Obsessing About Gaza, Ignoring Syria (and Most Everything Else)

Trying to understand why Syrian deaths no longer seem to matter
Destruction in Aleppo (Reuters)

The responses to what I write about the Hamas war fall into several categories. My least favorite sort of response is the kind that invokes Hitler in some way. Here is an e-mail that is representative: “I hope Hitler kills you and your family.” (Yes, it was written in the present tense.) Then there are the messages from those who seek the elimination of Israel. These run along the lines of, “Jeffrey wants blood, give him more Palestinian blood!” (I’m not sure if this tweet was riffing off the blood libel or not.) Like many people, I am legitimately shocked (not “shocked, shocked” but actually shocked) by the level of grotesque anti-Jewish invective seemingly (though not actually) prompted by the war, particularly in Europe. I’ve been getting mail like this for a long time, so it is the intensity and volume, rather than the content, that is so surprising.

One of my other least-favorite types of responses comes from the opposite end of the spectrum, from people who ask me why the media is so biased against Israel, and then cite the work of this reporter or that reporter—in this war, usually someone currently stationed in Gaza—who appears, to my interlocutor, to have an anti-Israel agenda. It’s a question I’ve seen for years, and it is usually asked by people who believe that Israel only has public relations problems, as opposed to actual problems, in addition to public relations problems.

I can’t speak with great knowledge about the reporters from European and other overseas outlets (I do have an understanding of the sympathies of many British reporters), but I tend to think that journalists from American outlets are doing a fine job in dangerous conditions of covering a horrible war. It is true that Hamas makes it difficult to report on matters it would rather not see come to light (this is why you see so few photos, if any, of armed Hamas fighters). It is also true that reporters in the field could do a more thorough job of asking Hamas leaders harder questions (such as, Why are you rejecting ceasefire offers; why did you place your command bunkers under hospitals; and so on), but working conditions are very difficult, and they are trying the best they can. (I’ve covered various of these mini-Middle East wars in the past, and, believe me, working conditions makes it difficult enough just to write down what you’re seeing six inches in front of your face.) In any case, these questions are sometimes best raised by analyzers and editorialists.

There is another question about media coverage that has been bothering me, however, one of proportionality. I was struck, over the weekend, by the lack of coverage of the Syrian civil war, in which the death count recently passed 170,000. By Sunday night, it had become clear that the weekend in toll in Syria would stand at roughly 700 dead—a larger number, obviously, than the weekend toll in Gaza (and more than the total number of deaths in this latest iteration of the Gaza war to date.) I tweeted the following in response to this news out of Syria: “I sincerely hope the @nytimes covers the slaughter in Syria – 700 dead in 48 hours – in tomorrow’s paper. Very important story as well.”

This was my sincere hope, and it was to my sincere surprise that Monday’s newspaper contained no information whatsoever about the weekend slaughter in Syria. The front page was devoted mainly to Gaza and Ukraine. But there was nothing inside either, and nothing on the website. As far as I can tell, the Times, as of this writing, has not addressed this most recent round of Syria carnage in an even semi-comprehensive way. It goes without saying that continuing violence in Libya, Egypt, Nigeria, Yemen, and so on, has not received much attention from the Times in recent days. (I’m singling out the Times because it is America’s best, most thorough and most important newspaper. I suppose you could accuse me of having a double standard. So be it.)

There are a couple of very good reasons why coverage of Israel and its troubles is so broad, and even obsessive. The first is a simple, technical one: Journalists can best cover what they can see. Hamas, despite its various restrictions, makes it easy for journalists to observe scenes of destruction in Gaza. It is much harder to operate in Syria (or rural Nigeria), and it is safer to operate in Gaza than it is in parts of Pakistan and Afghanistan. (For those of you who are wondering: In my time in Gaza, Hamas officials often gave me more access, and more respect, than officials of the more moderate Fatah, which at one point had me kidnapped and interrogated.)

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Jeffrey Goldberg is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and a recipient of the National Magazine Award for Reporting. He is the author of Prisoners: A Story of Friendship and Terror. More

Before joining The Atlantic in 2007, Goldberg was a Middle East correspondent, and the Washington correspondent, for The New Yorker. He was previouslly a correspondent for The New York Times Magazine and New York magazine. He has also written for the Jewish Daily Forward and was a columnist for The Jerusalem Post.

Goldberg's book Prisoners was hailed as one of the best books of 2006 by the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Slate, The Progressive, Washingtonian magazine, and Playboy. He received the 2003 National Magazine Award for Reporting for his coverage of Islamic terrorism and the 2005 Anti-Defamation League Daniel Pearl Prize. He is also the winner of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists prize for best international investigative journalist; the Overseas Press Club award for best human-rights reporting; and the Abraham Cahan Prize in Journalism.

In 2001, Goldberg was appointed the Syrkin Fellow in Letters of the Jerusalem Foundation, and in 2002 he became a public-policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C.

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