Why Israel’s ‘hasbara queen’ failed miserably to explain Shireen Abu Akleh’s killing

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After Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh was killed in Jenin this month, triggering harsh international criticism of the Israel Defense Forces, the Israeli government first sought to encourage doubt as to the identity of the shooter.

Several government social media accounts, including those of the Foreign Ministry and the Prime Minister’s Office, released a deceptively edited video showing a Palestinian gunman firing into an alleyway before cutting away to another Palestinian claiming that an Israeli soldier was killed. That no Israeli soldier had been killed that morning was taken to be proof that Abu Akleh had “likely” been killed by Palestinian gunfire.

Reporting by Haaretz soon drove a coach and horses through this hastily crafted video. Subsequent reporting by Bellingcat and new video evidence suggests that it was in fact more likely an Israeli bullet that fatally struck Abu Akleh. Assertions of a likely Palestinian shooter have been almost completely shelved since then. The most recent CNN investigation suggested that the veteran reporter had been deliberately targeted by IDF snipers.

The announcement that the IDF will apparently not conduct a criminal investigation at all into Abu Akleh’s killing is just the latest sign that Israel’s first response is being abandoned. The claim that it was “likely” a Palestinian who killed Abu Akleh does not even appear in the letter Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Michael Herzog, issued following a congressional letter calling for an American investigation.

So in the face of continuing calls for accountability for the shooting of a beloved journalist in the Arab world, what is the Israeli answer now?

Unfortunately, in the public arena, it is even worse and more shortsighted than the initial shabby misinformation: It is to call virtually any discussion of Israeli culpability in this case antisemitic, because the focus on Israel itself represents a “double standard.” On top of this being an appalling evasion of responsibility for a country claiming to have one of the “most moral” armies in the world, it is a strategy that will almost surely fail, if not backfire completely.

The international messenger for the above line has been Noa Tishby, an actress appointed just last month by Foreign Minister Yair Lapid as the first Special Envoy for Combating Antisemitism and the Delegitimization of Israel.

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In a video posted to Twitter and TikTok, Tishby noted that 2,658 journalists were killed worldwide while working between 1990 and 2020. That those upset about Abu Akleh’s killing – which she firmly denied was “an execution or a targeted assassination” – can “only name the one” killed during an Israeli raid in the occupied territories is reflective of “subconscious antisemitism, anti-Jewish racism.”

In brief: If you’re angry about an apparent Israeli military killing of an identifiable journalist, you’re confirming your antisemitism.

Never mind, for a moment, that most of those intervening in this discussion can probably name at least several of the journalists killed in the last 30 years (I would prefer not to imagine Tishby’s reaction if they mentioned journalists who were killed by nondemocratic regimes unaccountable to the populations they control – an apt description of how Israel operates in Jenin, certainly).

What should alarm even those ordinarily sympathetic to Israel is the shocking flippancy behind this argument. It suggests that even if the very worst possible scenario is true, and an Israeli soldier knowingly and deliberately killed Shireen Abu Akleh, international condemnation — or even just attention! – would still be antisemitic. After all, journalists are deliberately killed by state actors with some degree of frequency. Why the “special” focus on Israel?

This peculiar notion of a double standard in which a lack of reactions in certain cases can be used to demonstrate prejudice in reactions to others leads nowhere constructive, which is probably the point: the logical result of Tishby’s argument is that anything more than “no comment” or less than impunity for Israel is at least subconsciously antisemitic, as no one besides those groups dedicated to keeping track of deaths of journalists can possibly meet the threshold she sets for fairness.

In my mind, a valid claim of double standards would involve excusing a state in a comparable event while condemning Israel here. Some far-left figures who have disgracefully flacked for governments with records far worse than Israel’s may qualify; most people upset about Abu Akleh’s killing and Israel’s reaction to it, including astonishing and egregious Israeli police violence at her funeral, cannot be said to belong to this group.

In addition to being ethically suspect, this ill-conceived and broad accusation of antisemitism will not achieve its purpose in deterring international discussion of the Israeli occupation and its consequent injustices. The reason for this is perhaps the same one for why Shireen Abu Akhleh’s killing has gotten so much attention: the willingness and determination of Palestinians themselves to speak directly about their struggle against the occupation.

Palestinians visit the site where veteran Palestinian-American reporter Shireen Abu Akleh was shot and killed, in the West Bank city of JeninAP Photo/Majdi Mohammed

Abu Akleh was for two decades a Palestinian icon in the Arab world who remained marginal, along with the Al Jazeera TV network for which she reported, in the West. The immediacy with which her death resonated was not a sudden development; it was the product of many years of Palestinian advocacy that has borne fruit, including a younger generation of Western journalists who did not instinctively distrust Arab colleagues who were eyewitnesses to the shooting.

If the Palestinian cause in the West was once mediated through non-Palestinian leftists, assisted by a handful of Palestinian public intellectuals like Edward Said, Rashid Khalidi, and Hanan Ashrawi, today it is led by Palestinians themselves who confront audiences with their lived experiences. As those directly affected, Palestinians will not be deterred from giving testimony or telling their stories by accusations of antisemitism.

And it is a compelling narrative, one that is hard for international audiences to ignore. Ongoing 50+ year military occupations in which the occupied population is perpetually denied civil rights while the dominant power facilitates the movement of its own citizens into that occupied territory are simply not a dime a dozen.

There is something particularly upsetting about foreign military rule, as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine also proves, and the close relationship between the West and Israel creates a sense of complicity that Palestinian activists are wise to seize on.

By attempting to stigmatize discussion of Shireen Abu Akleh’s killing, Israel is polarizing a debate it may well lose. It is shrinking the middle ground on which moderate and liberal critics of the occupation, who support a two-state solution and generally oppose the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement, stand.

I fear that far from succeeding in squelching discussion of Israeli misdeeds, which would be an immoral and short-sighted tragedy in its own right, overusing the amorphous label of “antisemitic double standards” a la Tishby will only make it more difficult to effectively combat very real instances of antisemitism that emerge from pro-Palestinian discourse.

Unfortunately, most signs point to exactly this failing, irresponsible and disingenuous strategy, with its whiff of conspiracy, being the hasbara of the future.

Abe Silberstein is a writer and commentator on Israel and U.S.-Israel relations. Twitter: @abesilbe

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