By Katharine Webster
An Israeli journalist and best-selling novelist says she fears that the space for free speech in Israel is narrowing, largely due to people who believe any criticism of government policy is a betrayal of the national interest.
“People are so extreme in their views now that if you don’t agree with the majority, it feels dangerous,” Sarit Yishai-Levi said at a panel discussion on media and politics in the Middle East sponsored by the Working Group for Middle Eastern Peoples, Cultures and Politics.
She said Israel’s media reflects the country, which is sharply divided between hard-line nationalists and those who believe, as she does, that Israel will never be secure unless it negotiates a two-state solution with the Palestinians.
“There is no mainstream media,” she said. “The mainstream moved to the right because they are afraid for their safety and of being seen as unpatriotic.”
Wael Kamal, director of the Digital Media Program, said he sees a similar trend in Egypt, his native country. Since the Arab Spring, many Egyptian friends have unfriended him on Facebook because he doesn’t agree with their political views, he said.
“You have to be on the right side, or you don’t belong,” he said. “To my surprise, I’m noticing this happening now in the U.S., where there doesn’t seem to be any room for political differences and no way of civil communication.”
Yishai-Levi was the first Israeli journalist to interview Palestinian Liberation Organization leader Yassar Arafat, traveling across battle zones and borders to western Beirut during the First Lebanon War in 1982.
She is on a one-month tour of the United States to promote her first novel, “The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem,” which traces the lives of three generations of a Sephardic family in Jerusalem. She spoke with students about her novel at a separate campus event.
While Israel has almost no laws limiting media freedom — the exception is reporting on the military — Yishai-Levi said she is concerned about Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s efforts to shape the media landscape. The minister of communication is involved to an unprecedented degree in the launch of a new public television station, and American casino magnate Sheldon Adelson is bankrolling a free newspaper, Israel HaYom, that is aligned with Netanyahu and the Likud Party.
At the same time, Netanyahu’s supporters criticize independent media outlets, Yishai-Levi said.
“Netanyahu’s supporters are all saying the same thing: that journalists are giving a bad name to Israel, washing our dirty laundry outside of the country,” she said.
Yishai-Levi said she sees similar efforts to quell independent journalism in other countries, including Hungary, India, Russia and the United States.
“It’s the same all over the world: When the media doesn’t go step by step with the government, they criticize the media,” she said.
In Israel, much of that criticism takes the form of vicious attacks on people and media organizations that post critical news and views on social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter. But some journalists have also been physically attacked, she said.
“We still have some unbelievably brave journalists, doing whatever is in their power to be the watchdogs of democracy,” she said. “But I fear it will get worse.”
Reflecting on the recent U.S. presidential election, Yishai-Levi said Israelis are very much influenced by American politics and culture. She was in the United States on election night, with friends who were watching the results on an Israeli TV station.
“I couldn’t believe it — the (reporters) were so enthusiastic. They were covering the election as if it was an Israeli event,” she said. “It’s because your American policy really influences us.”