Those Riots in Jerusalem, Tho

It’s that time of year again: warm weather is back, so it’s time for rioting in Jerusalem–also time for American journalists to write the usual uninformative stuff designed to mislead their audiences without coming out and writing literal falsehoods. This piece in The New York Times about recent riots in Jerusalem is a case in point, as informative for what it doesn’t say, and for the questions it fails to ask, as for any information it conveys.

My aim here is not to pick it apart. I’m in Jersey rather than Jerusalem right now, so there’s no way for me literally to contest the claims it makes. Nor is there any particular reason to do so. But having watched American correspondents misrepresent the Al Aqsa riots of 2017 while I was there, and then misrepresent the January 2019 anti-Orban demonstrations in Budapest when I was there, I’ve at least come to develop a sense of what questions to ask of any American news item purporting to describe such an event.

The first and most basic question to ask is not one about the news item, but about the author. The author’s name appears on the article’s byline. That means she wrote the article. But how? How did she get access to the information that fills the article? The article gives the impression that the author operates by a kind of tacit omniscience: she’s everywhere, and knows everything, and can be trusted to get it all right. Actually, that’s wrong four times over. She can’t be everywhere, she can’t know everything, and she can’t be trusted to get everything right. She’s not omniscient.

Since she’s not, we can’t really assess her article without knowing something about her epistemic limitations. This may not conform to journalistic convention, but in that case, journalistic convention doesn’t track the epistemic norms that themselves track truth. The event being covered is a riot, or a series of them. A riot is a dispersed, decentralized phenomenon involving multiple simultaneous foci of action by many different agents responding to many different things. There is in general no such thing as “central stage” in a riot, coverage of which is coverage of the riot as such.

“Riot” is really an elliptical expression for rioting–slowly intensifying violence here and there that eventually coalesces into a generalized state of violence in a given place (in a very generalized sense of “a given place”), and then descends back into streams and eddies of violence after the main violence subsides. A riot is not an event like a soccer match or baseball game–or worse, a tennis match or golfing tournament–which one can “cover” from some single privileged vantage point in “the stands.” It’s more like a storm, but not quite like a storm, either; storms are more centralized than many riots. It’s a bit like the workings of a rumor mill (which is why riots tend to operate in tandem with rumors), but obviously more violent than one. The point is, what you see in or of a riot depends on your vantage point relative to the action. So we need to know exactly where the author stood.

Was she in fact physically present at the riots, or did she send a proxy? Or did she simply rely on third-hand testimony, including TV footage of events she didn’t herself bother to attend? If she attended, where? And where did she not go? How long was she there? With whom did she speak? Since interviewing is relevant, how good are her language skills? In other words, what relevant languages does she speak? To put the point bluntly: a journalist incapable of speaking Arabic with Palestinian rioters isn’t going to be of much help in getting their story out. But it’s not clear to me that Isabel Kershner’s Arabic is good enough to carry on a conversation with angry Palestinian shebab. And this is assuming that she was sufficiently present among the shebab to carry on a conversation with them, and assuming that even if she wanted to and was able, she inspired enough trust in them to convince them to have a conversation with her.

There are, in short, a huge number of potentially knowledge-subverting contingencies right there, buried in aspects of the story that generally go unspoken. But they’re nonetheless there. Ignore them, and you ignore the epistemic liabilities under which both author and story labor. It doesn’t help that Isabel Kershner labors under other epistemic liabilities besides. But we don’t need to rely too heavily on Kershner’s biography to see the problem. Any American journalist with a less fraught biography might face a version of the same problem.

Once we get that meta-level issue out of the way, we can proceed to first-order questions we might ask of the reporting in the article itself. In general, this article (like so many others in its genre) makes a strenuous effort to give a vague impression of moral equivalence without quite cashing the evidential check required to turn that vague impression into a determinate thesis. Stated as a determinate thesis, the claim might be:

Two sets of extremists clashed in Jerusalem until wiser and more rational heads prevailed, and a semblance of calm returned to the city.

From this perspective, the Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, who didn’t plead for calm (at least as quoted in the story near the end of the article), gives the vague appearance of being more closely aligned with the extremists in the streets than with the calm heads trying to restrain them. It’s the American Embassy and Israeli authorities that are the agents of calm and rationality, and the Lehavists and Palestinians who are not.

Two basic moves are required to convey this sense of moral equivalence.

1. Abstract from all etiological questions about the violence that took place. In other words, don’t ask how or when it started. Just present the violence acontextually as having happened, instigated by two morally reprehensible sets of extremists. Assume that violence, once begun, is best ended as expeditiously as possible. Then infer that whoever is not doing what it takes to end it as expeditiously as possible is guiltier than anyone who is. But don’t say this; imply it without saying it.

2. Abstract from all questions of proportionality. Treat any act of violence as equivalent to and morally fungible with every other.

Now go back to the article itself. At one point, the mayor of Jerusalem is quoted as discussing the possibility of banning the march by Lehava, the Jewish supremacist group.

More than 50 people were arrested in the melee, both in predominantly Palestinian East Jerusalem and mostly Jewish West Jerusalem, according to the police. The city’s mayor, Moshe Lion, said he had asked the police to ban the extremist group’s demonstration but had been told that was impossible.

An obvious incongruity goes unnoticed. Moshe Lion tells us that it was “impossible” to ban Lehava’s demonstration. And yet there is a standing ban on Palestinian political activity of virtually any kind in Jerusalem. Orient House, the PLO headquarters in Jerusalem, has been closed since 2001. It is illegal even to wave a Palestinian flag within Jerusalem’s city limits. The idea of a Palestinian equivalent to Lehava’s march is unthinkable.

Damascus Gate during Ramadan (photo: Irfan Khawaja)

So what explains the discrepancy in treatment between Israeli Jews and Palestinians, along with the apparent double standard? If and to the extent that the double standard arises from a legal ban on Palestinian political activity, isn’t that ban a standing act of aggression against the entire Palestinian population of Jerusalem? If the Israelis are the ones aggressing against Palestinians, we would expect the latter to resist, even violently. In that case, we might see Palestinian riots as justified resistance to Israeli aggression.

You don’t need to agree with that interpretation to regard it as a normatively relevant consideration while reporting on riots in Jerusalem. And yet it goes unmentioned. The reader would have no idea that it’s “impossible” to ban Lehava from going on a violent spree in East Jerusalem, but eminently possible to ban Palestinians from engaging in any political activity whatsoever. The reader is instead left to labor under the impression that Israel is a democracy committed to equal liberty–just like “us”–and that Arab-Israeli riots are a minor blip on the moral radar screen, morally inconsequential friction caused by a little of this and a little of that, a few nutcases here and a few unruly kids there.

The article goes on to quote (or really paraphrase) the American Embassy, without comment, as saying the following

The United States Embassy in Jerusalem said it was “deeply concerned” about the violence and called in a statement for “responsible voices” to urge an end to incitement and to restore calm in the city.

The Embassy mentions “incitement,” but the article gives no evidence that the rioting was, in any fundamental way, produced by incitement. In fact, superficial appearances to the contrary, it gives no examples whatsoever of Palestinian incitement to violence. As far as the article is concerned, the American Embassy’s invocation of “incitement” therefore has no clear referent in reality. Yet it’s treated as a perfectly reasonable statement. The inference would seem to be: violence of this sort always arises by incitement; hence, in the absence of evidence of incitement, the reasonable person infers that it was there, and infers that it played a fundamental role in producing the violence.

The hard truth is that talk of incitement is little more than fideism and blather. For all we know, most of the violence on the Palestinian side was spontaneous, not incited. For all we’re told, all of the Palestinian violence was a response to violence initiated by Israelis, not initiated by Palestinians.

So agnosticism is in order. But that doesn’t stop the author from describing the violence this way (my emphasis):

In response, Jewish youths have been attacking Palestinians in downtown West Jerusalem, and Lehava called for Thursday night’s march to restore Jewish “honor.”

Strictly speaking, the Jewish-on-Palestinian attacks are a “response” to one person whose face was slapped on the Jerusalem light rail, and one person who had a drink thrown at them in the Old City. But how explanatory is any of that? Events of this sort–slapped faces, thrown drinks–happen every single day in Manhattan, and yet don’t precipitate riots there. Why would they precipitate violence in Jerusalem? Why the need to reach for such trivial events to explain what is being billed as a major riot?

I don’t mean to suggest that these minor events are literally irrelevant to the riots. They are relevant, but only in the way that the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand was relevant to the commencement of World War I. The assassination of Ferdinand was no more the fundamental cause of the war than a thrown drink near the Old City is the cause of a major riot throughout Jerusalem. Without a better sense of the intervening variables than the author gives us, what we’re reading is like a bad undergraduate essay on the causes of World War I, where the student, ignorant of everything but the assassination of Ferdinand, seizes on that one event and makes it “the cause of World War I.” I don’t know how many essays of this kind I graded for PSCI 303, but I tended to go easy on my students: at least they knew enough to bring up the assassination! But the indulgence we show undergraduate IR students doesn’t translate easily into the attitude we have, or ought to have, toward the Jerusalem correspondent for The New York Times after decades on the job. Yet that seems to be the expectation.

Finally, there is this:

Palestinians had already been clashing with the Israeli police in East Jerusalem for several nights after the police prevented them from gathering on the steps in front of Damascus Gate, which form a kind of amphitheater at one entrance to the Old City. The steps have traditionally served as a festive meeting place for youths at night after the breaking of the daily fast during Ramadan.

Why did the police prevent Palestinians from gathering on the steps in front of Damascus Gate, especially when (as the author correctly notes), they’ve been doing just that for decades now? Why, all of a sudden, has that otherwise benign act become so problematic?

The article doesn’t say, but there are two possibilities: either there is a legitimate reason for the police action, or none.

If there is a legitimate reason, the Palestinian response looks unreasonable, even if it operates within the larger context produced by Israeli military occupation of East Jerusalem. In other words, if there is a legitimate reason for the police crackdown, it is a legitimate reason provoking an unreasonable response within the larger context of Israeli aggression against the Palestinians of East Jerusalem.

If there is no legitimate reason, then the Palestinian response looks perfectly reasonable, and happens, in addition, to operate within the larger context produced by Israeli military occupation of East Jerusalem. In other words, if the police are arbitrarily harassing Palestinians at Damascus Gate, then their harassment is simply one more instance of aggression that follows from and on the larger aggression of Israeli military occupation of East Jerusalem.

Neither interpretation is as flattering to the Israelis as the impression conveyed by this article, but the second interpretation is a journalistic game changer. On this latter interpretation, here is what actually happened in Jerusalem:

The Israelis conquered the city in 1967 in an unjust war of aggression. They have occupied the city since then, creating an apartheid political system rationalized by the imperatives of military rule. They have institutionalized this apartheid over more than five decades, and in doing so, have produced Palestinian resistance to that apartheid.

Sometimes, despite the ban on Palestinian political activity (or perhaps because of it), Palestinian resistance erupts into overt violence. On this particular occasion, overt Palestinian violence against the Jerusalem police has been met with mass vigilante action by a Jewish supremacist group. The same Israeli government that can ban Palestinian political activity outright affects to be helpless before this Jewish supremacist group. So it’s allowed Lehava to demonstrate, and predictably, to go on a rampage throughout Jerusalem, which it has then tried to “stop” after it’s begun, giving the impression of a valiant attempt at rational mediation between two forces of irrationality. In fact, the whole thing is a charade, the perpetuation of a militarized status quo begun with the Israeli conquest of the city in 1967. And so it will continue, time without end, until the occupation itself ends.

This latter interpretation is nowhere to be found in the mainstream press. It’s the kind of thing you’ll encounter only in partisan outlets devoted to the defense of the Palestinian cause. But it’s a mistake to think that overt partisanship is more at odds with truth-tracking than covert partisanship masquerading as journalistic objectivity.

That understates things. There’s no reason to think that partisanship in and of itself is subversive of the desire to track the truth. It depends on the parties, on the partisans, and on the truths in question. If one cause is right, and the other wrong, then, ceteris paribus, expect the party devoted to the former to track the truth more often than the latter. If that party is open about its partisanship, it’s simply being candid about its sincere loyalty to truth and justice.

This isn’t always the form that partisanship takes, but it’s hardly impossible. No one quarrels with it when we’re talking about the abolition of slavery or Jim Crow, or resistance to the Nazis. People find it a little harder to extend the principle beyond that, but perhaps we ought to question the skepticism of such skeptics before we question the epistemic credentials of the people provoking the skepticism. It could be that Palestinians really are the victims, and Israelis really are the aggressors in the conflict between them, in which case the strenuous attempts made to make them morally equivalent parties to a fundamentally irrational struggle are all at root attempts to erase and wish away a basic truth. It could be that partisans devoted to the defense of that truth generally track the truth better than anti-partisans devoted to obscuring it.

But as I said, this is a blog post, not a treatise. I’m posing questions, not giving definitive or conclusive answers. I’d only say that that’s more than can be said of our mainstream press. The difference is that they do their jobs for pay, while I do mine for free. And if that doesn’t reflect poorly on American journalism, I don’t know what does.

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