Jewish Political Studies Review 19:3-4 (Fall 2007)
Mingling Disclosures and Distortions
Het Zijn Net Mensen: Beelden Uit het Midden-Oosten (They Are Like Human Beings: Pictures from the Middle East) by Joris Luyendijk, Uitgeverij Podium, 2006, 215 pp. [Dutch]
Reviewed by Manfred Gerstenfeld
From 1998 to 2003 Joris Luyendijk was a Middle East correspondent, initially for the Dutch daily Volkskrant and the news service of the Dutch Radio 1, thereafter for the Dutch national television news NOS and the daily NRC-Handelsblad. He has written a kiss-and-tell book about this period that has been reprinted several times.
When he originally went to Cairo, Luyendijk had no journalistic experience. He tells that little survived of his original idea that journalists know what happens in the world, that the news gives an overview of events, and that it can be objective. He has also learned, he adds, that “journalism is not possible in the Arab world, and one cannot know what is happening there. This is not possible for the journalist and even less so for the viewer, reader or listener” (21).
The book also notes that almost all the news from these countries comes from three press agencies: Reuters, Associated Press, and Agence France Presse. The editors of the Dutch radio told Luyendijk what the agencies had written. He then repeated this information in his report because it sounded better from a dateline in Amman, for instance, than from the radio’s home base in the Dutch town of Hilversum (28, 29).
Not a Journalist but an Actor
At the beginning of the second Gulf war, a friend asked Luyendijk how he had been able to answer all the queries from his home station during the first night of the conflict. Luyendijk replied that all questions and answers had been agreed upon in advance and that the same applied to the television news. His friend then sent him an email full of curses as he realized that he was listening to an enacted play rather than a news program (29).
Luyendijk also recounts that his station asked him how the Iraqi people would react to the American attack, and he answered that from his conversations he understood that they would be angry. The only person he had spoken with briefly was the waiter who had served his meal in his Amman hotel. He also mentions some other interesting insights into his own behavior. In Cairo, he-the adult Western journalist-beat a little boy to the ground who had insulted a woman companion (112).
Luyendijk also describes the capabilities of his bosses at one of the Dutch newspapers for which he worked. The head foreign editor “had no experience of the Arab world, worked under great time pressure, had to follow the whole world and felt the hot breath of the editor in chief on his neck.” Regarding the latter Luyendijk remarks that “he knew even less about the Arab world” (30). It therefore makes sense that all they could do was read the news from the press agencies. They would also follow their competitors and wonder why they had missed some relevant story, as all these papers got their information from the same sources.
These and similar revelations are typical of the first part of Luyendijk’s book. It details how the media create false images and how the author was a willing accomplice for many years. He thus confirms the lack of integrity of the media, particularly those with which he worked.
The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict
The second part of the book is devoted to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Here Luyendijk continues to apply manipulations similar to the ones he criticized in the first part. He promotes false stereotypes such as how powerful the Israeli influence is worldwide with the best lawyers standing ready to defend it. He does not mention the support the Palestinian side receives in the West from a broad array of left-wing members of political and intellectual elites and others who try to garner Muslim electoral backing in their countries. Luyendijk’s writing contains some distinctive themes of classic anti-Semitic conspiracy theory, particularly if one knows how pitiful the Israeli Foreign Ministry’s budget actually is. He also suggests various ways in which the Palestinians could improve their public relations.
Luyendijk notes that in his last year as a correspondent he heard that a prominent Dutchman had started to make comparisons between Israel and the Nazis, and also that a poll had found tens of percents of Dutchmen considering Israel a major danger to world peace (178). The truth was much worse than he mentions. The percentage (74%) of Dutch who thought so about Israel was higher than in any other EU country at the time.
Luyendijk writes: “I was afraid that my own work had contributed to the picture of Israel as the main rogue state in the Middle East. I wrote full pages about Israeli misbehavior, but much less was published about the greater suppression and slaughter by dictators elsewhere in the region, and even that was heavily filtered” (178).
Thereupon he wrote an article in which he stated: “Nazis per month killed more Jews than Israel has killed Palestinian civilians in half a century, and Israeli governments have never tried to exterminate the Palestinians.” Even in that one article he wrote that: “The Israeli press and politics indeed ‘dehumanize’ Palestinians and set Palestinians apart as an inferior group of people.” He then regretted having written the article as soon as it was published. He received negative reactions-obviously from pro-Palestinians-and felt that the article was abused by pro-Israelis.
Luyendijk-who mentions that he sees no solution to the Middle East conflict-concludes that journalists and editors are only human and that to survive, like every industry, the news media must provide what the public wants to read and hear.
A Literary Prize for an Actor
Luyendijk received a grant from the Fund for Literature that enabled him to write this book at the prestigious Netherlands Institute for Advanced Studies in Wassenaar. Earlier he received an award for his reporting in 2002
that, if one reads his book, should instead have been a prize for his acting skills in the assumed role of a journalist. The jury apparently was not clever enough to detect the difference.
The book’s back cover quotes from a jury comment for that award: “An excellent writer. Joris Luyendijk thinks, seeks and writes with the lack of prejudice of somebody who has not yet chosen a side in a conflict without prospects.”
It is not difficult to prove that Luyendijk is a “prejudiced” writer. One example will suffice: he never mentions the many Palestinian genocidal declarations. One will not find in the approximately eighty pages he devotes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict even a single reference to the fact that the Hamas Charter calls for the mass murder of Jews based on the words of “the Prophet [Mohammed], prayer and peace be upon him.”
One should thank Luyendijk for his disclosures and for biting the media hand that fed him. That does not prevent him, however, from continuing to do in different ways the same as he had done for many years previously-namely, according to his own account, creating false impressions. His skillful mingling of acting and journalism, revelations and distortions, facts and omissions, have helped create the image of a man without principles.
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 European Commission, “Iraq and Peace in the World,” Eurobarometer Survey, 151, November 2003.