For pro-Israel activists and media critics Lee Bender and Jerome Verlin, it’s not so much that individual words and phrases are important, it’s that the words and phrases are the larger story.
In describing the latest developments in the ongoing Israeli-Arab conflict, does an article refer to Judea and Samaria or the West Bank? Are the perpetrators of an act terrorists or militants? Do the editors use the term East Jerusalem? Did Israel seize Arab land in 1967 or did it capture the territory?
For Bender, a 50-year-old trial attorney, and Verlin, a 72-year-old software engineer, the terms editors and reporters use frame and shape the public perception of the Arab-Israeli conflict as much as the details of any particular story. More often then not, they argue, those choices paint Israel in a negative light.
“By forfeiting the language, you forfeit history,” said Bender, who lives in Wynnewood.
The two deconstruct the media’s use of terms — with a focus on The Philadelphia Inquirer — in a new book called Pressing Israel: Media Bias From A-Z. Published by Philadelphia’s Pavilion Press, the book uses an encyclopedic format to document media bias against Israel.
The two were slated to speak at the Katz JCC in Cherry Hill on Nov. 29, the 65th anniversary of the United Nations vote to partition Palestine into a Jewish state and an Arab state — a vote that led, six months later, to Israel’s founding.
The book might be geared for a certain generation since it focuses almost exclusively on newspapers and doesn’t get into digital media.
Neither Bender nor Verlin has ever lived in Israel or spent longer than six weeks there. But like many amateur activists, they each have a strong sense of history and a belief that Israel’s existence is a miracle. They devote much of their spare time to advocating on Israel’s behalf.
The two, who share right-of-center views on Israeli and American foreign policy and are both active in the Zionist Organization of America, met about a decade ago during Jewish community protests against the Inquirer’s coverage of the second intifada, or Palestinian uprising.
Bender, formerly active in the now defunct American Jewish Congress, is currently co-president of ZOA’s Greater Philadelphia District.
Every week since the early 2000s, Verlin has been sending out his Brith Sholom Media Watch via email, named for the fraternal organization he has long belonged to and which is modeled on a column that the late David Bar-Ilan wrote in The Jerusalem Post.
With professionally run organizations like the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting out of Boston and Honest Reporting out of Israel acting as media watchdogs, why does he need to stay active?
“I think the grass-roots people and local media watchers have to be involved in this,” said Verlin, who lives in Elkins Park.“The public has to say this is not fair and balanced and it has to be improved.”
Speaking about Israel’s recent Operation Pillar of Defense in Gaza, Bender said the media’s coverage was slightly more balanced than it was during the 2008 Operation Cast Lead.
“The media appears to be a little more savvy — just a bit — about understanding who started this war, what the double war crimes by Hamas are, and might be a bit less inclined to take their news photos at face value,” Bender said.
For balanced stories on the Middle East, the duo recommends The Jerusalem Post, the New York Daily News, the New York Post and The Washington Times — the last two of which are known for their conservative leanings. They also recommend dailyalert.org, a news website maintained by the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations and compiled by the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.
Verlin said he considers the Inquirer somewhat more fair than it was a decade ago, although the paper no longer has a reporter stationed in Jerusalem and it relies mostly on the Associated Press for coverage.
“It is very nice to say that newspapers are objective, but there are no objective newspapers, I believe. Maybe I am cynical. If there are newspapers that lean to the left and newspapers that lean to the right, both are what American needs,” said Verlin.
When pressed, each said that their true goal is not necessarily to get the Inquirer to start calling the West Bank by the biblical names of Judea and Samaria — even they admit there’s virtually no chance that will ever happen. Instead, they want Jews and Jewish leaders of all political persuasions to adopt the terms.
“When we have stopped — and it is most important that we stop — then we can say to the media, ‘Now you must stop,’ ” Verlin said. “It’s one thing to say that Israel should relinquish claims to these areas. It’s another to say it in a way that you are going to diminish the significance of what you are giving up.”