Archive for April, 2008

Israel And The Press - An Ongoing Battle

Monday, April 28th, 2008


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Some things never change.

Taking part in a panel the other night at the JCC in Manhattan on “Israel, The Jews and The Press: Exploding the Myths,” my colleagues — Clyde Haberman of the New York Times and Sam Freedman of the Columbia Journalism School and the Times — and I felt like we were in a time warp. The questions from the overflow audience of about 100 people began with a request for a response to a 1992 NPR report that appeared to be biased against Israel, and included a complaint about Peter Jennings, the ABC-TV correspondent and anchor who the questioner referred to as “Peter of Arabia.” Jennings died almost three years ago.

It’s not surprising that people have long memories when it comes to slights, whether it be in their personal lives or in reading, watching or listening to media reports, especially when it comes to caring Jews following the Mideast conflict.

I understand that, and often share the frustration of reading a report that is unbalanced, lacking in perspective or just plain uninformed.

But we also have to realize that the Mideast narrative has changed over the years, and the media has changed with it. When Israel won the 1967 war, it was the darling of the mainstream press. But after the Yom Kippur War six years later and the resulting oil shortage, Israel was transformed from David to Goliath, the powerful military presence in the Mideast oppressing helpless Palestinians.

Israel of the last 25 years is known for enduring two intifadas, the assassination of a prime minister, and widespread charges of corruption in its various governments - not exactly inspiring events. It’s also, of course, the country that has led the way in medical, agricultural, scientific and economic advances despite being under almost constant attack from those who would prefer it destroyed.

Israel’s story, and message, are complicated. It sees itself as victim, a tiny democratic state surrounded by tens of millions of Arabs who oppose its very existence. But others see Israel as a powerful state still keeping Palestinians from independence.

There is no doubt that the mainstream media is so focused on symmetry and “fairness” in telling the story of the Mideast conflict that it fails to point out the context, most notably that Israeli leaders (and citizens) from left to right now welcome a Palestinian state, while Palestinian leaders across the board are unwilling or unable to meet the minimum requirement for a peace deal: stopping the violence. Or that Palestinians target Israeli civilians on purpose while casualties inflicted by Israeli soldiers on Palestinian civilians are the unintended result of firing on militants who purposefully place themselves in the midst of innocents.

But on balance, American mainstream reporters are doing their best at telling a complex and highly charged story, and we have to recognize our own biases and unrealistic expectations of having every Mideast story reinforce our own point of view.

That was the message our panel tried to convey the other night, but I’m not at all certain we changed anyone’s mind.

What About Fatah Anti-Israel Hatred?

Thursday, April 3rd, 2008


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The New York Times report this week on the depth of anti-Jewish hatred within Hamas was well documented and important for the world to see, but it gave something of a free pass to Mahmoud Abbas, Fatah and the Palestinian Authority.

The article, by Steven Erlanger, focused on Hamas and its various propaganda efforts of incitement against Israel and Jews, from sermons in the mosque to television programming for children praising “martyrdom.” It noted that “the Palestinian Authority, under Fatah, has made significant, if imperfect efforts to end incitement.”

One of Erlanger’s sources, quoted in the story, was Itamar Marcus of Palestinian Media Watch, an Israeli group that monitors Palestinian media.

But Marcus told The Jewish Week on Thursday (April 3) that while there has been “a significant drop in the calls to violence, specifically from sermons,” the broadcasts from television operated by the Palestinian Authority continue to praise and promote terror acts against Israel.

“Violent clips that glorify violence continue,” he wrote in an e-mail. “In addition, the greatest promotion of violence of all is the turning of murderers and terrorists into heroes, and that continues.”

Marcus noted that the East Jerusalem man who shot down and murdered eight yeshiva students in Jerusalem last month was “glorified in the official, Abbas-controlled media,” as have been other killers of Israeli citizens. A television special honored the 17-year-old girl who became a suicide terrorist four years ago, “repeatedly calling her a hero, and her act heroic, and a source of pride for Palestinians.”

Marcus added that “there has been an increase in hate TV, including lies and libels, for example, about Israel intentionally spreading AIDS and drugs.” And all of Israel is regularly referred to as Palestine in the media, with Israeli cities like Haifa, Jaffa and Acre described as Palestinian cities or occupied Palestinian cities.

“It is unfortunate that people who only look at the sermons created this false impression,” Marcus wrote.

Seems to me all of the above qualifies as less than “significant” and more than “imperfect” on the scale of Palestinian Authority efforts to tamp down anti-Israel propaganda.

The Great Yeshiva `Riot’ Of `68

Thursday, April 3rd, 2008


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Forty years ago this spring, Columbia University was rocked by student riots, and Yeshiva University, where I was a senior, was the scene of a major water fight. And therein lies a tale.

Keep in mind that the spring of 1968 was one of the most tumultuous times in modern American history, with the Vietnam war raging, the assassination of Martin Luther King in April and subsequent riots across the country, and only two months later, the murder of Sen. Bobby Kennedy moments after he won the California primary for the Democratic presidential nomination.

One sensed that the violent events taking place, less than five years after President Kennedy’s assassination, were changing the course of American history, putting the nation on a downward spiral.

The student riots at Columbia that spring ostensibly were in protest of a university housing plan that would displace poor residents in the Morning Side Heights neighborhood. But they were more about anger over Vietnam, and the assertion of an emerging sex, drugs and rock and roll attitude among young people deeply suspicious of the Establishment.

Caught up in the atmosphere of the times, a group of Yeshiva seniors took the subway down to Columbia several warm afternoons to participate vicariously in the rebellious mood by watching the students screaming at the cops, calling them “pigs” and trying to provoke a violent response.

Despite the less than 60 blocks that separated them, the Columbia and YU campuses were really light years apart. One was at the cutting edge of revolution; one was framed by Talmudic study steeped in disputes of centuries past.

So the edginess of the times, compounded by final exams, played out in a major water fight in the main dorm one spring night at YU, with scores of students in their swim trunks heaving large cans of water on each other, and sometimes out the window onto Amsterdam Avenue.

Soon, the fire department arrived, with firemen wading through the puddles in the dorm halls, axes at the ready, responding to calls from neighbors. Surveying the scene, though, they were good-natured about the mess, and didn’t stay long.

Hours later, well after midnight, two student activists from Columbia’s SDS chapter, appeared at my dorm room. SDS (Students for a Democratic Society) was the radical group behind the Columbia protests, and it seems they had received word that, in their memorable words to my roommate and me, “Yeshiva was being liberated.”

They said they were there to help us plan a takeover of the president’s office.

Too embarrassed to explain that the commotion at YU was a water fight, not a student protest - and that any prospective rebellion at YU would have been quelled by a rabbinic scholar announcing that such acts were halachically not permissible, or just not right — we listened as they urged us to secure maps of the administrative buildings and fortify ourselves for a long stay.

We nodded, scribbled notes, thanked them for their advice, and finally were rid of them, raising our fists to meet theirs in solidarity.

Then we had a good laugh before going back to sleep before another day of Talmud study and exams.