Yes, Israeli Media Distort Protests That Aren't 'Correct.' No, It Doesn't Make Netanyahu Right

Ethiopian Israelis march in protest of the 13 Ethiopian victims of police violence in Israel in Kiryat Haim,  November 5, 2019.
Gil Eliahu

The term “the second Israel” is once again at the center of attention, the work of Channel 13 reporter Avishai Ben-Haim. For years, Ben-Haim has espoused his thesis about how the justice system is deployed to keep “the second Israel” from taking part in the political game. The pro-Benjamin Netanyahu demonstration outside the Tel Aviv Museum late last month enhanced this discussion.

Ben-Haim argues that this violent outburst can’t be explained without talking about the institutional violence that prevents “the second Israel” from taking part in the democratic game. I agree with Ben-Haim. The feeling that you’re not seen or heard politically and culturally is hard to put into words. Such feelings always seek an avenue for expression. These citizens are searching for a way to express their frustration with state institutions, especially a law enforcement system that has humiliated them, crudely trampled on their rights and very rarely is called to account.

To Netanyahu’s delight, coverage of the protest, rather than of his problems, won a lot of the attention. In the eyes of much of the media, the protesters forgot to bring to the museum plaza the “correct” lexicon and even went so far as to ignore the rules of a “proper” protest. They shouted, cursed and shoved. And then, these commentators on what constitutes a proper protest shifted to characterizing the protesters’ background. Their conclusion: The Mizrahi protester is violent, barbaric and primitive.

The media refuses to understand the frustration of feeling you’re taking part in a protest against injustice and then seeing the image propagated by the media. In this way, the media only reinforces the stereotype. Maybe the media fails to recognize its effect on the self-image of a group with limited social mobility.

Every protest derives from a certain social condition. Any attempt to ignore this is tainted by paternalism and arrogance. Correctly identifying the participants’ background can help pinpoint the problems that led to the protest and get the sociopolitical system to find a solution. But in Israel, as very recent history has shown, this is the last thing that happens.

In May 2015 and this year, protest waves erupted that were led by young activists from the Ethiopian Israeli community. These demonstrations stemmed from a crisis of trust in relations between Ethiopian Israelis and the establishment, particularly the police and the Justice Ministry unit that investigates the police. The activists alleged that the police were acting in a discriminatory, racist and disrespectful manner.

The complaints were based on incidents where young Ethiopian Israelis were shot and killed by the police, while in many other incidents young people were beaten and arrested. The sense of discriminatory treatment by the police and the overall establishment is backed by the statistics. Via the media, the police and the Justice Ministry department have created a biased narrative where the victims are the police and the public, and the protesters are the criminals.

They’ve used this narrative to justify policing strategies that clash with the basic democratic right to demonstrate. The use of reality-creating language against the protesters has had sociopolitical implications because it draws attention from the protesters’ message. They’ve been portrayed as violent, possibly criminal, disrupting the public order.

The purpose has been to divert the discussion from the reasons the protesters took to the streets. The media provided a narrow vantage point, detached from the protest's context. It framed it as “their” protest and turned “them” into a faceless and violent enemy. And the first to do so were reporters and analysts on the right.

What does any of this have to do with Netanyahu? Not a thing, aside from the deep sense of persecution he projects. This feeling is the bridge connecting him and the people outside the Tel Aviv Museum. I think this identification is the lowest common denominator between him and the protesters. Netanyahu can’t lay claim to an affinity between him and those who have suffered socioeconomic and class differences and found themselves on the fringes, because no such connection exists.

With shameless cynicism, Netanyahu exploits the feelings of people who rightly feel that entire systems in Israeli society have been shutting the door in their and their children’s faces. This kind of cynicism is unforgivable, in part because Likud has been in power for 40 years and Netanyahu for 13.

Law enforcement and the media have earned people’s alienation and revulsion. The second Israel’s struggle against these systems is just and entirely deserves support. But this struggle and Netanyahu have about as much to do with each other as a camel and a piano, and Ben-Haim should build a wall between this struggle and any leaders accused of corruption.

Fekade Abebe is a political activist and an M.A. student in philosophy at Sciences Po in Paris.