Micah Loewinger: This is the On the Media Podcast Extra. I'm Micah Loewinger. On the show this past week, we aired a conversation with an Israeli journalist named Oren Persico, a staff writer at The Seventh Eye, which is an independent investigative magazine focused on media and freedom of speech in Israel. I spoke to Oren about how despite the fact that nightmarish images of destruction in Gaza have filled the news and social media feeds for the last three months, within Israel, the mainstream media tells a very different story.
There was so much more that didn't make it into the show because of time restrictions, so we're giving you an opportunity to hear a longer version here. To kick it off, I asked him to give us a lay of the land, and also tell us a bit about where Israelis have been getting their news lately.
Oren Persico: Ever since the war started, there's been a huge spike in ratings and TV and radio. It's like two, maybe three times the amount it was before, mostly on Channel 12. That's the major commercial TV channel in Israel. You also have Channel 14, which is a right-wing pro-Netanyahu propaganda machine, which became the second most popular TV channel in Israel during the past year, even before the war. If you look at the main websites, you have Ynet, which is the digital arm of Yedioth Ahronoth, a very big media corporation in Israel.
If you look at the newspapers, you have Israel Hayom, which is a free newspaper, the Yedioth Ahronoth, and Haaretz, which is maybe more well-known outside Israel than it is read inside Israel.
Micah Loewinger: Yes, people always point to it, and see it as a beacon of liberal thought in Israel, but you're saying it doesn't have that much traction among Israeli readers.
Oren Persico: No, that's right. It's because the left in Israel is small and getting smaller all the time, so there's less and less audience for that kind of material.
Micah Loewinger: There was a piece in The Guardian from last weekend, reported that nearly half of Israelis get their news from TV channels, and that TV in particular has been hugely influential in shaping Israeli opinion after October 7th. Why has TV in particular been so influential?
Oren Persico: The very beginning of the war had a huge impact, during the first day, October 7th, and probably October 8th, and 9th. The Israeli television really filled in a void that the Israel state left open. A lot of the Israel establishment, of course, the military, but also the health, the social welfare, the first aid, it really didn't know how to respond to the massacre, and there was a lot of civil initiatives that filled in the void.
The Israeli television took part in that. You could really hear, live on air, people asking for help from their shelter, saying, "We can hear Hamas Jihad terrorists outside. They are shooting. Help us." Israeli TV showed that to the public and later helped those people, whoever survived, get in contact with their families and loved ones. Israeli television really did outstanding work in the first few days. Ever since it became a very important factor in shaping the reality in Israel.
Micah Loewinger: It sounds like TV journalists really rose to the occasion on and shortly after October 7th. Since then, though, I wonder how strong their reporting has been. Former national security adviser, Eyal Hulata, has described, "A dome of disconnection created by the trauma of October 7th, with Israelis increasingly feeling isolated from a world that they feel doesn't understand their pain and their fear of Hamas."
Oren Persico: Yes, I think that's very true. The main two roles of TV journalism in Israel after October 7th, was, one, to lift the morale of the army, lift the morale of the Israeli public. The second is to not show anything damaging that's happening in Gaza because of the Israeli bombardment and invasion. The logic here is that if you show civilians in Gaza getting hurt, then a lot of people in Israel will start questioning the legitimacy of the IDF attacks in Gaza. You don't show that. The result is that Israel is very much still on October 7th.
Micah Loewinger: I don't doubt that it would take any nation a long time to heal. I'm surprised, though, to hear that if you turn on Israeli TV, you would not see what we're seeing in the US media, which is brutal footage, a growing death toll, and reports about starvation, disease. Are Israelis really not seeing that?
Oren Persico: They do see soldiers collapsing buildings and cleaning out terror tunnels that were used by Hamas. They do see a lot of streets that are now rubble. What they don't see is humans in Gaza being killed or wounded, especially women and children. They don't see that at all. Nothing of the human cost that is so horrifying. Even if you do mention the number of the casualties in Israel, you always say, "This is the numbers that we get from the Hamas-controlled health ministry in Gaza, and Hamas is a terrorist organization, and you shouldn't trust their numbers."
What they never mention is past conflicts in Gaza. If you look at the numbers of Hamas, and you look at the numbers of the IDF, they're roughly the same. There is a difference if you look at the male casualties, 16 to 50, or something like that, the age where you can be a militant, but if you look at the women and children, there's not such big a difference between the numbers that Hamas says and the number that the IDF releases after the war. They just ignore that. If you do see footage of shirtless men in Gaza, handcuffed, they would be regarded as terrorists surrendering, and that would be the headline.
Perhaps a day or two later, you could see maybe in Haaretz or in the bottom of an article, that after interrogation, the IDF found out that most of them weren't terrorists, but most people would get the feeling that we captured terrorists. The only people still occupying northern Gaza where the invasion started are now terrorists, there's no citizens there. That's why you can bombard the area without hesitation.
Micah Loewinger: Okay, but it's 2024, and I know Israelis are on social media. I see TikToks from Israeli soldiers, I see posts from Israelis on social media. Surely, Israeli citizens are seeing footage of the suffering of Gazans, which is all over the internet, or reports from Western media. It's hard not to find it if you're online. I find it hard to believe that maybe outside of the legacy media, Israelis aren't exposed to this stuff.
Oren Persico: Well, the power of denial is very strong, and if you don't want to know something, even though it pops out at TikTok or Telegram channel or whatever, it's very easy to go past it and go to a video of a fallen soldier's family talking about the soldier or the Israeli victims. There's no lack of material that is pro-Israel and anti-Hamas, it's just a matter of your decision.
Micah Loewinger: Ever since October 7th, you've said nearly all mainstream outlets have started to shift towards the right, or at least have adopted more propaganda with Channel 14, which is basically an arm of Netanyahu's propaganda machine, still being the most extremist. Can you give me some examples of this wider shift?
Oren Persico: Right. If you look at the beginning of the war, you could see a lot of right-wing journalists saying, "We should have bombarded the hell out of Gaza, doesn't matter how many people will die." Shortly after, you could hear very similar voices in mainstream media, Channel 12, Channel 13, they started interviewing an expert on the Arab world called Eliyahu Yosian. He's a Iranian Jew, who explained that in the Middle East, you have to act like you're in the Middle East. If that means killing 50,000 people on the first day, regardless of who they are, that's how you should act, because that would prove that you're serious about keeping your citizens alive.
Then you could hear the same logic from Channel 13's head of the Arab affairs desk, Zvi Yehezkeli. What you saw, you had very extreme guests that you wouldn't see before on the mainstream media starting popping up on mainstream media, and also, the journalists themselves getting more and more extreme, calling for harsh retaliation. You could hear, "There is no innocent people in Gaza." Amit Segal, probably the most prominent journalist in Israel, he's the most popular journalist in Channel 12, which is the most popular channel in Israel, on his telegram channel referred to the Hamas or Jihad terrorists as Nazis, and therefore the people who support them are also Nazis.
Again and again, you could hear the comparison to Dresden. "If you fight the Nazis you have to fight like you're fighting the Nazis and if the ally forces completely destroyed the city of Dresden, then we can completely destroy the city of Gaza because it's 100% good against 100% evil." It's completely black and white.
Micah Loewinger: It's not exactly like Dresden is celebrated today as a discriminant act of warfare, right?
Oren Persico: No, it's exactly the opposite. This is the moment that there was no consideration of human life much like Hiroshima and Nagasaki. That's mentioned also in Israel in the past few weeks.
Micah Loewinger: Saying, "The Americans did it so we can do it, too."?
Oren Persico: Yes. "Who are you to cast doubt on our morality when you did the same when you faced pure evil?" That's the logic.
Micah Loewinger: I see. Another example of the shift that you're talking about is Israel's top satirical TV show, Eretz Nehederet. In November it broadcasts a sketch making fun of pro-Palestinian progressives.
Speaker 1: Hi, everyone. We're live on Youtube with Columbia Untisemity News where everyone is welcome, LGBTQH.
Speaker 2: H?
Speaker 1: Hamas.
Both Speakers: From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free.
Speaker 1: Do you know why it's true? Because it rhymes.
Micah Loewinger: There have been other English skits mocking BBC journalists for how they've been covering the war.
Rachel: Good evening from London. Here are some news from the war in Gaza. Israel has bombed a hospital killing hundreds of innocent people. With more details, our Middle East correspondent, Harry White-Guilt.
Harry White-Guilt: Good evening, Rachel, from the illegal colony of Tel Aviv.
Micah Loewinger: This was odd for people who are familiar with the show, I think, because Eretz Nehederet used to be known for mocking Netanyahu and the Israeli government. Is this shift symbolic as well?
Oren Persico: They're still mocking Netanyahu, but they are mobilized, like most of the other people in Israel, to support the war and the war effort. If a satirical show needs to do Hasbara, which is Israeli propaganda, then that's what they'll do. They're completely with permission to explain why the world is wrong, and we are right. You mentioned before the "dome of disconnection." People in Israel are shocked that the world doesn't see the situation like they see it. They are shocked and baffled. How could anyone be angry at Israel and speaking about atrocities that Israel does, when Hamas butchered and raped and killed so many people in Israel on October 7th. Because they're still in October 7th, they don't realize that the world saw different images in the past few weeks.
Micah Loewinger: I'm curious, the passion with which you speak makes me think that you inhabit a different kind of ideological perspective. You're consuming different media than the average Israeli. You are a media critic, but I'm just curious to know where you see yourself in the media landscape. How common is the perspective that you are sharing right now?
Oren Persico: It's not very common. Like I said, the Israeli left is small and getting smaller, but if you do read Haaretz, you get the information. There's still tens of thousands of subscribers to Haaretz. A lot of them are decision-makers, people in the government, the intellectual elite. I would say that this point of view is considered fringe in Israel these days, almost treacherous.
Micah Loewinger: I want to dig in a bit more into pro-militaristic language propaganda that has become more common. You've also seen claims that the IDF has to bomb Gaza because the entire Gazan population supports Hamas. I've also seen a different narrative, which is that Israel needs to save Gazans from Hamas, and that, yes, they are victims, but they are trapped there.
Oren Persico: Well, I think what you see here is the difference between the extreme right and the center right in Israel. The extreme right really treats all of Gazans as terrorists, and therefore they should be killed. On Channel 14's homepage, they have a counter counting the number of Palestinians, Gazans dying, and it's updated regularly. The thing is, they count everyone as terrorists. The number of terrorists that have been killed so far in Gaza. It doesn't matter if it's a child or a woman or a man or an elderly man. That's the extreme right.
In the center-right, there is a moral conflict about what Israel does. They don't want to see the images. They don't want to know the numbers. One of the legitimization techniques that they have to persuade themselves that Israel is the good guy here is that we're helping innocent Gazans overthrow a violent dictatorship which is Hamas, which, of course, Hamas is a violent dictatorship. The question is, how do you help the Gazans overthrow it?
Micah Loewinger: Some of this discourse is so extreme that it's since been cited by South Africa in its 84-page appeal to the International Court of Justice alleging that Israel's military campaign in Gaza amounts to genocide. That hearing started at The Hague on Thursday, and Channel 14 is cited six times in the appeal including the statements of a media personality that you've identified, Eliyahu Yosian, who said that, "There are no innocents, there is no population. There are 2.5 million terrorists."
Other journalists are quoted as well, including David Verthaim, a media reporter, Yehuda Schlesinger, Yinon Magal, and Zvi Yehezkeli. A recent Haaretz Abed likened their statements to those of Radio Rwanda. Is that an apt comparison here?
Oren Persico: If you look at the international law, you see that media outlet is not supposed to promote genocidal acts. If you call for the destruction of tens of thousands or millions of Gazans, then practically that's what you do. You mentioned David Verthaim, who is a media reporter. Fun fact, he is the left-wing counterpart in a radio program who has to counter the right-wing anchor at the radio program. On October 7th, you could see the left-wing reporter calling for a genocide of Gaza, just like he was on the extreme right.
Micah Loewinger: In the first few weeks of the conflict, we heard of several instances of backlash against journalists who criticized the Israeli government or the IDF's actions. Government officials have also made threatening remarks against publications like Al Jazeera and Haaretz. What does retribution against journalists look like now?
Oren Persico: In the first few weeks, it meant that you really couldn't stand with a microphone in an Israeli city and report what's going on in Arabic. You would have been harassed and probably thrown out of the street. That happened several dozen times in the first few weeks. It's kind of more calm right now. You mentioned Al Jazeera?
Micah Loewinger: Yes, that's right, Al Jazeera.
Oren Persico: The Israeli government passed emergency regulations in order to shut down Al Jazeera in Israel, but that was a bit of a farce. First of all, the regulation says that you can block the access to Al Jazeera or any other foreign media outlet for Israelis surfing the web. That's A, very simple to bypass and B, that's not how people see Al Jazeera. They watch it on satellite. Also, the emergency regulation stated that you could force the closure of media outlets' offices and confiscate its equipment.
The thing is that the Minister of Communications really wanted to shut down Al Jazeera, but Prime Minister Netanyahu wouldn't let it happen, probably because Qatar, which funds Al Jazeera, is part of the effort to negotiate with Hamas to release the Israeli hostages. What the Israeli government finally did was take the same emergency provisions and enforce them on Al Mayadeen, which is a pro-Hamas Lebanese channel. Now if you want to watch Al Mayadeen through the Israeli internet, you have to go to your Chrome browser settings and press a few buttons and then you'll be able to see it. Also, since they don't have any office in Israel or equipment, there was nothing to close or seize.
Micah Loewinger: You've mentioned that this reactionary stance is something that happens time and time again in Israeli media. Can you tell me a little bit about the precedent for this type of reaction among Israeli journalists?
Oren Persico: Sure. It's not the first time that we're in war in Israel. It's not the first time that we're in war with Gaza. It is really the first time that there has been such a heavy blow to the state of Israel and such a feeling of existential threat to every citizen. The reaction is the same but more extreme. I'll give you an example, I watched a few days ago, a reporter called Dana Weiss. She's one of the leading commentators on Channel 12 in Israel, and she was speaking after one of the previous rounds of violence in Gaza, I think it was 2014 or something like that, about the role of the media.
It was in the Tel Aviv University. A nice panel about what we did right and wrong. She said we didn't show enough of human casualties in Gaza, and I know that we should have done it, and I hope that we'll do it more the next round. Here we are in the next round and there's showing even less of what's going on on the other side of the border. It's really depressing that things are only getting worse from that point of view.
Micah Loewinger: As you've mentioned, Netanyahu and some of the high-ranking military officials haven't really given us an official clear vision for what the future of Gaza and Palestinian life could look like, but there have been other clues about the pressure that Netanyahu is under and the belief of some high-ranking members of his government. The Wall Street Journal reported that Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, who is head of the far-right religious Zionist party recently said that Israel should rebuild Jewish settlements in Gaza that were uprooted in 2005 and that his country should encourage "voluntary migration" of Gaza's residents to countries that will agree to absorb them as refugees.
National Security Minister, Itamar Ben-Gvir, a leader from the Settler Movement and head of another far-right party, the Jewish Power Party, said that "encouraging immigration could help end the war." These are not the first time that we've heard prominent members of the Israeli government floating the idea of resettling Palestinians. How are these statements being metabolized by the Israeli press?
Oren Persico: They're completely legitimized and very widely published. You should remember that everyone believes that there will be an election after the war is over. You mentioned Bezalel Smotrich, right now, his numbers at the polls are very low. Of course, he wants to attract more voters from his base, which is the far right. That's part of the problem because you would like the military to do what it does in order to keep you secure without any political interest.
Micah Loewinger: I guess I'm trying to understand, this type of rhetoric sets off alarm bells among American officials. They have said, "No, no, no, that is not on the table." Yes, these were once fringe politicians, but they are very much close to Netanyahu. I'm trying to understand how widely held the belief is that this is, one, the right thing to do to Palestinians, and two, is even really possible.
Oren Persico: If you look at the polls in Israel, there's a lot of support for encouraging willful immigration of Gazans. Nobody really discusses what that means. What is willful immigration of 2 million people? Netanyahu was forced to form the extreme right government with those two ministers because nobody else would agree to be in his government because he's a crooked liar and you can't trust him. He doesn't have a lot of choices, but to keep his coalition together and allow those far-right fascist politicians express their ideology, and it's a trap.
Micah Loewinger: A finger trap that the more you resist, the harder it is to get out of it?
Oren Persico: Exactly.
Micah Loewinger: The consequences of forming a coalition with the most extreme elements of the Israeli right.
Oren Persico: Yes. Exactly.
Micah Loewinger: In the American media, at least, we've seen reports that Israel plans to scale back some of its offensive, at least in Northern Gaza, following pressure from the American government. For instance, Netanyahu has said that Israel doesn't intend to have, say, a permanent occupation in Gaza, but as many outlets have observed, Israeli media and officials are telling a different story about the next phase of the war. This seems to be a larger pattern of the kind of information that Netanyahu gives to American Western journalists as opposed to what he says to an Israeli audience. What are you all hearing about the coming months?
Oren Persico: Our Prime Minister has two Twitter accounts or X accounts. One is very dignified where he published his video of himself saying, "We don't want to conquer Gaza or expel the population." The other X account is where all the populist material is published, and he speaks a very different language there and addresses a very different audience, the Israeli audience. We do hear also in Israeli media that there is a new phase starting to evacuate parts of the military reserves that were drafted on October 7th.
What nobody is talking about is what will happen in the day after. Netanyahu apparently doesn't want to discuss that, and it is a cause of concern when you go fight a war without knowing exactly what's the purpose is. Of course, the purpose is to keep Israelis safe, but what would happen after you collapse Hamas?
Micah Loewinger: If that's even possible.
Oren Persico: Exactly.
Micah Loewinger: We've talked about a lot of dismal coverage, extremist rhetoric that has been normalized in the Israeli press. What would you like to see Israeli journalists do differently in the coming months? What role can or should the press play in helping save lives, cool extremist rhetoric, and contain this war?
Oren Persico: First of all, just start showing what's going on in Gaza, and not only the horrible suffering in Israel post-October 7th, but the horrible suffering in Gaza as well. There are journalists who do that, but not most of them. Secondly, critically reporting on the Israeli military. I think it's the patriotic thing to do during a war because if you airbrush all the problems, they won't get fixed in time and you'll eventually run into them again. The military correspondence should grow a spine and not report only what the IDF spokesperson gives them.
I would also hope that Israeli journalists ask these questions to the Israeli politicians. They do ask them about the consequences of war, what will happen? "Are you taking decisions based on political interest or not?" But they don't force the Prime Minister and the Minister of Defense to answer questions about the human cost of their policies.
Micah Loewinger: Are you hopeful we'll see some of these improvements soon?
Oren Persico: No, but it's ironic that the more the war will go on, the more the Israeli IDF gets trapped in the mud of Gaza, then there will be more critical voices coming out, I should imagine. We saw it before in Lebanon in the early '80s. That's the usual way the things go. In the beginning of the war, you're not allowed to criticize the army or the government, but as things go by and more and more soldiers die, and there's no clear image in the horizon, there's more legitimacy to asking the tough questions.
Micah Loewinger: You've made a strong case that Israelis don't understand what's taking place in Gaza, the damage that has been done by its military's bombardment. Is there anything you think that American audiences don't understand about what's happening in Israel that you would like to communicate?
Oren Persico: Basically that. Basically that the Israelis are inside a bubble and are unaware of, A, what's going on in Gaza, and B, how is it seen in the entire world. When you speak with your Israeli friend or relative or whatever, you should remind yourself that you're speaking with someone who is on a parallel universe who does not see what you see and is not aware of the facts that you are aware of.
Micah Loewinger: Oren, thank you very much.
Oren Persico: Thank you.
Micah Loewinger: Oren Persico is a staff writer at The Seventh Eye, an independent investigative magazine in Israel. Thanks for listening to The Midweek Podcast. I'm Micah Loewinger.
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