Yoav Sivan Headshot

Bias in black and white

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Imagine that Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero relied exclusively for his knowledge of Middle East affairs on El Pais, his country's flagship newspaper. During his visit to Israel in January, he might have been bewildered when he arrived in the capital for meetings. What are we doing in Jerusalem, he may have asked.

Indeed, El Pais consistently refers to Tel Aviv as the capital of Israel. While the Knesset and other national institutions sit in Jerusalem, the paper insists on reporting that "Tel Aviv decided" or "Tel Aviv rejected." Lest there be any doubts about the bias here, the "fact box" that appears beside any story about Israel on the El Pais Web site states clearly, "Capital: Tel Aviv."

That's the least of it. Consider a cartoon published during the recent Gaza campaign, depicting a figure saying, "Palestine belongs to the Palestinians, not the Israelis. The Hebrew myths are false, and abuse of the weak is disgusting." To whom a Jewish man with a hooked nose responds, "We are the people chosen by the God we ourselves invented."

El Pais is regularly filled as well with references comparing Israel to the Nazis. When riots broke out between Jews and Arabs last year in Acre, an article entitled "Acre: An Attempted Pogrom," described "segregation that evokes Nazism." The article, by Juan Miguel Munoz, the paper's Israel correspondent, was framed as a tale in which Acre's Jews played the role of the Nazis, while the Arabs became the Jews. An op-ed published in December 2008 read: "Every year we remember the horror of the Jewish Holocaust committed by the Nazis during World War II, but we do nothing about the genocide that Israel is committing against the Palestinian people."

Israel's actions should not be exempt from international scrutiny, but given the range of wrongdoing humanity is capable of, why is the vocabulary used by the Spanish paper to describe it so remarkably limited?

Even in minor stories unrelated to the conflict, El Pais displays a unique combination of sloppiness and unapologetic hatred for Israel. Take the February 2008 decision by Israel's attorney general to grant broader adoption rights to same-sex couples. Few stories about Israel are more conducive to neutral - let alone favorable - coverage in Spain, a leader in gay rights. But El Pais turned the ruling into the achievement of a community that "suffers flagrant discrimination" in a clerically dominated state.

The example provided of that discrimination was an inaccurate account of Jerusalem's annual gay parade, generally viewed as an achievement of Israel's LGBT community. Among other examples, one illustration of the ostensibly oppressive encroachment by religious authorities on individual rights was the fact that Israeli hospitals separate cutlery for dairy and meat because of kashrut.

It is of little interest to El Pais that Israel's LGBT community has enjoyed increasing acceptance. Indeed, not everything is perfect. As a former board member of the Jerusalem Open House, which organizes the gay parade, I know the difficulties encountered by the community. But Israel's situation is much closer to that in Spain than in Saudi Arabia.

To be fair, El Pais is not alone. Consider the opinion piece by Antonio Gala, a highly regarded poet and novelist, that appeared in February in El Mundo, Spain's second-largest newspaper in terms of circulation. With undisguised anti-Semitism, Gala justified the hardships Jews have undergone throughout history. "Just as these things happened on other occasions - pogroms, voluntary or non-voluntary ghettos, exterminations, persecutions, expulsions," Gala wrote, "shouldn't they [the Jews] ask themselves why they always happen the same way? Or is it the rest of the world that is mistaken?"

Recently, the leftist Internet publication El Plural offered a political analysis comparing Israel to Nazi Germany. Its title leaves little room for mistake: "The mind of the extermination of the Palestinians is no different than the one that designed Nazi Germany."

The recent visit of Prime Minister Rodriguez Zapatero in Jerusalem showed that Spain is eager to play a bigger role in the region, especially after the change of government in Washington. But Spanish engagement may not be welcomed in Israel in light of a survey last spring by Washington's Pew Global Attitude Project, according to which 46 percent of Spaniards view Jews unfavorably - the highest proportion in Europe - and due to the shallow conception of Israel perpetuated and aggravated by Spain's leading newspaper, and the general use in Spanish media of anti-Semitic images.

If you want to criticize effectively, you need to get the facts right. And if you want to be taken seriously, you need to show good faith. But the venomous disregard for the truth makes Spanish criticism of Israel banal and misses important issues. This simplistic anti-Israel narrative represents not a noble struggle for human rights, but rather a contamination of both journalism and the great democracy that the newspaper serves.

Spain, like Israel, deserves better.

This article was originally published in Haaretz and appears here with its permission.