Al Jazeera and the Art of Deception

When I was a little girl in Tehran, my family and I took advantage of the temporary lulls in air strikes during the Iran-Iraq War (1980–1988) to have dinner at various local restaurants. At one of those restaurants, the waiters had a practice of misinforming non-Iranian diners that they were out of tahdig, the gloriously crispy fried Persian rice. And the Iranian diners? They got tahdig by the barrelful because the restaurant felt the need to keep the locals happy. My family made a special request and ordered the tahdig “half and half” so that it was topped with two types of Persian stew, rather than one.

The non-Iranian diners never quite understood they were being duped, allowing the restaurant to ensure there was always enough tahdig for Persian customers. In recent years, I’ve come to see audiences of Al Jazeera English as some of those same duped patrons.

Last week, Al Jazeera Plus (AJ+) English, the Qatari-based network’s online news and current events channel, which primarily caters to younger audiences, tweeted a message in support of International Holocaust Remembrance Day on January 27 that read, “Today is #HolocaustRemembranceDay. The Nazis murdered over 6 million Jews, including over 1 million people at Auschwitz. A 2020 study found over 50% of U.S. Gen Z and millennial adults could not identify Auschwitz, and 63% did not know how many people died in the Holocaust.”

How very decent.

Like AJ+ English, AJ+ Arabic tweeted the same message last Wednesday. But in 2019, AJ+ Arabic tweeted something different about the Holocaust: “Gas ovens killed millions of Jews…that’s how the novel says. What is the truth of the #holocaust and how did the Zionist movement benefit from it?” The tweet also included a video rife with Holocaust denial.

Clearly, someone had poisoned the tahdig.

The same day that AJ+ Arabic posted that disgusting video, AJ+ English, expressing sympathy for victims of the Holocaust, tweeted an interview with a Holocaust survivor. Between the Arabic and English messages, it was like an anti-Semitic Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

“Between the Arabic and English messages, AJ+ was like an anti-Semitic Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.”

A woman who claimed she helped create the AJ+ Arabic video tweeted, “Did Hitler kill six million Jews? And how did Israeli occupation benefit from extermination?” The video was posted on a Friday night during Ramadan. AJ+ Arabic was counting on huge audience turnout, and that’s just what it got; Israeli journalist Shimrit Meir tweeted that an estimated 750,000 people saw the video within a few hours of it being posted. Emmanuel Nahshon, then spokesman for Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, called the video “the worst kind of pernicious evil.”

Once the U.S.-based non-profit organization Middle East Media Research Institute (Memri) translated the tweet and video for non-Arabic speakers, the duplicity was inescapably out in the open.

The link to the 2019 tweet has since been deleted, and the network suspended two of the journalists who made the video. Even prominent Al Jazeera journalists, like Medhi Hassan, said he was happy that disciplinary action was taken against the “ridiculously offensive and dumb video.” The video was taken down hours after it was posted, but nearly one million people had already seen it.

On its website, AJ+ English describes itself as “a social justice lens on a world struggling for change.” Through social media sites like Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, AJ+ reaches millions of readers and viewers. On Twitter, it touts itself as “a unique digital news and storytelling project promoting human rights and equality, holding power to account, and amplifying the voices of the powerless.”

There are two problems with Al Jazeera English versus Al Jazeera Arabic. The first, and most obvious, is the glaring difference between the supposed messages of support for freedom, social justice and reform espoused by the English version versus the long history of anti-Semitism, anti-Americanism and sympathetic coverage of terrorists from the Arabic channel. The second, which involves AJ+, is a lesser known problem.

To say that Al Jazeera Arabic is problematic is an understatement. Between its friendly coverage of terrorist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood and its recent sympathetic coverage of Iran, it’s no surprise that in September 2020, the Department of Justice ordered Al Jazeera to register as a foreign agent, describing it as “an agent of the Government of Qatar.”

A 2008 Jewish Journal op-ed titled “Al Jazeera and the Glorification of Barbarity” by Dr. Judea Pearl, father of slain Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, described how the network had effectively thrown a birthday party for notorious Lebanese terrorist Samir Kuntar upon his release from an Israeli prison. In 1979, Kuntar killed an Israeli father before his daughter’s eyes before bashing the four-year-old’s head in with the butt of his rifle. According to Pearl, Al Jazeera even provided jovial orchestral music and a birthday cake for Kuntar, and a network bureau chief (and master of ceremonies) announced, “Brother Samir, we would like to celebrate your birthday with you. You deserve even more than this…. Happy birthday, brother Samir.”

With Al Jazeera Arabic, anti-Semitism is more or less expected. But with AJ+, it’s complicated. The platform amplifies progressives’ messages, from racial discrimination to poverty and climate change. That’s good. But that’s also why AJ+ can get away with disseminating anti-Israel propaganda.

“I follow AJ+ regularly,” said one of my Jewish friends, a self-proclaimed “leftist, but strong supporter of Israel,” who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “They [AJ+] put out a lot of left-wing content, which younger people especially love, but then they side-sweep you with anti-Israel content, too. And if you speak up and say this is not okay, others on the left argue and say, ‘But the rest of AJ+ content about progressive issues is really, really good, so we can trust it.’”

Last week, AJ+ tweeted on issues ranging from immigration to racial inequality. It sympathetically described the struggles of anti-ICE protesters in Portland as they encountered police armed with tear gas; it interviewed young people from Generation Z about what they’d like from President Joe Biden; and it posted concerned messages about climate change. Amid such a progressive backdrop, it becomes almost too easy to add anti-Israel content under the guise of social justice and get away with it.

Case in point: the platform’s June 2016 response to New York governor Andrew Cuomo’s announcement that the state would no longer do business with anyone who participates in the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel. AJ+ tweeted a video accusing Cuomo of preventing free speech and called the governor’s legislation unconstitutional. In the video, AJ+ is depicted as an altruistic defender of free speech while negative images of Israel appear left and right.

That same year, AJ+ made a video highlighting the return of Dima al-Wawi to her hometown after serving two-and-a-half months in an Israeli prison. Al-Wawi is Palestinian girl who tried to stab an Israeli, but the video doesn’t even discuss why she was sent to prison. Instead, it chronicles the experiences of a young girl at the hands of seemingly brutal Israeli oppressors. The title of the video? “Palestinian Girl Freed From Israeli Prison.”

For progressive viewers who aren’t familiar with Al Jazeera’s propagandist agenda, there’s seemingly nothing off-putting about that headline. In fact, it oozes with redemptive survival against oppression without offering a grain of context. The seemingly innocent girl mentioned in the headline, by the way, was so disappointed that the Jew she tried to stab didn’t die.

It’s easy to see why the channels were segmented into English and Arabic in the first place. This allows the respecting versions the ability to strategically overreport some stories over others. It also gives Al Jazeera Arabica chance to throw birthday parties for murderers.

Censorship is out of the question. No one can shut down Al Jazeera but the Qataris themselves. Perhaps one day, if Israel and Qatar ever establish diplomatic relations, the United States and Israel can exert pressure on Qatar to curb the network’s anti-Semitic and anti-American content. But Qatar is nowhere close to recognizing Israel.

However, Western audiences (including social media followers) can hold both the Arabic and especially the English channels accountable and tweet, tweet, tweet the duplicity until it’s fully exposed.

The Al Jazeera problem begs a simple question: Can you present yourself as altruistically liberal to one audience and hatefully conservative to another audience? Like that tahdig, Al Jazeera remains deceptively half and half.

Tabby Refael is a Los Angeles-based writer, speaker and activist.


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