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Jewish World Review Dec. 2, 2002 / 27 Kislev, 5763

Jonathan Tobin

Jonathan Tobin
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Out of the mouths of the 'ignorant'

A 'dumb' talk-show host understands Israel better than some experts | Sometimes it doesn't take a brilliant person, or even a brilliant journalist, to understand complex stories such as the conflict in the Middle East.

A good example of this was provided at last week's annual General Assembly of the United Jewish Communities, which took place here in Philadelphia. A few days earlier, a front-page headline in the Sunday Philadelphia Inquirer on Nov. 16 had added more fuel to the local fire about media bias on the Middle East. The headline in question was about a previous terror attack on Jews in Hebron which left 12 dead. It told readers that "Troops were the targets in W. Bank: A different picture of the ambush in Hebron has emerged: Only 3 of 12 Israelis killed were civilians."

As it happened, a murderous ambush of the weekly procession of Jewish worshippers to the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron trapped some of the security forces on guard there. Initial reports gave an inaccurate report of the fight between terrorists and Israeli soldiers. But details notwithstanding, the basic facts of the original story stood as they were reported in the previous day's headline in the newspaper: "Palestinian gunmen kill 12 Israelis."

By choosing to trumpet this "correction" on their front page, editors at the Inquirer appeared to be signaling its readers not to be particularly outraged about the deaths of 12 persons in what some in Israel would still call a "Sabbath massacre." Added to countless other such incidents, Jewish readers of the Inqy were left wondering again about the bias of their newspaper.

But a session held on bias in the media at the G.A. illustrated that sometimes the "smarter" the journalist, the less able he is to understand what Israel is up against.

The panel provided to discuss this issue was, in essence, a mismatch: Chemi Shalev, a highly respected left-wing Israeli journalist who writes for both Ma'ariv and the Forward; Sam Friedman, a former New York Times reporter and a renowned author and professor at Columbia University's School of Journalism; and Glenn Beck, a nationally syndicated talk-show host who is a self-admitted ignoramus about the Middle East.

For both Shalev and Friedman, talk of bias in Middle East reporting had more to do with the bias of pro-Israel partisans not distinguished journalists. They deplored campaigns against newspapers and networks that have, like the Inquirer, routinely distorted the news about Israel.

Shalev believes that "truth is fluid" and concluded that the "American press is in most cases quite balanced." He cited polls which showed strong support for Israel in this country and said this would be "impossible" if the media were actually against Israel.

Shalev is wrong about many things but especially so to attribute that much power to the press. What he failed to understand is that Americans are pro-Israel in spite of the bad treatment it gets in the media. Rather than reinforcing the credibility of the media, this just illustrates how little most people here think of journalists.

Friedman had a better handle on the question when he rightly put much of the blame for poor Middle East coverage in this country on ignorance, sloppiness and bad journalism rather than actual bias. And he rightly drew a distinction between the American media and that in Europe whose anti-Israel bias is far more flagrant.

Yet, he too pooh-poohed the outrage that many Americans -- Jewish and non-Jewish -- feel towards journalists on this subject. Talk of systematic bias or the well-documented journalistic tilt to the left was something he was uninterested in discussing.


It was left to Beck to provide a reality check. Beck is something of a bombastic, baritone voice with little learning to back up his opinions. He is an entertainer who delights in pushing his audience to the limits frequently calling them "freaks." Though possessed of a quick wit, he is not the guy to call if you want an answer to a complex historical question. Indeed, a few years ago, Beck was just a disc-jockey playing Brittany Spears records.

Yet, in contrast to the two "smarter" guys, Beck "got it" about the Middle East.

He had recently taken his first trip to Israel as a Fellow of the American Voices for Israel program, which gets media figures to actually see the country which they are talking about.

Untouched by a media culture that sees the story as essentially one of Israeli "occupation" and Palestinian "resistance," no matter what the facts on the ground, Beck saw things as they are.

"Israel shares my values," Beck said. "I'm for Israel because you are right" and not the media. "The media isn't giving you half of the story," he added in a portentous radio-announcer tones. "They're giving you none of the story!"

Though he admitted that as a Lutheran of German ancestry he "doesn't know my butt from my elbow" about the region, he now knew that the story he had gotten from media coverage was largely wrong.

Beck visited the shrines of all three major faiths in the country and saw that when it was ruled by Muslims, Jewish and Christian shrines had been taken over by Islam, desecrated or just plain blown up, like the Hurva synagogue in the Old City of Jerusalem.

This showed him that this was not a problem subject to the sort of easy-going compromise that Americans prefer.

"One religion is trying to erase the others," he said.

The next morning Beck's simple understanding was reinforced by the latest news. Yet another Palestinian terrorist bombing struck a Jerusalem bus. This one left 11 dead and more than 50 wounded with many of the casualties children on their way to school.

This latest outrage, like all the others that have cost Israel over 600 dead and thousands of wounded, brought home once again the implacable war of attrition that the Palestinian Arabs are waging against the Jewish state.

Daniel Gordis, an American educator who made aliyah to Israel a few years ago, spoke at another G.A. session. He spoke movingly of the problem of trying to explain to his children why they may have to go on trying to go to sleep every night to the sound of Palestinian gunfire aimed at Jerusalem's Jewish neighborhoods.

Though his young son wondered whether he could "do it anymore," Gordis told of telling him that he had no choice.

"We won't be the first generation of Jews to willingly abandon Jerusalem," Gordis said.

This wasn't about politics. It was simply about holding on to the Jewish homeland in the face of implacable Arab hatred, which is so often whitewashed by journalists who think they have all the answers.

How sad that "smart" guys like Shalev and Friedman don't get it. But how encouraging it is to learn that a "dumb" one like Beck does understand. Who would have thought that out of the mouth of a talk-show host, we'd hear more truth about Israel than from those who knew so much more about it?

And that is something that leaves us with at least hope, if not an explanation, in otherwise terrible times.

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JWR contributor Jonathan S. Tobin is executive editor of the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent. Let him know what you think by clicking here.

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