Monday, February 26, 2001

Our New York Times Problem and Theirs

Deborah Sontag had a good day yesterday, at least by her minimalistic standards. There were but two “right-wing” and three “far-right” references in her characteristically undistinguished report of Mr. Sharon’s efforts to establish a national unity government.

When political writers, including at the Times, describe the likes of Jesse Helms, “conservative” is the term that’s fit to print. “Right-wing” and “far-right” are perjoratives usually reserved for those who are outside the pale of legitimate political activity. Mr. Sharon is treated differently because the ideologically driven, cliché-ridden head of the NYT’s Israel bureau doesn’t like what he stands for and does not have the skill to delve into the complexities of Israeli political life. In fact, Mr. Sharon is quite liberal on many issues.

I do not know whether the Times has a rulebook mandating the use of negative language in reports from Israel. Probably not. I am certain that there is a culture of Jewish self-hate on West 43rd Street, a phobia about appearing too Jewish that has endured during the 100+ years that the Ochs’ and Sulzbergers have owned the newspaper. This is a family of serial Jewish self-haters. They gave us a culture that resulted in opposition to Jewish appointees to the Supreme Court and journalists identified by their first initials because their first and middle names were too Jewish to be fit to print. And it is a culture that forever stained the record of the Times when it chose to report little and say little about the murder of European Jewry.

The paper acknowledged the error of its ways at a centennial celebration several years ago, in a brief statement included in an exhibit. The in petto nature of the apology undermined both its sincerity and efficacy. So far as we know, the Times has never examined why it acted so ignobly or whether Jewish lives might have been saved had the world’s most influential newspaper done its journalistic duty.

The Times is a magnificent institution and its Israel coverage is no worse and probably better than what we get elsewhere in the U.S., including the Washington Post, Boston Globe (NYT-owned) and the Los Angeles Times whose cartoonists seem to have gotten their training at der Sturmer.

In a sense, the Times’ Jewish problem is that it writes too much, that it focuses on Jewish minutiae, a tendency that inevitably transforms minor stories about warts and misdeeds into significant news. As major events around the globe are virtually ignored or downplayed, the Times incessantly covers Israel and Jews; whatever the intention, the results frequently are not fortuitous.

I am not eager to join the unforgiving anti-Jesse Jackson bandwagon. He has been over-pilloried for his incautious “Hymietown” eons ago. But Jackson has gotten a free ride, including at the NYT, in his latest indiscretions, both personal and financial.

This kid gloves treatment can be contrasted with the Times’ recent obituary of a Chassidic Rebbe who lived in Borough Park. It was of course necessary to report that a second cousin of the deceased had several followers who were convicted of fraud. In this instance, the New York Times met the National Enquirer.

There are people who regard the Time’s hyper-attention to Israel and Jews as good news, as a sign that we have made it in America and are respected. They are wrong and foolish. We shall have arrived – at least journalistically – when there is a sense of proportion, when we are not neglected or put under a microscope, when ordinary occurrences are not transformed into inflated stories. To the extent that Jews contribute to the pathological attention paid to our minutiae, they are doing harm to the community.

I used to think that it is useless to criticize the Times. I still think this way, but I am less certain. At a recent discussion of media coverage of the Middle East, Clyde Haberman, a talented Timesman, reacted to a barrage of criticism of his newspaper by, according to a story in this newspaper, advising “those who get overwrought by the Times’ coverage to stop reading the paper and preserve their health.”

What a wonderful attitude by a journalist who lives by the First Amendment.

Monday, February 19, 2001

The Neglected Right

A civil right that people do not know about isn’t a civil right, as important as it may be to those who need its protection. Rights need to find expression in law and acknowledgement, if not also acceptance, in public opinion and the media. By this standard, the employment rights of religious persons do not pass muster. There are laws – federal and state – but scant recognition that they exist. This is the civil right that isn’t.

Prospects were better a generation ago. In the last 1960’s, Greyhound fired a Black Muslim bus driver named Ibrahim. His misdeed was that out of religious conviction he had a beard and the company claimed that it might become entangled in the vehicle’s steering wheel, endangering the lives of passengers. Although the notion was absurd, it scarcely mattered because there were no laws protecting religious persons against job discrimination. The usual victims were Sabbath observers, many of them Orthodox Jews.

A few years earlier, the National Jewish Commission on Law and Public Affairs or COLPA was established to promote the legal and legislative needs of Orthodox Jewry. I was the group’s first president. We learned of the Ibrahim matter and successfully interceded on his behalf, thereby opening up an area of fruitful activity. In quick order, Congress protected Sabbath observers and key states followed suit, cases were brought and won, usually by COLPA attorneys who were associates at prestigious law firms, and attention was being paid.

Everything was coming up roses or so it seemed. The passage of time, however, has not been kind to the cause. Orthodox Jews are now employed in many places where they once weren’t welcome. Progress has been made. But COLPA is barely alive and while there are more than ten times the number of Orthodox lawyers in major firms than there were 30 years ago, there isn’t as much as one-tenth of the pro bono legal work.

In the meantime, employers who are determined to discriminate have become more sophisticated. It doesn’t take much to figure out that a yarmulka-wearing applicant is not going to be at the job on Friday evenings and Saturdays. Worst of all, thousands of Orthodox Jews who have been hired work at back-office jobs, with little hope of advancement and at salaries that are insufficient to provide for their families.

Enforcement of the rights of Sabbath observers has been hampered by an overdose of benign neglect. Our major organizations talk a good game about tolerance and civil rights, but that’s for other people, not for Orthodox Jews. I suppose that an aversion to publicity is what prevents Jewish defense organizations from declaring their opposition to job market discrimination against religious Jews.

Neglect breeds further neglect, so that what is incorporated in civil rights laws has become the civil right that isn’t. Whatever little media coverage there is tends to be perfunctory.

This state of affairs is illustrated by the recent settlement reached by New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer with Jean Louise David, the chain of hair salons. The company fired Eliezer Katanov, a Russian immigrant who insisted on keeping his yarmulka on as he cut off his clients’ hair. The settlement provides for important accommodations to religious Jews, which is to the company’s credit.

Unfortunately, the larger message of the settlement is being lost because the story has scarcely been covered.

Much the same happened last year when Mr. Spitzer reached a comprehensive settlement with Sears Roebuck after it refused to hire Sabbath observers as repair technicians. The benefits of an important civil rights victory were diminished because of inattention. Incidentally, these settlements were substantially the work of my son Avi who serves as deputy counsel to the Attorney General, a circumstance that is gratifying because he is continuing something that I began a generation ago and because of the intelligence and courage that he has shown.

More of us have to understand that it is wrong to discriminate in the workplace against religious persons. It’s wrong because it is against the law. It’s wrong because it’s immoral. It’s wrong because society is being hurt. And it’s wrong for American Jewry which talks a good game about civil rights and tolerance to continue to do so little to assist religious Jews.

But charity, civil rights and tolerance ought to begin at home.

Friday, February 16, 2001

Let's Get to the Truth About Pollard

For those who believe that a plainly guilty man cannot be railroaded, Jonathan Jay Pollard proves otherwise. Even his most ardent proponents now acknowledge his wrongdoing. As yet, there is no corollary recognition that the U.S. government has not acted justly in the case. That will come, although it's far from certain that Pollard will be alive when it does.

Despite the inadvertent governmental efforts to make Pollard a martyr, he is no Dreyfus or, for that matter, a hero. He is the rather unattractive victim of a process that is both Kafkaesque and Catch 22.

The government's misdeeds began shortly after he was arrested. In line with standard procedure in spy cases, there was a plea bargain, with presumed understandings regarding the sentences to be given to Pollard and his former wife. The lead prosecutor found a pretense to disavow what had been agreed to and then there was the infamous top-secret memorandum sent by Caspar Weinberger, who himself was pardoned by President Bush.

The ignoble trail picked up recruits along the way, including the draconian sentencing judge, the two Jewish appellate judges - one was Ruth Bader Ginsburg - who stood idly (but not silently) by as an injustice was given judicial approval, and public officials, including a former senator from New York and a noted Jewish senator from Connecticut, who whispered along the way that spying for Israel was only a part of Pollard's career in espionage, that he did worse things for more dangerous countries.

For all of the attention given the case, its most surprising aspect is how little we know. There was Wolf Blitzer's early book and newspaper stories aplenty telling of efforts to secure Pollard's release. Yet, we scarcely know more now than what we knew when American Jewry was badly rattled by Pollard's arrest and revelations of spying for Israel.

This is unsettling. Put simply, the question is, Why don't we know more? Where are the leaks? Washington is full of insiders eager to talk to investigative reporters and they don't clam up when the subject turns to spying. Blitzer got his information from inside sources. Seymour Hersh has made a career of turning intelligence secrets into journalistic copy. As perhaps exhibit no.1, there is the Ames case which involved espionage for the Soviet Union within the CIA, and the resulting murder of agents who were double-crossed by Ames. We know this and much more because intelligence officials talked and what they said was reported.

The Times, the great bastion of "all the news that's fit to print," has editorialized against Pollard's release but it hasn't seen fit to delve into the case, except early on and even then in a fairly superficial fashion. In contrast, there is the recent exhaustive two-part report on Dr. Wen Ho Lee, the Los Alamos scientist who was arrested on charges of spying for China and then released when the case against him collapsed. In its own words, "The Times undertook an extensive re-examination of the case, interviewing participants and examining scientific and government documents, many containing secrets never before disclosed." (my italics)

The Times articles on Dr. Lee are, I am confident, required reading throughout China's intelligence establishment and probably by agents in countries around the world. FBI and CIA officials were ready to talk without qualms about compromising U.S. security, even though this meant that secrets were now being disclosed. It may be that Pollard's case is different. Maybe he is the master spyman of all time, so that what he did is for all eternity super secret and lips must be sealed shut like Weinberger's communication.

I don't believe it. I believe that a perhaps understandable reluctance to disclose information at the outset has escalated into a phony façade of secrecy and officials now protect their earlier decisions to be tough toward Pollard by claiming that his sins are too great to bear or discuss or pardon.

We won't ever know if the government has its way. Pollard has a new lawyer, Elliot Lauer, a creative and experienced litigator who may come up with a legal strategy that works. The odds are not favorable.

It is of great importance to American Jews to get to the bottom of what has happened. If the fund to provide for Jewish investigative reporting is still operational, an examination of this case should become the first priority. If it isn't, our organizations ought to put together the resources needed to engage an experienced investigative team. Let them seek and they shall find, hopefully before it is too late.