Fact Checking in the Knesset – Op-Ed in Süddeutsche Zeitung


Anything a senior German official says in the elected parliament of the sovereign state of the Jewish people is bound to be subject to special scrutiny. So, when the president of the European Union Parliament, Martin Schulz, chose the hypersensitive moment of his speech in the Israeli Knesset to engage in public fact checking, difficult questions were bound to be raised about his judgment and motives.

During Schulz’s speech in the Israeli Knesset, which was highly supportive of Israel and included an important message of opposing boycotts on Israel, he quoted a Palestinian youth that claimed that an Israeli is allowed to use 70 liters of water a day and a Palestinian is allocated only 17. Schulz then admitted that, “he didn’t check the facts”, and asked members of Israel’s government if “this is true?” In response, members of the right-wing party HaBait Hayehudi stormed out of the Knesset plenary. While their behavior garnered much criticism, many Israelis also wondered about Schulz’s choice of words.

It is reasonable to assume that the President of the EU Parliament reads and re-reads important speeches before making them. So, if Schulz was truly interested in the facts on water usage, rather than making provocative allegations, why wait for the very sensitive moment of his speech in the Knesset to check facts? Has Google gone out of service? Does that vast EU bureaucracy not have one assistant to fact check the speech of the President of the Parliament prior to its recital? Schulz quoted the same story an evening earlier and raised similar allegations in a conversation I had with him in 2011 so he clearly has a long-standing interest in the water issue. If he were concerned about the facts, he had ample time to check them and a speech in the Knesset is an odd place and time for fact checking.

Of-course, the issue is far greater than mere fact checking. The implicit message of the allegation Schulz chose to quote was that the Israelis are gorging on water while the Palestinians are languishing in thirst, all of which is orchestrated by the State of Israel. It is no coincidence that many popular responses in social media to Schultz’s speech took the model of what he said to include: “a Christian friend of mine told me that Jews use the blood of young children to make Matzohs in Passover. I didn’t check, but is that true?”

Granted, this is an extreme example, but it points to the deeper issue. To many Israelis, the allegations about water are one step removed from blood libel. Water is a sensitive issue and is deeply symbolic, especially in the Middle East. Just a few weeks ago, during Canadian Prime Minister Harper’s speech in the Knesset, Arab members of Knesset stormed out of the plenary in a similar fashion, when they could no longer tolerate Harper’s supportive speech of Israel, alleging that a fellow Arab member of Knesset has no water and lives in a village with no water and electricity. He later had to admit that that he lives with ample water and electricity, as the village with both.

So, what are the facts? While different numbers have been quoted since the speech, the general agreement is that Palestinians consume around 100 cubic meters per person of clear water (numbers quoted are between 73 and 129), and Israelis around 170 to 180 (Israelis consume additional re-used water). The numbers are substantially different than those quoted by Schulz, but even so, the battle is over interpretation, and therefore, over responsibility.

Had Martin Schulz checked the facts, and wanted to bring up this issue in a serious and constructive manner, he could have said: “There is a difference in water usage between Israelis and Palestinians of about 2:1. I am aware that part of this is due to different levels of economic development, that a share of it is due to mismanagement by the Palestinian Authority of the water systems, and another due to the agreements signed between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. However, I think that given the important symbolism and sensitivity of water in this region, and the technological advancement of desalination and water re-usage, in which Israel is a world leader, Israel could and should go above and beyond the official agreements it signed with the Palestinian Authority, even more than it already does now, to provide Palestinians with more water.”

Such a paragraph in the speech would not have raised such criticism, but is also would not have created such intense media coverage. Could this be the real reason that Schulz preferred to not check his facts? Could it be that he knew that provocative allegations would create a greater stir than level-headed analysis that highlights the complexity of the situation? For many Israelis, Schulz’ act in the Knesset represents a dangerous and slippery slope, where even those who support Israel, are willing to believe the worst about it, and lend their credibility to voicing problematic allegations against it.

The Jewish people are keenly aware that mass acts of physical cruelty towards other human beings are preceded by laying an ideological groundwork. They fear that this is what is taking place in the world today with respect to Israel and Zionism. In this war of ideas, images and words that is being waged against Israel and Zionism, lies, provocative allegations, stereotypes, misrepresentations, and false interpretations are employed as weapons. The purpose of this war, like all previous ones, is to roll back the great achievement of Zionism – the establishment of a sovereign state for the Jewish people in their ancient homeland. The strategy of this war is to associate Israel and Zionism with all that is evil in our world, so that one day the physical the destruction of the modern state of Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people will not seem like a great loss, and maybe even be a blessing. Martin Schulz is a friend of Israel and Zionism. His desire for peace is genuine. As he pursues the cause of peace it is imperative that he and others not unwittingly give their support to those who do not share their love of Israel and peace.

Suddeutsche Article Feb 2014Faktencheck für Martin Schulz (PDF)