Murder in the synagogue: Newspapers excel in coverage, not on analysis

When people hack, stab and shoot their way into a synagogue -- especially in Jerusalem, a nexus of three world religions -- you can expect a second wave: of news coverage. The killings of Jews at prayer in Jerusalem set a tragic yet vital example of the value of news media in a world where some want to kill a few of us and blind the rest.

Pretty much all of the accounts are loaded with gory details -- as frankly, they should after such a gory event. The New York Daily News, with its tabloid heritage, was ready to tell the brutal story of meat cleavers and guns:

About 25 people were praying in a synagogue when the Palestinians burst inside screaming “God is great!” in Arabic and began killing.
“I saw people lying on the floor, blood everywhere,” survivor Yosef Posternak told Israel Radio. “People were trying to fight with (the attackers), but they didn’t have much of a chance.”
The carnage ended when three Israeli traffic cops responding to the scene opened fired on the intruders and killed them in a wild gun battle.

With a well-warranted warning of "graphic images," the Daily News also posted a photo of a tefillin-wrapped arm lying in a pool of blood, and the corpse of one of the attackers, stripped to his underwear to make sure he wasn't wearing a bomb.

Like other newspapers, the article includes other clashes -- but the Daily News also ran a photo of a three-month-old baby who was killed in October when a terrorist ran over her stroller.

The New York Times  went for irony, juxtaposing the sense of the sacred with the desecration of murder in a holy place:

JERUSALEM — The Orthodox Jewish men were facing east, to honor the Old City site where the ancient temples once stood, when two Palestinians armed with a gun, knives and axes burst into their synagogue Tuesday morning, shouting “God is great!” in Arabic. Within moments, three rabbis and a fourth pious man lay dead, blood pooling on their prayer shawls and holy books.

The Times also mentions atrocities like a man who was "hit in the back with a cleaver" and someone who slipped on blood in a stairwell, breaking his leg. 

The paper later says the murders showed the "rising religious dimension of the spate of violence, which has been attributed mainly to a struggle over the very site the victims were praying toward." That's more questionable. The status of the Temple Mount may have been the immediate matchstick; but as other stories say, behind that issue is the status of the continuing building program of Israeli settlements in the West Bank.

The Washington Post's 1,400-word story includes a remarkable eight reporters, including its respected religion writer Michelle Boorstein. The story quotes people on the scene, state leaders, a cousin of the Palestinian killers, and relatives of the slain Jews in the U.S.

The Post and other accounts especially mention Mosheh Twersky, one of the four murdered rabbis. Twersky is part of a revered dynasty that includes philosopher Joseph Soloveitchik and Rabbi Isador Twersky, founder of Harvard's Center for Jewish Studies.

The Wall Street Journal reports calls from the Shin Bet police chief for Israeli "not to take the law into their own hands," It's not a mere precautionary warning, as the Journal says:

In the evening, hundreds of right-wing Israeli demonstrators chanted “Death to Arabs” and blocked streets at the main entrance to Jerusalem as well as at the light rail line. A far right Israeli politician, Michael Ben Ari called for the “transfer” of Palestinians from Israeli control The Israeli police said they arrested more than two dozen demonstrators.
In the Palestinian neighborhood of Jabel Mukaber, the home of the attackers, Israeli riot police clashed with Palestinians who shot firecrackers at them.

As with other media, the newspaper names precursors over the last few months: police shooting a Palestinian teen, Palestinians running over Jews, an Arab found hanged in a commuter bus.

It's risky to try identifying causes for the violence this early, but it can be irresistible. Still, the Washington Post should have resisted adding this paragraph ...

The synagogue is located in a neighborhood, Har Nof, popular with Americans and others undertaking studies in Judaism. But Palestinians refer to the area by its former name, Deir Yassin, an Arab village they say was attacked by Jewish paramilitary units in April 1948 shortly before Israeli statehood. Palestinians say scores of civilians were killed, but Israel denies such accounts.

... when the story quotes no one -- not Israelis nor Palestinians -- giving that as a rationale for the attack.

The Wall Street Journal does, however, offer some insights on what led to the violence, as well as what made it possible:

Unlike past waves of violence that came from Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, these attacks are originating from places Israel considers within its territory.
More than 250,000 Palestinians live in East Jerusalem, territory Israel conquered in the 1967 Middle East war and subsequently annexed—a move that was never recognized by many countries including the U.S. While Arab residents of East Jerusalem weren’t granted Israeli citizenship, they enjoy free movement throughout the country, carry Israeli identification cards and can vote in municipal elections.

The Journal also cites Michael Oren, a historian and former Israeli ambassador to the U.S., comparing the attacks in Jerusalem to "homegrown terrorists" and "copycat crimes" in Western countries. I.e., such attacks can be hard to predict and prevent.

After this short survey, we see another valuable lesson: Just as news media use many sources, we readers should use many media. They can balance and correct one another. Even the Bible recommends that we "examine everything carefully; hold fast to that which is good." 

Please respect our Commenting Policy