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September 22, 2011

Palestinians through the Israeli lens

“The word Palestinian conjures up images of a brutal armed gunman or a terrorist with no morality or regard for human life.”

So says Nida Shoughry in “Dehumanizing the enemy in war coverage: Palestinians through the Israeli lens.”

Though the events at Jenin are less than a decade old, the research presented in Shoughry’s book shows the affects of digital indexing on historical research.

The book, about as long as an average masters thesis (or even a long undergraduate dissertation), analyzes six news articles from one Israeli newspaper to claim that the press in Israel dehumanizes Palestinians.

With such a limited scope, it is easy to dismiss Shoughry’s essay as a piece of propaganda.

Historical references are scarce.

Shoughry mentions the fact that news was censored under the British mandate, or the time between World War I and when Israel was granted independence in 1947.  Shoughry claims that this this censorship has now been applied by the Israeli military to its press.  However, Shoughry mentions that self censorship is probably stronger than any state censorship, as the average Israeli journalist feels a patriotic bias as the result of an ongoing state of war.

Shoughry establishes the age of Haaretz, the newspaper that is the subject of this study.

Shoughry also mentions that the German propaganda of the second world war dehumanized Jews, as well as mentioning dehumanization of “American Indians” (her quotes).

Shoughry mentions other books in her literature review, implying that the historically relevant background of other dehumanizing cases are sufficiently covered in the books in her bibliography.

Shoughry’s references also supply the criteria she uses for dehumanizing.  These include turning people into statistics and stereotypes instead of individuals with names, using jargon and metaphorical language, and using an otherwise biased form of language in reporting people, places and events.

The six articles Shoughry does examine do give evidence of meeting the cited criteria for “dehumanizing the enemy.”  Palestinians (apart from “wanteds”, or terrorists) are not given personal names, while Israeli soldiers are.  The work of the newspaper is indeed ethnocentric, and the terminology used is indeed the kind of jargon you’d expect from an enemy’s perspective on the battlefield.

Other evidence Shoughry presents as dehumanizing include relative article size and number of different points of view, variations in font size, photographs (or lack of them), the lack of any interviewed Palestinian sources, and the non-standard use of photo captions.  Palestinian casualties are reduced to faceless numbers, and all destruction in the articles is blamed on Palestinians.

Historical Comparison: Shoughry’s work in context

Reading historical sources from the age of Revolution and the Napoleonic war, I’ve found some of the same kind of distortions elsewhere, but not all of these are intentional.

The names of casualties of other nationalities can not always be known, and so can not always be given.

The reason this information was not historically known was not normally from any intentional effort to dehumanize the enemy.  The fact is, the adversary did not readily supply his name in a fight.

When a ship was captured, for instance, a captain usually destroyed the ship’s records.  Sailors, civilians and soldiers would often refuse to give their names or status in order to prevent extortionate ransom demands.

Captains would be recognised, and their names would probably be recorded, but ordinary sailors and soldiers would not be easily identifiable by anyone other than their own countrymen.

As time goes on, the available records for the Napoleonic period become more complete.  Books in English covered more details about French soldiers as time went on, and books in French about English soldiers.  Italian and Egyptian points of view have also been translated and scholars from all participating nationalities have expanded our outlook.

The same could be said for any conflict.  Though the time lapse was far greater then, we still have an easier time finding the point of view of people who are like us than people unlike us.

Other considerations for future essays

It would have been interesting if the author considered the fact that, due to circumstances, it was probably easier for the journalists to gather information from Israeli sources than from Palestinian ones.

Though Palestinians on the scene could easily be asked “what is your name” (assuming no linguistic barriers existed between journalist and subject), official records probably allowed the Haaretz journalists to double check personal information with Israeli sources more quickly than with the Palestinians.

This book is also filled with spelling and grammatical mistakes that were strikingly obvious.  There were incomplete sentences, and some of the author’s thoughts were also incomplete.  It appears that this master’s thesis had not been marked yet at the time of publication.

Six articles (and the photographs around them) from one news source could hardly be said to be representative, but Shoughry does make the case that Haaretz did not meet the ideal standards of good journalism when it covered Jenin in 2002.  She also cited sources that made the case that Haaretz was a good paper to analyse.

However, considering the detail Shoughry went into, there wasn’t room for much more than six articles in that short essay.  She would have to expand it.

I hope Shoughry will make a follow up book that examines the same biases, or lack of them, in the contemporary Arab media towards Israelis, or in the historical British media towards both Jewish and Arab inhabitants during the Palestine mandate.

Shoughry could also examine whether current and historical French, American, Turkish, South African or British media portrays Palestinians in a different way, and if so how.

Shoughry could examine the whole newspaper, including lifestyle sections, and not just limit herself to “war coverage.”  For instance, this story on the US aid website is not about the conflict, and it portrays Salam Fayad in a positive light.  Similar stories may be available through the Israeli press.

Conclusion

Shoughry misses a lot by limiting her research to articles that came up in a search engine for one search term.

One of the benefits of reading this essay is that it shows that there are limitations to how a computer can aid in research.

Limiting study to a limited number of articles can speed things up, but the result is that context is lost.  Complete pictures can not be covered through key word searches.  Just as the author shows how images like photographs frame a situation, and how this framing leaves things out, Internet searches and limited word counts also “frame” our perception.

However, Shoughry’s aim is stated clearly in her title.  Shoughry isn’t the jury who considers all opinions to see who is right, but she is more like the plaintiff who is making the opening arguments in a case.  It is up to other academics to confirm or disprove what Shoughry says here, to do further research that supports or refutes her hypothesis.

Shoughry’s research may be limited, and she acknowledges in her conclusion that her background makes it difficult to be completely objective, but her attention to detail and her passion make for an interesting read.

Dehumanizing the Enemy in War Coverage: Palestinians through the Israeli Lens

Notes:

(As far as blame goes, things aren’t always clear cut.  In 18th and 19th century warfare, combatants could err on the side of exaggeration in the damage that they did to others.  The adversary, rather than being blamed for attacking his own people, is often not even credited for the attacks he did make.  Even today, many people would rather hide details on their own country’s war deaths, alleging that this kind of information leads to lowered morale and encourages public opposition to wars.)

(I have consciously chosen the word adversary above instead of enemy.  Adversaries could quickly be turned into allies, and leaders like Napoleon made a conscience effort to ensure that their troops respected conquered people as equals.  This may not have always worked, but it was more effective a propaganda weapon than dehumanization.)