Richard Landes is author of Can ‘The Whole World’ Be Wrong? Lethal Journalism, Antisemitism, and Global Jihad (2022)
This essay begins with the credulous media reaction to the Hamas propaganda about Al-Ahli hospital on 17 October. I offer two explanations for that terrible and dangerous journalistic failure in terms of, on the one hand, the contemporary prevalence of (now reflexive) ‘lethal journalism’ and, on the other, the historic ubiquity of what David Deutsch calls ‘the Pattern.’ After arguing that the lethal-journalism enabled demonisation of Israel is one of the last redoubts of the Pattern in the West, as illustrated by rapidity with which Western journalists restored it with their coverage of the Hospital tragedy. I conclude by warning that our unparalleled and difficult global experiment in freedom and abundance, not only Israel’s, depends on how we respond in the times ahead.
Part 1: Al Ahli Hospital, 17 October 2023: A Case Study in Lethal Journalism
17 October offered an example, literally breathtaking, of the unseemly haste with which professional commitments can be cast off and Jihadi war propaganda broadcast to the world. While rocketing Israel, one of the Jihadi’s own bombs landed in a parking lot outside a hospital in Gaza City. The explosion blew out some of the hospital’s windows, and caused, based on photos of the blast area and few bodies, a soberly estimated dozens of dead. Hamas, as it has so often in the past when their rockets kill their own children, announced to the world the triple lie that it had been 1) an Israeli strike on 2) a hospital, and had 3) killed hundreds.
Had there been a real journalist in Gaza to film the undamaged hospital, or the small crater, we would have known right away. But no. There were none, only ‘journalists fighting with their cameras’ and keyboards passing propaganda off as news. Gauging from the loop of footage shown by CNN, played again and again, there was nothing to confirm any aspect of the Hamas claims.
It’s worth mentioning here that Jihadi rockets aimed at Israel fall short 20-30 per cent of the time; and they repeatedly kill Gazans, including children and infants. Since much of the appeal of the Palestinian grievance narrative to the West is: ‘look at the terrible things they do to our innocent civilians whom we love, that’s why we hate them so’, these own-goal incidents, were they reported, might undermine that tale. In 2012, for example, in the case of 4-year-old Muhamad Sadallah, CNN’s Sara Sidner took part in a performance that climaxed with a photo-op in Shifa Hospital with Hamas chief Haniya and Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood Foreign Minister Kandil kissing the child Hamas had killed.
Hamas understood the danger of these ‘fell-shorts,’ and during its now 18-year-long rocketing of Israel, they developed a procedure: keep out the journalists until the tell-tale debris is removed, then bring them in to record the weeping over children the cruel Israelis had just killed. And for the longest time, journalists have complied with Hamas protocols, aware that revealing what really happened, much less elaborating on the ghoulish hypocrisy of Jihadis making photo-ops of children they had killed, would endanger their lives and the lives of their local fixers.
So how did the lethal journalists, not in Gaza, directly subject to Hamas intimidation, behave when confronted with Hamas claims about al Ahli hospital? Ten days after Hamas had shocked the humane world with their moral depravity, did they ask themselves, ‘Could Hamas be lying? Could this even be another case of Jihadi rockets killing Gazans, which, according to their modus operandi, the Jihadis try to blame on Israel? Can we check the source on the very high figure of dead? (After all, it took Israel a week to count their dead.) Should we wait for confirming evidence, like pictures of the demolished hospital? Or shots of the terrible pile-up of corpses?’
Or did they (unconsciously) think, ‘they might slaughter Jews, but they wouldn’t lie to me.’? This story was too good to wait on.
They first checked with Israel, whose chief spokesman unfortunately did not say, ‘as far as we know we had no planes in that area, and I remind the members of the press that currently one in five of jihadi rockets land in Gaza and kill Gazans, that the “Ministry of Public Health” is a Hamas-run organisation and they have a long history of exaggeration.’ Instead, the official said, as if he had no knowledge of the media’s role in Hamas’ strategy for decades, ‘I’ll get back to you.’
Did the press wait for the IDF to get back to them? Did they demand more evidence from Hamas, or conduct their own long-distance investigations with sources in Gaza about the nature of the damage? Did they look carefully at the photos of the parking lot and the undamaged hospital?
Did they consider the highly volatile situation at the time, not only in the area, but around the world, where some Muslims were rioting and were enthusiastic supporters of the most sadistic Jihad attack in generations, calling for intifada in the West? Did they think about how publishing Hamas’ claims might inspire even more intense expressions of Jihadi fervor and Jew-hatred the world over? After all, Hamas and ISIS were calling for global mobilisation, and getting a good response in the West at that very moment.
Alas, no. Getting their false information from Hamas (‘Palestinian’ sources) and ‘Human Rights’ NGOs, and trusting that information uncritically, the news outlets jumped in with both feet. In a stunning example of professional malfeasance, every major anglophone news outlet published the Hamas claims in blaring headlines, followed by some version of ‘…Palestinians say.’ (New York Times, LA Times, Washington Post, CNN, BBC, Reuters, AP, AFP.) Only the Wall Street Journal and Fox did not snap at the poisoned meat.
In other words, as a pack, the legacy media ran one of the most dishonest Jihadi lethal narratives since the Jenin ‘Massacre’ as news. And then ran with it.
Predictably, in the Muslim world, the Hamas cognitive war claim became instant and unshakeable truth. Predictably, the shocking news sparked violent rallies, both in the Arab and Muslim world, and in the West, where Muslim supporters of Hamas led obedient woke intersectionalists in a celebration of everything that is the antithesis of progressive and humane. All the Arab leaders Biden wanted to meet promptly cancelled on him, putting his diplomatic trip (and the safe evacuation of Gazans) in jeopardy.
In the West as well, it had a huge impact on a public sphere that was just beginning to grapple with their systematic misunderstanding of what has been going on for the last 20 years. Now the supporters of Hamas, who initially ran into serious opposition after 7 October, even from unexpected sources, could reassert, with full moral indignation, the accusation, ‘Genocide!’
Viewed from the perspective of the global Jihadis recent events must be most satisfying. Let us imagine what they might be saying.
On 9/11 no one, not even most of us Jihadis, could imagine a Muslim army defeating the Western countries. Today, when we see Hamas massacring inept Israelis, and Muslims leading campus celebrations among infidel, join by their progressives, of the most terrifying of Jihadi deeds, we can clearly see not only the implantation of a fifth column in the West (from which to recruit suicide bombers), but that this implanted presence has managed to groom whole populations of infidel youth and intellectuals, often from their most elite institutions of learning, to join us in carrying out their own destruction even after we showed them our true face. As for the media, they jumped at the poison bait Hamas held out about the hospital strike, giving us a spectacular recruiting device around the world and restoring the hold of our warriors in the diaspora over their ‘woke’ allies.
One could forgive this hypothetical Caliphator for thinking that Caliphator Islam was the strong horse.
So how can we explain this recklessness on the part of our own media, especially since this is not an occasional error, but has been a hard pattern, a persistent spur to Jihad, and a blight on the news media’s professional reputation for over two decades now? What compulsion drove our news media as a pack, even now, 23 years later, to snap at such poisonous bait? The vague excuses about fast-moving events we’ve so far received are simply not good enough. We must go deeper. I now discuss two determining contexts of the disastrous media response to the Al-Ahli tragedy: the contemporary rise of ‘lethal journalism’ (my own concept) and the historical ubiquity of hostility to Jews, recently conceptualised by David Deutsch as ‘The Pattern’.
Part 2: The Rise and Rise of ‘Lethal Journalism’ from Jenin to Al-Ahli
In the course of observing and analysing the behavior of the legacy media in the first two decades of this new century, I coined two terms: lethal war journalism, for those war correspondents, reporting on a foreign war, who ran the war propaganda of one side as news to an audience ‘back home’; and own-goal war journalism: reporting the enemy’s war propaganda as news to one’s own side.
The short version of what’s been happening from 30 September 2000, when the news media ran a story of Israeli targeting and killing 12-year old Muhammad al Durah in his father’s arms, to the present runs as follows: Western legacy media have repeatedly engaged in lethal journalism against Israel, not realising that the side they chose to support was actually fighting on team Global Jihad, and that every victory they gave them over Israel was a victory for the implacable enemies of their own democratic societies, their own free press. By 2021, it had become a brain virus.
Journalists (and here I’m not just speaking of the firebrands like Robert Fisk and Jon Pilger, but mainstream, leading journalists like the New York Times’ Steven Erlanger and Jodi Rudoren), repeated this practice so often, it became a recognisable modus operandi: report Palestinian claims, no matter how outlandish, as news; consider IDF responses as propaganda; and when the initial report turns out to have been wrong and the IDF right, mumble half-excuses and then jump on the next lethal claim. Lethal journalism is an ‘RUI’, Reporting Under the Influence, having ingested an enemy ideology that targets both Jews and a free press.
Jenin 2002: Affirming the Jihadi Narrative
When, in April of 2002, the media reported unverified the Palestinian claims of a massacre in Jenin of more than 500 people, huge demonstrations accusing Israel of genocide massed, including westerners. In Madrid, fashion models joined the protests against the fake news massacre, by wearing nothing but two mock suicide belts. It was like a scene out of Independence Day, except these live protesters could have known what the enemy thought of them, had they wanted to, or had their war correspondents told them. Then they might not have been surprised two years later when Jihadis struck their homes. Seen on a civilisational scale, this collective celebration of one’s ruthless executioners has few if any parallels.
Part of what made lethal journalism’s repeated practices so astonishing was how much they violated a widespread policy of the early 21st century in the West, namely the imperative not to do anything that might affirm the Jihadi narrative (so eloquently articulated by Osama bin Laden), that ‘the West is at war with Islam’, that ‘the infidels want to exterminate us’. Under Obama, who assured the nation that 99.9 per cent of Muslims reject the Jihadi version, the term ‘radical Islam’ was banished from intelligence and security circles. Explained his secretary of State Hillary Clinton:
It helps to create this clash of civilizations that is actually a recruiting tool for ISIS and other radical jihadists who use this as a way of saying, ‘We are in a war against the West―you must join us.’
Officials would tie themselves in knots to avoid saying ‘radical Islam,’ presumably lest we give the Jihadis fuel for their narrative.
Nor was that policy mere cosmetics; it came at a serious cost. It left us unable to distinguish between genuinely peaceful Muslims, and radical Muslims pretending to be moderate. We were unable to even talk about, for example, the Islamic ideology of the Palestinian-American major in the US Army who shot up 13 of his fellow soldiers while yelling ‘Allahu Akhbar’ at Fort Hood in 2009. Nor was this limited to the US. Britain has been a loss leader in this kind of ‘intelligence’ for decades.
And yet apply that logic to lethal journalism. While the Western journalists thought they were showing Israelis killing Palestinians, Muslims saw infidels – al Yahood! – killing innocent faithful with the full approval of the pro-Israel West. And since there is nothing more gut-wrenching than seeing images of dead bodies and mourning people, conjuring up hundreds of innocents wantonly slaughtered by a cruel enemy, it is little surprise that Western prisons have many a Jihadi radicalised by the sight of Muslim victims on TV. For a Muslim, nothing offers more powerful emotional proof of the Bin Laden’s global Jihad narrative than this war propaganda, confirmed by Western sources! What Muslim could even think of arguing in their public sphere that the West is not in a war of extermination with Islam, much less point out that it’s really vice-versa? On the evening of 17 October, CNN’s correspondents repeatedly reported on the disastrous impact that Hamas propaganda, which they were running as news, was having all over the Middle East.
Part 3: The Pattern’| David Deutsch’s conceptualisation of humanity’s recurring need to legitimise hurting Jews
For Jews (a people with a memory of almost four millennia), the hostility towards them has been so constant over those millennia that many think it’s cosmically inscribed: ‘Esau hates Jacob.’ Allow me to offer a different explanation, using Oxford physicist David Deutsch’s as yet unpublished theory of ‘The Pattern.’
According to Deutsch, the Pattern consists of placing the highest priority on establishing ‘the legitimacy of hurting Jews for being Jews’ and was visible even in pre-Christian Greece and Rome. This is not necessarily ‘antisemitism’ in the prevailing sense of the term, as a form of racism, bigotry or hate. Indeed, in the West, most enactors of the Pattern today would honestly protest they, personally, would never want to hurt a Jew, especially just for being Jewish. And indeed, even Jews can be Pattern-compliant. As a result, it’s not just the people who really do want to hurt Jews who enact the Pattern; it’s also all those who for mysterious reasons strive mightily to give those haters legitimacy.
Now Deutsch does not explain the Pattern. He’s a physicist and discovered it while working on a book of intelligent people’s lapses into the irrational. He observed, beneath the Sturm und Drang of antisemitic deliria over the centuries and millennia, something of a constant of human behavior, a kind of sub-atomic particle that held Jew-hatred together in the longue durée. If he’s right, this Pattern may be as close to an observable ‘law of human behavior’ as we can achieve. Above all, conserve the legitimacy of hurting Jews.
This Pattern, Deutsch observes, is always present, but is most likely to cause persecution, expulsions and mass murder when there is a serious threat it, to the legitimacy of hurting Jews. Such a threat appeared when Europeans, previously Pattern-compliant in their belief in Jewish deicide, became ‘Enlightened,’ and so had difficulty blaming the Jews for killing a God in which they no longer believed. Deutsch argues that this threat to the Pattern generated a frenzy of anti-Jewish ideologies in many European countries following the secularising Enlightenment when Jews were nominally emancipated as equal citizens—as noted by Max Nordau in 1897.
Part 4: Israel: The Pattern’s Last Redoubt
That dynamic, in my analysis, corresponds well with what happened in 2000. In the West, the Holocaust temporarily rendered taboo some of the traditional expressions of the Pattern. Nie Wieder! For two generations thereafter, Westerners refrained from publicly enacting the Pattern: hurting Jews, Jew-baiting, circulating the Protocols, was no longer politically correct.
Alone, the Palestinian grievance narrative stood strong as the last redoubt of the Pattern in the second half of the 20th century. When Arab leaders, those responsible for the Nakba, kept the refugees in camps, it was their induced suffering that gave legitimacy to a movement whose most prized means of ‘resistance’ was targeting Jewish civilians. When Westerners, through their great new institution the UN, then helped them to weaponise the refugees’ suffering, they protected their last legitimate reason to hurt Jews. In other words, the Palestinian people were a sacrificial victim whose suffering was necessary to preserve the Pattern.
When the French National Assembly rose to its feet in applause for Yassir Arafat in the late 1980s, just as Arafat’s terror campaign threatened Europe, they cheered for an enemy who, for them, embodied the Pattern. When journalists insist that we not call Arafat and his successors that emotive and disapproving term ‘terrorists,’ they were enacting the Pattern. Hurting Jews could just be freedom fighting.
But in the 1990s, a new threat to the Pattern arose. If, as planned in the Oslo Peace Process (1993-2000), Arafat gave up the Palestinian grievance and made ‘the peace of the brave’ with Israel, and got his own state alongside Israel, that would eliminate the last redoubt of the Pattern.
Not to worry! Arafat said no to peace and even some of the media briefly sympathised with Israel’s pacific efforts. And yet, within months (the outbreak of the ‘al Aqsa Intifada’ to be precise), the wheel turned sharply in support of the Pattern. Just as Arafat declared war, precisely as he had promised in his Hudaybiyya speech, the news media decisively sided with this freedom fighter and lethal journalism became the consensus.
Asked by Israeli sources why Arafat wouldn’t stop the suicide bombings, a Palestinian insider responded, ‘Why? He exults, he’s even euphoric … the international media portrays the intifada in romantic colors, and the international community supports us.’ Within a year, the NYT chief correspondent, Deborah Sontag, published an elaborate justification for Arafat’s ‘no’ at Camp David, and was followed by otherwise quality intellectuals.
The effects of this spectacular reassertion of the Pattern, in which Israel was now no longer merely the Goliath, but according to increasingly loud voices, the new Third Reich, were far-reaching. Not only did they greatly increase the call to Jihad in the Muslim world, but they found a warm welcome among European progressives, who greeted the fake news that the IDF had targeted a Palestinian child in his father’s arms eagerly. Catherine Nay, a prominent French journalist, jumped on the al Durah story to declare an amnesty from Holocaust shame: ‘This picture replaces, erases the one of the boy in the Warsaw ghetto.’ Two years later journalists jumped on Palestinian reports that the Israelis were executing civilians and burying them in pits in Jenin, to accuse Israel of genocide. By the mid-aughts (00s), a plurality of Europeans believed that Israel was committing genocide. Over the last two decades accusing Jews of genocide has had a widening appeal.
People openly expressed their relief that, at last, they could finally go back to Jew-baiting (what they called ‘criticising’). One can hear the relief and enthusiasm felt by Pattern-deprived people, only recently startled at the prospect that this day of release might never come. Here a liberal peer in Parliament remarked, off the record, ‘Well, the Jews have been asking for it, and now, thank God, we can say what we think at last.’ There, at the great ‘anti-war’ rally of millions, including an aggressive Muslim contingent, a nicely dressed man declared: ‘I love and revere the suicide bombers. Every time I hear of a suicide bomb going off I wish it had been eighty or ninety Jews instead of a pitiful handful.’ Even diplomats (here the French ambassador to Britain) had no problem calling Israel that ‘shitty little country.’ The bully-boys were back, Jew-baiting was in.
I met Deutsch and learned of the Pattern while writing my recently published book about what I called ‘astoundingly stupid’ behaviour, which I defined in terms of game theory:
Carlo Cipolla’s stupid person plays a gratuitously self-defeating zero-sum game in which, without winning, he nonetheless damages others, who might otherwise be favourable. In this book, I define astoundingly stupid as ‘those who create advantages for those who want to hurt them,’ those who, in the name of positive-sum principles, fall dupe to the hard, zero-sum strategies of their self-declared, demopathic enemies.
As far as I could make out, the West was literally committing suicide just so that they could tell themselves (and the world) that Israel has lost the moral high ground.
Up until talking with David and reading his chapter draft, I explained this counter-indicated behaviour (Deutsch would call it ‘irrational’) as a combination of 1) denied Palestinian intimidation, 2) moral Schadenfreude, and 3) the academic trappings of post-colonial theory. Observing the scene, I could see a literally terrified press complying with Palestinian demands that they feature the Palestinian Grievance Narrative for Western consumption. And even as the Western journalists complied, they categorically denied their cowardice. Meantime these journalists courted an audience in the West eager for news of Jews behaving badly, pleased to see haughty Israel knocked off the moral high ground.
And this all fit nicely into the post-colonial reading of the conflict so dynamically articulated by Edward Saïd. What better way to prove that indigenes are good and invading imperialists bad, than turning the indigenes from two millennia earlier, displaced by the Muslim imperial colonialists, into the worst kind of racist genociders, and the local Muslim population, still deeply in the grip of their imperialist religious supremacism (Dar al Islam vs Dar al Harb), into the innocent, indigenous victims of that evil? The transgressive thrill of calling Israel the Nazi, and presenting the Palestinians as the victims of their oppression, even genocide, was apparently just too delicious to pass up. The Pattern suggests that, for reasons yet unexplained, people need these narratives about Jews that justify the hatred and violence that some – ‘others, not me God forbid!’ – might want to perform. Recent events – 7/10, the Hamas slaughter of Israelis in Israel, and the reaction to 17/10, the explosion near the Al Ahli hospital –illustrate Deutsch’s Pattern with a proof almost worthy of scientific standards.
Part 5: After the Hamas Pogrom of 7 October: How Lethal Journalism Restored the Pattern
For ten days after 7/10 there was an outpouring of sympathy for the Israelis, even from the German Greens. Hamas’ unfathomable cruelty revealed what ‘right-wing’ Israelis had said all along: Israelis were defending themselves from a genocidal onslaught. And viewing the wide approval expressed by the Muslim public sphere, it became clear that this savage Jihad was, in the eyes of many, a genuine part of Islam (even as the perpetrators protested to the West that they would never do such a thing, because it was against Islam). The Islamophobes were right. (My daughters told me, ‘we hate it that you were right.’ So do I.)
Suddenly, the Palestinian Grievance Narrative, which spoke of non-violence and civil society, resistance to oppression, yearning for a state where they could live with human rights and dignity, and which insisted resistance was not terror, suddenly looked like the propaganda it was, doubletalk aimed at winning the West to a cause that violated every humane value of a progressive world at peace and embraced some of the most ferocious imperialism in history.
If that paradigm of ‘Israeli guilt for denying the Palestinians their rights’, were to cede to one of in which ‘Palestinian desire and efforts to wipe Israel out explained Israeli restrictions on the Palestinians (reluctant occupation, blockade)’ then the Pattern was threatened indeed. Without Palestinians suffering at the hands of Jews, the legitimacy of hurting those Jews was in trouble.
Then came the great test: the parking lot explosion outside Al Ahli Hospital in Gaza City on October 17.
Here was the opportunity for journalists, having just seen Hamas for what it was, to genuinely repent for their decades of misreading the conflict. If it turned out – as it has – that Jihadi rockets, not Israel, had killed dozens of Gazan civilians… If they investigated how often this had happened previously, and how consistently they had incorrectly reported those ‘falls-short’ strikes as Israeli strikes… if they familiarised themselves with Hamas’ genocidal antisemitism… if they asked Palestinian spokespeople what they thought it meant that their own people could do this… then they might have reversed at least some of the cynical manipulation of Western sensibilities and undermined those in the West who were openly celebrating what ‘the resistance’ did on 7 October and calling for ‘global intifada’.
Instead, as we saw above, the media wolfed down the poisoned meat, reported as Hamas wished, and spectacularly restored both the Palestinian grievance narrative and their own practice of lethal journalism. And once the poisonous accusation hit the airwaves, as CNN reporters repeated again and again, no evidence could tear haters away from their ‘truth’. Not in the Muslim world, not among Palestinian supporters in the West, not even among certain partisan congresswomen.
The pack, with the help of “human rights” experts, swung into its compulsive, lethal mode, unleashing upon the global community permission for Jihadis and their demented supporters in the West to revel in their hatreds. One can almost hear the relief in BBC reporter Jon Donnison’s remark that ‘this is a game changer!’ One can hear the triumphal cries of the ‘defenders’ of Palestinian ‘human rights’ as they reverse the accusation of ten days earlier: ‘Israel commits genocide!’ France, which had briefly banned pro-Hamas demonstrations, was forced to relent, and the streets filled with thousands of advocates of Jihad.
Nothing illustrates the Pattern more sharply than this compulsive own-goal war journalism: the Pattern must be preserved, even at a terrible cost to the very fabric of our own societies. It’s as if they were teenagers cutting their body politic. Or zombies acting out a role over which they have no control.
Again, Deutsch observes and identifies the Pattern. It is up to us to explain it. But that is for another article.
Conclusion: Our global experiment in freedom and abundance is at stake
The question is not whether people already sucked into the vortex of genocidal Jew hatred can be extracted. The immediate question is, can good liberal and progressive infidels, who protest how much they love Jews (even when it’s mostly dead ones) manage to peel themselves away from this millennia-long prime directive, and consciously renounce the need to legitimate hurting Jews.
That would mean, in the current scene, Western infidels, religious and secular, defending Jews against Muslim calumnies, defying the Pattern-compliant grievance narratives that justify Jihad’s horrendous violence. That would mean hard-hitting journalism that tells the West the deeply concerning history and present of Muslim triumphalism and its most toxic manifestation, global Jihad. That would mean reporting the ways Hamas victimises its own people and counts on Western compassion for their victims to fight their genocidal war against Israel.
That would, of course, take considerable courage on many levels. It is possible; there are scholars with intellectual and moral integrity. But there are far too many who have descended into the depths of Newspeak without even a ‘Big Brother’ to force their compliance. I know it’s a big ask, but as an historian of the last two millennia, I’d say our unparalleled and difficult global experiment in freedom and abundance depends on defying this seemingly irresistible force.