Who pays the highest price for the media’s obsession with Israel? Hint: It’s not Israel. It’s the millions of victims who are ignored while the media chases what former Associated Press reporter Matti Friedman calls its “hostile obsession with Jews.”

Why this obsession?

In his widely read essay in Tablet, Friedman calmly explains that it’s “the result of decisions made by human beings in positions of responsibility — in this case, journalists and editors.” He speaks from the inside: Between 2006 and the end of 2011, Friedman was a reporter and editor for the Jerusalem bureau of the Associated Press (AP), one of the world’s two biggest news providers.

Friedman never suggests that Israel shouldn’t get its fair share of scrutiny and criticism. What he’s discussing is something else — a bona fide media fixation with the Jewish state.

When he was an AP correspondent, he says, the agency had significantly more news staff covering Israel and the Palestinian territories than it had in China, Russia or India, or in all of the 50 countries of Sub-Saharan Africa combined. More than the total number of news-gathering employees in all the countries where the uprisings of the Arab Spring eventually erupted.

And yet, in all of 2013, Friedman reminds us, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict claimed 42 lives — roughly the monthly homicide rate in the city of Chicago. Jerusalem, internationally renowned as a city of conflict, had slightly fewer violent deaths per capita last year than Portland, Ore., one of America’s safer cities.

Nevertheless, news organizations decided that this conflict is more important than, for example, “the more than 1,600 women murdered in Pakistan last year (271 after being raped, and 193 of them burned alive), the ongoing erasure of Tibet by the Chinese Communist Party, the carnage in Congo (more than 5 million dead as of 2012) or the Central African Republic, and the drug wars in Mexico (death toll between 2006 and 2012: 60,000), let alone conflicts no one has ever heard of in obscure corners of India or Thailand.”

While his bureau scrutinized Israel, you can’t say it did the same with the Palestinians.

Over a seven-week period in 2011, Friedman counted 27 separate stories from his bureau on the various moral failings of Israeli society. This was higher than the total number of critical stories about Palestinian society in the preceding three years.

You’d think that something as evil as the Hamas charter — which calls for the murder of Jews and the destruction of Israel — would merit serious media attention. But even though Hamas won a Palestinian national election, the charter was never mentioned in print while Friedman was at the AP.

Friedman’s essay makes the case that in conflicts involving Israel, what matters most by far to the mainstream media is what Israel does. “Most reporters in Gaza believe their job is to document violence directed by Israel at Palestinian civilians,” he writes about this summer’s war. “That is the essence of the Israel story.”

It’s no coincidence, he says, that the few journalists who documented Hamas fighters and rocket launches from civilian areas were “mostly scrappy, peripheral and newly arrived players — a Finn, an Indian crew, a few others. These poor souls didn’t get the memo.”

The irony of all the extra scrutiny of Israel, of course, is that no country in the region already engages in more internal scrutiny and self-criticism than Israel.

When Israel goes to war to defend itself, it’s surrounded by a mini army of lawyers and watchdogs to make sure it doesn’t commit war crimes. And when mistakes are made, as inevitably happens in war, it has its own media breathing down its neck. No media is more ruthless than Israel’s, and few countries have more internal investigations.

The swarm of foreign reporters who focus mostly on Israel’s mistakes and who pile on the attacks think they’re being courageous. They’re not. There’s no courage in beating up someone who’s already beating himself up. You want courage? Report on Hamas.

But as annoying as all the extra media scrutiny might be for Israel’s supporters, those who pay the highest price are surely the millions of persecuted people throughout the Middle East and elsewhere.

“The real victims of the media’s obsession with Israel and the Palestinian conflict,” author Yossi Klein Halevi wrote in an email from Jerusalem, “are the dispossessed of the world whose case almost never gets heard because the Palestinians have sucked up most of the air.”

Given the terrifying Islamic violence currently spreading throughout the region, it’s ludicrous that the media is so obsessed with scrutinizing the one civil society that allows freedom of speech and freedom to dissent.

If the media wanted to chase a really big story in the Middle East, it would be this one: The 22 countries of the region will never build stable, decent societies until they start emulating the democratic ways of the Jewish state. Now that would be a worthy media obsession.


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