Friday, February 19, 2010

The Times Gets It Wrong Again

Those of us for whom the New York Times is both an addiction and a quasi-Bible constantly assess its Israeli and Jewish reporting, often concluding that it is unfair. It is evident that the newspaper gets an awful lot of feedback from Jewish readers, many if not most of whom write to complain. It’s also the case that the Times hears quite a bit from readers who are hostile to Israel and believe that the newspaper is biased in favor of the Jewish state.

That’s the picture that emerges from Clark Hoyt’s sensitive and sensible “Too Close to Home” article in the February 7 Sunday Times. Hoyt is now the paper’s Public Editor. It’s his responsibility to consider whether the country’s greatest newspaper has abided by journalistic standards. It’s not his responsibility to make editorial decisions, although it is a good bet that he has influence there as well, if only because editors know that someone is looking over their shoulders.

The article discusses the difficult issue of whether Ethan Bronner should remain the Times’ Jerusalem bureau chief since his son who is an American collegian is now serving as a volunteer in the Israeli army. Even before this question arose, Hoyt received hundreds of complaints alleging that Bronner’s writing is slanted against Israel. There has also been a fusillade from the other side claiming pro-Israel or anti-Arab bias. The father/son situation has upped the volume. It is mildly comforting that our mild paranoia about the media and Israel is matched by the mild paranoia of Israel’s enemies.

Despite the highly unusual circumstance, the Times has decided to keep Bronner on the job because, as Hoyt writes, it did not want “to cave in to…relentlessly unfair criticism of the paper’s Middle East coverage by people who are hostile to objective reporting.” After acknowledging that “it doesn’t seem fair to hold a father accountable for the decision of his adult son,” Hoyt concludes that Bronner should be transferred elsewhere for “the duration of his son’s service in the I.D.F.”

In a sharp response posted on the Public Editor’s blog, Bill Keller, the Times’ executive editor, said nothing doing. “We will not be taking your advice to remove Ethan Bronner from the Jerusalem Bureau,” because to do so would be to “capitulate to the more savage partisans.” Keller then offers a handful of inapposite examples that amount to a fierce but ineffective defense of his decision. Hoyt is right. Appearances do matter, especially in journalism, and Bronner should be transferred. Whether he goes or stays, the newspaper’s Israel and Middle East coverage will continue to generate much comment and controversy.

What is stunning about the episode is how far the paper is now removed from the longstanding policy of not posting a Jewish reporter in Israel. That changed when Thomas Friedman came to Jerusalem from Beirut, a mixed blessing if there ever was one. Putting aside Friedman’s trademark egocentrism, as he acknowledged in “From Beirut to Jerusalem,” he liked the Arabs a great deal more than he liked the Israelis. There wasn’t an Israeli wart that he was aware of that could escape his reporting.

Bronner is far superior to Friedman. The Times’ Israel problem, however, transcends the situation of the Bronner family or whether its reporters in Jerusalem are Jewish. In a nutshell, the problem is too much attention, too much of which is devoted to trivia. This is a conscious decision, arising I believe from the large proportion of Times’ readers who are Jewish, as well as from the maintenance of an expensive bureau in Jerusalem. There is copy to be filed and this is a challenge when there are no big stories relating to warfare or Hezbollah and Hamas. In a sense, reporters feel obligated and may be instructed to ferret out tales of internal Israeli problems or minor conflicts of the kind that come with the territory called life. The result is that small-time stuff makes it big time into the newspaper.

This isn’t a new phenomenon and my concern is apparently not shared by many, as there are children of all ages – most of them adults – who lap up the coverage given to Israel and Jews. At its best, journalism is a two-edged sword. The caressing hand is sooner or later also the hand that bites. No other country on the face of the earth is subjected to the trivial pursuit that is regular fare in Israeli coverage and, for that matter, no other people on the face of the earth is reported on the way Jews are reported on. This isn’t a blessing.

Several weeks ago, David Brooks, the best of the Times Op Ed writers, was in Israel and filed a wonderful article about the country’s technological development and other indices of progress. He saw the larger picture. In a probably unintended way, his article serves as a rebuke to his employer. Nitpicking, he was suggesting, is not the same as journalism.

Unfortunately, the forces that dictate and shape what Timesmen file from Israel encourage nitpicking, so that readers generally do not know of the highways and parks unless they serve as instrumentalities to criticize Israel. Readers do not know about Israeli scientific achievements and technological developments or of the stunning improvement in the standard of living or of the remarkable accomplishment of integrating nearly a million Russians. The media wallow in trivia and negativism and that’s the story that people who do not know Israel first-hand get when they read their newspapers.

I believe that inadvertently the treatment that Israel gets serves as a disincentive to Palestinian and Arab self-examination and as a disincentive to utilize the hundreds of billions of dollars that have been available to improve the lot of Palestinians. Why take that road when the media wars are being won? Downtrodden Palestinians are highly functional to the Arab world.

Friday, February 12, 2010

How We Look at Arabs

We who have been forever scarred by the Holocaust and for whom Israel is both birthright and haven and, except for the Torah, our dearest possession, regard Arabs as Israel’s enemies and therefore also our enemies. This is not only a calculation of wars and rockets. There are attitudes that are embedded and elements of our emotional makeup. Unless we ignore history and are blind to today’s realities, our attitude toward Arabs has been cemented by decades of hostility, by acts of terrorism and by the notion of permanent warfare, with the destruction of Israel being the ultimate goal.

Under such circumstances, how can we avoid feelings of hatred? There is no obligation, ethical or other, to be kind to those who wish us harm. Turning the other cheek is not in our teachings. But, there is nothing to celebrate about this. Golda Meir’s lament continues to jolt: “When peace comes, we will perhaps in time be able to forgive the Arabs for killing our sons but it will be harder for us to forgive them for having forced us to kill their sons.”

Within the attitudinal and experiential confinements imposed by Hezbollah and Hamas, as well as Iran and much else in the Islamic world, is it possible to look at Arabs or Muslims not as an undifferentiated mass of tens or hundreds of millions who pray and plan daily for Israel’s harm and harm to Jews but as a people who like other people have bad and good elements, with the majority being silent and occupied primarily with such daily challenges as livelihood, family obligations and health concerns?

This question, which seems never to be asked, is not intended to suggest a shift away from Israel being hyper-careful about security. There is no practical way for security not to be at the top of the Israeli agenda and inevitably and unfortunately this results in hardships imposed on Arabs. As with other societies, what the majority may believe or want is subordinated to what those in power want and do. What ordinary Gazans may think figures not at all in the Israeli-Palestinian relationship. What matters is the intent of armed groups, which is why Israel cannot make additional territorial concessions. The Gush Katif lesson remains an open wound.

There is hate emanating from the Arab and Islamic worlds. Must we reciprocate with our hatred? Whether or not justified, hatred is a dynamic force, quenching reason and being blind to reality as it feeds on itself. If we hate all Arabs, the prospect is that we will hate those Jews who disagree with our attitude toward Arabs.

My interest in this unexplored question was stoked by a New Yorker essay (January 18) called “Found in Translation.” Written by Claudia Roth Pierpont who is talented and exceedingly hostile to Israel, the article is ostensibly a review of recent Arabic literature. I hope that what she has written will be challenged.

For all of Pierpont’s hostility, the article provides cues to the normalcy of much of Arab life within Israel. We learn of Arabs who did not flee in 1948 and whose families have prospered, of Arabs voting in Israeli elections, of Arabs being treated in Israeli hospitals, of Arab students in Israeli universities. This pattern of normalcy is under the radar screen of journalists who constantly write negatively about Israel. Most of us have a sense of this normalcy when we are in Israel. We encounter Arabs in hotels and other work settings, on the street, and especially in Jerusalem’s wonderful parks. Admittedly, this does not amount to friendship associations, to social interactions that forge meaningful and ongoing ties. It is na├»ve and harmful to fall prey to the notion that persons of different ethnic backgrounds and commitments should somehow act as if they are buddy-buddy. It is sufficient and often a difficult enough goal that they live separately but with respect for those who are different.

Although there are zones of what may be called Israeli/Jewish-Arab interaction, as in the relationship with Egypt and Jordan which has resulted in tourism and some economic and diplomatic cooperation, it remains that even here there is scarcely a comfort level. In Egyptian textbooks, the message of hostility toward Israel and Jews remains. The cooperation that exists arises entirely from a mutuality of interests in that Israel, Egypt and Jordan - and to an extent other Arab states – have what to fear from Islamic extremism. Israel serves as a buffer for what passes as Arab moderation and the Arab countries with which Israel has diplomatic relations serve as a kind of buffer for the Jewish state. In short, there is a relationship of convenience.

Likely, self-interest is the optimum that can be achieved under contemporary circumstances. But this should not be discounted. There is insufficient appreciation of Israel’s diplomatic accomplishments, perhaps because much of it inevitably has been behind closed doors. There is also the problem that Israeli political life is beset by an excess of backbiting, so that even what should be applauded too often is subject to unfair criticism.

For all of the patches of normalcy or the zones of civility and cooperation, the dominant fact in the Middle East remains the fever of Islamic/Arab hostility and extremism. Until this fever subsides, which isn’t going to happen any time soon, Israel is compelled to act harshly toward Arabs and thereby to foster the attitude that in all our relationships there is justification for being hateful toward Arabs.

This is the reality, but it is a reality that we should not be happy about. The Midrash tells us that when the Egyptians were killed immediately after the Exodus, G-D rebuked the Jews for celebrating: “My creations are drowning in the sea and you are rejoicing.” Golda Meir’s formulation was as follows: “An Arab mother who loses a son in battle weeps as bitterly as any Israeli mother.”

Thursday, February 04, 2010

The Strange Case of Stewart David Nozette

Americans who worry that the FBI and the rest of our multi-billion dollar per year intelligence apparatus is little improved since the failures that contributed to 9/11 and other security lapses point to the recent Fort Hood massacre and the near disaster on a Detroit-bound plane carrying a terrorist who was carrying explosives as evidence that their concerns are not far-fetched. We can perhaps breathe easier because the Feds have arrested Steward David Nozette on espionage charges. Let’s celebrate and pay no heed to the inconsequential circumstance that whatever spying Nozette is accused of was arranged entirely by the FBI.

This is a strange case that somehow involves Israel. The FBI decided, perhaps because Nozette is Jewish, that it would fabricate a scenario of potential spying for Israel, although there actually was no spying and Israel knew nothing about what was happening. Israel haters are singing their familiar tune, abetted by a Yossi Melman article in Haaretz that fails to meet the low standards of what nowadays often passes as journalism.

Nozette is not an attractive figure. A physicist with an MIT doctorate, he has worked for several governmental agencies and served openly as a consultant to Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI), as well as operating his own business. He pled guilty a year ago to fraud and tax evasion charges that had no link to Israel and he was set to serve a sentence of up to three years. He apparently told a colleague that he might flee to Israel and that information was passed on to the FBI which, in turn, decided on a sting operation, with an FBI officer posing as a Mossad agent. His espionage, such as it was, occurred this past September. According to the indictment, he “did knowingly and unlawfully attempt to communicate, deliver and transfer to a foreign government, to wit the Government of the State of Israel, and representatives, officers, and agents thereof, directly and indirectly, documents and information relating to the national defense of the United States, specifically, documents and information classified TOP SECRET/SCI and SECRET/SCI.”

This isn’t accurate because Nozette 1) had contact with an FBI agent and not with the Israeli government and 2) he, in fact, did not transmit any information or documents. At most, he intimated that he could transmit. This doesn’t make him a Boy Scout and he may have committed a serious crime, but not the one he is accused of. In moving to deny Nozette bail, the government claims that he “demonstrated his willingness to work for Israeli intelligence, as demonstrated by the following conversation.” Here is the conversation in its entirety. UCE refers to an undercover employee of the FBI. The text is in bold in the original, presumably to highlight the severity of Nozette’s espionage.
UCE: I’ll just say it real quick and then we’ll just move on. Quick, I wanna clarify something from the start. And I don’t say it very often, but umm, I work for Israeli Intelligence…

NOZETTE: Mm-hmm

ICE: Agency known here as Mossad.

NOZETTE: Mm-hmm

UCE: So from now on I’m not gonna say this. But if I say service…

Nozette: Mm-hmm

UCE: so you know what that, what it is. But I just want be sure, I’ll let it out so we don’t have any ambiguity later on. But

NOZETTE: Mm-hmm

UCE: How you doin’?

NOZETTE: Good. Happy to be of assistance.
This would be funny, if it wasn’t serious business or, perhaps, it is a crime to excessively say “Mm-hmm.” Prosecutors now claim that they have additional evidence found on Nozette’s computer, including a document titled “Proposed Operations for 2005-2006” that refers to the need to penetrate NASA, whatever that means. The Haaretz article which carries the provocative headline, “American Jew Indicted as Possible Spy for Israel in U.S.,” claims that after seizing Nozette’s computer, the FBI “found additional proof of his connection to Israel,” including several visits that he did not report, “letters he wrote to Israelis, reports he forwarded to IAI, a map of Israel, photos of assorted places in Israel, a Hebrew-language catalog of archeological artifacts and other items.”

None of this strikes me as criminal, yet Melman is being cited by those who constantly disparage Israel as proof that this is another Pollard case. One example is the blog INTELNEWS written by Ian Allen and Joseph Fitsanakis. One of their notable postings was “Is Israeli intelligence aiding Islamic groups?” They conclude their nasty posting on Nozette: “As the links between Steward David Nozette and the Israeli government become increasingly apparent, they help dispel the romantic belief – stubbornly maintained by some U.S. officials – that Israeli espionage operations on US soil are a thing of the past.”

There may be more to the Nozette case, but after reading the available documents I am doubtful. Maybe it is a crime for an American Jew to have links to Israel, but that, too, is highly questionable. The Nozette case begs for greater attention within our community. Perhaps our defense organizations and media will show some backbone, but that would require a significant transformation which does not seem to be in the offing. The prospect is for Israel to be falsely accused of a crime that apparently from A to Z was concocted by the FBI.

Unfortunately, there is much else in the FBI’s record that American Jews should be concerned about. Is it our obligation or fate to worship this false idol?