Monday, August 04, 2014

PRIMER: Israel advocacy in good times and bad

Connecticut Jewish Ledger
By Cindy Mindell

It has long been the opinion of many in the Jewish community that Israel has a PR problem. Especially during military conflicts like the current one, world media seem to portray Israel as the aggressor out to destroy the vulnerable Palestinians.

This storyline can leave American Jews feeling anxious and helpless, unable to take any action that feels effective in the face of such an enormous challenge.

But becoming an Israel advocate in the media is not as hard as some may think. Just ask Mark Fishman, president of PRIMER-Connecticut (Promoting Responsibility in Middle East Reporting). “All one must do is sit down at the computer and type a few words; the rest will flow,” he says.

The Fairfield resident was an unseasoned letter-writer when he first became involved in the organization in 2002, as part of a letter-writing project of the Anti-Defamation League. He eventually became PRIMER treasurer and was elected president in 2012, replacing longtime president Alan Stein, who relocated to Massachusetts and Israel and started PRIMER-Massachusetts. Stein remains active in the Connecticut chapter as president-emeritus.

“I recognized the responsibility of every American Jew to take action to defend Israel in whatever way we can,” Fishman says. “The people of Israel bear so much of the burden of defending our homeland from very real and tangible threats that all of us here must at least do something. We can’t sit idly by, as too many American Jews did during the Holocaust and as too many ostensibly pro-Israel people were doing in 2014 until the Gaza situation came to the fore. Letter-writing, monitoring the media, and recruiting others to do so are steps that can have a positive effect without disrupting our daily lives.”

Since 1992, PRIMER has been monitoring and addressing the accuracy and fairness of local media in its coverage of events in the Middle East. The organization started as a regional chapter of Boston-based CAMERA, the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America. When CAMERA determined that it did not have the resources to support local efforts, CAMERA board member and Bloomfield resident Sidney Laibson, together with other chapter members, reorganized as PRIMER.

“There is a lot of news reporting about the Middle East, and much of it is, unfortunately, not very well done,” says West Hartford resident Mark Trencher, vice president of the all-volunteer organization. “The problems occur for news articles as well as editorials, letters, and op-ed pieces, and the situation has only been getting worse in recent years.”

News articles are often edited versions of stories from the wire services, Trencher says, and are frequently unbalanced in many ways – using “loaded” headlines, attaching unrelated photos, playing up a side of the story that confirms the writer’s bias while downplaying or ignoring the other side of the story, among others.

“Unfortunately, we have found that Connecticut media are often not very knowledgeable of the Middle East,” he says. “Often, they know what is in the wire-service stories they get, but it is not a topic they have expertise in or cover themselves.”

PRIMER also monitors editorials, opinion pieces, and letters. While not news items, these forums allow writers more leeway to express their personal opinions, and frequently include factual errors and errors of omission, in which history – even fairly recent history – is ignored, Trencher explains.

PRIMER works to educate Connecticut media on factual errors and perspectives that they have missed, and try to sensitize them to ways that bias may have crept into the reporting. The organization also has a network of local spokespeople and subject matter experts who can offer additional insights which are missing from the wire-service accounts.

The group seeks to have letters published in the 17 newspapers throughout the state, highlighting needed corrections and balance as well as the side of an issue that has been ignored, Trencher says. Through mini-workshops for groups and online tutorials, PRIMER demonstrates how to spot media bias and factual errors, and encourages local residents to write effective letters. PRIMER also sends out email alerts to its members and readers about anti-Israel items.

Since PRIMER’s founding 22 years ago, Israel has seen more than its share of tribulation, from war and terrorist attacks to the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement and delegitimization in the global media.

But even when the Israel Defense Forces are not involved in an active conflict, PRIMER’s mission remains the same: monitoring news and opinion pieces in Connecticut newspapers. “Obviously, what changes during times of conflict is that there is much more reporting to examine, and the tone can often turn quite nasty toward Israel,” says Trencher. “Media bias and unbalanced reporting gradually erode support for Israel, and this gets much worse during such periods, and the results can be even more harmful. So our efforts become more intense.”

In an era of countless media sources and opinion-driven blogs, there is no rest for the concerned news-consumer. “The ‘relatively calm times’ in Israel are an illusion,” Fishman says. “The Arab world and Iran are, in essence, at war with Israel at all times and are continuously arming themselves, building tunnels, kidnapping or murdering Israelis and other Jews around the world, promoting boycotts and sanctions, inciting hatred of Jews and, most dangerous of all, developing nuclear weapons. While most of us are lulled into thinking that all is well with Israel and then pushing it out of our minds, Israel’s enemies push forward. PRIMER remains vigilant all year, as should all Jews who care about Israel.”

The good news at times of conflict like the present situation in Gaza, Fishman says, is that PRIMER sees a greater willingness on the part of letter-writers to jump in and write on short notice. “Our view is that the more we communicate the truth and historical context and point out biases, we can move media reporting to a better and more balanced platform,” Trencher says. “We can always use more people to monitor the media, write letters and op-eds, and get involved.”

“Realistically, most readers of the Jewish Ledger know considerably more about Israel than the readers of local newspapers, so each of us starts out with an advantage,” says Fishman. “In general, effective letter-writing just requires common sense and dignity, as befits someone writing in support of an important cause, and not ‘screaming’ or insulting anyone. Speaking more broadly, though, the most important thing is the willingness, figuratively, to put pen to paper in support of Israel. There is no ‘magic’ beyond that.”

The PRIMER website summarizes a list of 10 common ways that news stories can be biased, as well as some of the technical aspects of effective letter-writing. In addition, PRIMER officers are happy to review or edit a draft at the request of the writer.

Trencher offers three tips for pen-wielding Israel advocacy:

Understand that there is a lot of media bias, and become knowledgeable about ways to identify it.

It is very easy to respond these days. Some people feel that they don’t know how to write a letter, or that they don’t know the facts. We are delighted to educate people in both of those areas, and they’ll find out that it is indeed pretty easy.

Every letter counts. If you write a letter, even if it’s not published, it could be one of three or four that the newspaper receives, and if they get that many, they will most likely publish one or even two.

Learn more at

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PRIMER at work

In late July, The Day (New London) published a letter to the editor about the conflict in Gaza. PRIMER past-president Alan Stein responded with his own letter, published by the newspaper on July 27.

As an example of how to spot and address bias in the media, here is that exchange:

Mideast retribution breeds moral blindness
Published July 22, 2014

Ghandi [sic] once said, “An eye for an eye, leads eventually to the whole world being blind.”

We need to hear those words in our hearts and souls as the current crisis in Gaza and Israel unfolds. Both sides are suffering, both sides are living in fear, both sides yearn for peace. But peace can only come within the framework of justice.

We need a nonviolent, law-based solution to this conflict. This will necessitate that political, economic and security issues be addressed simultaneously for both sides.

The occupation of Palestine will have to end in order for there to be a permanent political solution in the region. The occupation has led to the erosion of the economic and social fabric of Palestinian society. But it can be restored to viability once basic human freedoms are restored. The two sides can, and must, work together.

Rami Elhanin, son of an Israeli general in the Six-Day War, and current Israeli citizen, has said, “If we don’t solve these issues, we will eventually have an enormous pile of dead bodies and the only question will be which flag will be on top.”

Peace is possible.

Carleen Gerber, Lyme

Rid Gaza of Hamas, then start peace talks
Alan Stein
Published July 27, 2014

Carleen Gerber is correct that “peace (between Israel and Gaza) is possible,” but it is only possible if Hamas completely changes and the terror infrastructure in Gaza is completely eliminated, as is required by existing agreements between the Palestinian Arabs and Israel, “Mideast retribution breeds moral blindness,” (July 22).

Gaza has been primarily under control of the Arabs for two decades and has been completely under Arab control since 2005, when Israel cleansed it of its Jewish presence and left, lock, stock and barrel. Gaza could have been a model for an independent Palestinian Arab state, but Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Fatah preferred to use it as a weapon in their drive to destroy Israel.

After the 2012 cease-fire, Israel acceded to requests by humanitarian agencies and sent large amounts of building supplies to Gaza. Rather than being used to help the  people, those supplies were used to build an enormous network of elaborate tunnels to be used to store weapons, including rockets, as terror bases and as the means to attack Israeli communities.

In 2014, we must not repeat the mistakes of the past, counterproductive ceasefires. If we wish to save lives, most of all the lives of people living in Gaza, the terror infrastructure in Gaza must be permanently destroyed.

Gaza can and should be a seaside paradise, but first Gaza must be saved from Hamas.

Alan Stein
PRIMER- Promoting Responsibility in Middle East Reporting
Natick, Mass.

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