Bari Weiss and Merav Michaeli on how global media portrays Israel


This Q&A is adapted from one of eight mainstage conversations held at Z3 2020: Visions of a Shared Future, a virtual conference produced by The Z3 Project and the Oshman Family JCC of Palo Alto, California, aimed at reimagining Diaspora-Israel relations. 

This discussion has been condensed and edited for length and clarity. It is adapted from a conversation moderated by Anne Kornblut, Facebook’s vice president of global curation, featuring Israeli lawmaker and former reporter Merav Michaeli and New York Times editor Bari Weiss.

Kornblut: My whole life has been spent in the media, much like you all, but for me, specifically journalism and newspapers. I was at the Daily News, The New York Times, The Washington Post … and everywhere I worked — everywhere — there was a complicated relationship between the news organization and Israel, and the Jewish Diaspora, and the Jews that we covered.  There was no place where it was easy, or where it wasn’t a pain point. … Then I left traditional journalism, and I joined Facebook. And I think it’s fair to say that the relationship is also fraught. So I want to ask you both: This pain point — coverage of Jewish issues, coverage of Israel — where are we with it? And is the traditional news coverage growing more fair? Is it growing more antisemitic?

Weiss: I think that, in part, the fixation of The New York Times and other places on Israel and on the conflict with the Palestinians had to do with a just a mirroring or an echoing of that conventional viewpoint — that if you want to solve the broader problems of the Middle East, and all of these sort of pathologies that set groups against one another, well, the only way to do that is to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. There’s an old idea: “If it bleeds, it leads.” And it’s also true that if you could also have the slogan that if Jews are involved, if Jerusalem is involved, it’s more than just a story. People are inordinately focused on Jews and on Israel. What I’m contending is that the [stress] on it in the American press bears very little relationship to how important it is to the Middle East story. Meaning if every newspaper has a dwindling amount of resources and, you know, foreign bureaus and foreign correspondents, and Jerusalem always seems to be sort of like the center point of people’s attention. Maybe you [Michaeli] think that’s justified, I’m just curious.

Michaeli: It’s not a linchpin that, you know, once solved means that everything else will, you know, fall in place. But it is a linchpin, even in the sense that it provides an excuse to so many other hostile factors in the region. Even in that sense, it will generate a major change once there is genuine advancement or something really happens in the direction of a peace process regarding the conflict. So I completely agree. I mean, like the war in Libya, for instance, OK. Obviously it does not have anything to do with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But the whole sort of how people and how countries and forces are divided in the Middle East, all of them have something to do with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And once this is changed, it will change a lot in the area. But having said all this, as an Israeli, all this is a lot less important for me, and what’s most important for me is to care about Israel’s security and its sustainability. And for that I need to find a way to figure out this conflict.

Weiss: We’re living in an era, at least in the States, or at least let’s say in the liberal institutions, like places like The New York Times, in which there is an unbelievably intense fixation on diversity, inclusion, making sure work is a safe space for everyone. And yet, you know, the lack of care when it comes to Jews inside these institutions is striking. For example, The New York Times ran two, you know, large puff pieces about the writer Alice Walker while I was there, who is a medieval antisemite. She writes poems about the bloodsucking rabbis of the Talmud, she talks about the lizard Illuminati, she’s a huge fan of David Ickes, who was banned from YouTube. We ran puff pieces about her. The Times ran one recently about Louis Farrakhan, basically saying he was just a gentleman who was sort of misunderstood. 

Michaeli: I can relate to it from our point of view, Israel’s point of view, when we often feel that Israel is being bashed horribly for its human rights policies when you know, I’m keeping human rights well enough, whereas other countries — which are much, much worse — are being treated as if they’re like, you know, it’s no big deal. Nobody, nobody’s even counting what it is that they’re doing … So I guess there’s something similar about that. But it’s fascinating to me. And if you can explain to me how what you just described is happening, I’m happy to understand. How worrying is that to you?

Weiss: I’m really curious what Anne would say about why that’s happening.

The conversation that tends to happen in the United States — and I wonder if there’s something parallel to what happens in Israel — is that Jews are effectively white. And because the conversation in the United States is very much around race, and in many cases Jews are a part of a white privileged majority, that is not in the same situation of oppression. I feel like that’s probably the framework that it happens in.

Weiss: It’s that Jews are sort of twice cursed in this prevailing new illiberal ideology that goes by various names: critical race theory, wokeness. Some have called it the sort of, you know, Majeed Nawaz calls it, you know, the totalitarian left. But what it basically posits is that Jews are basically a fake minority because they’ve been invited into whiteness, including, by the way, Mizrahi Jews. And then, because 95% of Jews identify as Zionist, maybe it’s 90%. That’s our second sin. Because not only are we sort of handmaidens of white supremacy because we are a sort of fake minority, but we are also loyal to the last-standing bastion of white colonialism in the Middle East. And so we’re guilty of the sort of the worst of the modern sense. We’re guilty of us participating in systemic racism, and we’re guilty of upholding white settler colonialism. And all of that is sort of combining to erase in a way any oppression. It’s like Jews can’t be victims unless it’s, you know, such a horrific incident, like what happened in my hometown of Pittsburgh. That’s one thing. But the kind of rolling attacks that have happened on the streets of Brooklyn for the past two years, you know, in which Jews have had their wigs ripped off, had their face smashed in with a paving stone, had their child’s bus pelted with rocks, had their synagogues assaulted, and on and on and on. That’s a story that doesn’t rate in the same way because those Jews are imperfect victims because they’re haredim.

Michaeli: My [mental] association when you were describing these terrible things from Brooklyn was [toward] antisemitic incidents that took place in Europe. My criticism towards my government in Israel was that it did not take a strong stand against this kind of antisemitism because the governments in these places, such as Hungary, support the Israeli government’s right-wing policies in the West Bank. So it’s a tradeoff, which I thought was very dangerous.

Weiss: I mean, Trump is not Viktor Orban and it’s a different situation. But it’s a little bit similar in that, you know, a lot of leaders are stoking bigotry at home. Trump dismantled the moral guardrails that keep bigotry down, he created an environment where I think the reality for most minorities is less safe now than it was before he was president. And yet […] you know, lots of Jews liked his Israel policy, and they sort of felt betwixt and between — and very, very torn about which side they were on, so to speak.

You’ve both talked about political homelessness — for Jews and for Israelis — not knowing which party to go with in this polarization that we’re talking about. And I’m wondering, first of all, is there a path out of that political homelessness?

Michaeli: Well, first of all, you know, we are looking up to you because you’ve managed to, at least for now, win over Trumpism. I mean, many, many people still voted for Trump and Republicans. But still, you are going to have a whole new and different president and vice president, and a whole different administration with a very, very different tone. And for us it’s a beacon of hope, you know, looking at what’s happened in the U.S. and thinking that yes, it’s possible. The problem is that not only our political structures — the system — is different, but the thing is that our liberal camp has been crumbling down for many years now. And so the situation is really dire right now, it’s really crushed. And there is no functioning political platform on which we can start building.

Weiss: I think that a lot of the conversation going on right now between […] the center, the center left, progressives, is: “Is Biden the real face of the Democratic Party? […] Or is the real face of the Democratic Party the upstarts?” And I believe that if you just look at what happened with the Republican Party, beginning with the Tea Party movement, ultimately culminating in the overtaking of the party by Trump […] we could be seeing something similar to that in the Democratic Party. Now I hope I’m wrong. I’m not optimistic, let’s say, that the parties are going to lead us out of polarization. Where I do see hope is in the cultural sphere. And not even in the legacy media, I see it in the kind of like pirate radio, podcasting space, Wild West newsletter universe, where all of the most, in my view, independent-minded, interesting people are. And so I believe that politics is sort of downstream from culture, and that if we can change the culture, and give, and I think it’s the majority of Americans, the kind of silenced majority who believe in common sense, a cultural home, that ultimately that can have an effect on politics. But at least for the foreseeable future, I don’t see a way out of the current polarization, unfortunately.

Michaeli: But can I ask you, Bari […] when you talk about AOC and “the Squad,” do you not subscribe to any of their positions on issues, for instance, like the climate or the economy? Also, their positions are too sort of extreme for you? Or is it only you know, Israel, or it’s left issues?

Weiss: No, it’s also, you know, their version of the Green New Deal. It sounds amazing. But I read their idea of what the Green New Deal is and I’m absolutely not there. I don’t think most Americans are. It doesn’t mean that I don’t believe that climate change is real and that we shouldn’t do things for climate change. Their view on capitalism, their view on any number of issues, it’s just not where I am. And it’s not where I think at least most Democratic voters are. I mean, if this election showed us anything, in a way it was [a] repudiation of Trump. But it was also the repudiation of wokeism and the far left. That’s what I think, that’s one thing to read out of the kind of divided government that we got [and] a lot of the various initiatives in the states that passed. So yeah, I’m just, I’m not, I’m not woke. I mean, that’s just not my outlook. So that’s me.

But I will say, Merav, to your question, I do know Jewish Americans who are much more liberal than Bari who would be with AOC, and the Squad on virtually everything — but Israel holds them back and leaves them wondering ‘where am I?’ I mean, it didn’t show up in the voting numbers, but has it left them open to a Republican — maybe not Trump — but some of the pro-Israeli stances Republicans have tried to carve out for themselves? And so it is an interesting position for Jewish voters to be in. I want to ask you all, I want to bring it back a little bit more to the media.

Michaeli: […] When AOC had canceled her participation in the memorial for Rabin, I was surprised. I mean, it’s like, if you cannot participate in the memorial for a person who was assassinated in Israel for his conviction in [the] necessity for a peace process with the Palestinians, then what does it leave us with?

Weiss: And I would say that because I’ve been living inside of that world, I wasn’t surprised at all. […] I talk to college camp kids on college campuses every single day. Ten years ago it was about criticizing the settlement movement, which I do readily. That was kind of the standard — if you did that you could be accepted into the community of the good and the righteous. Five years ago it became you need to disavow the fact that Israel came into being entirely as being wrong, creating the victims-now-becoming-the-victimizers need to disavow Israel. Now it’s like basic pillars of Jewish identity […] you need to disavow the idea of chosen people. You need to disavow, and you can’t go to Hillel because Hillel also has Israeli speakers and therefore is complicit in a genocide and systemic racism.  

That’s really what it’s about. When there’s an anecdote, this young man … it’s incredible, told me he was at Panera [that] ran out of fresh-baked cookies, and it was referred to as the Zionist Panera. Zionist is now just a slur. And that’s just become normative. And so if I sound radicalized, or more strident than I would have a few years ago, it’s because of that. It’s because I’ve been in the teeth of this ideology and I see where it can go. And I think that is why […] if we had this conversation a few years ago […] I would have been softer. And I think being close to it has kind of hardened me because I see the logical conclusion of a lot of it. And the logical conclusion is, of course, you wouldn’t do an event honoring Rabin if you buy into that view of the world.

Let me quickly just ask you guys about the media. And I can’t help asking Merav about your career change. And so quickly, could I ask you which world have you felt gave you more power? In writing? Or politics?

Michaeli: I did spend 25 years or so on television and radio since I was 21 or so. And I presented and produced my own primetime shows for many years. But the thing is that I was always very, very, very political — my feminism goes back to, I don’t know, the age of 4 or something. […] I actually come from two very political families […] where the talk about peace and equality was not considered politics but just, you know, the basis of life. This is what you work for, this is what you aspire for, this is what you try to do your best to achieve.

[…] In the middle of ’95, I was approached at the peak of my primetime success by two women from the rape crisis centers in Israel, which was at the time completely taboo — nobody spoke about sexual assault in Israel. We still did not have the term sexual harassment, we did not have legislation against sexual harassment. And they came and asked me to host their annual fundraiser, […] and so I put together this group of prominent women, we started this huge campaign, actually the first-ever public feminist campaign in Israel. And we made feminism and rape into something very, very mainstream. And since I was using all of my platforms to do that, I was approached soon by many other organizations. I realized how effective I could be, and how much fun it was to bring money to organizations, and to push legislation, and to bring budgets, and to bring other important or famous people to do the same. And so really, I was doing that for 20 years out of my 30 years in the media. And so I was really already very much engaged in political work, even though it was not partisan.

Of my 7 1/2 years in the Knesset, I’ve only been so far in the opposition. I still haven’t been part of the government, and I have been much more effective than the majority of the members of Knesset in the coalition. Because it’s not about our position, it’s about what I want to achieve and how much I’m willing to work for this. […] And I always tell women […] the gain there is when you are doing something about [an issue] is so huge, and it’s so satisfying, and it’s so worth it. When you do this kind of math, usually the outcome will be different.

I love it. The natural next step is a bigger plan for changing. Form doesn’t matter.

Weiss: […] What’s next for me is, I don’t see myself going back into legacy media. I’m just so much more interested in the kind of independent-minded, rebel wrong-think journalism that’s happening outside of it. And that’s the playground I want to be mucking around in. I don’t know what exactly the form of it will take, but those are the most interesting conversations to me right now, and that’s what I want to be a part of.

Wow, we covered so much good stuff. And we could keep going for another five hours. But we’ll leave it here for now. We’ll do it again. Maybe next year, we can do it in person. But this is a terrific panel. I cannot wait to see what the both of you do next. So thank you, and thank you again to Z3 and the JCC for hosting this terrific discussion.