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Linda Chavez

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Jewish World Review / January 25, 1998 / 27 Tevet, 5758

New JWR contributor Jonathan S. Tobin is executive editor of the Connecticut Jewish Ledger.

Jonathan S. Tobin Jews are news, and a fair shake for Israel is hard to find

WHAT PERCENTAGE OF THE AMERICAN POPULATION is Jewish? If you're an avid follower of Jewish news, you know that the correct answer is approximately 2 percent (at most). But if you don't live inside this alphabet soup goldfish bowl that makes up the organized Jewish world, your answer might be very different.

Recently, I asked a veteran non-Jewish newspaperman what he thought the correct figure was. Though this person knew the news business inside out and is far better informed than the vast majority of ordinary readers, his answer was that the figure must be at least 10 percent!

There are more than a couple of reasons for this common misconception but the one that makes the most sense for me is the fact that the major news media often appear obsessed with Jewish topics and personalities. The old expression "Jews are news" has never been more true than the present. Everything about us, good, bad or indifferent is invariably blown out of proportion.

For example, tiny Israel has the fourth largest number of foreign news correspondents stationed there (after Washington, London and Moscow) on the planet. That makes it the most reported and thus, almost by definition, the most misreported country in the world. Once you assimilate this fact, everything that continues to drive friends of Israel crazy about the media falls into place. Thus, while media bias certainly plays a role in the coverage of Israel at times, more often it is the disproportionate attention devoted to that country (often by reporters and editors who are flaming ignoramuses about the history and politics of the Middle East) that is at fault.

Take, for example, a recent page one story in The New York Times about the plight of Russian and Ukrainian women lured into lives of prostitution in various places around the world. If you read the story carefully you would discover that this infamous racket is going on all around the world. But if you only read the lede and looked at the color picture on the front page, you would think this is a strictly Israeli story.

Looked at from an Israeli context, this is an important news story whose impact may force law enforcement agencies to take action to stop these crimes. But you have to wonder why the largest amount of space in this piece is given to little Israel when the same thing is going on in Germany, Turkey and dozens of other places.

For those with a knowledge of the history of 19th century anti-Semitic propaganda, the idea that Jews are running the "White Slave Trade" is nothing new. Cartoon-like stereotypes of loathsome Jewish villains trading on the lost virtue of gentile maidens was standard material for the Nazis and their precursors. Just as today, there were plenty of Jewish pimps and prostitutes on the loose a hundred years ago, but it took a sick mind to imagine that the Jews were running the world's oldest profession. The rising influence of a so- called "Russian mafia" in Israel may well justify the Times focus on Israel. But the same can be said about other places too. "Jews are news" remains the best explanation.

Another recent example of the phenomenon is the spate of front page wire service stories appearing in the Hartford Courant, which has had local Jews in an uproar. In particular were two pieces that were not breaking news but merely rehashing of old historical controversies which just happened to cast Israel in a bad light. One revisited the debate about revisionist theories about Israel's birth and highlighted one maverick Israeli historian's fallacious contention that the Jews "stole" Israel from the Arabs. Another dug up the 30-year-old controversy over whether the late former Chief Rabbi of Israel, Shlomo Goren, had suggested blowing up the Dome of the Rock on the Temple Mount in 1967.

I'll grant you that both are interesting yarns, but how do you justify making them the top news of the day when, in fact, there isn't anything new about either? Just how slow a news day does it have to be for either of these to make it onto the front page of a secular daily? Hartford may not be the hub of the universe, but that dull, it isn't.

The answer again is "Jews are news," and if Israel gets an undeserved black eye because of uninformed editing, then it is just too bad.

Hot on the heels of all these stories is a related phenomenon: The tendency of one portion of the Jewish community to, "blame Israel first," no matter what the issue is. That's why the controversy over a canceled lecture series commemorating Israel's 50th birthday at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington has been mishandled by many in the press. The series, which was a concoction of the left-wing New Israel Fund, was stacked with speakers who were fervent opponents of the current Israeli government. There is nothing wrong with the NIF (which does some good work for battered women and other commendable charities in Israel along with support for causes which are linked to a left-wing political agenda) holding a lecture series. But when such an imbalanced event is sponsored by a U.S. government agency, then those who don't share the NIF's politics (the majority of Israelis as well as American Jews) are more than justified when they protest.

Why should the only view of Israel heard at the Smithsonian be those of its left-wing Jewish critics? When the centrist ADL joined with the hawkish Americans For a Safe Israel and the editorial column of The New York Post in opposing the forum as planned, the Smithsonian (which has lately specialized in revisionist history such as the Enola Gay exhibit, which focussed on the dropping of the Bomb on Japan without placing it in the historic context of Japanese atrocities and aggression) backed down and canceled the series.

So what did the NIF and its cheerleaders such as The New York Times' Anthony Lewis do? They accused the NIF's critics of McCarthyism! Turning the truth on its head, they said those who wanted balance at the Smithsonian were trying to suppress speech. The truth is, it was the Left and the NIF that attempted to suppress the ideas of those who opposed them. It is the Left that is uninterested in an open fair debate.

This is a common practice in the American Jewish world, where liberals predominate. Events billed as open forums on Israeli issues are often stacked decks with only token participation by non-Leftists. When challenged, the organizers quickly resort to the most vicious of libels.

So between an uninformed, often biased press which thinks anything that happens in Israel is hot news and a Leftist Jewish elite that wants to suppress opposing views, it is not getting any easier to present Israel's story to America.

Media bias is just a small part of the battle for Israel, but anyone who thinks that fight is over is kidding themselves.


©1998, Jonathan S. Tobin