The reality of mainstream Israeli media hasn’t changed much since Bsoul was a kid. Although Arabs with Israeli citizenship account for roughly 20 percent of the country’s population, during January and February they comprised only about 3 percent of interviewees on leading news and current affair shows, according to a study by several Israeli organizations. When Arabs do appear on television, it’s usually in the context of the Israeli-Arab conflict or of crime within Arab society, connections that reinforce negative stereotypes. Only around 10 percent of Arabs interviewed on the shows appeared as experts in their fields—art, science, medicine—and not merely as representatives of “Arabness.”
This is true of minorities in many countries, but in Israel Jews and Arabs lead largely separate lives, studying in segregated schools and living in different neighborhoods. When they do interact, it is often through a veil of rancor and suspicion. This makes the media an essential bridge.
For decades, activists have tried to fight this trend by supplying journalists with lists of Arab experts, to little avail. But this year Sikkuy, an Israeli nonprofit that works to achieve equality between Arabs and Jews, decided to take a different approach, one inspired by the campaign against “manels,” media panels that include only male participants. That battle is waged on social media pages like the Tumblr blog “Congrats! You Have an All-Male Panel!,” which singles out and shames exclusionary shows and events. A similar shaming campaign in Israel made women’s representation a persistent concern for producers.
“The women’s strategy worked, because journalists are hypersensitive to their own reputations,” says Edan Ring, director of public affairs and head of the Equal Media Project at Sikkuy. “We know that editors and producers of news shows are always busy, always under pressure. They tend to invite the interviewees they know well. Scouting for an unfamiliar Arab expert is a risk, and common wisdom is that having someone with an Arab accent on the show will hurt ratings. There’s a price to pay. We needed to give them a reason to pay that price.”
The solution was a weekly ranking list of 19 prominent television and radio shows, tracking the number of Arabs interviewed on each one and how many of them appeared as experts. Sikkuy created the chart with funding from the Berl Katznelson Foundation and the New Israel Fund, and in cooperation with a media watchdog called The Seventh Eye. Every week, The Seventh Eye publishes an analysis of the results, citing shows that have failed to improve and praising the ones that did. To eliminate excuses from producers, another organization called ANU created a database of potential interviewees in various fields. Sikkuy and The Seventh Eye disseminate the ranking and write-ups on their Facebook and Twitter pages. Mainstream media soon caught on, publishing stories about the campaign.
A modest, but persistent, uptick followed: from 3 percent Arab interviewees in February, before the campaign began, to 3.7 percent in April and 3.8 percent in May. The number of Arab experts on all the shows examined rose from 31 in February to 51 in March. However, much remains to be done. According to The Seventh Eye , reports about the Muslim holiday of Ramadan in June featured 86 percent Jewish interviewees, and most of them were talking about the risk of flare-ups during the holiday.
For Dror Zarski, editor of daily current affair show “London and Kirschenbaum,” the campaign was a nudge in the right direction. “We were already making an effort to bring in more Arabs, but I admit that once it became such an issue we started working harder.” The show’s rise in ranking was dramatic: from 2.6 percent Arab interviewees in January to 12.8 percent in March and 17.4 percent in May .
Looking for Arab specialists takes time and effort, precious commodities for Zarski’s staff, which in recent years has been reduced by half. “And when we reach them they are more hesitant to come,” he says. “Maybe it’s the language, or fear of talking about explosive subjects like Jewish-Arab relations.” But Zarski acknowledges that there’s much more to the exclusion than logistics: “We do our best to make Arab stories more accessible, away from their image with a knife and a PLO banner, but that’s the difficult choice. Usually, the media follows the masses: If viewers hate Arabs, the media will too.”
Janan Bsoul, who grew up watching the news in Hebrew, is now a reporter for the business magazine TheMarker, one of a handful of Arab journalists working in Israeli media. “Television reflects the fear that Israeli society has of Arabs, an unwillingness to see us as people,” she says, “but Arab society is also partly to blame. Sometimes, it’s convenient to seclude ourselves, and I’ve had Arabs tell me they will not be interviewed for Israeli newspapers.” Bsoul supports the campaign, but she thinks it’s not enough. “The real solution is to get more Arabs working in the media. Then it will be natural for them to call up people they know and say, ‘Hey, would you like to give me an interview?’”