.com, a breakthrough new online interactive video technology.)