Interview with Israeli-American journalist Joel Schalit: ‘Israel's government wants to put a formal end to democracy’

Screenshot from The Battleground webpage.

As part of its Special Coverage on Israel's war on Gaza, Global Voices interviewed Joel Schalit, one of the co-founders and editor-in-chief of The Battleground, an English-language non-profit online magazine focusing on “false narratives and propaganda that are eroding trust in politics and the media,” with a focus on Europe. Schalit is an Israeli–American journalist who covers European, Middle Eastern and US politics, including for Israeli media and has written several books, including “Israel vs. Utopia,” “The Anti-Capitalism Reader,” and “Jerusalem Calling.”

Joël Schalit. Photo used with permission

Filip Noubel (FN): There is a mounting disinformation war around Israels war on Gaza. Indeed, in a recent piece you wrote, talking about British media, you said, Its not uncommon to read a thousand-word feature on Gaza and not quote Palestinians.” You have observed European coverage of the Middle East for several years — how do you explain this shift that refuses to explain context, to provide nuance, to portray Palestinians in their own words? 

Joel Schalit (JS): The trend is general, but the reasons can diverge depending on the country. I’ll discuss the country I know best as an example. In Germany, the environment has grown hostile to Palestinians. Part of this is driven by the migrant crisis of 2015. Palestinians are Arab and mostly Muslim and subject to the same prejudices, and many arrived during that wave from countries like Syria.

Far-right activists and parties disproportionately and disingenuously target them as anti-Semitic when they stage demonstrations against Israel and criticise the country in the media. Centre-left parties like the Greens and SPD [Social Democratic Party, one of the leading parties in Germany] also indulge in this scapegoating, but not to the same degree.

This has been reflected in a growing pro-Israel bias in German media reporting on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, both in the Middle East and at home. One can find blatant misinformation about it in big local newspapers like Der Tagesspiegel, as well as the national daily BildFor the Springer papers, this is to be expected. They have a mandate to promote Israel in the company’s charter, and no one expects anything different. The problem is media like Bild are disproportionately influential on public opinion and media and have helped foster the populist crisis.


With Berlin’s Tagesspiegel, their main reporter for Palestinian politics in Neukölln [Berlin's predominantly Arab and Turkish district] also covers the city’s far-right scene, and he tends to treat them the same. Palestinians are extremists and anti-Semites as well, and Islamists are their ideological mainstream. It’s highly inappropriate. Tagesspiegel should assign a reporter of Arab or Turkish origin to cover the community and not treat it like a colonial exercise. There are excellent Turkish and Arab journalists born in Germany who get passed over for beats like this. It’s obvious why.

FN: In light of the recent article by HuffPost regarding the State Department's directive to discourage the use of specific phrases like ‘de-escalation/ceasefire,’ ‘end to violence/bloodshed,’ and ‘restoring calm,’ how would you assess the direct influence of language choices in diplomatic communication on the escalation of the Gaza conflict and the ensuing humanitarian crisis for the Palestinians?

JS: I don’t know any serious journalists or editors who pay attention to directives like that. Including on the right. That’s the sort of direction that gets a healthy laugh in most of the newsrooms I’ve worked in. This said, there is a high level of confusion about whether to call things like the present fighting in Israel/Palestine a war and to give this round of conflict a specific name.

Some of this is due to ignorance. Many editors and journalists don’t know that despite the fact that the Arab-Israeli conflict is 75 years old, there are specific wars that have transpired within that time frame. Hence, the Six-Day War and the Yom Kippur War, or the 1982 Lebanon War. The Arab-Israeli conflict may go back decades, but wars deserve to be historically and politically distinguished from each other. Naming helps.

For the present conflict, we decided to call it the Sukkot War [Sukkot refers to a Jewish religious holiday] because of when it began and how it was chosen by Hamas. El País, the biggest Spanish-language news media in the world, also uses Sukkot War. As difficult as it might be for a non-Jew to understand that, it’s not that impenetrable. Spanish media get it. But most don’t, and even the BBC and The Guardian can use several different names for conflicts they cover.

FN: What are the news sources based in Israel you consider as reliable and balanced today? 

JS:  I grew up reading Haaretz. It was the newspaper my parents read, and it is still the best in the country. Right-wing papers in Hebrew and English can’t compete. 972 Magazine is equally good, as is its Hebrew edition, Mekomit. The level of analysis these publications offer can be astonishing.

There are other news platforms in Israel worth your time, but Haaretz and 972 Magazine offer the best overall picture for foreign readers. Part of it has to do with their level of English. Many of their writers come from Anglo families or were educated abroad, and they know how to speak to outsiders.

This is an especially big problem given the predilection of Israel’s political echelon to talk down to Americans and Europeans and how this gets replicated in right-wing Israeli media. The Middle East is too important to Western politics not to have professional local media to consult. 

FN: In your view, are Israelis who oppose Netanyahu able to make their voices heard now? 

JS: Most Israelis, even on the right, blame Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for the Sukkot War. There is a broad consensus amongst Israelis that Netanyahu ignored available intelligence, promoted Hamas over the Palestinian Authority and degraded Israel’s security architecture. Even right-wing newspapers designed for Bibi [Netanyahu's nickname], like Israel Hayom, have been calling for his head.

Whether we can convert this anger to progressive ends and build a new left in Israel is another story. There are no big leftist parties. The Sukkot War is marshalling a lot of very reactionary politics that could void all the anti-establishment sentiment created by the judicial coup and the war.

 We have enough local media to express such concerns. The right-wing ones are mostly intolerant of anti-establishment opinion and paranoid about enforcing pro-government politics. But for the moment, that’s been dropped. Hopefully, that will continue.

FN: What are the three main things you wish Western media understood and reported accurately about this war?

JS: First, Israel is led by a nationalist and religious government that wants to put a formal end to democracy in the country. The Sukkot War is partially a product of that. Second, this war is of geopolitical value to too many global players and will likely lead to a much larger regional conflict because of that. Third, if the war widens to include Lebanon and Iran, Israel will suffer far greater collateral damage than we have witnessed to date.

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