Israel and Public Opinion
Breaking news headlines scream that Israel is one of the most negatively viewed countries in the world. These headlines refer to a poll conducted annually by the BBC World Service. The poll was taken in 22 countries and asked the respondents to rate 16 countries in the world as "mostly positive" or "mostly negative". For Israel, that ratio was 21% positive to 50% negative. It was almost as bad as it was for North Korea, for which that ratio was 19% to 50%.
My first reaction was that it had to be a joke. North Korea is nothing but one big concentration camp. Its people starve and risk their lives to flee to neighboring countries. Israeli, on the other hand, Israel is the country with the highest number of Nobel Prize winners per capita, a democracy that guarantees the rights of all its inhabitants, Jewish, Arab, or Druze, a world leader in such industries as information technology, software, and biotech. Thousands of people from all over the world move to Israel, both legally and illegally. So let us take a deeper look at that poll.
Shockingly, the poll also found that China is viewed more favorably than the U.S., even though the best and brightest Chinese citizens dream of becoming Americans. Millions of them have already achieved their dreams and are now trying to bring their relatives to the U.S. too. So the results of this poll make no sense.
Or do they?
Yes, they do. But they reflect not the actual popularity of the countries in question, but something else entirely.
First of all, there is a huge discrepancy of opinion about Israel among the countries participating in the poll. Americans still view Israel in a significantly better light (50% to 35%) than the rest of the world. Nigerians rate Israel even better -- 54% to 29%. But the overwhelming majority of Indonesians frown upon Israel and only a meager 3% of the Japanese have a "mostly favorable" opinion of the Jewish state. Do the Japanese and Indonesians know something about Israel that the Americans and Nigerians don't?
People form such opinions based on what they get from the news media. Then the media turn around and pass off their opinions as "news." When this "news" becomes a firmly established fact, it is used to justify major political decisions. I am thoroughly familiar with this vicious cycle, because I grew up in the USSR. To illustrate my point, let me conclude with a personal story.
We applied for an exit visa from the Soviet Union in 1975. Our close friend Natasha happened to visit us at that time. Natasha lived in a small town in Siberia where people endured a rather Spartan lifestyle even by Soviet standards. To give you an idea how Spartan it was, here are a couple of examples. Her town had no indoor plumbing and even hospital patients had to use an outhouse in winter when the temperature fell below minus 30 degrees. No agriculture existed in that region because of permafrost and all food was delivered by boats. But the river was frozen for several months a year, and people lived on what they had managed to store in summer.
Despite all the hardships, Natasha believed that she lived in the best country in the world, because that's what she got from the news media. So when she heard about our plan to leave the USSR for the USA, she was genuinely worried about us. Being a loyal friend, she told us that when things would get really tough for us, she would beg the Soviet authorities to allow us to come back. It took Natasha many years to realize how wrong she had been in 1975.
We are what we get from the media. If instead of presenting a balanced picture, the media barrages people with negative images of Israel (and the U.S.) day in and day out, people will eventually perceive the imagery as reality. There is nothing that Israel can do about that. Hundreds of Arab women give birth in Israeli hospitals every day and prefer Israeli hospitals to Arab ones. Yet that is not newsworthy. But when the next UN resolution again condemns Israel for genocide against Arabs, that will be amplified by the media, and that's what people will remember.