In Tucson talk, journalist will examine media bias on Israel

Matti Friedman is a former AP reporter and author of "The Aleppo Codex" and "Pumpkinflowers: A Soldier's Story"

It’s very important to understand who is feeding you information and why they are doing so, says Matti Friedman, an award-winning author and former reporter for the Associated Press’ Jerusalem bureau.

“We all need to be critical consumers of media, not just where Israel is concerned,” says Friedman. “The hostility to Israel expressed in mainstream media coverage is not dissipating. If anything, it’s growing – the story becomes more and more hostile as time goes on, and seems unaffected by other events.”

However, the proportion of biased and unfavorable coverage of Israel being published has somewhat improved, he says, because of newsroom cuts and the media’s shift towards other parts of the region as the Middle East continues to destabilize.

As an author, journalist and former soldier for the Israel Defense Forces, it’s his duty to help people better understand the world, says Friedman.

“I’m not writing about my experiences as a journalist or a soldier because they’re about me, but because those experiences contain helpful information for people trying to figure things out,” he says. “If someone walks out of a lecture, or puts down my book with a better grasp of a complex reality — I’ve done my job.”

Friedman will be the guest speaker at a lecture event on Sunday, May 14, at Congregation Chofetz Chayim, presented in conjunction with the Weintraub Israel Center. The event will kickoff at 5 p.m. with a light Israeli buffet, followed by the lecture, “Why Is the Media Confused About Israel?” at 6 p.m. It is part of the Tucson Jewish Community’s monthlong celebration of Israel’s Independence Day and the reunification of Jerusalem.

Friedman was born in Toronto, Canada, but has lived in Israel since 1995. He served in the IDF during the South Lebanon conflict, at the tail end of the 1990s. His books, both published by Algonquin Books, are “The Aleppo Codex: In Pursuit of One of the World’s Most Coveted, Sacred, and Mysterious Books” (2013) and “Pumpkinflowers: A Soldier’s Story” (2016).

Friedman’s latest book recalls his time as a soldier fighting in Israel’s forgotten war in southern Lebanon at the close of last century, he says, which is key to understanding Israel today.

“The war shaped Israeli society, and shaped the army, and created Hezbollah, which went, in those years, from a rag-tag militia to one of the most important regional players,” he says.

“When I sat down to write ‘Pumpkinflowers’ I thought that an American reader would find useful echoes of Iraq and Afghanistan in our experiences at Outpost Pumpkin, which were in some ways a prologue to the American wars of the 21st century.”

But the heart of this book is the universal experience of moving from civilian life into a warzone, Friedman says.

“My main motivation has always been less about politics, and strategy, than about understanding the souls of young people taken from their normal lives and sent to war,” he says.

Rabbi Israel Becker of Congregation Chofetz Chayim says he was especially intrigued by the constructive insight Friedman could provide about how Israel is portrayed in the media.

It’s vital for the Jewish community to get an unfiltered picture of what motivates Israel both politically and socially, Becker says.

“Because Israel is so misportrayed I think it is so important for Jews to understand the compassion of Israel, and the efforts of Israel to deal, in a human way, with all the inhabitants of Israel — and even, to deal in a very human way when they are at warfare.”

Becker says he can’t be sure if the world will ever understand Israeli foreign and domestic policy, when one considers the historical prejudice against Jews, which was further exacerbated by the founding of Israel.

“However, what I would like to see is for the world community as well as the Jewish people to understand Israel. And for Jewish people to gain a clear perspective and not to be tainted by the imbalance of the media,” he says.   

“I feel that the sacrifices that Israel has made, and repeats to make, are not presented and not understood by the world.”

The media’s misrepresentation of Jews is the current manifestation of a struggle dating back thousands of years, says Becker. “And considering the survival of the Jewish people in spite of it is nothing short of a miracle, and the greatest testament of G-d’s presence and love.”

After having a few conversations with Friedman, and reading his books and articles, Becker realized that “in order to gain an understanding of the media’s issues with Israel, you have to gain an understanding of the whole Middle East dynamics, in every single country.”

“And rather than look at Israel as a separate situation, it needs to be understood in the context of everything that’s going on,” he says.

From an insider’s perspective, Friedman hopes to expose the political manipulations and bias ever-present in foreign media outlets reporting from and about Israel, he says.

“Over the past few years, I have tried to use those experiences to help observers — like the audience in Tucson — bridge the gap between the reality of Israel and the largely fictional story that they’re getting in many media outlets,” says Friedman. “This story is generating intense hostility to the country and making Israel’s actual problems hard to understand.”