Can There Be Peace in the Middle East?

Gaza destructionMore than 1,000 people – most of them Arab civilians – have now been killed in the ongoing military conflict in Gaza. What lies behind this conflict? And is there any hope for peace in this region?

Many people attribute this conflict to a deep-seated religious rivalry between Jews and Muslims – the continuation of a centuries-old hatred of Jews by Muslims. This view is pervasive in many circles. It is also completely false.

The fact is – and I am speaking here as one who teaches religious history to both university and seminary students – Jewish religion and culture thrived for centuries under Muslim rule in Spain, North Africa and the Middle East. This was the case from the early Middle Ages up through the modern era. While Jews were being systematically persecuted throughout Christian Europe, Muslim rulers actually preserved Jewish religion and culture within their territories.

That historical alliance has now changed. It broke down with the politically imposed creation of the modern state of Israel midway through the 20th century. So let us be clear – the present conflict is not over religion; it is over the basic political issues of land, security, and political autonomy.

To properly understand the roots of the present conflict it is necessary to understand the historical events that gave rise to the current situation. Here is the historical background to that conflict as I explain it in my university classes.

Persecution in Christian Europe

For nearly 2,000 years the Jews have seen themselves as a people living in exile – most of them living out their lives far away from their traditional homeland of Judea from which they were expelled by the Romans long ago. During the Middle Ages, many Jews migrated from Spain and other Muslim lands to settle in France, the German territories, and England.

Jewish_Dispersion(lg) copyThere they established themselves in small close-knit communities in which they hoped to preserve their traditional beliefs and pattern of life. Because they largely kept to themselves and carried out their religious ceremonies in virtual seclusion, they were frequently regarded with suspicion by their Christian neighbors.

Unsubstantiated rumors circulated about what Jews did in secret. In many places they were charged with outlandish crimes and conspiracies – everything from poisoning the wells of the Christians and ritually killing Christian infants to being responsible for the plague and the Black Death.

Pope_Innocent_III-2 copyIn 1215 C.E. Pope Innocent III, the most powerful pope in the entire history of the Christian Church, enforced a strict segregation of all Jews living in the Italian states. He required them to wear identifying yellow badges and hats (a practice later revived in Nazi Germany). To be caught without this identifying mark was punishable by death. In 1290 the Jews were forcibly expelled from England, and after repeated episodes of persecution Jews were excluded from France in 1394.

Ferdinand&Isabella copyThe monarchy in Spain mobilized in the 15th century to expel the Moors and establish Christian rule throughout the country. In this harshly intolerant environment, many Jews in Spain were forced to convert to Christianity under threat of death. Finally, in 1492, all as yet unconverted Jews were driven out of Spain.

Those Jews who remained in areas of Italy, Austria, and Germany that had not totally excluded them, were forced to live in segregated areas of the cities called “ghettos” which were usually located in the worst part of town. Many occupations were closed to them by law, and other restrictions were placed upon their individual rights. In many cities high walls were built around the ghettos, and the Jewish residents were locked in a night. To be found outside the ghetto after dark was at best punishable by a fine, and at worst punishable by death

In parts of Poland and Russia during the 17th century, the Cossacks launched a series of violent “pogroms” (organized massacres) against the Jews. In all, over 500,000 Russian and Polish Jews were killed in this wave of state-sponsored anti-Semitic oppression.

New Opportunities and Old Problems

The situation dramatically improved for European Jews by the late 18th century as a new sense of public values arising out of the Enlightenment tradition began to take hold – values like “democracy”, “religious toleration”, and “freedom of conscience.” We may take these values for granted today, but they were radically new and experimental at that time. This liberalization of attitudes created a more tolerant climate in which it was hoped that the persecution and repressive measures taken against the Jews might come to an end.

Decl_of_Independence copyIn 1776 the American Colonies declared their independence from England and established a nation with a complete separation of church and state. In doing so, it became the first modern nation to grant Jews full civil rights equal to those of every other citizen. Thirteen years later the French revolution took place, establishing a secular government under the banner of liberty, fraternity, equality and enacting legislation (the “Declaration of Rights of Man”) making all citizens –including Jews –equal before the law.

Soon these progressive ideas spread to other lands, as Jews in Holland, Italy, and other countries were emancipated under law. A generation later, in the opening decades of the 19th century, Napoleon consolidated many of these gains. Wherever his armies marched, they tore down the ghetto walls, abolished the ghettos themselves, and made it possible for Jews to participate in society at large.

At last Jews were being allowed to take their place in modern society. Yet despite these new measures, an undercurrent of anti-Semitism continued to persist. It often surfaced in social attitudes and even official governmental policies. Anti-Jewish pogroms continued to take place in Russia and Poland through the 19th century. Many European Jews felt disillusioned and betrayed by these developments; their hopes for full emancipation and acceptance in European society came crashing down. Many began to realize, as discrimination and persecution continued to surface in country after country, that their only security lay in having a nation of their own that would protect them by law and guard their interests.

The Zionist Movement

It was out of this situation that the Zionist movement came into being at the end of the 19th century. Although the term “Zionist” is often used in a derogatory sense by many today, historically the term does not have that connotation.

For Europe’s scattered and marginalized Jews the dream of some day returning to their traditional homeland – of setting foot on Mount Zion (the site of Solomon’s temple) – kept their faith alive. It created hope. It defined a future for the Jewish people. It bound them to a common destiny.Herzl copy

The Zionists transformed the religious hope for a national Jewish homeland into a political campaign. The leader of this campaign was Theodor Herzl (1860-1904), a successful lawyer and journalist from Vienna, who became alarmed by rising anti-Semitism at the end of the 19th century.

Herzl covered the infamous Dreyfus Trial as a journalist in 1894 in which Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish French Army Captain was falsely convicted of treason in a blatantly anti-Semitic military trial and sentenced to life imprisonment. Herzl became deeply concerned at the still precarious position of Jews in modern European society.

In 1896 he published a highly influential book entitled The Jewish State. The following year in Basel, Switzerland, he organized the first World Zionist Congress and was elected as its first president. Theodor Herzl spent the remainder of his life unsuccessfully lobbying the British and various European governments for help in creating a region in Palestine where Jews could govern themselves and be free from persecution. He died in 1904 without seeing his dream realized.

Soon after Hertzl’s death, Chaim Weizmann became a recognized leader among British Zionists. Through his political contacts he was more successful than Hertzl in lobbying government officials for a national homeland.

Palestine lay within the territory of the Ottoman Empire whose seat of government was in what is today known as Turkey. Turkey sided with Germany and the other Axis powers in the First World War, and when Germany lost the war, its allies also suffered. Turkey lost control of its extra-territorial states. France added most of North Africa to its list of colonial possessions, and Palestine was placed under British rule.

Jewish_Immigrants copyWith Palestine now governed by Great Britain, Chaim Weizmann found the British government receptive to his plea for Jews to return to their traditional homeland. In 1917, under the Balfour Declaration, the British government began arranging for limited Jewish settlement in Palestine. The Arab population of Palestine (who would have to give up their land to these Jewish settlers) was strongly opposed to this, and so, in an effort to maintain good relations with the Arab countries in the Middle East, Britain strictly limited Jewish immigration to the region. Nevertheless, thousands of Jews migrated to Palestine over the next two decades.

Under increasing pressure from the Arab states, Britain abandoned its policy of Jewish immigration to Palestine in 1939. New legislation made it illegal for more than a small quota of Jews to immigrate to Palestine each year. Many defied this law, however, and continued to resettle in Palestine entering the country covertly by slipping past the British naval blockade established to keep them out. These determined pioneers laid the foundations for the future state of Israel.

We should note that these pioneering settlers were not for the most part religious Jews. They were primarily secular Jews motivated by a political vision rather than religious aspirations. The influx of observant Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox Jews would come much later.

The Zionist movement generated considerable controversy within the broader Jewish community – especially among religious Jews. In its early stages it was both strongly supported and strongly criticized by various Jewish groups. Some Orthodox Jews welcomed a political cause that would give substance to their religious hopes of returning to their ancestral homeland. Other Orthodox Jews denounced the movement, saying that only the Messiah would bring about the restoration of Israel. Any attempt to fulfill the Messiah’s work by other means was contrary to God’s law.

Some religious Jews defended the Zionist cause, seeing it as an opportunity to co-operate with God in bringing God’s plan to fulfillment. Many had hopes that this righteous act might even hasten the arrival of the Messiah by preparing the way for the Messiah’s coming.

Still others (particularly from the Reformed Jewish camp) saw the exercise as anachronistic. It was inappropriate, they argued, to attempt to re-establish an ancient theocracy in a modern world that had long ago abandoned such ideas. Judaism, they said, should focus on the spiritual and ethical dimensions of its religion, and discard any “nationalist” ideas remaining from its past.

Nazis copySuch debate within the Jewish community at large would soon became eclipsed, however, by other pressing concerns.

In 1939 Hitler invaded Poland and began his expansionist campaign to rule all of Europe. His master plan included the extermination of all of Europe’s Jews. By the time of Germany’s surrender, six million of Europe’s Jews had been slaughtered – one third of the entire world’s Jewish population. Over one million of these were children – an entire generation lost in this holocaust.

The Modern Jewish-Arab Conflict

In the wake of the Holocaust, it became obvious to Jews around the world that if they were to survive as a people they would have to have a national base to operate from – a place where they would form the majority and would be able to ensure that the rights and liberties of their fellow Jews were protected by law. It would be a place where they would be able to provide sanctuary to other Jews fleeing oppression, and where they would be able to effectively defend themselves by military force if necessary.

The earlier opposition to the Zionist movement within Judaism quickly melted away. The Zionist cause intensified, and Jews of every religious persuasion banded together to support the move to create a national homeland for the world’s Jews

By the end of the Second World War illegal Jewish immigration to Palestine had reached a veritable flood tide. Clearly, something had to be done about the situation. In 1947 the recently created United Nations proposed as one of its first acts that Palestine be partitioned into two areas – one to be governed by the Jews, and the other by the Arabs – with Jerusalem (which is sacred to both Jews and Muslims) to the governed by an international agency.

It should be noted that neither England (which oversaw Palestinian affairs) nor the Arab Palestinians agreed to this plan. In fact, the Arabs refused to co-operate with the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine. Nevertheless, this plan to divine Palestine into two separate territories was formally adopted by the United Nations General Assembly later that year.

Preparations were made, a government for the new state of Israel was elected, and public officials were put in place to oversee the operations of the state. Even a standing army was created to replace the British troops who would soon be leaving.

Jerusalem(1948) copyOn May 14, 1948, the British handed over control of this territory, and the modern state of Israel was born. Israel’s first President was Chaim Weizmann, the former head of the world Zionist Congress. The first Prime Minister of Israel was David Ben-Gurion, another long-time Zionist leader. For the next four decades all of Israel’s top leaders would be prominent members of the Zionist movement who had pioneered the formation of the modern state of Israel.

The same day that the creation of the state of Israel was officially proclaimed the surrounding Arab states attacked it. The Israelis successfully defended their new homeland, and in January 1949, a U.N. sponsored armistice agreement brought the fighting to a halt.

partition-armistice copyDuring the conflict, Israel gained control of some additional territory, and when the armistice ended the fighting Israel retained this new territory. Thus, the political map of the state of Israel that most people are familiar is quite different that that originally drawn up in the United Nations agreement.

In 1967 Israel placed additional territory under its control – most notably East Jerusalem, Gaza and the West Bank. The Gaza strip and the West Bank are not officially part of the state of Israel, but are administered by Israel. They are frequently referred to by the Arab population as “occupied territories.”

golani_karte copyAlthough the 1949 armistice ended the fighting, technically the Arab states remained in a state of war with Israel. Thousands of Palestinian refugees were displaced during the fighting, and either fled to neighboring Arab states or were placed in Palestinian refugee camps where they have remained now for over 60 years. Three and even four generations of Palestinians have grown up knowing these ‘temporary’ camps as their only home.

Some of these Palestinian refugees organized themselves into armed resistance movements dedicated to winning back their own homeland from the Israelis. The best known of these is the Palestinian Liberation Organization (the PLO] whose political arm speaks for many of these displaced native Palestinians. More recently Hamas (backed by Iran) has emerged as a powerful rival group to the PLO. Strong tensions reflecting internal religious and political divisions divide these two movements.

Palestinian opposition to the state of Israel and discriminatory Israeli policies toward the Palestinians continue to pose difficult challenges for both Arabs and Jews living in the Middle East. Since 1948, war has broken out between Israel and the neighboring Arab states another three times [in 1956, 1967, and 1973].

In 1978 Israel signed an historic peace accord with Egypt, formally ending hostilities between those two nations. But most of the other Arab nations have signed no such agreements. The Intefada uprising that began in 1988 continues to pose additional problems for the state of Israel. Recent events, including suicide bombings by Palestinians, sporadic rocket attacks by Hamas, and the growth of new militant political factions, make the prospect of a lasting solution to the Middle East “problem” seem more remote than ever.

Looking for a Solution

In light of this history, it is clear to see that the core issues for the Jewish population of Israel are land and national security. They feel surrounded by hostile neighbors, many of whom do not acknowledge their basic right to existence as a nation. The core issues for the Palestinians are land and political autonomy. They have been displaced from their traditional lands which are now under Israeli administration, and have been denied political self-determination.

The conflict will continue until these basis needs are addressed and durable solutions are found. Unless Israeli and Arab leaders find ways of coming to the table and offering concrete proposals to resolve these issues, peace in our time may never be a reality.

To move forward, one must come to terms with the past. And that means looking back to the original United Nations agreement that divided the territory of Palestine, as it existed at that time, into two separate and independent states.

The “two state” solution is not a new proposal. Nor is it a radical one. It is the original plan under which the modern state of Israel was created. But only one half of that plan has been completed. The other half must follow.

The expansion of Israeli settlements in the “occupied territories” makes negotiations on this issue extremely difficult. The Arab population is strongly opposed to ceding this additional territory to Israel. Yet a quick glance at the original boundaries established for these two states under the 1947 UN plan shows that those boundaries were arbitrary, convoluted, and artificial as well as militarily indefensible.

Land will inevitably have to be traded for peace. It is a necessary condition for both peace and security in the region. There is no way of avoiding this reality. Palestinians must also be given the same legal and political rights in their territory that Israelis enjoy in theirs. But there has been little history of democratic self-rule in a region that is still largely governed either by royal monarchs or military dictators. Somehow a stable modern nation state will have to be created in the Palestinian territory – and that will not be an easy matter.

The difficulties are vast, but the problems are not insurmountable. The near-term objective is to create the conditions under which both sides will be willing to come to the bargaining table. Only then can the hard negotiations begin.

In the present situation these conditions do not exist. First the military offensives by Israel and the reprisals by militant Palestinians must end. There must be a halt to hostilities on both sides. Then grievances must be addressed. There is no way of getting around this. Unless there is a genuine political will to address these grievances, it will be impossible to build trust or to pursue any common interests.

It will no doubt be a slow and painful process. It will be a fragile process as well – one that could be derailed at any time by new outbreaks of violence or fresh disruptions from militant parties on either side who wish to see the reconciliation process fail.

It is a difficult task, but not an impossible one. It will depend on courageous leaders who will foster the conditions necessary for taking these first steps. It will take a willingness to consider the legitimate needs of the other side and work for common solutions. And in the end it will take a combination of forgiveness, genuine trust and faith to leave behind the past and build a new future.

Forgiveness, trust and faith are religious principles. Although the source of the present conflict lies in fundamental political issues rather than religious ones, the solution will need to embrace these core religious principles.

Religion did not start this conflict. But in the end it may provide the way out of it.

Photo credit: Reuters

The Face of a Child

TO GO WITH AFP STORY: MEXICO-MIGRATION -Something strange is going on along the United States’ southern border.

Thousands of children, most unaccompanied by adult relatives, are crossing from Mexico and immediately turning themselves in to the Border Patrol.

These children are not illegal Mexican immigrants. In fact, the vast majority are not from Mexico at all. Most come from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. They have travelled many hundreds of miles, faced enormous danger, and endured extreme hardship in hope of finding safety within America and being reunited with family members there.

Border Patrol Riverine Unit Rescues Child Stranded on Rio GrandeUnder current law, the Border Patrol is required to take child migrants who aren’t from Mexico into custody, screen them, and transfer them to the Office of Refugee Resettlement (a part of the Department of Health and Human Services). The law tasks HHS with either finding a suitable relative to whom the child can be released, or putting the child in long-term foster care.

Once this is done the child’s case slowly works its way through the immigration court system. The problem is that immigration workers have become completely overwhelmed by a sudden rise in the number of child migrants crossing the U.S. border.

The Obama administration claims that 47,017 unaccompanied children, from all countries, were apprehended by Border Patrol agents in the first eight months of fiscal year 2014.

This represents a 90% increase from the previous year. And here is where the problems begin.

The laws passed by Congress under the Bush administration put Border Patrol agents in charge of screening immigrant children, and holding them for up to 72 hours before they are transferred to HHS.

But this diverts the Border agents from their other duties.

[The] Border Patrol’s job isn’t to deal with immigrant children, but rather to catch criminals crossing the border.

Child detention centerSimilarly, the Office of Refugee Resettlement has neither the staff nor the facilities to adequately care for all of these children, many of whom are quite traumatized by their recent ordeals. Once the child has been either placed in foster care or a detention centre, their case begins working its way through the immigration courts system, a process that may take more than two years due to a lack of immigration judges and a mounting backlog of cases.

In the meantime these children are often housed under appalling conditions. Their suffering and hardship should melt even the hardest hearts.

What is to be done about this situation? As I see it, there are three possible ways of addressing the problem: dealing with 1) the current symptoms, 2) the root causes, or 3) the actual consequences.

1) Dealing with the current symptoms means stopping the influx of these child migrants crossing the border. Some have called for sealing off the border entirely. But this is practically impossible considering the many miles of isolated and even mountainous terrain that would have to be covered.

House Speaker John Boehner has suggested calling out the National Guard to patrol the border.  But that doesn’t really make sense. What are these armed troops going to do –shoot these children if they dare to step across the border? We need to keep in mind that

We are not talking about war. We are talking about children—many younger than 10—who have experienced horrible conditions in their home countries and on the journey, and who are alone and scared.

2) Addressing to the root causes is ideally the right thing to do. But without a massive effort to effect fundamental changes on an enormous scale (something probably well beyond the U.S.’s ability) it will not change the current situation. Nevertheless, the U. S. should take responsibility for its role in the creation of this problem. That’s right. The problem didn’t just happen on its own. The U. S. has had a direct role in the creation of the problem.

The migration of children and families didn’t just start recently. It has been going on for a long time, although the numbers have recently surged. The tide of migration from Central America goes back to wars that the U.S. promoted in the 1980s, in which we armed the forces, governments or contras, who were most opposed to progressive social change. Many hundreds of thousands of Salvadorans came to the U.S. during the late 1970s and 80s, to say nothing of Guatemalans and Nicaraguans. Whole families migrated, but so did parts of families, leaving loved ones behind with the hope that some day they’d be reunited. …

Kids looking for families here are looking for those who were already displaced by war and economic crisis. The separation of families is a cause of much of the current migration of young people. Young people fleeing the violence are reacting to the consequences of policies for which the U.S. government is largely responsible, in the only way open to them.

3) If one can’t undo the root causes or change the current symptoms, then one is left to deal with the actual consequences. By which I mean the humanitarian crisis that the U.S. now faces. As one commentator has put it, the bottom line is simply this:

Child migrantWe need to show compassion and take care of these children who have traveled thousands of miles from three of the most dangerous countries in the world. They deserve a hearing to determine if their claims are valid, and we should treat them humanely throughout that process, while sending resources to expedite it.

The child migration crisis requires us to look in the mirror and ask some hard questions of ourselves. After all,

The arrival of large numbers of children on our doorstep is not a physical menace to us. Nor is it an unsustainable financial burden. It is not a legal or bureaucratic matter either. Instead, it is a moral issue of how we choose to define ourselves as a country.

Sometimes we have to look into the face of a child to find out who we really are.

 

Photo credits: Donna Burton; Omar Torres/AFP/Getty; AP

The Worst President since World War II?

Quinnipiac-poll

A lot of media attention has been given this past week to a Quinnipiac Poll (released on July 2) that ranks Obama as the worst President since World War II. It’s the kind of headline grabber that conservatives love to latch on to. But if one examines the polling data closely, a rather different picture emerges.

The Quinnipiac Poll listed the last 12 U.S. presidents beginning with Harry Truman (1945-1953), and asked respondents to say which of the 12 they considered to be the worst.

33% picked Barack Obama. The next choice was George W. Bush at 28%.

What do these poll results tell us? It may be simply this: As one of my fellow bloggers has observed,

Whoever is President at the time wins this [distinction]. When this poll was done in 2006, George W. Bush won it. It’s kind of expected and comes with the territory; the current President is always the worst, and then the longer they are away from office, the better they get.

We can see how this is so by placing the 2006 and 2014 polling results side by side:

                             July 2006                                                             July 2014

  1. George W. Bush (34 percent)             1.   Barack Obama (33 percent)
  2. Richard Nixon (17 percent)                2.  George W. Bush (28 percent)
  3. Bill Clinton (16 percent)                     3.   Richard Nixon (13 percent)
  4. Jimmy Carter (13 percent)                  4.   Jimmy Carter (8 percent)

In the most recent poll Barack Obama has (barely) pushed George W. Bush aside as the worst ranked president, followed by Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter. One also notes that in the years between these two polls the number of people rating each of these past presidents as worst actually declined. (Bush from 34% to 28%; Nixon from 17% to 13%; Carter from 13% to 8%) Bill Clinton seems to have been rehabilitated the most, as he now disappears from the list.

Generally speaking, the passage of time seems to soften people’s negative judgments of past administrations. As the New York Post reports,

The survey itself appears prone to let people vent their opposition to a current White House occupant.

Thus, Obama

can take solace in the fact that presidents usually see their numbers rise after they leave office.

In capitalizing on the headline of Obama being the worst president, most media accounts have neglected to add that the Quinnipiac Poll also asked the respondents to say which of these 12 presidents they considered to be the best.

As the best president, Obama ranks 4th behind Ronald Reagan (35%), Bill Clinton (18%) and John Kennedy (15%) receiving 8% of the vote. George W. Bush, by comparison, receives only 1%. Reagan, Clinton and Kennedy received similar votes of approval in the 2006 survey (with 28%, 25% and 18% respectively) while George W. Bush was ranked best by only 3%. (Oops! Confidence in Bush’s presidency actually went down after he left office.)

What this seems to imply is that for all of the present criticism of Barack Obama, he ranks much better in people’s minds than George W. Bush. And that is something the conservative media would rather not report. So don’t expect to see that reported in their coverage.

When the Quinnipiac data is broken down by political affiliation, we find that the results are strongly polarized. 66% of Republican respondents view Reagan as the best president since World War II while only 6% if Democrats do. 34% of Democrats rate Bill Clinton as the best president while only 4% of Republicans do. And 18% of Democrats view Obama as the best president while only 4% of Republicans do. On the negative side, 54% of Democrats see George W. Bush as the worst president since World War II while only 5% of Republicans do, and 63% of Republicans view Obama as the worst president while only 4% of Democrats do. The highly partisan responses are plainly evident.

U.S. President Barack Obama speaks during a news conference at the White House in WashingtonThe Quinnipiac Poll also rates perceptions of Barack Obama’s handling of various key issues. 55% give him a negative rating for his handling of the economy, 57% rate him negatively on foreign policy, 58% on health care, 40% on the environment, and 51% on his handling of terrorism.

This is not surprising as

the conservative media constantly sends out negative criticisms of the president’s performance on every conceivable issue and rarely has anything good to say about him. Faced with an unrelenting barrage of negative new feeds most people will conclude that the reports must to some degree be correct.

But Barack Obama actually has a long list of accomplishments to his credit. We should not overlook the fact that he brought the American economy out of its greatest financial crisis in 80 years. He has slashed the annual deficit he inherited by over 50%. During his time in office he has also overseen the creation of over 4.5 million jobs. And with the passage of the Affordable Care Act he has accomplished what no other president has been able to do since the goal of providing universal health coverage was introduced by Richard Nixon over 40 years ago.

In commenting on why the Obama administration doesn’t get more credit for delivering such good news, Michael Tomasky of The Daily Beast says that it is largely because

Liberals don’t speak as one big fat propagandistic voice on this subject in remotely the same way conservatives do when a Republican president is in power. …

Imagine that a Republican president produced 45 straight months of job growth coming off the worst financial crisis since the Depression. Lord, we’d never hear the end of it from Fox and Limbaugh and even from CNBC.

I can’t argue with that. Obama clearly is not getting the credit he deserves.

The BBC, Climate Change, and Responsible Journalism

Confused about climate change? Tired of seeing reputable scientists constantly having to defend their claims against self-appointed deniers? The BBC has just done something about that.

BBC-NewsThe British Broadcasting Corporation is respected around the world for its high standards of fair and balanced journalism. It is a voice that people have learned to trust. But in striving to be impartial in its news coverage, the BBC’s governing body, the BBC Trust, discovered a problem – a “false balance” that comes from giving equal time to two sides of an argument when one side lacks basic support.

This false balance typically occurs, for example, when one person who is well-versed on climate science is paired with another who denies climate science, and the two debate the issue. Rather than presenting a balanced view of both sides of the issue, what actually happens is that the minority position is made to seem equally viable even if its claims are widely discredited within the scientific community.

The scientific understanding of the various factors contributing to climate change has become incredibly refined in recent decades. As a result of exhaustive research into this phenomenon, today

Ninety-seven percent of climate scientists agree that climate-warming trends over the past century are very likely due to human activities.

Providing the dissenting 3 percent with equal time to promote their own views thus creates a false balance in scientific reporting.

The BBC’s governing body recognized this problem and has taken measures to correct it. As a result of the BBC Trust’s recently released Executive Report on Scientific Impartiality,

Reporters for BBC News are being directed to significantly curb the amount of air time they give to people with anti-science viewpoints — including people who deny climate change exists — in order to improve the accuracy and fairness of the network’s news coverage

However, the BBC would not completely exclude such minority views from its reporting. The Report clearly states,

This does not mean that critical opinion should be excluded. Nor does it mean that scientific research shouldn’t be properly scrutinized.

The BBC has a duty to reflect the weight of scientific agreement but it should also reflect the existence of critical views appropriately. Audiences should be able to understand from the context and clarity of the BBC’s output what weight to give to critical voices.”

Although the BBC has taken measures to curtail this false balance in reporting on scientific issues, the American media has so far not done the same. Last October Media Matters for America released a detailed report that shows how skewed the coverage of climate change is in the American media.

One of its findings was the fact that in August and September 2013 “Half Of Print Outlets Used False Balance On Existence Of Manmade Warming.” While only 3 percent of scientists reject human activity as a major factor in global warming,

doubters comprised over 18 percent of those quoted by Bloomberg News, Los Angeles TimesThe Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post – giving this minority view over five times the amount of representation it has in the scientific community. Half of those quoted in The Wall Street Journal were doubters, about 29 percent in Los Angeles Times, about 17 percent in The Washington Post and about 12 percent in Bloomberg News.

Furthermore, “Doubters Dominated On Fox News, The Majority Of Whom Were Unqualified.”

Fox News tipped the balance toward those on the opposite side of the facts, as 69 percent of guests and 75 percent of mentions cast doubt on climate science. Seventy-three percent of doubters hosted by Fox News had no background in climate science.

 

Media Matters chart1

In addition, “Doubters Were More Likely To Lack Scientific Credentials.”

Of those quoted who denied that humans are the dominant driver of global warming, about 81 percent did not have a background in climate science. Instead, some media opted for bloggers, political figures, and media pundits to disparage the scientific consensus on climate change.

Media Matters chart2

The consensus on climate change among scientists continues to grow. For example, the geochemist James Lawrence Powell recently conducted an exhaustive search of peer-reviewed scientific literature on global warming.

Powell went through every scientific study published in a peer-review journal during the calendar year 2013, finding 10,885 in total. Of those, a mere two rejected anthropogenic global warming [that is, global warming produced through human activity].

 

Climate-Change

The evidence of climate change and global warming is overwhelming. [Watch this video] The research scientists have convincingly documented their findings.

It’s time to end this false balance in the media’s reporting.