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“Balanced” Reporting on BDS Masks Asymmetries of Power, Vituperation and Factual Grounding

There is no question that solutions to the problems of Israel and Palestine are complex. The problems, however, are clear and should not be difficult to diagnose.

This year I attended both the American Studies Association and the Modern Language Association Convention with a keen interest in supporting resolutions initiated to support Palestinian human rights. The ASA resolution, which was unanimously adopted by the National Council and ratified by 66 percent of the record-high number of voting ASA members, supported the call by Palestinian civil society to boycott Israeli academic institutions (not individuals). The MLA resolution, supported by the Organizing Committee and passed by the Delegate Assembly, calls for the US State Department “to contest Israel’s denials of entry to the West Bank by US academics who have been invited to teach, confer, or do research at Palestinian universities.”

I participated in the ASA and MLA discussions, at the conferences themselves, and also through the associations’ websites and via social media. I have closely followed reportage of the conference proceedings and accounts of their consequences – including condemnation of the ASA resolution by over 100 university presidents and threats of legal actions against ASA.

Over and again, in the call for “balance,” “impartiality,” and “fairness,” the mainstream media have either misrepresented or failed to report positions considered extreme, be they for or against the resolutions.

What, then, makes up these extremes?

To the mainstream media, “extremity” consists of the following. (1) Any criticism of Zionism or the Israeli government. (2) A belief in the right, even though it is recognized by international law, of Palestinians to return to a homeland from which they were forcibly expelled. (3) Using the word “apartheid” in relation to Israeli society and its Separation Wall, 85 percent of which runs within the Occupied Palestinian Territories, its hundreds of checkpoints, and its separate roads, tunnels, license plates, and identification papers. (4) Raising the existence of, and then opposing, a panoply of human rights violations against Palestinians that range from use of children as human shields to denial of the right to education. (5) Challenging Israel’s claims to being a democracy when it gives Jewish citizens special status and rights. (6) A belief in the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement as a peaceful and democratic form of action.

What about the usually unreported extremity of the other side?

Judging from my experiences wading into the comment streams of mainstream publications, the remarks made during ASA and MLA discussions, and emails sent to my inbox, extremity takes these forms: (1) Wishes of death or destruction to anyone who questions Zionist practices. (I myself have been called maggot food, and told that as a Jew I will soon be on my way to the showers.) (2) Charges of being an anti-Semite and/or a terrorist and/or a Nazi-sympathizer for questioning Israel, often accompanied by vituperative expressions of racism, sexism, and homophobia. These outbursts are documented at (3) Assertions that any criticisms of Israel and descriptions of human rights violations against Palestinians are hateful lies aimed at the singling out of Israel in order to destroy it. (4) Calls to boycott, sue, or sever ties from the ASA because its advocacy for boycott violates academic freedom.

Too often in media accounts, these “two sides” are equated as, for example, here. Reports that mute or gloss over the viciousness of those defending Israel also often cast criticism of Israel as fueled by hate and a lack of reason. Those on opposing sides of the Israel/Palestine conflict are seen as being the same in degree and kind in the positions they take. This depiction not only obscures the asymmetry in power of the conflict, it also equates reasoned criticism of Israel with vitriol. Well-supported criticism of Israel gets dismissed as hatred and persecution, and hate speech leveled at Israel’s critics is cast as a defense against persecution and hate. As a result, a “reasonable” middle becomes the status quo. This leaves Israel largely impervious to challenge. In other words, the “middle” is a more civil-sounding defense of Zionism.

There is no question that solutions to the problems of Israel and Palestine are complex. The problems, however, are clear and should not be difficult to diagnose. Apartheid, occupation, and ethnic cleansing are, quite simply, violations of international law. They are diminishments to the humanity of us all. We have a responsibility to oppose them fully, without qualification and without apology. The recent resolutions made by the ASA and the MLA respond to realities the BDS movement has brought to the forefront. They bring us one step closer to viewing present-day defenses of Jewish democracy much as we currently view the 3/5 Compromise – as an extreme form of inhumanity coded in the language of reason and compromise.