Staff writer and CAMERA On Campus Fellow Patrick Schnecker interviews CAMERA academic and campaigner Adam Levick.
Editor’s note: This interview was recorded on Tuesday 24 October. The opinions expressed within are those of the participants.
Patrick: “Over the past few weeks, we have seen what is possibly the pinnacle of the conflict between Israel and Palestine. Thousands of deaths, even more severely injured, hundreds held hostage, and an ultimately terrifying experience for millions of people – both in the Middle East and abroad.
“I am joined by someone who has been very involved in researching this conflict for many years. Our guest today has previously worked as a researcher for NGO Monitor, and prior to that, at the Civil Rights Division of the Anti-Defamation League. He has published a plethora of reports on progressive antisemitism for the Jerusalem Centre for Public Affairs. His op-eds have featured in The Guardian, The Independent, The Jewish Chronicle and many more international outlets. Mr Adam Levick, thank you very much for taking the time to do this interview with us today.”
Adam: “It’s great to be here.”
Patrick: “I wanted to start off with some basics. You are currently working as a researcher for CAMERA UK. Could you give the audience a bit of an overview of what this organization is and what its primary mission is?”
Adam: “I’m co-editor of CAMERA UK, my other co-editor is Hadar Sela – she monitors the BBC and I monitor the rest of the British media. The parent organization, CAMERA, was founded in 1982, during the first Lebanon War, to respond to what was perceived by many in the Jewish and pro-Israel communities to be a turn in media coverage of Israel, towards much more biased reporting about Israel and the Palestinian territories, and, indeed, the greater Middle East, because we’re talking about Lebanon. The mission then is the same that it is now, and that is to promote accurate reporting about Israel in the international media. We operate in four different languages – English, of course, Hebrew, Spanish and Arabic.
“We also have a campus department, kind of as a dual mission; it’s a little different than our regular mission. The campus department empowers students with the rhetorical and factual tools necessary to respond to inaccurate information about Israel propagated on their college campuses, and also gives them the tools to fight back when there’s instances of antisemitism on campus. It also teaches them skills, such as how to write op-eds in campus newspapers, or how to refute flawed articles that may have an anti-Israel and inaccurate slant.
“So we have a very big campus department and we also have a Christian department. The Christian department also has a dual mission. The Christian department responds to inaccurate stories about Israel in the Christian media but also works within the churches to try to fight back and a trend whereby some of the church groups that used to be more supportive of Israel have become less supportive of Israel, and again, we basically just try to offer facts, logic, reason and information, so that people can make their own decisions. But we’re basically involved in anywhere, even outside the media, where there is inaccurate information about Israel, such as encyclopaedias, textbooks; anywhere that inaccurate information about Israel is being published, or inaccurate information about Jews or antisemitism is being published. That’s our focus. That’s been our focus since 1982.”
Patrick: “Obviously, we know that this whole topic of Israel and the Middle East is an ever-changing one. It goes day by day; I often compare it to American politics insofar as you never know what will happen tomorrow. But I guess this question kind of defies that logic – what are the areas of research you spend the most time on, and do you give different areas more importance? By “areas”, I mean research points like military, economic, political, etc.”
Adam: “What I do as a co-editor of CAMERA UK, and what most of our fellow researchers do at CAMERA, is read the media vigilantly every day and so what we read about Israel and the Palestinian territories, we respond to those articles that have inaccuracies or have serious omissions. It could be about military matters, it could be about diplomatic matters, it could be about political matters. But again the point is, going back to our mission, accuracy. So we scan the newspapers and online websites. We scan LexisNexis, which is a search engine for news information. So each day we, kind of, do triage, and determine ‘okay, today what is the most egregiously biased or inaccurate story about Israel and the Palestinian territories?’ and then from there, we take any number of actions.
“We will contact journalists directly, either on social media or by email. We will contact editors. So our work, and what I wanted to mention before, is that we don’t just try to promote accurate reporting about Israel in the media by writing about it, we also engage with media outlets and we try to prompt corrections. So for instance, last year we prompted 246 corrections in international media outlets across the world. Our goal is to not just complain about inaccurate reporting about Israel, but to do something about it and we try to keep the media outlets accountable to their own guidelines of accuracy and professionalism.”
Patrick: “Continuing with this subject of ‘accuracy’, and you mentioned this word quite a lot now, and I think it is a very important word considering everything that has been going on over the past few weeks. Since the war broke out on October 7, we’ve noticed more scrutiny of sources, with each side claiming that the other one is cherry-picking evidence or completely falsifying their news reports. We’ve seen this on either side, but also on a lot of international media. As a researcher, how do you tackle the challenges, and what would you define an ‘accurate’ source to be? And how do you address this information to the public?”
Adam: “Well, let me give you an example. The recent misreporting about the explosion outside the hospital in Gaza. Let’s just be careful about how we frame it; it’s not a matter in that situation of proving that Israel wasn’t to blame, because the original claim came out of the Hamas-run Palestinian Health Ministry – without evidence. It was an unevidenced accusation. The fact that media outlets decided to use that unevidenced information to produce really sensationalist and incendiary headlines and articles based on zero evidence was the problem.
“Having said that, then our responsibility was to find out what did happen. Now, there is no one single formula to find out what did happen. I think part of it is being a professional researcher and knowing where to look. So, for instance, there were a lot of independent researchers on Twitter, who were shown aerial footage of the time that the rockets were launched from Gaza, and then a minute later, another angle showed a rocket hitting the hospital parking lot, killing any number of civilians. And then there was also the IDF, I think, released some footage – and I don’t think anybody really disputed the accuracy of the footage – and they also reported that there was no military activity in that area at that time. So on one hand, we try to make clear, and I try to make clear, there was no evidence behind this claim whatsoever. Zero evidence. It was just a claim and the number ‘500’ was just one of those perfect numbers that came out of thin air that didn’t have a based reality. But then there were so many videos, and again with social media, with Twitter, there are lots of people doing really good jobs – and you have to know, after doing this for any number of years, who the reliable sources are and then over time, you know where to look; you know which people are disseminating accurate information. So, the totality of the video evidence, on one hand, that it wasn’t Israel that was to blame, that video evidence was showing the rocket came from a Palestinian Islamic Jihad attack, was overwhelming.
“So in that particular case, it was actually simple, in the sense that – okay, let me step back. The problem is, you can’t prove a negative. That’s just a basic fact of logic. So the media errored, I think, in two ways. First of all, taking Hamas’ claims at face value, and, as you know, Hamas is a proscribed terror group in its entirety in the UK and most of the West. But the second problem was that they would have Israeli spokespeople on, and they would basically demand that they prove a negative, which is a logical fallacy, right? And you saw this interplay, in one case, between a Sky News journalist, who was grilling Mark Regev, a spokesperson for the Israeli government, and she seemed generally annoyed by the fact that Regev was denying that Israel engaged in the attack, and Regev said ‘on behalf of the Israeli, we are denying it, and here’s why’.”
“So there was this really disconnect between, on one hand, this terrorist group making an unevidenced accusation, and on the other hand, Israel being forced to prove a negative, and actually coming up with a lot of information over a short period of time, and from other sources, that it couldn’t have been Israel. And so, that’s a situation where it actually was relatively easy to prove what we thought was the truth, you know, usually there’s shades of grey, but in this there wasn’t shades of grey, and I think you see in the past few days, media outlets retracting, including The New York Times, including CNN, including The Economist, including The Financial Times. In other words, the story has been completely debunked and I think, at this point, only Al Jazeera is making that claim.”
Patrick: “Are they retracting all their alleged false statements because they know that it’s the right thing to do, or are they only doing it to save themselves?”
Adam: “Okay, there’s a couple of reasons. First, both the US government and the British government, their intelligence agencies looked over intelligence information that Israel sent, and these – again, the US and British governments’ intelligence agencies made the decision that Israel was right, you know, that their objective assessment was that it clearly came from Gaza and that it came from Palestinian Islamic Jihad. And this has hardly ever happened, so once these intelligence agencies were on record as refuting the Hamas claims, and again, once there was just this critical mass of information that Israel wasn’t to blame, and they started taking a little heat on social media, they retracted. In fact, The New York Times read an apology that acknowledged that they were too quick to accept Hamas’ claims at face value. Which my gallows humour just finds really funny that they would, in any sense, ever trust a proscribed terror group in the information that they’re putting out.
“It was just a matter of, I think, the media outlets realized that they rushed to judgment, that they were too quick, you know, they failed to do their basic due diligence and verify the information before they publish it, and the problem with this particular situation is that it was almost too late, because, as you remember, there was a riot in Tunisia, there was a Synagogue that was burned down, partially, I believe, in response to this misinformation that Israel had bombed the hospital. So, right there you see the perfect case study in why it is so important for information to be correct and why it is important for CAMERA to work hard to get the media to stick with their job which is reporting facts, not false accusations.”
Patrick: “You were talking, earlier, about how Hamas is a proscribed terrorist group in a lot of the West, including the UK. Well, during the first few weeks of the war, the BBC, which is the country’s biggest public broadcaster, arguably mislabelled the individuals within Hamas, hesitating to label them as ‘terrorists’. What effect does this have on the general British public and their understanding of this conflict?”
Adam: “Actually a few days ago they changed their policy.”
Patrick: “Was this decision by the BBC to go back on their original reporting style one of your previously-mentioned examples of Western media being forced into retracting their original points?”
Adam: “Well, they had an editorial policy that journalists shouldn’t use the word ‘terrorist’; that it was a value judgment, and they should use ‘militant’.”
Patrick: “Is it a value judgment?”
Adam: “So here is the problem. They would use the term selectively. When there was an attack in the UK, I think when there was an ISIS attack, I think there were 20 examples that were published in The Telegraph that showed that when they decided to, journalists were not punished for using the word ‘terrorist’ in other contexts. And, you know, after October 7, when Hamas terrorists engaged in a massacre that was truly the most lethal antisemitic terrorist attack since the Holocaust, and I’m just talking in terms of pure numbers – there has been nothing comparable since the 1940s. So, I think the BBC just felt that they had no option because their argument was weak to begin with. Their argument was hypocritical; they had double standards. And just given the brutality and the barbarity of the Hamas attack on Israeli Southern communities, I think they just ran out of excuses and they listened to the public and then made the right decision.”
Patrick: “Is CAMERA an accurate source?”
Adam: “Yes. First of all, I’ve been with them for over 10 years. I know my colleagues very well and I trust them very well. There is a culture of fact-checking each other within the organization. Before I was with CAMERA – I’m not going to get into the details – I was with an organization where I was the only paid employee, and then we became part of CAMERA. So I always like to say that my game rose a couple levels when I joined CAMERA, because all of a sudden I had all these people watching my content. You have dozens of employees in the organization watching each other. There is this culture of ‘is that factual?’, ‘do we have a good source?’, ‘is there a second source?’.
“It’s hard to explain, over podcast, the mechanics of researching. But once you’re a researcher, and once you’re surrounded by researchers who – and, again, we don’t hide the fact that we’re pro-Israel – take truth and facts very seriously, and fight back against this motion that there is no such thing as truth and that all truth is relative. We believe firmly that there are facts that can be established. Sometimes there’s grey areas, of course. But when I say that there’s a culture of truth-telling inaccuracy and rigorous fact-checking within our organization, I wouldn’t be with CAMERA if I didn’t believe in that.”
Patrick: “Don’t all media outlets claim that though? I’m sure that anyone working for the BBC, CNN, FOX, The Times, etc., would say that within their organization, everyone fact-checks each other, and there’s a lot of editorial bureaucracy, if you will.”
Adam: “It depends on the media outlet, and we try not to make generalities. But people who monitor the media or people who are students of media content would say that over the past couple of decades, there’s been a blurring of the line between news and opinion. There used to be this firewall between news and opinion, where the news section would adhere to really rigorous standards of truth-telling, whereas in the opinion section, you have more leeway because it’s an opinion. Now, to explain why this happened would make us get off topic and there’s a lot of intellectual and cultural occurrences that eroded this line or firewall.
“I think very often times we find that many journalists and editors find themselves more as activists than journalists. They think that speaking truth to power is there job, not reporting factually what happened. And we just find that this ‘efficacy journalism’, as I like to say, is a big problem. I think not all outlets have been affected as much as other outlets; I’m not casting aspersions on all journalists. But we think that there’s been an erosion of the rigorous upholding of journalistic standards in the media community, and our job is to push back against that. I think that probably if you would talk to most journalists, they would say that they do engage in fact-checking – and I’m not saying they don’t – but I’m just saying we have so many examples that prove otherwise. We’ve been doing this for 40 years. We have countless corrections; when we get a correction, that means that we convince a media outlet that they reported something that wasn’t accurate, and they admitted it. So I think the proof of our efficacy is in the numbers; is in the 246 corrections that we got last year.”
Patrick: “I’d like to move on to another topic now. Obviously, you’re a co-editor for CAMERA UK, but I’d like to get your opinion on the impact of this war on universities, and on Jewish and Israeli students who go to universities nowadays. For the past several weeks in the UK, there have been plenty of reports saying that there has been an exponential rise in antisemitism on university campuses, making it one of, if not the hardest, time for Jewish, Israeli, and any pro-Israel students who go to university in the UK. Throughout the country’s university campuses, there have been countless anti-Israeli protests, cases where certain individuals undermined the gravity of the October 7 attacks, with some calling Hamas terrorists names like “freedom fighters”, and some even calling for an intifada. What would be the most effective way for Jewish, Israeli or pro-Israel students to handle these mass protests, rallies and disruptions? And even more importantly, what would be the safest way to do that?”
Adam: “It depends on the situation. If we’re talking about clear breaches of law, then I think they need to go to the police. If we’re talking about hate speech or something that may violate British law in that sense, then I think they need to reach out to groups like the Community Security Trust, who are very good and have a lot of experience in determining the difference between offensive speech and hate speech. They can reach out to Campaign Against Antisemitism, they can reach out to CAMERA on Campus. We can supply you with Christina, my colleague’s, email address [[email protected]].
“We’re always in touch with students on British campuses and they sometimes reach out to us, and they’ve reached out to us quite a bit since the October 7 invasion. So I guess my main message would be to reach out to professionals that know the difference between, simply unpleasant speech, and hate speech, and between something that makes you upset, versus something illegal, such as violence. So definitely just use the resources that are available to you within the British-Jewish community, and the British community more broadly.”
Patrick: “Following up on that, you mentioned the distinction between what is illegal and what is just offensive to an individual, and ultimately, very subjective. Here at KCL, we have seen students publicly use phrases like ‘from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free’ and ‘intifada until victory’… So there are vital questions regarding this matter. In the UK, as you’ve already mentioned, Hamas is a proscribed terrorist group. Under section 12 of the 2000 Terrorism Act, it is illegal if a person ‘expresses an opinion or belief that is supportive of a proscribed organization’. By definition, would you say that these students are committing a crime, and should they be held legally accountable? If yes, who should be responsible for holding them accountable?”
Adam: “First thing, I’m not the person to be able to determine where you cross the line between simply unpleasant speech and where you violate the 2000 Terrorism Act. I think that we recommend that students reach out to, for instance, UK Lawyers for Israel. They’re very effective and very informed about where that line is between expressing illegal support for a proscribed terrorist group versus, kind of, just on the line or not crossing that line. I think that any student who thinks that that occurred on their campus should, at the very least, reach out to those organisations, as well as the CST. For someone who hasn’t been a student for a while, I don’t know if I can give advice as to when students should go to the university, but I can say that CAMERA on Campus, CST, UK Lawyers for Israel, people that have experience and that can really determine where the line is crossed, and also give them support and moral support.
“I remember being a student in the US in the 1980s, and there were some instances where I thought that anti-Israel groups crossed the line from legitimate criticism of Israel to antisemitism and there was no place for me to go. If there were organisations, I wasn’t aware of them. So, I would just tell those students that they’re not alone, because there’s a community of people that care about their safety and their wellbeing, and to not be silent and just reach out. You can even reach out and be confidential – they won’t even use your name if you don’t want them to. So, there is help out there.”
Patrick: “If these students are, in fact, breaking the law, why is it that they are still allowed to get exposure on campus? Why are they still allowed to be at the university?”
Adam: “Well, again, I guess you’d have to go into each individual university’s code of conduct, which I don’t know much about. Look, I want to make this very clear – when I say ‘I’, ‘we’, as CAMERA, we’re really big advocates for freedom of speech. Generally speaking, we think that the answer to bad speech is more speech, better speech. I’m a big First Amendment guy for those who know the American Constitution; that guarantees us the right to free speech and I’m a huge believer in free speech.
“However, in the UK, unlike in the US, there are laws that make it legal hate speech. Look, I think the university should simply enforce whatever ethical student conduct guidelines they have. They should enforce those laws in a uniform way and not take sides in a conflict, but just simply enforce the rules of conduct that they already have and abide by UK law. Beyond that, though, I think that, in general, if you don’t cross the line of hate speech or endorsing a proscribed terrorist group, then I think that a really aggressive and spirited debate on campus is a good thing.”
Patrick: “But we’ve seen some instances – it’s one thing to have a spirited debate in a seminar environment, and I’ve heard from some of my colleagues that they’ve had discussions on immigration or the history of the early 2000s, with the War on Terror from the US, and, naturally, a lot of talks about the Middle East. So that’s one thing, and that’s fine because you’d expect whatever professor is leading such seminars to maintain a healthy and moderated environment. But if there’s students going out on campus, in front of the university building, potentially posing, not only a verbal threat – because, again, you’ve rightfully drawn the line between freedom of speech and breaking the law – but also potential physical threats. Looking at it, it is a threatening environment for Jewish and Israeli students, not only in the UK or the US, but we’ve seen it in France, for example, where there have been a lot of these rallies which have, unfortunately, turned into violent encounters. Don’t universities have to put a foot on these and handle them more firmly?”
Adam: “Clearly, the responsibility of universities is to ensure the safety of their students. As someone, as I said, who experienced what I thought was a hostile environment on my campus, I’m very sensitive to that fact. I think universities have a moral obligation to speak out against clear violations, moral violations, and ethical violations within their campus. And if Jewish students don’t feel safe, then that’s a real problem. When Jewish students don’t feel safe in the context of a two-week period which saw the largest rise of antisemitism since CST was taking records, that’s a real problem. So I want to make a clear distinction between the legal obligations of universities and the legal obligations of the government versus their moral responsibilities of universities of their Jewish students not feeling like they’re being besieged or that they’re being threatened or that their safety is being threatened. They have an unequivocal moral responsibility to make sure that if there’s speech on campus that is directed, or seems to be directed, to Jewish students, and threatening their physical safety, then there is a moral obligation, if not a legal obligation, to get involved.”
Patrick: “On a wider scale, would you say that the 2020s are in any way mirroring the 1930s, or would you say that that would be a bit of a push?”
Adam: “I think that’s a push. If you’re talking about it on a global scale, then no. If you’re talking about being in a period of time that might spiral out of control into a world war or mass extermination, then no. I think what’s happening now, if you’re talking about antisemitism, what happened in Israeli Southern communities on October 7 – and I’m going to say this again because it’s really important as facts matter and numbers matter – it was the most lethal and one of the most barbaric antisemitic attacks. And I want to be clear that I’m talking about an antisemitic attack, not just a terrorist attack. They were targeted because they were Jews; they were brutalised and tortured and killed in unspeakable ways, including children because they were Jewish, and that’s certainly reminiscent of the darkest days of the Holocaust.
‘On one hand, that’s just a fact. On the other hand, I think that there is nothing on the scale of what happened in the 1930s. Hamas is a malevolent terrorist regime that hates Jews; their charter calls for the genocide of Jews and Israel. But in the 1930s, you had a state actor, Nazi Germany, who had one of the largest militaries in Europe, and I don’t think you can compare – as horrific as what happened on October 7, as horrific as the antisemitic attack was – I just don’t think that we’re in the 1930s. I think, however, that it is incumbent upon anybody who has ever visited a Holocaust museum, or has ever said that, when push comes to shove, we’ll be there for the Jewish community, it is incumbent on these people to rise to the occasion and to understand that Jews are feeling, in the diaspora and in Israel, more vulnerable and more scared than they ever have been – at least, say, since the Second World War. And to make sure that ‘Never Again’ means something. I mean, ‘Never Again’ is now. So, while we’re not in the 1930s, I think it’s a moral responsibility for anybody who claims to be an anti-racist to act on ‘Never Again’.”
Patrick: “You mentioned how one of the main differences between now and the 1930s is that back then there was an entire government that was anti-Jewish, whereas now there’s a group called Hamas. But wouldn’t you say that nowadays it’s the people, the public, who are going out and hosting rallies in the streets all around the world that is more impactful towards policy and, I’m not saying that this is the case, but what could theoretically turn into another global antisemitic rise, and even from the West this time? So do the people have more power than the government in this case?”
Adam: “It’s interesting. I was having a conversation with a colleague earlier today – our Arabic researcher, who has a great insight that I’ll never have. He sees what Hamas says in the actual Arabic and can translate it. Hamas clearly miscalculated it in some way. I think in his analysis, and I think this intuitively seems correct, they put more weight and more significance on the Red-Green Alliance between the radical anti-Israel protestors or the pro-Palestinian protestors that have been extreme in Western capitals, that Hamas calculated that they had enough support in the West that even if they were able to achieve what they achieved, and massacre of a thousand Jews, they thought that Western governments would cave and, at the very least, call for a ceasefire which would be protecting them.
“So I think they calculated falsely that there was enough support for their cause within the West. That whatever they did, no matter how horrific their acts were in Israel, that they wouldn’t face extinction and that they would be safe. So, on one hand, I don’t want to downplay the danger posed by some of these illiberal, often times racist, marches in Western capitals… But I do want to say that I think that these groups have much less influence over Western governmental discourse than they think they do.”
Patrick: “So before we wrap up this podcast, if you had the opportunity to make a short address to the entire Western media, what would that sound like?”
Adam: “The Jewish community has been told for a long time that we need to learn to make clear distinctions between mere criticism of Israel and real antisemitism. By that they usually mean that we need to stop complaining about extremely anti-Israel rhetoric; about people who deny The Jewish State’s right to exist, and only The Jewish State’s right to exist; and we should focus our efforts on only real efforts of antisemitism.
“Further, what they seem to imply is that if there really was to be a huge outbreak of antisemitic violence, that they would have our back. Well, this is the time that they need to be held accountable to their promises. I don’t think many of them have risen to the occasion. If the most brutal, barbaric, medieval torture, murder, and burning alive of babies, children, grown-ups, and innocent civilians, don’t move the community who claims to be supportive of Jews and to action, then nothing will. So my only request is to take your own words seriously. If you really oppose racism; if you really oppose antisemitism, and if what happened on October 7 doesn’t move you to take a clear moral side on behalf of the Jewish victims, 70-something years after the Holocaust, then I think you some serious soul searching to do.”
Patrick: “Adam, thank you very much for taking the time out of your very busy schedule and joining us here at KCL today – I really appreciate it! If you would like to find out more about Adam’s work or stay updated on Adam’s research, you can do that by visiting the CAMERA UK website and searching for ‘Adam Levick’.”
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