This week marks the 40th anniversary of one of Israel’s major conflicts with its Arab neighbors. Here and in Israel, it’s known as the Six-Day War. But Palestinians call it an-Naksah, or “the Setback.” The New Yorker’s Jeffrey Goldberg discusses the event that became Year Zero for subsequent Middle-East coverage.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: This Tuesday marks the 40th anniversary of the Six-Day War between Israel and its Arab neighbors, including, most directly, Egypt, Syria and Jordan. Like most events in the region, the war has a different name and meaning and mythology, depending on which side of the proverbial line on the sand you're standing.
What the Israelis call the Six-Day War, emphasizing its quick and decisive victory, the Palestinians call an-Naksah, or "the setback." Whatever you call it, says Jeffrey Goldberg of The New Yorker, June of 1967 was Year Zero for how the media would go on to cover the conflict over the following four decades. And he joins me now. Jeff, welcome back to the show.
JEFFREY GOLDBERG: Thanks for having me. BROOKE GLADSTONE: So could you remind us first what exactly the catalyst was? It had to do with a maritime blockade by Egypt that effectively cut off Israel from the Red Sea. JEFFREY GOLDBERG: The act of war, I guess you would say, would be the closing of the Straits of Tehran that blocked Israel's access to the Red Sea. One of the signals that the Israelis took that hostilities were imminent was when Nasser ordered the U.N. peacekeeping forces out of the Sinai and started moving his tanks and troops into the Sinai. And all that led up to the decision by Israel on the morning of June 5th to launch a preemptive attack on Egypt and Syria's airbases and destroy the air forces of those two countries. BROOKE GLADSTONE: So before we talk about the coverage of this lightning war from the outside, what was the role of the media in the region leading up to and including those six days? I know TV wasn't so widespread, but was radio a force? JEFFREY GOLDBERG: Radio was a huge force, and [LAUGHS] you could blame the power of radio at the time for two things. One was to convince Israelis that a second Holocaust was coming, because the state-run radios of these countries, and that's all they had, were broadcasting into Israel these dire threats about the coming end of the Jewish State.
The other aspect of this which is interesting is that, again, these state-owned radio stations broadcast falsehood after falsehood once the war had started about the progress the Arabs were making on the ground, when, in fact, they were being thrown back. And so Arab citizens of these countries had no idea what was really happening until it was all over. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Was there anything surprising about the media coverage outside, from Britain or the Continent or the U.S.? JEFFREY GOLDBERG: It's absolutely fascinating, actually. If you don't mind, I'll read you something from Time Magazine that was from their June 9 issue, which I guess was published right before the war began.
"Tiny dagger-shaped Israel," Time reports, "whose 2.7 million people cling to 7,900 square miles on the shore of the Eastern Mediterranean, faced the implacable hostility and cocked guns of 14 Arab nations and their 110 million people." This sort of blatantly pro-Israel viewpoint was apparent not only in Time but in the other news weeklies and the daily newspapers and on the three networks. And the really amazing thing is if you go back into the BBC archives, you'll see that kind of sympathy as well for Israel.
One of the astonishing things to remember – and this is 40 years ago – was that Israel was considered by the media to be the underdog in this conflict. Israel was seen as this plucky outpost of Judeo-Christian values battling these monstrous Arab dictatorships, and so the coverage remained very, very sympathetic for years to come. BROOKE GLADSTONE: And you've said that in the coverage of this war were the seeds of Israel's hubris. JEFFREY GOLDBERG: You know, and this is where it becomes very interesting from a media perspective. Israel now, of course, believes it has a media problem, and it really does, especially in Europe, where if, you know, Israel discovered a cure for AIDS, some European media outlets would spin that negatively.
And it has a media problem because of something that has roots in the Six-Day War, and that's the settlements. In the general wave of excitement that followed the Six-Day War, Israel really could do no wrong in the eyes of the Western world, and it took that support as license to do any number of things – ultimately self-destructive for Israel – first and foremost, the settlement movement.
It's one thing from a perspective of international law and morality to occupy territory from which you're being attacked. Jordan opened fire on Israel in June of '67 from the West Bank. Israel seized the West Bank. That's one thing. But then moving your own citizens into that territory and building settlements there, that's another category. BROOKE GLADSTONE: And is that the point at which the conflict flipped from Israelis being the underdog to the Arabs being the underdog? JEFFREY GOLDBERG: Well, that's a fascinating question. Israel was clearly the underdog in 1967. Palestinians didn't really have a voice yet. Remember, Palestinians had been under military occupation by Jordan and the West Bank and Egypt and the Gaza Strip from 1948 to 1967. But Palestinian nationalism grew and developed, and over the years the conflict has been recast, if you will, instead of one between Israel and 20 different Arab states in which, you know, you could pretty much easily identify the underdog, to one between Israel and these occupied Palestinians. BROOKE GLADSTONE: You've drawn distinctions between occupation on the one hand and settlement on the other in the region. Is this something you think most journalists get wrong about the Six-Day War and the byproducts thereof? JEFFREY GOLDBERG: Well, you know, I speak about this not infrequently in front of pro-Israel audiences, and one of the questions I always get is, how come when the media writes about the occupation of the West Bank, they don't say why Israel was in the West Bank in the first place?
And my answer to that is, this is journalism. It's not history. I would like to begin every story that I write about the Middle East with, you know, a hundred - BROOKE GLADSTONE: Five thousand years ago. JEFFREY GOLDBERG: Five thousand years ago, a man named Abraham walked from Iraq to Israel. Yesterday, in Gaza, you know [BROOKE LAUGHS]- the problem here is that you're dealing with a level of complexity that's mind-boggling. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Jeff, thank you very much. JEFFREY GOLDBERG: Thank you. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Jeffrey Goldberg is a staff writer for The New Yorker. His most recent book is Prisoners: A Muslim and a Jew Across the Middle East Divide. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER] BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media from NPR.