A couple of weeks ago, the New York Times finally printed the name of a 12-year-old organization called Rabbis for Human Rights. But the mention had to be bought -- in a full-page ad expressing support for actions by the group, which is "the only Israeli rabbinic association that includes Orthodox, Reform, Reconstructionist and Conservative rabbis."
Days before the advertisement appeared on April 8, the executive director of Rabbis for Human Rights had been arrested while participating in nonviolent civil disobedience against Israeli demolition of houses. "Palestinian homes are being systematically bulldozed all over the West Bank," said a bulletin from Rabbi Arthur Waskow, director of the Shalom Center in Philadelphia. "In this case, there isn't any pretense of 'security interests' or 'military targets.' The houses destroyed yesterday and today belong to ordinary Palestinian citizens whose only crime is the wish to have a roof over their heads."
Groups like Rabbis for Human Rights, and Jewish American activists like Rabbi Waskow who vocally oppose Israeli policies, get short shrift in U.S. news outlets. Meanwhile, the reporting on the Israeli-Palestinian cycle of violence is badly skewed by an endless cycle of media bias.
Searching the Nexis database of U.S. media coverage during the first 100 days of this year, I found several dozen stories using the phrases "Israeli retaliation" or "Israel retaliated." During the same period, how many stories used the phrases "Palestinian retaliation" or "Palestinians retaliated"? One.
Both sides of the conflict, of course, describe their violence as retaliatory. But only one side routinely benefits from having its violent moves depicted that way by major American media. The huge disparity in the media frame is a measure of the overall slant of news coverage.
To help maintain pressure for a favorable media tilt, supporters of Israel have a not-so-secret weapon, brandished most effectively as a preemptive threat -- the charge of anti-Semitism. Any Americans who speak out against Israel's extreme disregard for human rights are liable to be in the line of fire.
Elie Wiesel, a Holocaust survivor and Nobel Prize winner, is a reminder that victims of tyranny are capable of later aligning themselves with perpetrators of enormous cruelty. Last month, Wiesel delivered a speech to a national conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, one of Washington's most powerful lobbying groups. Wiesel declared that anyone "who uses their Jewishness as a context to attack or condemn Israel -- that's something I'm against." And he denounced criticisms of Israel as "anti-Semitism in Jewish leftist circles."
Such salvos are warning shots that Joseph McCarthy would have understood. To quash debate, just smear, smear, smear.
Instead of trying to refute critiques of Israeli policies, it's much easier to equate criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism -- a timeworn way of preventing or short-circuiting real debate on the merits of the issues. It is absurd and dangerous to claim that bigotry is at the root of calls for adherence to basic standards of human rights. But the ongoing threat of the "anti-Semitic" label helps to prevent U.S. media coverage from getting out of hand.
Last year, I had an interesting experience with one of Florida's daily papers, the Palm Beach Post. A reader's letter, published in early June, charged that a column I'd written "had an anti-Semitic undertone" because it criticized media spin for Israel. Eleven weeks later, on Aug. 25, the newspaper printed a second letter from the same reader, objecting to a column I wrote about Sen. Joseph Lieberman. This time the letter was more emphatic and sweeping, though less specific: "I have noticed in some of his previous columns, he is apt to express anti-Semitic views."
The Palm Beach Post printed my weekly syndicated column 30 times during 2000 -- for the last time on Aug. 19, six days before publication of the second letter accusing me of being "anti-Semitic." After that letter came off the press, my column never again appeared in the Palm Beach Post. When I inquired, the newspaper's opinion-page editor told me: "There was no connection."
Whatever the case may be, there's no doubt that journalists generally understand critical words about Israel to be hazardous to careers. "Rarely since the Second World War has a people been so vilified as the Palestinians," comments Robert Fisk, a longtime foreign correspondent for the London-based daily Independent. "And rarely has a people been so frequently excused and placated as the Israelis."
Fisk is asking his colleagues to search their consciences: "Our gutlessness, our refusal to tell the truth, our fear of being slandered as 'anti-Semites' -- the most loathsome of libels against any journalist -- means that we are aiding and abetting terrible deeds in the Middle East."
Anti-Semitism is a reality in the world. Like all forms of religious and racial bigotry, it should be unequivocally opposed. The effectiveness of such opposition is undermined by those who cry wolf, using charges of anti-Semitism as a weapon in a propaganda arsenal to defend Israel's indefensible crimes against Palestinian people.