Illinois landlord Joseph Czuba killed a 6-year-old Palestinian boy named Wadea Al-Fayoume on Oct. 14. As part of the hate crime, Czuba stabbed Al-Fayoume 26 times and also stabbed the boy’s mother, 32-year-old Hanaan Shahin, while reportedly saying “You Muslims must die.” Al-Fayoume’s murder occurred seven days after a Hamas attack on the occupation State of Israel and after the occupation forces’ subsequent horrific siege on Gaza. It is impossible to separate what happened to Al-Fayoume and his mother from the rhetoric used to describe the escalation of Israel’s attack on Gaza. The New York Times’ coverage of Al-Fayoume’s funeral displayed the following headline: “Muslim Boy, 6, Is Mourned After Illinois Attack Linked to Mideast War.”
Millions of people across the world have protested against Israel’s genocide of Palestinians and the role of the U.S. in supporting and funding of the war on Gaza. On Nov. 4, tens of thousands of people gathered in different U.S. cities and in Washington D.C. to call for a ceasefire and an end to the brutal occupation. Despite the public outcry, U.S. news coverage of the State of Israel’s genocide in Palestine is inaccurate at best and complicity in further violence at worst.
The more closely we look, the more we see mainstream media’s complicity. We see how media language fuels Islamophobic and Zionist propaganda by toeing the line of “objective” reporting. The “Mideast War,” as The New York Times calls it in its piece about Al-Fayoume, is not a war. It is neither a war with Hamas, a Palestinian resistance group, nor is it a war with Gaza, a small Palestinian exclave that has no official military and has been occupied by the Israeli military since 1967. What is happening now is a relentless bombing of innocent civilians, a violation of international law and human rights. The insistence on calling this a “war” or “conflict” is propaganda. The depiction of two equal aggressors works to absolve the group that is committing the genocide.
In an Oct. 20 piece in The Nation, Palestinian writer and activist Mohammed El-Kurd writes, “Unfortunately, when it comes to Palestine, obfuscation and fabrication are permissible. The passive voice is king. The commitment to truth disappears, as does due diligence.”
And so we ask: Why is the U.S. media spreading propaganda and enabling genocide?
Complicity in imperialism
Centuries of imperialism have laid the groundwork for what we consider “normal,” shaping our definitions, our ways of thinking, and, ultimately, our actions. This includes the framing of American media as “objective.” Writers and editors across various publications are not conspiring to publish the same propaganda, nor are they paid or given unilateral orders to do so. The notion of such conspiracies is rooted in antisemitic allegations about media ownership and outsized Jewish power. Rather, the answer to why the press is enabling genocide lies in the systemic violence that American media and readers have become accustomed and desensitized to. To reveal and critique the media’s anti-Palestinian and antisemitic propaganda is to critique fascism.
Core to any imperialist project is the dehumanization of the people who are displaced, colonized, and oppressed. As Palestinian activist and literary critic Edward Said details in his seminal work, “Orientalism,” we have centuries of such dehumanization to prime us for the propaganda we see today. Orientalism is the process by which one is otherized into an “Oriental,” a term used to dehumanize those perceived as outsiders to what is often referred to as Western civilization that was historically applied to anyone from the continent of Asia. Whether people are otherized into Orientals, savages, or terrorists, they are deemed outsiders who are morally and intellectually inferior. In turn, Westerners are not only able to create and impose “improvements” on outsiders but are always justified in doing so through colonial and even genocidal means.
The State of Israel’s leaders have propagated otherizing language to refer to Palestinians. For example, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu described civilians of Gaza as “human shields” and “collateral damage.” When ordering a siege on Gaza, Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant declared Israel’s fight against “human animals.”
By framing Orientalism as a process, Said not only allows us to view this dehumanization as unnatural, but also to identify the actors and structures that create, disseminate, and legitimize dehumanizing knowledge. Policymakers, academics, tourism company workers, and journalists all play outsized roles.
Government, academia, and media are imbued with authority that gives additional weight to what they say—and what they don’t say. On Nov. 2, the Times published the explainer “Israel’s Attackers Took About 240 Hostages. Here’s What to Know About Them.” The article refers to many of the hostages by name and includes interviews with their family members. There is no mention of the thousands of Palestinian prisoners currently held by the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) and subject to “torture and degrading treatment.” There is also a clear, longstanding discrepancy in news media’s efforts to humanize Israelis over Palestinians. A 2019 study analyzing nearly 100,000 headlines across five decades found that U.S. newspapers are more than twice as likely to cite Israeli sources in headlines than Palestinian ones, according to The Intercept.
Furthermore, the Times’ Nov. 2 explainer cites its own coverage of the Oct. 24 Hamas hostage release: an article headlined “85-Year-Old Held Hostage in Gaza Says She ‘Went Through Hell.’” The subheading reads, “Yocheved Lifshitz offered the first public account to emerge from the more than 200 hostages estimated to be held in Gaza.” The first public account of the hostage experience is crucial to framing readers’ understanding of Israel’s reasoning behind its attacks on Gaza. Lifshitz describes being brutally beaten by her captors. What the headline does not capture is Lifshitz’s assertion that once in captivity, her captors “treated us gently and fulfilled all our needs.” They gave the hostages food and access to medical care. The Times buries this critical information two-thirds into the article.
In Israel, Palestinian prisoners are being held with no access to medical care and limited access to food. Gaza, described by the Human Rights Watch as an “open-air prison,” has little to no potable water. As fuel in Gaza runs out, reaching a “breaking point,” the IDF wrote in a social media post that the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees (UNRWA) could “ask Hamas if you can have some.” The health systems of Gaza themselves are out of service—endangering thousands of patients and leaving medical staff to perform surgeries without critical tools, slowly leaving cancer patients and babies in neonatal intensive care units to die. According to the global poverty organization Oxfam International, as of Oct. 25, only 2% of usual food deliveries have made it into Gaza. The Times’ lack of nuance and context within its reporting creates a narrative of one-sidedness.
Such is the reinforcing cycle of dehumanization: coverage, especially photos and headlines, fuels biases in readers’ minds. Yet such biases are necessary for coverage to be believed and propaganda to spread successfully. These language patterns become a system of knowledge about those people, and without critical pushback, that knowledge becomes justification for violence. As the media watch group FAIR noted in a Nov. 3 analysis, these obfuscations are “not the kind of reporting that victims of mass slaughter need.”
These language patterns are also tied to the U.S.’ role in maintaining an imperialist hegemony, or the dominance of imperialist powers over colonized and formerly colonized regions–not just through war, but by building consent for this power structure through the same institutions Said highlighted. “Consent” may seem like a fraught or inflammatory term in the context of imperialism, but it refers to the acceptance and normalization of an imperialist government’s actions.
It is specifically policymakers, journalists, and academics who have the power to reinforce a framework that transforms violent atrocities into “what is necessary” or what is “common sense.” Endless bombardment of hospitals, schools, and residential buildings; cutting off food, water, and electricity; and killing thousands of civilians become acceptable through the lens of security culture, self-defense, and realpolitik–an approach that values power and material factors over ethical or humanitarian concerns. These systems of knowledge perpetuate themselves precisely because they constrain people’s ability to think outside of them. Language not only carries value judgments but directs how we are able to think. When we are not given language that humanizes Palestinians, it becomes more difficult to see Palestinians as humans who are capable of suffering. Even when we do recognize Palestinian suffering in a general or theoretical sense, when we are not given language that criticizes Israel’s actions as the violence of colonizers, it becomes more difficult to trace that suffering to the hands that caused it.
No one is immune to the media’s propaganda. While Gazans lose internet connectivity, the state of Israel runs promoted ads and social media campaigns in the U.S. meant to garner sympathy for their occupation. Even President Joe Biden parroted the since-disproven occupation state’s claim that Hamas beheaded babies, which he later walked back after several news outlets issued statements that they could not prove these claims.
To question or critique propaganda that has become foundational to one’s worldview is a difficult but necessary task. As writers and organizers, we recognize that complicity is one of the best dampers of resistance. Many people have uncritically contributed to such dehumanization. Facing one’s complicity can come with feelings of guilt; with feelings of guilt can come emotional self-defense, which can push people to seek news outlets that affirm their existing biases. But the importance of our egos pales against the genocide that is happening before our eyes. As we critique fascist systems, we must recognize the violence that our complicity has helped inflict and accept the responsibility to change.
Definitions are not neutral
Changing our actions means changing our language. We must critically interrogate and dismantle the decades of propaganda that have distorted our vocabulary. Zionism is a political ideology from the late 19th century arguing that Jews are a distinct nationality and are entitled to their own state in their ancestral home, which was then recognized as Palestine. Palestinian Jews with historical ties to the land did not aspire to build a new Jewish state within Palestine. Rather, the creation of Israel was heavily supported by the British—not because they wanted to support Jews, but because they could leverage it for Allied support in World War I and control over the region after the war.
After World War II and the Holocaust, Zionists wanted the British government to facilitate more immigration of displaced European Jews into Palestine. In 1947, Britain handed over partitioning to the United Nations (UN), which allocated 55% of the land to the Jewish state despite Jews constituting only one-third of the population.
Palestinians resisted, but Zionist armed forces, trained by the British in World War II, expelled Palestinians from their towns and villages in an act of ethnic cleansing. In 1948, the British ended their mandate in Palestine, officially establishing the state of Israel and expelling at least 750,000 Palestinians by the first half of 1949. Zionists and the Israeli army have continued their ethnic cleansing of the Palestinian people and they now control over 85% of historic Palestine. The Gaza Strip, where Israel is currently carpet bombing the more than 2 million Palestinians who currently live there, has been under active siege since 1967.
Zionism was and continues to be a response to very real antisemitism responsible for violence, displacement, and genocide against Jews. The creation of the state of Israel, however, has resulted in violence, displacement, and genocide against Palestinians. Imperialist hegemony has already laid the groundwork for accepting violence and displacement of others as the necessary cost of another group’s “security.” But Zionism has another propaganda framework at its defense: the conflation of anti-Zionism and antisemitism.
This contemporary conflation can be traced to 2004, when the European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia (EUMC) proposed a working definition of the “new antisemitism.”
“If we stick to our definition, then, strictly speaking, we should qualify the hostility towards Jews as ‘Israelis’ as anti-semitic only if it is based upon the underlying perception of Israel representing ‘the Jew.’ If this is not the case, then we should consider the hostility towards the Jews as ‘Israelis’ as not really antisemitic, because this hostility is not based on the antisemitic stereotypes of the Jews,” the report outlined.
When the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) adopted the EUMC’s definition in 2016, however, seven of its 11 examples of how antisemitism can manifest include critiques of the state of Israel.
We maintain that journalism is not, and cannot be, neutral in times of active imperial violence. Definitions are not neutral. The conflation of anti-Zionism with antisemitism is a fear tactic, with a clear propagandic history. Currently, the IHRA’s definition of antisemitism includes, as an example, “Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor.” Since 2010, the U.S. Department of State’s definition of antisemitism also includes critiques of Israel.
The IHRA definition and its conflation of anti-Zionism and antisemitism have since spread. News outlets regularly publish images that include Israeli flags and stories about antisemitism that frame pro-Palestinian slogans as anti-Israel. This conflation expects media consumers to be on the same page about several unspoken premises. First, that antisemitism is the hatred of Jews on the basis of them being Jewish. Second, that Jews deserve safety. Third, that those who hate Jewish people do not want them to be safe. Fourth, that Jewish safety is reliant upon the creation of a militarized Jewish nation-state. These premises culminate in the argument that criticism of Israel is a criticism against the safety that Jews deserve and is thus antisemitic.
These unspoken premises are an example of enthymemes, a rhetorical tool that relies on audiences filling in information gaps. Propaganda relies heavily on enthymemes because they create a form of participatory propaganda, wherein audiences reinforce and internalize propaganda for themselves. In the case of Israel, enthymemes are additionally tricky to unravel because they include premises that people who fight against fascism should accept that Jews deserve safety.
This logic falls apart at the fourth premise: that Jewish safety is reliant upon the creation of a militarized Jewish nation-state. The sub-premise is that the actions of the militarized Jewish nation-state are necessary for keeping Jews safe. This raises the question: safety for whom? The existence of the State of Israel does not currently prevent the rise in antisemitism. The logic that Jews are safer in Israel is also undermined by the second-class treatment of anti-Zionist Jews and Jews of color and the violence that is enacted in the name of safety.
“Safety” that requires killing thousands and destroying millions of people’s homes must be called into question. This form of “safety” only creates danger and suffering for those who have been displaced and killed. To call back to the EUMC’s qualification on linking anti-Zionism and antisemitism, killing and displacing Palestinians are policy decisions made by the State of Israel, which, as many Jews have pointed out, does not represent all Jews. Critiquing the policy decisions of the state is also not reflective of a hatred of Jews based on their religion. Yet this propaganda persists with real-world consequences for Palestinians and Muslims in Palestine and in the U.S.
As breaking news comes out of Gaza each day, much of the American media acts as an active agent of the propagandistic rhetoric of Zionism and becomes a passive bystander to the Palestinian genocide. And consumers of such media become complicit within that passive bystandership. This is what leads to Israel’s escalation of genocidal tactics, including bombing a refugee camp. Repeatedly.
Journalism has a news problem
The American media has manufactured consent for the Palestinian genocide. This cannot be underscored enough. American news audiences must acknowledge the fact that there has been centuries of normalization for similar kinds of violence. The news media must accurately and historically portray the 75-year-long struggle of Palestinians, the manifest destiny rhetoric of Zionism, and acknowledge its positioning as agents and instigators of violence.
In addition to the incentives laid out above, compounded by the ease of walking tracks well-worn by decades of propaganda, journalists and media workers contend with the business model of journalism. In his piece for The Nation, El-Kurd gestures at the issue of newsrooms seeking “newsy,” attention-grabbing headlines that rely on readers’ existing biases at the expense of honest, fully contextualized portrayals.
At best, this reveals a lack of self-reflexiveness on the part of journalists seeking to inform the public. At worst, it is outright malice. And in between, there is the financial pressure of “well-performing” stories, whether those metrics are measured in ad revenue or how stories contribute to philanthropic funding. There is also a culture within newsrooms that privileges the prestige of breaking news, which ties back into material concerns since publications want their stories to be ready and waiting at the top of a Google search when people begin wondering about a topic.
The practical consideration that most readers do not finish reading articles also looms over newsrooms, incentivizing writers and editors to frontload and simplify information, leaving little room for context. When combined with existing biases, this results in snippets of propaganda and the erasure of specific groups of people and specific events not considered “newsy” enough to keep an assumed audience’s attention, as seen in the Times coverage of Lifshitz’s experiences as a hostage.
There is also the material consideration of employment. Several news institutions have proven their complicity in Zionist propaganda by firing writers who have used their speech to express solidarity with Palestine as it undergoes genocide. On Nov. 3, Jazmine Hughes, an award-winning New York Times Magazine staff writer, resigned from the publication after signing a letter that voiced support for Palestinians and protested Israel’s ongoing genocide in Gaza, which was in violation of the newsroom’s policies, the Times reported. The open-access science journal eLife replaced their editor for retweeting a piece from the satirical news site The Onion that called out “indifference to the lives of Palestinian citizens.” Sports reporter Jackson Frank was let go after tweeting “Solidarity with Palestine.” The radio show “By Any Means Necessary” was taken off the air, and its employees were fired after showing support for the Palestinian people.
In order for reporters to enter Gaza under IDF air support, they are required to submit their materials and footage to the Israeli military for review prior to publication. CNN has agreed to this stipulation, perhaps for the physical safety of their reporters. But at its core, this is journalistic malpractice–and a clear record of an imperial force controlling a narrative. Meanwhile, at least 40 journalists and media workers have been targeted and killed by the State of Israel as of November 13.
On Nov. 9, a group of protesters from the direct action group Writers Bloc, including El-Kurd, occupied the office lobby of The New York Times, demanding that the outlet call for a ceasefire in Gaza and implicating the paper’s role in the genocide.
Institutions help dismantle one of the best forms of resistance we have: freedom of speech. Theorist Antonio Gramsci calls social institutions, intellectuals, and journalists “the dominant group’s ‘deputies,’” evoking carceral surveillance onto resistors at the hands of institutions. We currently see the actions of these “deputies” working in tandem with the government’s response to rising antisemitism and Islamophobia resulting in an escalation of security and police presence on college campuses. The fear of speaking out leads to complicity. Resisting complicity may threaten the benefits we have, including income and safety. But it is crucial to resist complicity.
To dismiss or deny the historical violence in Palestine in news coverage of the current genocide is a form of propaganda. It is an active manufacturing of consent for Palestinian genocide. The people of Gaza are not hypothetical, nor are they tools for journalistic propaganda. They are a people who have faced decades of violent suppression and have been dehumanized through headlines crafted to invoke sympathy for their oppressors while erasing both their history and their current genocide.
The reach of the American media cannot be ignored. The price for reporting propaganda is more propaganda, more fear, and more violence.