Israeli Canadian Journalist to Lead Discussion on Media Coverage

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Matti Friedman

Matti Friedman believes there is a perception of Israel portrayed by the international media, and then there is the reality.

Friedman, an Israeli Canadian journalist in Jerusalem, will lead a conversation on that gap between the way Israel is perceived and the way things really are on May 8 at the Jewish Community Services Building, hosted by the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia.

The author of The Aleppo Codex: A True Story of Obsession, Faith and the Pursuit of an Ancient Bible will also discuss his latest book, Pumpkinflowers: A Soldier’s Story, a military memoir about his service in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF).


Friedman moved to Israel in 1995 just after finishing high school in Toronto. He loved the country from the beginning, which he said was more exciting than the sleepy suburb where he grew up, so he decided to stay.

After the IDF, he ventured into his other passion: journalism.

Friedman worked for the Associated Press in Jerusalem between 2006 and 2011. He gained significant notoriety in 2014 with several think pieces analyzing the coverage of the Gaza war.

“I experienced from the inside the way the story is both inflated and warped by the massive amount of reporters who are working here,” he said. “The importance of this place is blown way out of proportion, and the story is grossly oversimplified to the point of being fictional. So if readers imagine there is a conflict between Israelis and Palestinians that could only be solved if Israel did the right thing, that narrative is fiction.”

The way this “narrative” has been created, he said, is based on how reporters function — or malfunction.

As a reader, he said, it’s important to read the work of people who are knowledgeable about the place and speak the language.

“Many reporters working not just here but in many places don’t know much about it, and they’re working within the confines of very simplistic narratives that they’re handed,” he said. He added that books on these subjects are more helpful than daily news articles where you’re scanning the headlines.

However, these foreign correspondents certainly aren’t writing within these confines out of malevolence.

For example, for a story about the conflict driven by settlements and the occupation, Friedman said the story often revolves around the idea that if Israel would only reverse the occupation, there would be peace.

“The story is nonsense, as anyone who knows this place knows,” he said. “But if you’re a reporter who doesn’t have a grounding in the Middle East and who just comes here for a short period of time, you’re quite vulnerable to the story.”

He’s not arguing that Israel always makes the right choices, either, but he believes the international press has warped Israel’s true position on certain issues.

“There’s something about the country that seems to elicit a very strange kind of antagonism,” he said. “People use Israel as a stand-in for things they don’t like about the West and a symbol of what liberal people don’t like about the West — colonialism, nationalism, militarism, racism.

“Of course, these are phenomena that exist everywhere, not just here. But Israel is being used as a symbol of those because, in part, Israel makes it easy to report on Israel, unlike repressive regimes on Earth which won’t let you report.

“Israel says, ‘Come on in and report whatever we’re doing,’ and ends up paying a price for that with criticism.”

The number of reporters in Israel has decreased in recent years as more pressing stories elsewhere have come about, but that amount, Friedman said, is still disproportionate to staff in other countries covering current atrocities.

“For example, last year, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict killed about 110 people, which is about a sixth of the homicide number for Los Angeles County,” he said. “But the coverage did not reflect that. The coverage makes it sound like it’s really, really bad. And that’s when there isn’t anything particularly dramatic going on.

“Newspapers and news stations are playing to what people want,” he continued. “You can cover the hell out of Congo, but no one cares. The death toll in Congo is estimated at 5 million, but no one really cares about it so they’re not going to assign 40 staffers to cover Congo.”

He noted that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is easy to cover in the sense that reporters can live comfortably in Israel.

“You can be Jewish or Christian or gay or a woman or all kinds of things that are a bit harder to be elsewhere in the Middle East. You can put your kids in good schools and you can go to good bars and you can report a conflict that in terms of numbers is actually less deadly than the city you’re from in America,” he explained.

Through this discussion in Philadelphia, he hopes people take away a more nuanced understanding of Israel.

“Even people who love Israel often fall into the simple ideas about the country. Nothing here is simple,” he said. “It’s necessary to have a discussion about the country that is knowledgeable and critical and nuanced.”

Contact: rkurland@jewishexponent.com; 215-832-0737

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