Joe Hyams to Students: BDS is Most Pressing Media Challenge Today

Joe at Brandeis

HonestReporting CEO Joe Hyams addressed a mixed group of graduate and undergraduate students at Brandeis University in Boston last week, discussing the power of social media to shape public opinion and the threat posed by the burgeoning Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement.

Joe noted that Brandeis University was one of the first to speak out against the academic boycott, calling by the American Studies Association (ASA) in December. So far more than 200 university presidents have spoken out against the ASA boycott as a threat to academic freedom. Despite the nearly universal condemnation, however, the ASA refuses to back down from its boycott.

“The BDS campaign is the biggest and most pressing media challenge today,” Joe told the group, adding that the BDS is using the media to turn people against Israel. “Unlike traditional forms of media bias from the mainstream press, which stands to lose credibility when it is shown to be violating principles of journalism, BDS thrives on media exposure.”

He also urged students to work together with those fighting BDS on campuses and in the media. “We can only meet that challenge when each and every one of us echoes and amplifies the work being done to expose those seeking to harm Israel through disinformation and demonization,” he said.

Joe Hyams is currently participating in the two-year Hornstein Jewish Professional Leadership Program at Brandeis University.

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February 18, 2014 13:05 By Category : Backspin

To Err is Human, But Algorithms Can Be Screwy Too

The related reading you commony see alongside news articles are based on computer algorithms so that editors don’t have to spend time manually plugging in related content. The concept is simple: a computer judges — based on keywords, date, and other factors — what articles are “related.” Then it automatically posts the article’s headline and featured image on the margins or at the bottom of page. (At the bottom of HonestReporting articles too, you’ll see You may also like, accompanied by four articles — each just a headline and thumbnail image.

Nobody ever thinks about these things until something goes wrong.

After all, despite the mad mix of keywords and computers, you can still get some screwy results. Case in point is the LA Times.

Can you spot what’s wrong here?

LA Times

No, Palestinian protesters didn’t really build a scale model Dome of the Rock in the Jordan Valley.

So where did things go awry for the Times?

The original article itself featured image that absolutely had nothing to do with the headline. The photo’s relevance was because the dispatch tied to “in other developments” about a separate Temple Mount clash. So the image was related to the article, but not to the headline. And when the algorithm inevitably kicked in, the result was blatantly noticeable,  but forgivable.

Less forgivable, however, is other instances when algorithms recycle a “related” image that gives the misleading impression of being part of the story itself (as opposed to related content). Sky News, is a great example of that

To err is human, but algorithms can be screwy too.

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February 17, 2014 11:32 By Category : Backspin Tags:, , ,

Orthodox Jew? Hate Israel? The New York Times Wants To Interview You

minority-antiZionist-380x252In “A Conflict of Faith: Devoted to Jewish Observance, but at Odds With Israel,” the New York Times wants to disabuse readers of the notion that observant Jews are all pro-Israel. So they highlight four who oppose not only Israel’s policies, but even favor the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) campaign.

Of course, the article does reference the fact that their views are at odds with family and friends. But it begs the question: Why would the New York Times publish a feature piece — in the “beliefs” section no less — about people whose views are in an extreme minority?

For balance, the article could have also ran quotes from observant Jews who feel that their faith compels them to support Israel.

But no, each person interviewed echoes the same sentiment. Take this quotation for example:

“My parents were very sensitive to the issues of Palestinians,” Professor Krieger said. “My mom had a book called ‘They Are Human Too,’ and my memory is she would take it off the bookshelf, as if this was some sort of scandalous tract she was showing me, and show me pictures of Palestinians in refugee camps.”

Or this one:

“As a religious Jew,” he (Professor Manekin) said, “I am especially disturbed by the daily injustices perpetrated against the Palestinians.”

The claim is that while these views may be in the minority, they are — and have always been – the ethically correct ones. One could easily think it is only these lone voices who understand that Palestinians are also “human.” The complex context of the refugee issue is quickly dispatched with a single line that does more to confuse than clarify the issue.

But religious faith and attitudes towards Israel are much more complicated than that.

How about Palestinian Muslims who disagree with the Palestinian Authority? Both inside Israel and out, there are many, many Palestinians who are fed up with the corruption and anti-Israel incitement that characterizes the PA. There are even Palestinian journalists who are outspoken in their opposition to the PA. Khaled Abu Toameh has been writing for years for the Jerusalem Post and other publications. He says that the majority of Palestinians oppose the PA but are afraid to do so publicly. Yet there are very happy to speak anonymously to journalists.

Wouldn’t such an article be more informative than what the Times published?

Apparently providing balanced, objective coverage is not the top priority for the Times. One would have hoped that the “beliefs” section would not carry the same bias as the rest of the paper.

Sadly, that does not appear to be the case.

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February 16, 2014 13:39 By Category : Backspin

Mideast Narratives Done In By Camels

camelIs it time to shut down the Zionist project?

A pair of professors from Tel Aviv U. did some carbon dating of the Mideast’s oldest camel bones. The study (pdf format) was picked up by the NY Times, and from there, National Geographic, Time, and others.

Why the interest?

The researchers , Erez Ben-Yosef and Lidar Sapir-Hen, say their findings disprove the earliest Biblical accounts of camels, claiming that camels weren’t domesticated in the Mideast until centuries after the camel-riding Patriarchs.

I don’t know anything about carbon dating or the history of dromedary domestication. But I do know that one reaction by Israel’s critics (expressed by The Guardian‘s Andrew Brown) was predictable.

The Guardian

 Let’s just cut to his conclusion:

The history recounted in the Bible is a huge part of the mythology of modern Zionism. The idea of a promised land is based on narratives that assert with complete confidence stories that never actually happened. There are of course other ways to argue for the Zionist project, and still further arguments about the right of Israelis to live within secure boundaries now that the country exists. But although those stand logically independent of the histories invented – as far as we can tell – in Babylonian captivity during the sixth century BC, they make little emotional sense without the history. And it is emotions that drive politics.

I’m still wiping Brown’s oozing condescension off my computer.

Interesting that only the Zionist narrative takes a hit here, because the Bible also forms the basis of Christian and Muslim belief. Christians trace the ancestry of Jesus to the Patriarchs through Judah. Arabs trace their ancestry back to the Patriarchs through Ishmael. And Palestinians (at least some of them) have recently adopted Canaanite, and even pre-Canaanite, heritage.

From where do they all know all this ancestry?

And why do you think The Guardian only questions the credibility of the Zionist narrative?

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February 14, 2014 0:01 By Category : Backspin Tags:, , , , ,

Israel Provides Cancer Treatment to Palestinian Children from Gaza

Israel Provides Cancer Treatment to Palestinian Children from Gaza.

pawn-fence-380x250The above could very well have been the headline for the New York Times story that instead was published under the title “Even a Stationery Logo Pits Palestinians Against Israel.”

In fact, not just the headline but the entire article could have created a far different impression. With just a few minor changes, it could have highlighted the fact that even as rockets continue to be fired from Gaza into Israel, Palestinian men, women, and children are being allowed to cross the border and obtain life-saving treatments at Israeli hospitals.

Yet the Times instead focuses on the dispute about the legal documents that must be used to apply for treatment, referring to applications to cross a border and be admitted to Israeli hospitals as mere “stationery.”

The real story is that rather than doing everything possible to make sure that people can obtain the medical treatment they need, the Palestinian Authority has started trying to score political points by writing “State of Palestine” on the applications.

Should Israel really be taken to task to objecting to this change?

Patients like the 13 year old boy in the article are used as pawns by a Palestinian leadership more interested in politics than saving lives. 

Yet this is in no way reflected by the headline or the lead paragraph:

JERUSALEM — The latest skirmish between Israel and the Palestinian Authority does not concern settlements or refugees, but stationery.

What is interesting is that all the correct information is in the article. Yet the style used diverts the reader’s attention away from what is really newsworthy, namely that Israel continues to provide medical care to Palestinians in need.

Sometimes news reporting can be both factual and misleading at the same time.

And that’s a shame because what is really happening could give readers a different perspective on both Israel and the Palestinian Authority if reported objectively.


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February 13, 2014 14:20 By Category : Backspin

Hate Your Job? Really???

What are we to make of the following quotation?

hate-your-job-yardenPost2“I feel like I’m not a human being — we are serving the occupation,” said Mr. Jalaita, 47, a father of five, two of them university students. “I am forced to work here because I have a house, I have a family. Tomorrow, if there is another place to work, if there is work in Palestine, I will do it.”

So says Hassan Jalaita, a 47 year old Palestinian who works in Mishor Adumim, in the disputed territories. He is quoted in the New York Times, and his quotation frames the entire article. Even the headline “In West Bank Settlements, Israeli Jobs are Double-Edged Sword” gives credibility to his words.

Maybe this is his honest opinion. Could be that he dreams of working for a Palestinian company.

However, having spoken off-the-record with Palestinians who work in Israeli settlements, I can tell you that the workers I interviewed:

  1. Have no desire to work for Palestinian companies where pay, workers’ rights, and safety policies are inferior to what they find with Israeli companies (including those in the territories) and
  2. Will never speak to a journalist and say this because they fear that they will get a visit from the Palestinian Authority for contradicting the official narrative. For the same reason, they asked that I not use their names.

The Palestinian Authority operates as an undemocratic dictatorship. Mahmoud Abbas’ elected term expired years ago, and yet no elections are even being spoken of. There is no freedom of speech. The PA police operate with impunity, and those deemed enemies of the regime are dealt with harshly.

Would a quotation by a resident of North Korea, Syria, or Iran be treated as the honest opinion of a man-in-the-street?

So maybe the Times should have realized that the quotation may reflect how the worker wants (and needs) to be depicted publicly more than an objective observation.

In situations where free, protected speech is not a given, journalists should think twice before publishing direct quotations.

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February 11, 2014 15:19 By Category : Backspin

CNN Settlement Photo and Headline Fail

In a report on the Israeli approval for building new homes in Jerusalem neighborhoods over the Green Line, CNN produces the following headline and photo:


Some observations:

  1. The headline is inaccurate. As the text of the story itself states, Israel is building what CNN describes as “more than 550 settlement units” i.e. houses and apartments in existing neighborhoods. This is very different to the headline’s claim of “new settlements” which would imply the construction of completely new communities.
  2. The photo of a demolished Palestinian house is completely unrelated to the story. Is CNN implying that Israel is destroying Palestinian homes to make room for Jewish ones? This is, of course, not the case. The legality or otherwise of Palestinian building is a separate issue to the story and is therefore entirely inappropriate.

A complaint has been sent to CNN. Watch this space.


It gets worse. This is the headline on the CNN mobile site:


“Hundreds of new settlements”?


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February 6, 2014 16:11 By Category : Backspin Tags:, ,

Saeb Erekat And a Crisis of Faith


The destruction of Jericho

Once again, the PA’s chief negotiator, Saeb Erekat, claims the Palestinians descended from Canaanites:

I am a proud son of the Canaanites who were there 5,500 years before Joshua bin Nun burned down the town of Jericho” he said in Munich last week.

That contradicts Maen Rashid Areikat, who wrote that the Palestinians lived under Canaanite occupation. It should also bode ill for Mahmoud Abbas, who last Christmas asserted that Jesus was a Palestinian.

But who thinks about these kinds of things? Certainly not the Western media, which never presses Erekat on his deceitful demonization, his Jenin blood libel, or his other outright lies. Reporters shrug their shoulders at most, then dutifully record the whopper, making sure they spell his name right.

That’s Erekat with an E.

How tall a tale does the man have to spin before the press corps has a crisis of faith in Erekat’s credibility?

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February 6, 2014 14:51 By Category : Backspin Tags:, ,

What’s Behind the Recent Success of the Dutch BDS Movement?

This is a guest post by Yochanan Visser of Missing Peace.

dutch-media-clogs-flagIn December last year a diplomatic row erupted between Israel and The Netherlands concerning the decision by certain major Dutch companies to join the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions movement.

These divestment decisions were taken after the companies took advice from the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The Dutch ambassador was summoned twice by the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs over the issue.

First Dutch water company Vitens cancelled a cooperation agreement with Mekorot, Israel’s water utility. The Vitens decision came barely a month after the agreement with Mekorot had been signed and after a Dutch governmental delegation led by Lilianne Ploumen, Dutch Minister for Foreign Trade and Development Cooperation, canceled a visit to Mekorot.

Vitens said the decision was taken after consultation with the country’s foreign ministry. Dutch Foreign Minister Frans Timmermans denied having pressured Vitens to cancel the agreement with the Israelis but declined to answer questions about the aborted Ploumen/Mekorot meeting.

A couple of weeks later, PGGM – the second largest of the Dutch pension funds – announced it will divest from Israeli banks. Ha’aretz reported that PGGM’s decision to withdraw all its investments from Israel’s five largest banks came because they operate branches in the West Bank and are involved in financing construction in the settlements.

An informed source says that over the past few months, the Dutch pension giant contacted Bank Hapoalim, Bank Leumi, Bank Mizrahi-Tefahot, First International Bank of Israel and Israel Discount Bank and informed each of them that in PGGM’s view their settlement-related connections pose a problem from the standpoint of international law.

PGGM told the banks its stand was based on the advisory opinion issued by the International Court of Justice in The Hague in 2004, which held that settlements in occupied Palestinian territory violate Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention and are illegal.

Article 49 provides: “The Occupying Power shall not deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies.”

PGGM’s move, it now appears, comes in the wake of relentless pressure by several NGOs that receive funding from the Dutch government.

Peter Borgdorff, director of PFZW, an affiliate of PGGM and the second-largest of the Dutch funds, disclosed in a blog post  that PGGM has for years been criticized and subjected to pressure by Dutch NGOs over its investment in Israeli banks. Most of these NGOs, including Cordaid, Oxfam Novib and ICCO, are funded by the Dutch government.

A key driving force behind the Vitens decision and the lobby for BDS in the Dutch parliament is a well-connected, pro-Palestinian NGO, The Rights Forum (TRF), led by former prime minister Andreas van Agt.

Several other former senior ministers are on its board, including former Dutch Foreign Minister and EU commissioner Hans van den Broek, who is said to have been the driving force behind the EU’s recently announced critical guidelines on Israeli settlements.

In the case of PGGM, The Rights Forum member Cees Flinterman was instrumental in the decision to divest from Israeli banks. Flinterman, who is a professor of international and constitutional law, has a self-declared track record of pro-Palestinian activities. In 2007 he was appointed ethical adviser by PGGM. His task is to advise PGGM about responsible investments.

The Dutch BDS movement has now turned to ABP, the third largest pension fund in the world. One of the actions taken to exert pressure on ABP to divest from Israeli banks is an online petition. But this time Dutch pro-Israel activists decided to take action. They launched their own online petition in order to stop ABP divestment from Israel.

(You can sign the petition here:

Dutch bank ING is also under pressure to reconsider investments in Israeli companies as reported by the Financial Times.

The NGOs behind the BDS campaign in The Netherlands receive large scale funding by the Dutch government. This is one of the main reasons why the BDS movement has gained incredible momentum in The Netherlands.

Also, the Dutch government’s “Discouragement Policy” (that targets trade with Israeli settlements) has provided activists with the tools and ammunition to form a vigorous BDS network, infiltrating both political and economic channels in the Netherlands.

Another factor influencing the increasing boycott-atmosphere in The Netherlands is the role of the media. Some of the most influential papers have given a podium to op-ed writers and columnists who openly endorse the BDS campaign.

For example the paper Trouw published an op-ed by Harry Hummels, a professor of ethics, in which PGGM was praised for being a ‘trend setter in responsible investment’.

Volkskrant columnist Thomas von der Dunk wrote that the PGGM decision shows that Israel has to choose between ‘European civilization and the criminal colonists’.

He also wrote that ‘Israel has to decide if it wants to be a respectable country or a pariah state comparable to Apartheid South Africa’.

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February 5, 2014 16:08 By Category : Backspin Tags:, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

HR Reader Gets New York Times Letter Published

NYT-magGlass-01Recent Watchdog of the Week, Houston resident Jason Levinson has continued his good work. From the Irish Times a few weeks ago, he’s now succeeded in getting a letter published in the New York Times. Here he takes on BDS leader Omar Barghouti’s recent opinion piece:

Omar Barghouti’s claim that Israel has a “self-definition as an exclusionary Jewish state” is simply beyond the pale of logic. Non-Jewish citizens of Israel are democratically elected to the Israeli Parliament, preside in Israeli courts of law, serve as officers in the Israeli military and attend Israeli universities. In fact, Mr. Barghouti obtained a master’s degree from Tel Aviv University despite having been born in Qatar and despite being one of the primary leaders of the Boycott, Divest and Sanctions movement.

If Israel were the exclusionary state that Mr. Barghouti imagines it to be, none of the above would have occurred.

Congratulations again to Jason for his recent successes.

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February 5, 2014 14:59 By Category : Backspin