Monday, April 22, 2002

The Great Rally

The great rally in Washington was a remarkable event because it primarily arose out of the intense feeling among many American Jews that at this time of crisis they had to be with Israel. They had to show the depths of their passion and their fears. People had to be there, no matter the cost or difficulty or their work and professional responsibilities. Schoolchildren traveled through the night, businessmen cancelled appointments and lawyers court appearances. Jews who had never gone to a demonstration were determined to be at this one.

If the body count was all that counted, the rally was a spectacular success because there were perhaps 250,000 participants. Of course, no more than the next person or the media do I know how many actually came, although the commonly cited figure of 100,000 is ridiculously low. My estimate is based on this formula: Our beloved New York Times put the crowd at more than 100,000. We know that the newspaper of record is prone to tell half-truths about Israel and so I doubled its estimate.

We need to thank the Presidents Conference for organizing the event and all who worked on the many details, yet it remains that this was essentially a spontaneous outpouring of sentiment. However, the participants – nearly all of whom traveled considerable distances, stood in the sun and were exhausted – deserved a better program. What they got were platitudinous politicians, meaningless machers and the suppression of their exuberance.

This was an event that deserved, maybe required, a great speech, words that would resonate years from now. Binyamin Netanyahu’s keynote was fine because he is a good speaker, but it wasn’t close to being memorable. The best of the considerable lot was Bill Bennett’s because he had passion and eloquence and a certain spiritual dignity. There were also the brief remarks of a woman from Christian Broadcasting who concluded with the words, “Am Yisrael Chai.”

This should have been the signal for joining in song, for 200,000 voices singing Am Yisrael Chai to express our commitment to Israel and the Jewish nation in the way that the Civil Rights Movement was energized through We Shall Overcome. It wasn’t to be, for to borrow from Robert Frost:

The crowd was lovely, large and deep
but the machers had promises to keep
and this was not a time for us to sing or weep
and it would be many hours before we would sleep.

Isn’t there a personality in Jewish life whose voice and words are imbued with poetry and music? And if there isn’t, let us allow the masses to compensate for this deficit with their exuberance and feelings. The week before the Washington rally, Avi Weiss organized a demonstration in New York that was full of spirit and music – and it was moving. Why can’t our leadership understand the need to convey our inner feelings about Israel?

The suggestion that we need a parade of politicians and organization people to mobilize congressional and public support for Israel is bunk. The overlong and uninspiring program satisfied the truncated vision of macherdom. I recognize that our leadership faces tremendous pressures on occasions like these from senators and assorted VIPs who want to speak. That is all the more reason why discipline must be maintained by severely limiting the number of such speakers, else those who are not included on the program are certain to be upset.

There were special moments, which much of the crowd (and I) missed. After more than three hours of speeches, Seth Mandell of Tekoah in Israel was introduced. He asked the crowd to join him in reciting aloud Shema Yisrael because he did not have the opportunity to say this most fundamental prayer with his 14-year old son Koby before he was brutally murdered by terrorists. He should have opened the program.

Israel’s future will not be decided on the battlefield of public relations, yet the shaping of opinion is important. Sadly, we have stories to tell of terror and loss, of widows and orphans, of parents of murdered children, of thousands who are badly maimed. We relegate these stories to a secondary position.

A year ago, I attended a memorable dinner on the Intrepid sponsored by the Hebron Fund. All of the speeches were touching and there was a remarkable talk given by a young mother. The event had an impact, even a year later. Nearly always we showcase spokesmen and politicians with their predictable messages, words that mask our tears and fears. The truth is that so many Jews went to Washington because being there was an outlet for their pain and fear.

The rally also fell short in its failure to give anything close to sufficient attention to the religious dimension, to the linking of our support for Israel to our faith. By comparison, Christian speakers made the case for Israel precisely in such terms. For us, a religious message was largely off-limits, perhaps to reflect the growing secularization of our leadership and, sadly, of our masses. The little of a religious nature that was included in the program, such as a Reconstructionist Rabbi reading a passage from Psalms, was not effective and it probably was inappropriate.

The omission of a religious dimension was especially disturbing because the Orthodox constituted at least two-thirds of the rally’s participants. The dayschoolers should have experienced something of a religious event. It is also noteworthy that many came from the yeshiva-world segment of Orthodoxy.

It has been said – I believe rightly – that this was as important a rally as we have had in half a century. We have been told often enough that the Orthodox constitute no more than ten percent of American Jews. When ten percent of American Jews provide more than two-thirds of those who made it to Washington, there is an additional reason to be concerned about Israel – and, of course, the future of American Jewry.

Friday, April 12, 2002

Why the Media Are Hostile to Israel – Or Are They?

Ordinarily quite sane people have taken to talking back to their television sets, even wanting to throw things at the tubes, so provoked are they by what they perceive as intense media hostility toward Israel. Suicide bombers and Arab terrorism cause pain and a bad case of nerves. The Peter Jennings of broadcast journalism get the blood boiling. Nearly every Jew I know believes that there is media bias against Israel.

There is plenty of evidence to back them up. For years, Jews who have found themselves in hotel rooms around the world have been stunned by the one-sidedness and distortions of BBC and CNN. You need not travel afar to get the anti-Israel line featured in the Boston Globe, Hartford Courant, Los Angeles Times and other newspapers whose reporters and editorialists have long made Israel-bashing into a regular pastime.

Of course, their commentary is far more benign than what passes for journalism in many dozens of newspapers around the globe.

As for the daily that we Jews literally clutch to our bosom, the best that can be said is that the Times suffers from a bad case of moral equivalency. Editorials resemble an exercise in daisy-plucking: one day of support followed by one day of criticism.

If you look at the total media picture and not just at our enemies list, there’s more to the story. Israel has the Wall Street Journal in its corner, talk radio is chock full of Israelphiles and there are friendly television commentators. For all of its problematic record regarding Israel and certainly other things Jewish, it is relevant that for many years the Times’ op ed page harbored both A.M. Rosenthal and William Safire. Could it be that we are super-sensitive, that we have a too highly developed talent for picking out the unfriendly face in the crowd?

This is a legitimate question and is also a tough one because there is a significant imbalance in how we and the media approach Israel. For the media, the Middle East story is important and yet just another issue on the agenda of public affairs, something that is covered when there is news. Subjectivity enters into how events are reported and, of course, editorial opinion, but the same can be said of nearly all other issues.

For Jews – at least most of us – Israel is not an issue. It is our essence, our body and soul. It is our today and yesterday and tomorrow all enveloped in emotions that transcend the ordinary processes of judgment. We are not obligated to be objective and probably we have no right to be. But we ought to understand that because the media do not share our history or our feelings or our pain, they are not obligated to look at Israel the way we do.

Our interaction with the media is at cross purposes in a second way. Our view of fairness toward Israel emphatically includes a moral factor, the reckoning of such elements as Israel being a democracy and its neighbors being anything but, Islamic fundamentalism and violence, Arab terrorism and the acceptance and promotion of anti-Semitism throughout the Arab world.

The media’s approach to fairness is expressed by what is known as the fairness doctrine, which is the simple obligation to avoid moral judgment and to give each side an approximately equal opportunity to be heard. This inevitably leads to moral equivalency, which is what the Times indulged in when a front-page story juxtaposed a Palestinian girl who was a suicide bomber with an Israeli girl who she murdered. The newspaper was being “fair” and morally equivalent.

In fact, in the recent period major newspapers and newscasts seem to have discarded any sense of even-handedness, any obligation to abide by an attenuated concept of fairness. A content analysis of stories and pictures and op ed space allocation would demonstrate that the obligation to be fair has been abandoned. In the Times, for example, captions accompanying front-page pictures have inaccurately and even falsely described what is being depicted. There are, of course, more egregious examples. Peter Jennings and his ilk do not need the Intifada to display an obsessive hatred of Israel. Jennings’ role is especially outrageous because he is an anchorman and not a commentator and it is wrongful that he has been given a forum to peddle his bigotry.

The anti-media claque has been emboldened by Jewish turncoats who provide cover for that which would otherwise be regarded as odious. Like other fifth columnists, these Jews are an enemy from within, linking up with Israel’s external enemies. The Adam Shapiros of the world receive excessive attention – CNN and the Times have doted on him – because he is Jewish. He is glorified as a humanitarian, without any effort being made to examine his writings and record.

While all mainstream American media have strongly endorsed U.S. actions against Islamic terrorism, there is no more than a feeble effort to connect what is happening in Israel and Palestinian areas with events in Afghanistan or, for that matter, Iraq. This disconnect results in Palestinians being described as brave underdogs, as if their leadership and actions have scant bearing to current events. There is a similar disconnect regarding Israel’s decision to limit access of journalists who regard themselves as being blessed with the divine right to go wherever they desire to go. If the media would just pause and compare what U.S. policy has been regarding media access in Afghanistan with what Israel has allowed, a different story would emerge. Much the same could be said of civilian casualties.

So there is a great deal of one-sidedness and we are angry because too many of the media have not been even-handed or fair. However, there is a world of difference between lack of balance or unfairness and hostility. We must not lose sight of the distinction, especially these days.

Tuesday, April 02, 2002

Our Fifth Column

From nearly the first seeds of our civilization, we Jews have been a rambunctious people, even stiff-necked and quarrelsome. We have always had troublemakers, heretics, fifth columnists and self-haters. It is as if one of the conditions of choseness is the ability to choose to oppose. To state the thought differently, it is as if we are caught in a dialectical process and there are unwelcome trade-offs for our noble and epic accomplishments and sanctity.

It isn’t surprising that in this period of great danger to Israel and Jews, we have Michael Lerner and Adam Shapiro, as well as others, with their harmful language and actions. Precisely because these are Jews who go to an extreme in their anti-Jewishness, they attract media attention. Hating Jews is always in season and it’s all the better if the haters are themselves Jewish. It may be a bit heretical to say this – I have good sources – Lerner and Shapiro can serve as poster boys for the proposition that rather than by birth, Jewish identity should be determined by current actions and attitudes.

For all of its antecedents, Lerner’s virulent hatred is stunning. The cartoon that he included in the now notorious New York Times ad was in caricature and language no less anti-Semitic than the standard fare of Der Sturmer and Mein Kampf. Lerner’s formula for Tikun Ha-olam – the betterment of the world – is, in addition to self-enrichment and self-promotion, hatred of Jews.

For all of the ugliness of the man and his message, his formula is a sure bet to attract funding – and especially from Jews. We have traveled so far along the path of rejecting our heritage that self-hate has become natural, even logical, in a Jewish world which accepts and promotes the idea that each Jew is free to define what it is to be a Jew. It is inevitable that for some – and perhaps many – being a Jew means being anti-religious, being hateful to Israel, being hateful to other Jews. I’m afraid that we have not seen the worst yet.

Apart from our hard core fifth column, there is a large contingent of fellow travelers, Jews who too readily endorse everything that comes with a “peace” label, even if this means constantly beating up on Israel. There is little solace that Rolando Matalon and Marcello Bronstein of Congregation Bnai Jeshurun on Manhattan’s West Side and Irwin Kula, the top professional at CLAL, have resigned from the advisory board of Tikkun Community. What they were doing there in the first place is a question that needs to be asked, especially of Kula.

As for Shapiro, the media are doing a handstand over his treachery, over a Jew who gives homage to a man responsible for the murder of Jews. The contrast with media treatment of John Walker is extraordinary. It is a crime for an American to abet the Taliban and brave and humane for an American Jew to abet those who have engaged in terrorism against Jews. Perhaps Tikkun should give Shapiro a humanitarian award, with Yasser Arafat making the presentation.

For all of our fifth columnists, Israel’s actions throughout the Intifada demonstrate a remarkable determination not to harm civilians. We constantly hear of invasions, heavy bombardments and fierce military activity, the obvious image being of indiscriminate Israeli use of force. The evidence to the contrary is overwhelming, including the low number of Palestinian civilian casualties. Perhaps the media should compare civilian casualties in Afghanistan with West Bank and Gaza statistics.

There is, of course, ample ground to criticize Ariel Sharon whose government too often appears to be confused and without a plan. Admittedly, there’s nothing on the horizon that has a good prospect for success. Sharon’s choices are more difficult still because he faces constant and conflicting pressures from domestic and diplomatic sources. This is scarce justification for a strategy that consists too much of sending the tanks in – accompanied by bellicose statements – and then getting them out after the predictable international protests.

The latest foray into Ramallah illustrates the reason why there is much doubt about Sharon. After declaring Arafat a terrorist and enemy, a status that should readily justify an Israeli effort to at least capture him, Sharon sent in tanks to encircle the PLO compound and destroy part of it. As is routine for Israel but not for the U.S. in Afghanistan or other armies, there were squads of reporters and photo-journalists along for the ride, all the better to do Arafat’s bidding and to depict him as brave, ready to die and defiant against overwhelming Israeli force.

Israeli spokesmen say that the goal is to “isolate” Arafat, a term that is void for vagueness. This has been a strange isolation, as sycophants, misfits, reporters, peaceniks, and others have come and gone and as Arafat has staged one photo-op after another. If the PLO leader is being isolated, it is also true that around much of the world he is being looked at as a hero.

And what is Israel doing to make its enemy’s life more miserable? According to a report on the front page of this Sunday’s Times, “The Israeli army provided [Mr. Arafat] with 1,000 pieces of pita bread, two dozen water bottles, cheese, eggs, twenty flashlights, twenty boxes of candles, and medicine for those who are trapped inside.”

It appears that the Sharon government is suffering from a severe bi-polar disorder, perhaps because of the dualism inherent in the Sharon-Peres arrangement. There are grounds for criticism by those who believe that the Prime Minister has been too soft and there are grounds for those who believe that he has been too harsh. What should be off-limits is the hatred exhibited by Adam Shapiro and Michael Lerner.