British media ‘doesn’t understand Israel’

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By Anna Averkiou

Israel is not being understood or even listened to when it comes to British media coverage, according to a professor of journalism.

In a passionate polemic about British media coverage of Israel at the Religion Media Festival “Exploring Belief”, Suzanne Franks, a professor at London City University, called for “a better explanation of the meaning of Zionism, recognising it is about Jews as a people being entitled to a land of their own”.

She said that since the United Nations debates in the 1970s, Zionism is a word that had become toxified and vilified as a term interchangeable with racism, and rarely explained beyond the negative labels on placards.

“Many people are surprised to find that Israel is barely the size of Wales, with a population below 10 million. But in terms of news coverage, it’s one of the most reported and discussed pieces of real estate in the world. Just count how many foreign correspondents are based in Jerusalem.”

Professor Franks provided a brief history of the Jewish experience and relationship with Israel since Biblical times to the present day, and why it has always been a special place for many in the Jewish diaspora — something she believes is sometimes missing and misunderstood by the media.  

She explained that when the State of Israel was founded in 1948 it was home to barely six per cent of the world’s Jews. However, since 2016 the majority of Jews now live there, and the axis of Jewish identity has shifted accordingly. Over the years a steady flow of British Jews has emigrated to Israel, mainly to fulfil the Zionist dream and be part of a Jewish homeland.

Some want to follow Orthodox Judaism in a state where they are a majority rather than a tiny minority; others visit on gap years and holidays to spend time with family and friends and participate in a range of cultural and religious activities.

“Israel defines not only Jewish life within its borders, but also increasingly the lives of diaspora Jews,” she said.

Professor Franks, a former BBC TV current affairs journalist, spoke about the experiences of the Jewish diaspora in Arab countries, Ethiopia, the United States and Europe and how Islamist extremism, the emergence of right-wing populism and white supremacist movements, and the narrative of left-wing antisemitism were worrying for Jewish communities.

“The response is frequently, ‘but it could never happen here’. Yet, both my parents grew up in comfortable upper-middle-class assimilated families in central Europe, and in a few years that was completely destroyed,” she countered.

“I do not believe that Jeremy Corbyn represented a mortal fear for the Jews or that antisemitism is abundant. Only, that in living memory, we have seen several times how the veneer of civilised life is extremely thin, and we should be vigilant in case it could be once more torn away.”

She agreed there are many political problems in the current status quo in Israel and, as the UN proposed in 1947, a two-state solution remained the most viable option, something that most diaspora Jews agree upon.

“The Arabs who chose to stay in 1948 now live in a democratic country, almost the only democracy in the Middle East. They have lively representation in the Knesset, including several women members. Despite complaints about discrimination Israeli Arabs are senior judges, diplomats, doctors and civil servants. An Arab party could still emerge the kingmaker from the recent Israeli elections. Is it conceivable a Jewish party could even exist in any Arab country? Yet media coverage rarely makes these distinctions.”

She added that there was almost nowhere else in the Middle East where Arabs participated in free and fair elections and enjoyed freedom of speech and gender equality, both for women and LGBTQ+ minorities.

She views Binyamin Netanyahu as “an unpleasant right-wing prime minister”, whose government has been responsible for many unjust practices. She pointed out that within Israel, there was a vigorous opposition and criticism from political and third sector organisations exercising rights of free speech and protest, yet international mainstream media rarely reflected this.

“Many British Jews are critical of policies in Israel too. In one survey, 74 per cent of British Jews opposed Israel’s expansion of West Bank settlements. But again, this kind of nuance is often swept away in the reporting.”

Professor Franks also criticised the narrative that Jews were colonial intruders who should go elsewhere because it often failed to realise that for many Israeli Jews there was nowhere else to go. The notion of Israel as a haven is core to all these arguments yet is not always understood or recognised.

“Israel is both an engine driving Jewish identity and interconnectedness, and a source of division and even discomfort about the boundaries of Jewish belonging, the essence and morality of kinship ties and the very meaning of Jews, Jewishness and Judaism,” she said.

Suzanne Franks was speaking at the Religion Media Festival ‘Exploring Belief’ on 12 April 2021. See the recording here:

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