Moving past the military-as-alibi strategy in Israel

The study “Strategic Rituals of Loyalty: When Israeli Journalists Face Digital Hate” by Ayala Panievsky from University of Cambridge looked at the phenomenon of Israeli journalists invoking their military service in response to online violence and digital hate.

The context of the study is the populist attacks on the press in the recent decade, which have prompted a “mob censorship”, as Waisbord termed it, of the media. In Israel, as well as elsewhere, journalists have self-censored in response to social media trolling. 

This study looks at a situation when journalists do not self-censor, but rather, employ what is termed military-as-alibi tactic against online smears. In the context of Zionist ideology in Israel, military service in the IDF signals loyalty to the collective. 

If this strategy is needed to defend legitimate journalism, then it excludes groups that do not have to serve in the military from legitimate journalism. For example, Palestinian citizens and ultra-orthodox Jews are exempt from military service and thus cannot employ the alibi strategy.

Also, this means that good journalists in Israel are determined by factors outside their professionality in reporting. The author also criticizes this loyalty test as reinforcing Israeli militarism.

Semi-structured interviews of 20 Israeli journalists were conducted and then qualitatively analyzed. Six were women and 14 men – women are underrepresented in senior roles in Israeli news industry.  Although there were downsides to choosing relatively well-known journalists in senior positions, these are also the journalists most often targeted in online hate.

One case discussed by the interviewees was the case of Oshrat Kotler, who was targeted by the right-wing media and social media after her criticism of IDF soldiers becoming “animals” in the occupied. Her defenders employed a strategy of highlighting her family’s affiliation with the IDF to prove that she was not anti-Israel.

Not only the criticism of IDF, but also the criticism of certain politicians marks journalists as “traitors” in online hate. The second case discussed was the Amnon Abramovich, a vocal critic of Benjamin Netanyahu. The journalist in question was in fact a decorated war hero with visible scars from his service. He himself refused to discuss his military past, but his colleagues used it in his defense. 

Some of the participants voiced objections to the military-as-alibi strategy, lamenting that “biographic details” had to be invoked in the defense of a journalist and defending Freedom of Speech instead. However, others were more ambivalent and claimed it is a “necessary evil” or shifted the responsibility to the public, claiming that it is what the people want.

The author notes that while it may seem bizarre that journalists would agree with criteria that are external to journalistic quality and professionalism, journalism also has a role in constructing a common identity and validating social values. 

It is further suggested that the path forward could be to affirm that journalism, by itself, is patriotic, thus making external loyalty tests unnecessary. This is what the author advocates for, arguing that good journalism and good citizenship are not at odds but in fact support each other.

This research contributes to the existing literature on strategic rituals (Tuchmann) and journalistic and national identity and presents an argument for journalism as a “public good”, thus obsoleting other loyalty tests.

The article “Strategic Rituals of Loyalty: When Israeli Journalists Face Digital Hate” by Ayala Panievsky is in Digital Journalism. (open access). 

Picture: On guard at the Western Wall. by Levi Meir Clancy

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