Robert Magid, a leading Australian real estate developer, and publisher of Australian Jewish News, was in New York back in February. He was there, in large part, to promote a documentary he produced called “Eyeless in Gaza: Seeing the World Through a Distorted Lens.” Following his return to Australia, Mideast Dig has kept in touch with him by Skype.
His film is a penetrating and deeply disturbing examination of the flawed Western media coverage of the Israel-Hamas war in 2014. It lays out how the skewed coverage of the conflict informed international public opinion — and why so many prominent media outlets failed to tell both sides of the story.
Mr. Magid followed that war closely and was so troubled by the major-media coverage* that he actually did something about it. He tasked the talented Martin Himel, a former Jerusalem producer for [America’s] ABC News, to direct the 50-minute film. Himel’s prior credits include “Persecuted Christians,” a documentary probing radical Islamic militia destruction of the Iraq’s Christian community — and “Jenin Massacring Truth,” which won a major award at the Houston Film Festival.
* [Editor’s Note: In two lengthy investigative stories, Mideast Dig exposed how virtually all of our big-media colleagues got it wrong in their coverage of the last Israel-Hamas war. One piece — “THE MEDIA INTIFADA: Bad Math, Ugly Truths About New York Times in Israel-Hamas War” — was first published in Forbes five days before the war ended. A second piece, which exposed the so-called “investigation” by AP of the war’s Gazan civilian casualties, was titled “ASSOCIATED MESS — How the AP Botched Its Investigation of Civilian Deaths in the Israel-Hamas War: Posed photographs. Intentional miscategorizations. Buried corrections. One-sided sourcing. Cherry-picked quotes. And a just-plain-wrong conclusion about ‘most’ Gaza casualties being civilians.”]
A trailer for “Eyeless in Gaza” can be watched here. Released last May, it was an official selection at the Jewish International Film Festival and the Hong Kong Jewish Film Festival. It premiered in Sydney and Melbourne, and has since been screened in New York, London, Geneva, Jerusalem, and several other cities.
Getting big media outlets to cite the documentary hasn’t happened yet, in part perhaps because so many are sharply criticized in it (and journalists tend to be thin-skinned about such things.) Mr. Magid would like it to be shown in journalism schools — it certainly should be — and he’s seeking a U.S. distributor in order to attract wider American audiences.
So how did an Australian real estate developer wind up in a provocative spot like this? Mr. Magid’s personal background is unique and worth sharing. He was born in Quingdao, China, to parents born in Manchuria. “We are Chinese,” he points out. “We don’t know where the previous generation came from, we believe from Siberia, but we don’t have any information.” His father was in the fur trade, working as a go-between for importers from the United States and Chinese furriers. “Business with the Chinese was handled on a handshake,” he says.
Mr. Magid, now 75, was age nine when his family emigrated to Australia. He arrived speaking fluent English, which he learned while attending a Shanghai Jewish school. In Australia, he studied mathematics and proceeded to post-grad studies in Economics at Syracuse University’s Maxwell Graduate School.
Herewith, our Ten Questions for Robert Magid:
1. Bob, you had a lot of varied careers before settling down into real estate development later in life. Take us through that journey a bit?
In my late teens I was active in politics and became president of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. Then the Vietnam War hit us in the early ‘60s — long before the America public woke up to it. Australian troops were in Vietnam, and I was very involved in fighting against the war, which is why I wanted to study economics and work in Southeast Asia. I received an appointment with the Asian Development Bank in the Philippines and worked on projects throughout the region as an economist. After a few years, I moved to Israel, where I worked in the government on grain importation. I spent seven years in Israel, where I served in the army, and then moved for ten years to England, where I became a merchant banker and then a toy designer.
All of this was sort of living hand to mouth, I wouldn’t say in poverty but certainly not in any wealth. I sold my toy business to Hasbro in the US., and returned to Australia, where I was a window manufacturer for awhile. I was quite mature by then. When I was over 50 years old, I converted an empty office building into residential apartments, right in the heart of the city of Sydney, and at that point my property career started. We now have three boutique hotels — all of them quite stunning — plus residential developments, retail and office buildings.
2. You also own the Australian Jewish News (AJN). It’s not easy for most newspapers nowadays to turn profits, let alone Jewish or other ethnic media outlets.
It’s a profitable publication. I don’t believe in free publications. And it’s the only Jewish newspaper in Australia, which is a good position to be in. We have a staff of about 60. I purchased it in 2007. I used to criticize the paper because it had an Israeli, Chemi Shalev, writing anti-Israel articles — he is now with Haaretz [as the U.S. Editor for the newspaper], so you can imagine: “Everything’s wrong with Israel” and “It’s an aggressive country.”
The publisher was my friend and I said, “What the hell are you doing here? There are always anti-Israel articles in the paper.” He replied, “Once you hire editors, you have to give them editorial freedom and we don’t interfere” which is the reply Chemi gave me as well. So logically, when I bought the paper, Chemi and the editor had to go. I bought the paper because it failed the community. Since I took it over, the paper has been often complemented on its robust positions in the interest of the Jewish community and Israel.
3. Well, that’s one way of changing City Hall – buy it, and show key staffers the exit door! Would you describe yourself today as one of Australia’s leading Jewish figures?
I’m not chairman of any organization, but if the Prime Minister had a function I’d be invited.
4. You and your wife Ruth have done a lot to promote goodwill among different ethnic groups. She serves on the board of a national multi-faith group (Muslims, Christians, Jews, Aboriginals and atheists) called Together for Humanity that promotes tolerance in schools. Yet you caused quite a stir a few years ago after penning an AJN column that called on the Australian Jewish community to “Curb your compassion” on the subject of immigration.
Among other things, you wrote that while “Jews who fled the Holocaust faced certain death and would have settled in any safe country,” the undocumented immigrants/refugees arriving in Australia are essentially “destination shopping” for economic opportunities — with wealthy refugees paying criminal gangs to try and become citizens. You called them “illegal queue jumpers” who prevent people whose lives are genuinely in danger from obtaining sanctuary. Several leading rabbis criticized you. One Jewish organization wrote an Open Letter attacking you, with more than 500 signatures attached to it. Were you surprised by the backlash?
Well, no, because I’m not afraid of controversy. I was called a racist, which is absurd. In my column I was referring to illegal immigrants arriving unvetted. The government’s first priority is the security of its citizens. Secondly, it should welcome immigrants who can be expected to integrate into society and not despise its culture or exploit it. Compassion comes into the consideration if those conditions are met. I think most people privately agreed with me. It subsequently became government policy* so I believe, in the long term, my viewpoint was vindicated. Many recent arrivals have not integrated well. With terrorism becoming a serious concern, the public is now overwhelmingly in favor of restricted immigration and vetting of people coming into the country.
* [Ed. Note: Last October, Australia’s government decided that adult asylum seekers who attempt to illegally enter Australia by boat will never be allowed back into the country, even as a tourist, or even if they legally apply for refugee status decades later. Anyone trying to enter uninvited is transferred to the islands of Nauru and Manus. In late April, Australia’s Prime Minister introduced tough new requirements for potential citizens, including an “Australian values” test (with questions about freedom of speech and other democratic norms); criminal background checks; stricter standards for English-language proficiency; and a four-year wait.]
5. What was it that particularly rattled Australia’s Jewish community regarding you viewpoint?
As I wrote, I think there is a tendency among Jews to wish to appear more compassionate than the rest of society, since we have been the victims of hatred and violence throughout history. This often leads us to take positions of compassion over reason. Jews too often don’t have the self-confidence to say, “Look, certain things are wrong. People are coming in undocumented. You don’t know who they are or where they are from.” You have sympathy for them but many hold their values as superior to ours and view with disdain our freedoms, seeing them as licentious. Western societies are being overwhelmed with security restrictions and the cost of policing extremists. Closing one’s eyes and singing “Kumbaya” is irresponsible. We have a great country and want to keep it this way. Meanwhile we should welcome those who come and appreciate their good fortune to have been granted the privilege of living in this country.
6. Let’s move to “Eyeless in Gaza.” What inspired you enough to produce the documentary, and how did it come about?
I was in Israel just before the 2014 war. But I really came into this in 2000 during the Second Intifada after the story about Muhammad al-Dura* — the little boy hiding with his father behind a barrel in Gaza. The Israeli government said he was killed by an Israeli sniper from a lookout. They later realized they were wrong and that the shot couldn’t have been fired from that location and, secondly, they weren’t sure the child was dead, or even injured. It looked as though the whole thing was a set up. Channel 2 in France, whose Palestinian stringer shot the footage, wouldn’t release it. It went to court, and the whole thing went on for years.
* [Ed. Note: The France 2 video went viral, provoking massive anti-Jewish violence in Israel and Europe; it was also exploited by the newly-launched Al Jazeera TV network, as well as the killers who beheaded Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl in Pakistan.]
I decided at that point to write a lengthy report called “The Media and the Middle East,” which set out the factors that influence coverage. I’ve long wanted an academic institute to do comprehensive research into it — on the role of shareholders; news media companies; audiences; advertisers; proprietors; publishers; editors; journalists; stringers; photographers; channels such as AP and Reuters and others. The idea was to research a whole news cycle to determine where bias creeps in. So my interest in this subject was long before the war of 2014.
7. Bob, your documentary is compelling on many levels, including how it turns the cameras back on the reporters who did such a dishonest job of covering the war.
I wanted to point the camera at the media, while the media was pointing their cameras at events. The media is not immune to what’s taking place in front of them, and in Gaza they got sucked in and became participants in spreading the lies of Hamas. So what the world saw was not what was actually taking place on the ground. Part of the reason is that camera crews are not being allowed by Hamas to enter places in order to report what’s actually happening. It’s like that old story of the man who lost his wallet and is asked why he’s only looking for it under a lamppost when he lost it elsewhere. If the camera crew was not allowed in, “the event didn’t happen.” And indigenous Palestinian journalists were and still are under strict censorship.
8. The film covers a lot of ground. Among other things, it shows how Gazan civilians were instructed by Hamas to stay in their homes after they received warnings from Israel to leave. This turned them into human shields against IDF missiles. It also shows Western media outlets failing to report Hamas rockets being fired from densely-populated residential areas.
The few who did only did so after they left Gaza. Media failed to note that it was Hamas which started the war by repeatedly firing rockets into Israel.
9. As the documentary reveals, of the approximately 2,200 Gazans who were killed in the war, the ratio of civilian-to-combatant deaths by the IDF was roughly 1:1 — while the ratio in global conflicts since WW2 is roughly 3:1. But even that 1:1 ratio in Gaza doesn’t take into account the Hamas rockets and mortar bombs that killed Palestinians after landing accidentally inside Gaza.
In addition, immediately following a prior war [Operation Cast Lead, 2008-9], Hamas claimed that a large majority of those killed were non-combatants. But two years later, a slip of the tongue by a Hamas official revealed that Israeli figures were correct — and that half were actually combatants. These facts were rarely, if ever, reported by our media colleagues.
During this last war , the accusation of “disproportionate response” was constantly made by reporters. Because not enough Israelis were killed, it was “disproportionate.” If 2,000 Israelis were killed, it would be fine. The reality is that Israel tried to limit the number of casualties by telling Gazans to leave the targeted sites, while Hamas wanted maximum casualties so Israel would be blamed.
Furthermore, by deliberately placing their rockets and missiles in heavily populated areas, rather than open fields or military installations, they were directly responsible for the casualties. As well, if Hamas agreed to a ceasefire, most of those who died in Gaza would still be alive.
10. Most major media outlets [i.e. New York Times; AP; Reuters; USA Today; the Wall Street Journal] reported that “most” of the deaths in the 2014 war were civilians. Some outlets [e.g. CNN; Time magazine; Fox News] went even further — spreading the falsehood that the “vast majority” were civilians. In some cases, they didn’t even attribute the figure to any source. But in most cases, they attributed it to Hamas, or to the UN (which simply vacuumed up the numbers from Hamas and anti-Israel rights groups.)
Israel meticulously listed the posters of Hamas “martyrs,”that is, combatants, to arrive at their conclusions. It is no wonder that there is such widespread misconception of events in the Middle East. We depend on our media to provide us with a balanced presentation of events but we can see that, in the rush to get into the picture, compromises on integrity are being made. But it is not only expediency which is at the centre of distortion. Prejudice is also at its heart.
Mideast Dig readers may be glad to see that one of the world’s top military expert makes a cameo in the documentary — Col. Richard Kemp, the former commander of British troops in Afghanistan. He has carefully studied Israeli war tactics in Gaza. He once told us that media outlets “such as AP… risk having blood on their own hands” because their biased reporting “validates Hamas’ tactics and encourages terrorist groups around the world to continue and even intensify their violence.” In his view, the IDF has taken greater steps than any other army in the history of warfare to minimize harm to civilians in a combat zone.
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