Alternate perceptions and #TheDress


At the end of February, I encountered #TheDress, the week’s highest trending hashtag on Twitter. I saw #WhiteandGold, wondering whether those who saw #BlueandBlack were in on a worldwide prank. Like many, I simply could not fathom how others could see otherwise. 

The identification of the dress became an Internet obsession, trending more than Jihadi John’s recently discovered identity. Questions about the dress preoccupied me for days. The dress had to have one color reality, and if my eyes were wrong this time, I wondered how many times my eyes had previously betrayed me. Was this photographic subjectivity the first of its kind? These questions must have haunted millions, as tweets about the dress quickly surpassed 10 million in the first week. For many, the dress provoked an existential crisis regarding the nature of perception and reality.

Several days after I saw the dress, I was in Washington D.C. for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) conference. Mosab Hassan Yousef, a Palestinian who worked as an undercover informant for Israel’s internal security service, told his story during a plenary session.  As the son of the Hamas spiritual leader Sheikh Hassan Yousef, Mosab’s hatred for Jews was ingrained in him from an early age.  In keeping with family tradition, he had planned to stab innocent Israeli civilians to death. 

His plot was thwarted when he was arrested. In prison, he witnessed Hamas members torturing their own people suspected of being Israeli collaborators. In contrast, the Israelis interrogated Mosab in a humane manner. After internalizing this discrepancy and confronting the truth, Mosab became an informant for Israel.

Mosab explained why he decided to divulge his story, even if it meant never being able to return home:  “to help an entire Palestinian and Israeli generation to see things for what they are. Sometimes we trust our perceptual ability, but apparently our senses are very deceptive and there’s always a different truth beneath what seems or appears.” 

At that moment, it hit me. The enigmatic dress actually exemplified what Mosab was describing.  Something that at first seems so clear can actually be subjective. As a young teenager, Mosab was willing to murder innocent life for Hamas. But just a few years later, he would save Jewish lives and ultimately those of his Arab brothers and sisters, because he was able to see the real Hamas.

I won’t pretend to understand how one person can see blue and the other white. People simply have differing perceptions and it doesn’t take an Internet craze for complicated political situations to illustrate the point. However, there must be an objective nature of the essence of something as tangible as a dress. After the Internet community begged for explanations of the dress, the question was answered just days later by scientists who explained the difference in perception. After all, the color of the dress was not subjective; it was objectively blue and black.

With the dress, misperceiving reality was harmless. But in Mosab’s case, the truth is vital. Sometimes, it may seem just as difficult to truly understand the nature of the conflict, especially with so many falsehoods and photoshopping created by many Palestinians to persuade people of what is, by showing what is not. The more people see a doctored version of reality, the more they negate true reality in order to reconcile the two. 

This is why it is difficult for people to view Hamas as the true aggressor; because the Palestinians are often portrayed as powerless compared to the state of Israel. It is true, Mosab explained, that the Palestinian people suffer. However, he said, it takes true understanding of reality to see that Hamas, not Israel, is at fault for Palestinian suffering.

The relationship between Hamas, its people, and Israel is more complicated than white and gold or blue and black.  But any honest redress of grievances requires that Hamas show its true colors.

Eliana Rudee is a Fellow with the Salomon Center. She is a Core18 Fellow and a graduate of Scripps College, where she studied International Relations and Jewish Studies. She published her thesis in Perceptions and Strategic Concerns of Gender in Terrorism. Follow her @ellierudee.

Bob Saget: Clean-cut and filthy (uncensored version)


Bob Saget was pondering his status as comedy’s reigning filth monger at a Santa Monica cafe recently.

“You play a guy who’s clean-cut and never curses for eight years, like I did on ‘Full House,’ and people think that’s who you are,” said Saget, who will be roasted on Comedy Central Aug. 17. “And then you talk really dirty in your act, and people think that’s who you are.”

The 52-year-old pauses, and a sheepish look crosses his still-boyish face. “Ah, I’m still doing it,” he admits. “I talked to Don Rickles last week, and he said, ‘So I watched your HBO special; I really liked it, but you left out two f-words.’ My response was, ‘I know. If I had only put in 200 less.'”



This is the uncensored version of this story. For the G-rated version, click here.



It’s a surprisingly repentant statement from a comic whose stand-up has quashed his wholesome TV image as “Full House” dad Danny Tanner and as the grinning host of “America’s Funniest Home Videos” in the late 1980s and 1990s.

During the 13 years since “Full House” wrapped its last episode (only to continue in endless syndication), neither Saget nor the Olsen twins, who shared the role of his youngest TV daughter, have lived up to the expectations of some.

While Mary-Kate and Ashley have become billionaire moguls and the targets of vociferous tabloid reportage, Saget has mocked his own sugary image with joke songs, such as “Danny Tanner Is Not Gay” and “My Dog Licked My Balls.”

“For the record, he made the first move,” Saget said.

Saget’s stand-up, in his words, has always been “perverted,” but that did not become widely known until he was asked to appear in the 2005 documentary, “The Aristocrats,” in which he out-raunched 100 other comedians. Since then, Saget has sold out stadiums and college theaters with an act so over-the-top nasty that it is outrageous even in a comedy zeitgeist already pushed to Sarah Silverman extremes.

His stream-of-consciousness riffs about incest, date rape, snuff films, bestiality and every possible bodily fluid are “a word salad of language so blisteringly blue that a potential diagnosis, as Saget freely admits on HBO, of Tourette’s syndrome cannot be ruled out,” the Washington Post said.

The promos for his Comedy Central roast feature Saget admonishing a donkey for trying to sniff his privates.

Even when he’s riffing about his synagogue, Kehillat Israel in Pacific Palisades, an animal somehow enters the picture.

“We have a great synagogue the rabbi will marry a man to a goat,” he said. “It’s Reconstructionist they’ll do gay marriage if you need it, they’ll do interfaith and interfaith’s nothing after a goat.”

Saget also has the reputation, among those who know him, to be as kind as he can be crude. A few days after the taping of his Comedy Central roast, he publicly protested the vulgar Olsen jokes proffered by roast master John Stamos (another “Full House” co-star) and dais participants, such as Gilbert Gottfried.

“Anybody who talks about my TV kids that upsets me,” Saget said in a statement. “I am very protective. I love them very, very much.”

Saget was more measured about the roast several days later: “Some of the comedy for sure crossed the line,” he said in an e-mail. “It’s a roast, and they went for it. I also believe in freedom of speech, and the comedians meant no harm.”

Saget said he gets to look at the final edit and that “Comedy Central has been incredibly collaborative. The director-producer, Joel Gallen, is very talented … and also has helped to talk me off of ledges over many aspects of this roast.

“I think it’s a very funny show, but it’s not for everyone,” he added, delicately.”

Saget’s Kehillat Israel shows are far cleaner. He joined the congregation with his ex-wife, Sherri, in 1990, and their three daughters (now ages 15 to 21) had their bat mitzvahs there.

The synagogue’s rabbi, Steven Carr Reuben, is a fan: “Bob has appeared at almost every major event we’ve hosted in the last 15 years,” he said. “He once admitted to me that temple shows are the hardest to do, because he has to censor himself.

“Bob is particularly funny because he has this dual, schizophrenic reputation from the G-rated family shows to the X-rated stand-up show,” the rabbi added. “I appreciate his humor, because I know where it comes from: a sweet and loving way of communicating with people.

“Some comedy is cutting, but Bob’s humor is always designed for us to see the funny side of ourselves in difficult situations. He’ll be in the hospital visiting someone and making a joke about people’s catheters. It’s uncomfortable but funny, too.”

In person, Saget is warm and approachable; wears jeans and sneakers and speaks in the same stream-of-consciousness style he uses in his act. Over the course of two hours, he veers from a critical dissection of his neuroses (“I’m ADD for sure,” he said during the interview. “I’ve been Uri Gellering this spoon for half an hour.”); to his 2007 HBO special, “Bob Saget: That Ain’t Right”; to his recent shift to “actor mode,” with a Broadway turn in “The Drowsy Chaperone” and a new CW sitcom, “Surviving Suburbia,” in which he plays a disgruntled family man.


‘My dog licked my balls’ — Bob Saget in concert

Israel faces challenges on three fronts


Israel at 60 faces three major challenges: identity, technology and politics. The future Israel will have to strive and struggle to maintain a credible role as the cultural and spiritual center of Jewish peoplehood. Demography will continue to play a fundamental role here, but the main challenge will be whether Israel can strengthen internal and transnational Jewish cultural bonds to preserve some consensus among the Jewish people.

Jewish religion and identity will remain central to how Israel sees itself and Jews worldwide perceive Israel. But to be viable, Israel’s Jewish identity must be attractive to an array of Jewish constituencies, each of which will view Israel as a place that, permanently or occasionally, is home.

On the technology front, Israel will have to expand its already remarkable facilities to become, even more than now, a world center for research and development capable of offering its creativity and services to Jews and others beyond the limited space of its local market. Israel must join the world’s most developed societies.

To achieve this, Israel will have to overcome the distinctions that persist between greater Tel Aviv and the country’s peripheral areas, and limit the deepening socioeconomic differences between the country’s richest and poorest.

On the political front, Israel will require leaders that can take the country to new horizons. Many Israelis today feel that our political leaders do precisely the opposite, slowing down the major transformations we need to make in such areas as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Israel-Diaspora relations, the relationship between religion and state, public investment vs. privatization in the economy and more active participation of private individuals in civil society.

Politics in Israel will have to be reinvented so it again becomes a driving force for the fulfillment of Jewish dreams. The overarching issue of peace and normalization of ties with Israel’s neighbors is crucial to this because the final outcome of the Middle East conflict will result either in the fulfillment of dreams or disaster.

These three major challenges share something in common: urgency. Every day that passes without progress brings potentially irreversible negative consequences that threaten the very survival of Israel and the Jewish people.

The way we respond to these challenges ultimately will determine the future course of the Jewish people — and Israel’s fate at its 120th birthday.

Sergio DellaPergola is a professor at Hebrew University and a senior fellow at the Jewish People Policy Planning Institute in Jerusalem.

Paris and Rosie


On Sunday, I was at the Islamic Center of Southern California on Vermont Avenue, participating in a panel discussion on the “The Image of Muslims in the Media.”

I didn’t have to do much preparation – I just had to take the notes I use when I speak to Jewish audiences on the “The Image of Israel in the Media” and do a search-and-replace, Israel for Muslim.

Each side’s complaints are mirror images of the other. Jews bemoan the lack of context, the one-sidedness, the over-simplification and the focus on blood and gore that marks quite a bit of the media coverage of Israel. And the Muslims? To them, the media paints all Muslims as terrorists, offers superficial understanding of Islam and focuses on violence over culture and accomplishment.

“To try to get better stories told on a daily basis,” Edina Lekovic said, “is … frustrating.” Lekovic, media relations director of the Muslim Public Affairs Committee, or MPAC, struck the same note I hear from the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC).

As an example, a video produced by her organization cites Steven Spielberg’s film “Munich” as a media product that negatively portrays Muslims. How many Jewish panels have I sat on that have picked apart the same movie for its “bias” against Israelis?

Los Angeles Times Opinion and Sunday Currents page editor Nick Goldberg, also a panelist on Sunday, made clear he hears from disgruntled Muslims and Jews whenever he runs an op-ed perceived to be harmful to either side.

I’m sure “the media” – whatever that is – would be proud to know that it has managed to get Jews and Muslims to agree on something. That something being, of course, the incompetence and unfairness of the media.

On a week when the evening news has told us more about who visited Paris Hilton in jail than which Americans died in Iraq, it is hard not to join the chorus.

Phil Shuman, the conscientious Fox 11 News reporter, told the audience that his station preempted an hour of news last week to broadcast live a police car chase.

But I don’t place all the blame on the media. I blame Jews and Muslims, too.
We expect the media to be balanced, judicious and open-minded though we feel perfectly justified exhibiting none of those qualities.

Case in point: The Muslims I spoke with were especially upset about the media’s handling of the recent Pew Research Center poll of Muslim Americans. The poll found that the majority of American Muslims see themselves as American first and that two-thirds are strong believers in the American way of life. “When we looked at the Pew poll we thought ‘finally they’ll see what we see,'” Lekovic said.

Instead, the media focused on a finding that 26 percent of American Muslims aged 18 to 29 believe that suicide bombing against civilian targets is justified “in order to defend Islam from its enemies.”

Once again, the Muslims felt that instead of showing off their achievements and pride as Americans, they had to defend themselves against the idea that all Muslims are terrorists.

“Why is the image of Islam so negative today?” asked Salam al-Marayati, executive director of MPAC.

Well, I said to this audience of some 100 Muslims, as a Jew, I could ask the same question.

I said why, despite all evidence to the contrary, the same poll found that 40 percent of Muslim Americans don’t believe that Arabs were behind the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

I said why, despite all evidence to the contrary, a majority of Europeans believe that Israel is the root of all the evil in the world.

In other words, I said, you can present people with all the information they need, in context, with background, and they’ll still choose to live in cloud or cuckoo land. Perhaps the deeper problem is why people cling to ignorance in the face of knowledge, fantasy in the face of facts.

Believe it or not, that was not an applause line.

After the discussion, a Muslim man approached me and argued that talk show host Rosie O’Donnell also questioned who was behind Sept. 11. “Is Rosie O’Donnell crazy?” he asked.

“Probably not,” I said, “but she’s not my No. 1 news source.”

But I don’t mean to let Jews off the hook here, either.

We also tend to cling to our orthodoxies without challenging them. And one of those orthodoxies is that the West is facing imminent destruction at the hands of extremist Islam. Too easily this idea, which is in itself arguable, poisons our understanding of all Islam and our relations to all Muslims.

“We are very nervous about being taken for a ride,” Rabbi David Rosen said. “But we have an existential interest in speaking out to the Muslim world.”

Rosen is international director of Interreligious Affairs of the American Jewish Committee. He is an Orthodox rabbi, based in Jerusalem, who was ordained at the charedi Mir yeshiva and also graduated from Oxford. I spoke with him Monday in my office.

Out of their justifiable concern over Muslim extremism, Jews have closed themselves off from Muslims and rejected overtures and cooperation from even moderate Muslims, like W.D. Muhammed, who heads the largest black Muslim organization in the United States.

Jews, Rosen said, are missing an opportunity to engage Muslims in America and even to help them establish the kind of American religious institutions that have helped moderate and modernize Judaism itself.

Yes, extremist Islam is a threat. But it has also presented us with an opportunity to reach out to our Muslim neighbors, even the ones who believe Rosie O’Donnell over their own good sense.

This so-called clash of civilizations will be a fast ride to hell if we close ourselves off, choosing fear over hope.

I’ll leave the last word to the rabbi: “What do you want to do?” Rosen said.

“Curse the darkness or light a candle?”

City Voice: We’re not who we think we are


There is a preconceived notion about the Los Angeles Jewish community being affluent, increasingly conservative and preoccupied with Israel to the exclusion of other issues.

There is some truth in this, as is the case with all preconceived notions and stereotypes. There is also some untruth.

Before the 2004 election, for example, we pundits wrote much about an anticipated Jewish shift to the Republican Party. But on Election Day, Sen. John Kerry, the Democratic nominee, received 78 percent of the Jewish vote, according to a post-election study conducted for the Solomon Project by five established political pollsters.

“This number has been remarkably stable over the last three presidential elections,” they said in their report.

And there’s poverty among us. In November 2004, Jewish Journal senior writer Mark Ballon reported on a Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles study that found one in five local Jews earn less than $25,000 annually. In greater Fairfax, with its large senior and immigrant population, the figure was one in three.

Aiming to puncture more stereotypes, I visited the single-room office of the Jewish Labor Committee and talked to the western executive director, Cookie Lommel, an African American woman, a journalist and the writer of books on famous people for young adults. She is, to her knowledge, the first African American woman to head a Jewish organization.

“Stereotypes are hard to kill,” she said. “That’s why I’m here.”
The liberal Jewish Labor Committee was founded in 1934 on the Lower East Side of New York by unionized Jewish garment workers organizing a movement against Hitler’s assault on independent trade unions. The Los Angeles operation began eight months later. Soon their efforts expanded to try to rescue German and East European Jewry. Today, the committee works closely with unions representing teachers and other public employees, supermarket workers, janitors and other elements of the labor movement in Los Angeles.

“We are the link between the organized Jewish community and the labor movement,” Lommel said.

In 1991, as a journalist, she became interested in the airlift of Ethiopian Jews to Israel. She wrote about it for black publications.

Afterward, she started Operation Unity, bringing African American and Latino high school students to Israel, where they worked on a kibbutz. Eventually, that led her to the small Jewish Labor Committee office on the second floor of the Institute of Jewish Education building, a few blocks east of the Beverly Center. Shifting from computer to desk to work table, answering the phone and my questions, Lommel was commander of her one-woman show. Her door was open, and the sounds of a preschool in the yard below provided the background to our chat.

I had called Lommel because it had occurred to me that the news media was not telling the entire Jewish story. We see Jewish Hollywood, Jewish business tycoons and Jewish political contributors, all of them at the top of the economic ladder.

Lommel knows a blue-collar side to Jewish life.

“There is a high percentage of Jews in the membership and leadership of unions,” she said.

Not all of Hollywood’s Jews are studio execs. Plenty are members of IATSE, the union representing technicians, crafts people, artists and stagehands.

Another place where you find large numbers of Jewish members is in the fast-growing unions representing government employees. I can’t think of a grittier, more blue-collar job than being a Los Angeles County social worker, driving through the poorest neighborhoods, checking up on dysfunctional homes, always worried that one wrong decision could leave a kid in the hands of a brutal parent.

Another tough job is being a school teacher. Jews are also supermarket checkers, as Lommel discovered while on the picket line during the 2003-2004 market strike. She told me about a striking checker encountering a longtime Jewish customer, who was shocked at seeing a nice Jewish woman carrying a picket sign. The customer’s surprise reflects how much of the Jewish community accepts stereotypes about itself.

Accepting these stereotypes takes the Jewish community out of the game on important issues vital to poor, working class and middle class Jews.

Certainly Israel is of great importance. The Jewish Labor Council was quick to join other Jewish organizations in protest when the United Teachers of Los Angeles’ (UTLA) 25-member Human Rights Committee planned a meeting at UTLA headquarters to discuss economic sanctions against Israel. The union, which has a total membership of 48,000, decided to deny the use of its headquarters for the event.

But there are issues besides Israel, including one of tremendous importance: the public schools. The people I’m writing about — the teachers, the social workers, the movie industry artists and technicians who don’t work in slow months — can’t afford private schools. They are entitled to send their children to good public schools. It is their right, just as it is the right of every American.

The influential, high-profile elements of the Jewish community are missing in action on this issue. To them, the public schools are a Latino thing or an African American thing. Actually, public education has always been a Jewish thing. And, considering what our community is really like, it still is.

Until leaving the Los Angeles Times in 2001, Bill Boyarsky worked as a political correspondent, a Metro columnist for nine years and as city editor for three years. He can be reached at bw.boyarsky@verizon.net.

Attention Israelis: Please stop kvetching



Excerpt from Israeli TV show “Ktzarim”: some troubled people meet for group therapy.
In Hebrew with English subtitles.
Click on the BIG ARROW to view.


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Security in Israel now is about as good as it gets. Suicide bombings have become a rarity; just the threat of one is a big news story. The northern border is again quiet, and Sderot is, if not quiet, considerably quieter than it’s been. Israelis don’t think twice about getting on buses or shopping downtown. Judging by their behavior, as opposed to their words, people in this country feel safe.

Meanwhile, the economy keeps growing. The war in Lebanon last summer didn’t cause anything more than a brief downturn. True, about half the Israeli population is either poor or close to it, but that’s nothing new. For this country’s “haves,” and for the national economy overall, it’s clear sailing.

Even driving a car in Israel is becoming safer all the time, believe it or not. Last year there were fewer road deaths than there have been in 20 years.

Yet to listen to Israelis, and to listen to the news media, the whole country is falling apart. All systems are in collapse. The leaders stink. Corruption and incompetence are everywhere. Tragically, people have become alienated from the state, from the society.

Oh, do me a favor.

First of all, Israelis have no real problem with corruption. No elected Israeli politician ever lost popularity because he was corrupt, or suspected of corruption. Some, like Arye Deri, Binyamin Netanyahu and Avigdor Lieberman, even gained popularity by claiming the police were persecuting them for political reasons.

Is Arkadi Gaydamak not suspected of massive corruption? Did this stop him from becoming one of the most powerful, popular men in Israel?
I don’t know which complaint I’m hearing more — that the leaders are corrupt, or that the justice system is too hard on the leaders.

Could it be that Israelis just need to kvetch about whoever’s in the headlines?

What a terrible situation, they moan. The new chief of police is already in hot water, the one before him was forced to resign, the head of the army resigns before he can be fired, the justice minister is convicted of sexual molestation, the president is going to be indicted for rape, the prime minister may be forced out for corruption or incompetence, or both, and the defense minister may be forced to go with him.

What can I say, except — that’s entertainment. Because the point is that this country is not falling apart. Can anybody explain how Katsav’s disgrace has hurt anyone but himself? If his disgrace has hurt the institution of the presidency, does anyone give a rip? If Shimon Peres becomes the new president, will it make a difference to anybody but Shimon Peres?

This is a very interesting show we’re watching, that’s all. These resignations and firings and investigations don’t hurt Israelis’ lives, and they don’t hurt the life of the nation, either.

While I think Dan Halutz got a bum rap, is the army lost without him? Do we have any less personal security, does Israel have any less national security, now that Gabi Ashkenazi is the chief of staff? Is any 18-year-old Israeli boy going to dodge the draft, or become any less of a soldier, because of the Winograd Commission?

The same holds true for the rest of the leaders under fire, or fired already. Can Israel survive, can we Israelis survive, without Moshe Katsav as president, without Moshe Karadi (or even Ya’acov Ganot) as chief of police, without Haim Ramon as justice minister, without Amir Peretz as defense minister, without Ehud Olmert as prime minister?

I think we can survive just fine. Maybe even better.

People are saying this is a corrupt country, a dysfunctional country.

I think all these investigations show just the opposite, but even among those who think Israel is going to the dogs — are any of them leaving the country, or thinking of leaving, because of what Katsav did to “A” or what Ramon did to “H”? Is anyone holding off on having another child, or on remodeling the house, because Halutz failed to make Hezbollah disappear, or because Karadi fiddled while the mafia bought a few police officers?

In 22 years living in Israel, I’ve never been approached by a civil servant for a bribe, I don’t know any woman who’s been raped or sexually molested by a politician, I haven’t been threatened by the mafia — and I don’t know anybody who has. These things happen here, but corruption and lawlessness are not the way of life in Israel like they are in Russia, China or dozens upon dozens of other countries in the world.

Furthermore, the Israeli army is one of the world’s best armies, and if the Israeli police aren’t one of the world’s best police forces, it’s not because of corruption.

I think the reason we’re seeing Israeli leaders dropping like flies is partly because law enforcement is getting tougher and more victims are coming forward, which are good reasons
Israelis may be in a terrible mood about the country, but the country is in very good shape. There are security threats, but there always have been and always will be. The important thing is that except for the 33 days of war last summer and the intermittent rocketing over the border from Gaza, this has been a safe country to live in for the last three years, and there’s a good chance it will go on being safe for years to come.

The economy offers a Western standard of living to people with good professional skills, which is a lot of people. The Israeli middle class lives well.

The only problems in this country that I would call grievous are: 1) the extent of poverty; 2) the second-class citizenship of Israeli Arabs; and 3) the increasingly extreme attitudes of many citizens, Jewish and Arab.

But what about Azerbaijan?


A few weeks ago, in that Hollywood purgatory just before the announcement of the Oscar nominations, I found myself at a party in honor of Borat.

I fully expected Borat to appear, dingy brown suit and post-modern Groucho mustache and all. Instead, as I walked through the door of the restaurant Jar, I came face to face with Sascha Baron Cohen. The actor who created Borat came out of his self-imposed in-xile to meet his potential Academy voters (and me) and impress upon them the fact that he was, indeed, acting.

I shook Cohen’s hand maybe a beat too long — the man is preternaturally handsome and poised, and I was a bit tongue-tied at first. Then I told him I thought his movie was brilliant satire. And the fact that as Borat, the anti-Semitic Kazakhstani journalist, Cohen spoke Hebrew, was an even higher level of brilliance.

“Ata m’dber Ivrit?” the actor asked me. Did I speak Hebrew?

“Ken,” I said. Yes.

And so, amid the high-powered producers and directors, I found myself chatting in Hebrew with Cohen. He told me he learned it on a kibbutz, that he preferred to daven in traditional synagogues and that he was well-aware of the irony that Borat, who once urged the audience of a country and western bar to “throw the Jews down the well,” speaks not Kazakh, but Ivrit.

A friend interrupted us: “What are you saying?”

“We were just talking about you,” Cohen deadpanned.

As it turned out, the Academy didn’t nominate Cohen for Best Actor, or “Borat” for Best Picture. It should have. I can’t think of another movie of the past year that was as subversively clever or had as deep a cultural impact. Then again, by the time the Academy honored Charlie Chaplin, the man was near death.

Oscar doesn’t do comedy.

Meanwhile, not long after I met Cohen, I met one of Borat’s landsmen, so to speak. Consul General Elin Suleymanov of the Republic of Azerbaijan had sent me a column he had written taking issue with some of the stereotypes in “Borat,” and he followed up the submission with a meeting. Yes, I know Azerbaijan is across the Caspian Sea and two countries away from Kazakhstan (well, I know that now, thanks to Wikipedia). But at the time, the coincidence seemed too perfect.

Suleymanov is a thoughtful and cultured man, and he would be the first to express his disgust that I’m even mentioning his name in the same paragraph as Borat’s. But the deeper message of “Borat” was one that the consul general shared — American ignorance might be blissful and funny, but it stops us from seeing the complexity of real life, and real human beings.

All of which — Jar, Borat, Cohen, Suleymanov — leads me to Iran.Iran has seven neighbors. Up until a couple of weeks ago, I could only name three of them: Turkey, Afghanistan and, of course, Iraq.

Iraq is a mess, a cauldron of intra-Islamic conflict. Afghanistan is heading down the same tragic path, as the Taliban assert greater fundamentalist control. All those Muslims are nuts, right?

Then there’s Azerbaijan.

It is a majority Shi’ite country — 70 percent Sh’ite, the rest mostly Sunni. It is a democratic secular state whose religious and ethnic minorities are embraced. Azerbaijan gave women the right to vote in 1919 — one year before the United States did.

“My teachers were Jews. My doctors were Jews,” Suleymanov said. “They have lived with us through good and bad times.” (Azerbaijan’s most famous Jew? Chess grand master Garry Kasparov.)

When Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad held his Holocaust denial conference earlier this winter, the Azerbaijani television station aired a debate on it featuring Arthur Lenk, Israel’s Ambassador to Azerbaijan (yes, the same man who was Israel’s deputy consul general in Los Angeles in the mid-’90s).

“He got one full hour,” Suleymanov said. “There was a feeling he won the debate.”

It’s not just about tolerance. One-sixth of Israel’s oil supply comes from Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan is an economically thriving, moderate and tolerant majority-Islamic nation with great oil wealth — like the real Kazakhstan, in a way.

Of course, Azerbaijan is small — 8 million people to Iran’s 75 million. But Azeris, the ethnic group that makes up the majority of Azerbaijanis, account for some 20 million Iranians. Mullahs who have tried to gain traction for fundamentalist teachings in Baku have met with little success, and Azeris in Iran have had a liberalizing influence.

“Every revolution in Iran began in an Azeri region, except the Khomeini revolution,” Suleymanov said.

So is it possible for Shi’ite Iran to choose to be more like its neighbor Azerbaijan and less like its neighbor the Taliban? The consul general believes one key is to give Iran carrots and sticks to pull it toward the Western orbit, where many of its citizens prefer to be.

Of course, the threat of a nuclear Iran raises the stakes and shortens the amount of time the West can allow Iran to evolve. In the meantime, it’s incumbent upon us, as Natan Sharansky has pointed out, to hold Iranian leaders morally and politically responsible for their pronouncements.

But when the Borats of our American pundocracy assert that Islam is fundamentally incompatible with modernity, Israel and human rights, you might ask them — what about Azerbaijan?

The video of Rob Eshman’s interview with former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak is now available at http://www.jewishjournal.com/video/ehudbarak.rm. Length 1:18. Format: Real Video (streaming).

It May Be Time to Change Goals, Ideas on Philanthropy


I have a dream in which Jewish early childhood educators in the United States, who currently receive an average salary of $9.66 an hour, can raise their own children without having to take out loans or marry rich. I have a dream in which Birthright Israel does not have to keep tens of thousands of potential participants on waiting lists for lack of funds. I have a dream in which non-Orthodox day schools truly rival the best private schools and the Jewish socioeconomic elite clamor to enter them.

While these dreams are remote and quixotic, American Jews have achieved levels of wealth unprecedented in our history. The problem is that we no longer give much to Jewish causes.

We are donors to universities, museums, orchestras and hospitals, but when it comes to Jewish philanthropy, we fall short. Today, perhaps 20 percent or less of Jewish giving goes to Jewish causes.

In the middle of the 20th century, it was about 50 percent. Only half of the Jews surveyed in 1990 claimed to have given to a Jewish cause. Of the $5.3 billion in megagifts given by America’s wealthiest Jews between 1995 and 2000, a mere 6 percent went to Jewish institutions.

Among those who do give, the levels of giving are weak. Only 11 percent of Jews donate over $1,000 to Jewish causes.

Can you name a serious non-Orthodox American Jewish philanthropist below the age of 50?

There may be one or two, but it would be looking for a needle in a haystack. Even those who give Jewishly give smaller amounts to Jewish charity than to secular causes.

Too many ignore programs of Jewish education and culture, focusing instead on antiquated preoccupations, such as the fight against anti-Semitism. In North America, the greatest threat to the Jewish people is not the external force of anti-Semitism but the internal forces of apathy, inertia and ignorance of our own heritage.

People’s giving is a mirror image of who they are. Over time, we have become meaningfully more American and less Jewish. That is reflected in our philanthropy.

We have lost not only our connection to Jewish roots but also our understanding of why Jewish identity and involvement matter. It’s an unfortunate cycle: attenuation of identity leads to reduced philanthropic giving, which, in turn, hobbles our efforts to create programs to enrich identity.

How, then, does one revive Jewishness in an increasingly secular American world?
Not easy. Too many of our needs are no longer fulfilled Jewishly. Today’s synagogues and other institutions no longer appeal to the Jewish spirit the way they used to.

Tzedakah is an outcome, an end product of what we care about, what we want to enhance, what we believe in and what we want to see grow. If we were to apply these hopes to our present community, I’m not sure we would like what we see.
The community has not operated by a set of norms and standards of what constitutes appropriate tzedakah. People who have amassed enormous wealth are told by ‘professionals’ that they’re the most altruistic individuals since Robin Hood, regardless of what they give. There are few role models in the community who represent our tradition of giving 10 percent of income or assets.

Historically, the rabbis of past periods anticipated neither the wealth nor the longevity of many contemporary Jews. If they had, they surely would have insisted on even higher levels of giving.

Recognizing that we are far removed from the bare-bones survival of the immigrant generation, it may be time to reconfigure what is the right level of tzedakah and what we should expect from our givers. One of our philanthropic goals may be to develop an ethic of higher levels of giving in relation to net worth.

For a person with assets of $100 million — and there are many such people today — annual philanthropy of $500,000 or $1 million is not serious. Yet, the community fawns as if these individuals have given amounts that are truly selfless.

At present, there is little accountability between wealth and philanthropy. This must end. A person earning $45,000 who gives $5,000 in tzedakah should be acknowledged as heroic, even though he may not get his name on a building.
We need to become part of a movement to change the perception of giving, to spread the notion that real meaning in life comes from selfless acts of philanthropy and to inculcate a sense of responsibility for the fate of klal Yisrael among those who have achieved high levels of wealth.

The challenge is daunting. In a community where people want their names up in lights, where we have a cadre of professionals known as ‘directors of development,’ whose ambition is to separate rich Jews from their money, how can we create a sense of justice, of fairness between rich and poor and recognize true philanthropy? How can we accomplish this in a free and open society?
On the one hand, we value our privacy. How many of us enjoyed the public displays when there was card-calling at events? For many of us, there is something unseemly about it.

I’m not immune to the conflict. In my various philanthropic efforts, I have valued the Maimonidean principle of modesty and indeed anonymity. Yet I, too, have had my name put on some projects and buildings. I frankly feel deeply conflicted.

I think it is a higher calling not to use one’s name, but I haven’t always been able to reach that higher level.

One of the goals of the emerging Fund for Our Jewish Future is to usher in a culture of vastly increased levels of Jewish giving. The fund plans to raise tens of millions immediately for priority action in Jewish education.
Hopefully, this will be followed by a series of focused funds to revivify Jewish commitment levels. Another goal of the fund is to approach individual communities and offer local philanthropists the opportunity to receive significant outside funds for projects that they are prepared to give meaningful down payments toward.

It is clear that what we need is imagination to view our Jewish future in a way that will capture the spirit of those Jews who are mostly on the sidelines today.

We don’t have many of the needed answers. But through hard work, creativity and, again, imagination, we can begin to reach the presently unreachable. With success, the result will be a renaissance of Jewish life in which our flourishing communal structures inspire greater Jewish involvement and commitment, which in turn inspire even greater levels of tzedakah.

Michael Steinhardt is co-founder of Birthright Israel.

10 Ideas For Creating Meaningful Volunteer Assignments


Any organization’s program and operational decisions should stem from the philosophy, beliefs and vision that are its reasons for being in the first place. These basic values, however, are often assumed, yet rarely articulated.

It is a worthwhile exercise to identify the values about volunteering in your organization. This helps executives, frontline employees and volunteers themselves think about why volunteers are involved at all. It also helps to create meaningful volunteer assignments, providing a framework for staff and volunteers to work together.

Discussing values about volunteering also puts civic engagement into a broader social context. It’s easy to get so caught up in the daily how-tos of managing a volunteer program that we lose sight of the fact that volunteering is bigger than our one setting, or even this one point in time.

1. Participation by citizens is vital to making democratic communities work

Participatory democracy is based on the value that it is a good thing for citizens to participate in running their communities and in making sure that things happen the way they want. This is the heart of volunteerism and is why, in a free society, volunteering is a right, not a privilege. (This is not to be confused with the parallel right of any agency or individual to refuse the services of a prospective volunteer.)

Volunteering generates a sense of ownership. People who get involved feel connected to others and affected by the outcome of their “sweat equity.” It’s the complete opposite of the attitude “that doesn’t concern me.”

2. Volunteers are more than free labor

First, volunteers are not “free.” There are costs to an agency for their support and tools, as well as out-of-pocket expenses incurred by the individuals donating time.

Most important, when placed in the right positions, volunteers bring a value-added component that actually changes or is lost when a paid employee does the same work. For example, legislators and funders are more receptive to the advocacy of someone not on the organization’s payroll — the perception of credibility that comes from lack of self-interest.

Similarly, some clients, such as children or probationers, may feel that paid workers see them as “just someone on their caseload,” while a volunteer is a “friend.”

The point is not that volunteers are better than employees. It’s that sometimes their status as volunteers can provide a useful difference. Therefore, volunteers can be vital to an organization and an asset even aside from the financial concerns of staffing.

3. Equal respect is due to work that is volunteered and work that is paid

Regardless of the perceptions just discussed, the value of work is determined by its intrinsic quality and impact. Work done by employees does not automatically have a higher value than that done by volunteers (and is also not of lesser value). The contributions of paid and volunteer workers are compatible, collaborative, and integrated.

Even more important, the skills and dedication of the person doing the work are not determined by the presence or absence of a paycheck. There are extraordinary volunteers and extraordinary employees. The potential for excellence always exists.

4. Volunteer involvement is a balance of three sets of rights: those of the client/recipient; those of the volunteer; and those of the agency

Despite wrangling over employee and volunteer points of view, each situation defines which perspective takes precedence. In most cases, the bottom line should be what is best for the recipient of service. But there are also agency and other long-term considerations. The key is not to presuppose that one perspective always outweighs the others.

5. Volunteers, as citizens of a free society, have the right to be mavericks

The way that genuine social change occurs is that a few pioneering volunteers are willing to be ostracized (even jailed) for their actions. While an agency has the right to refuse a placement to a volunteer, that individual has the right to continue to pursue the cause or issue as a private citizen. In fact, that’s exactly what leads to the founding of new organizations and institutions, changes in the law, and even changes in cultural mores (just consider how MADD transformed attitudes about drinking and driving).

This right to see things differently also raises an ethical consideration in how we develop assignments for volunteers within our agencies. Do we expect to keep volunteers always “under control?”

6. Volunteering is a neutral act — a strategy for getting things done

Volunteering is not inherently on the side of the angels, nor is it an end unto itself. It is a means to accomplishing a goal and is done by people on both sides of an issue. Volunteering is a method that allows people to stand up for their beliefs.

7. The best volunteering is an exchange in which the giver and the recipient both benefit

Volunteering should not be confused with charity or noblesse oblige — those who have so much, give to those who have so little. Because volunteering puts the time donor directly into the service delivered, the impact of the activity reverberates back to the volunteer in ways much more complex than writing a donation check. Further, when volunteers also benefit from their service, they have even more motivation to do a good job, which means better service to the recipient, and an upward spiral of reinforcement.

8. Volunteering empowers the people who do it

Volunteering empowers volunteers, both personally and politically. On the personal level, volunteering contributes to individual growth, self-esteem, sense of control, and ability to make a contribution to society. At the community level, the collective action of volunteers who share a commitment to a cause is extremely powerful — real clout for real change.

9. Volunteering is an equalizer

When people volunteer, it is often more important who they are as human beings than what they are on their resumes. In a volunteer role, people can rise to the level of their abilities regardless of their formal qualifications: teenagers can do adult-level work, those with life experience can contribute to client service without a master’s degree, etc. Similarly, when running in a fundraising marathon, the corporate CEO and the school custodian are indistinguishable, as are all members of a nonprofit board of directors who share the legal and fiduciary responsibilities of this position whether they are employed in professional capacities or represent grassroots perspectives.

10. Volunteering is inherently optimistic and future-oriented

No one gives time to a cause they feel will fail. In fact, the whole rationale for volunteering is to assure the success of a cause. So, while people may take a paying job that is relatively meaningless if the salary is enticing, the reward for volunteered service is accomplishment.

This also means that people volunteer with a vision of the future, often in hopes of a better future in which a problem or disease will be conquered, communities will be safe and inclusive, and the world will be in harmony. This may sound terribly mushy (which may be why such a value is not expressed every day), but it is ultimately true.

Susan J. Ellis is president of Energize, a training, publishing and consulting firm specializing in volunteerism. Her Web site is

Israel Real Estate Sales to Foreign Buyers on the Rise


Despite the vast influx of French immigrants and tourists who are buying up apartments in many parts of Israel, most notably in Netanya and Jerusalem, Americans are still in the forefront when it comes to big money properties.

There has been a tremendous growth in the foreign real estate market, according to Stuart Hershkowitz, deputy general manager and head of the international division of the Bank of Jerusalem.

“The main thrust of the Americans is on more expensive apartments,” Hershkowitz said.

Luxury market sales have shot up by 120 percent over the past 18 months, he said. “If we saw a $1 million deal once a month, we now see a $1 million deal once a week.”

Americans seeking to buy in Jerusalem prefer the neighborhoods of Talbiyeh, Rehavia, Katamon, Baka and Sha’arei Hessed, and are willing to pay up to $1million for apartments of less than 100 square meters, Hershkowitz said. Recently they have discovered Nahlaot, he added, and many people are now buying their holiday homes in this more colorful part of Jerusalem.

After the Americans, the most serious foreign buyers of real estate in Jerusalem are the British, followed by the French.

Some of the apartments are purchased as investments, Hershkowitz said, but 70 percent of buyers don’t rent out their apartments even if they come to Israel only once or twice a year. “They want their own place and they want it empty,” he said.

Hershkowitz recalled that four years ago, at the height of the intifada, few people were coming to Israel.

“Now the hotels are all full,” he said. In 2005, NIS 100 million was being spent in transactions by foreign investors per month, compared with NIS 200 million for the whole of 2000. “Whole communities are interested in buying property in Israel.”

Throughout the intifada, real estate prices either dropped or remained constant, said Hershkowitz, who envisaged that prices will now move into an upward spiral.

Former Israeli ambassador to Washington Zalman Shoval, who was one of the founders of the Bank of Jerusalem and is currently co-chairman of the First American Israel Real Estate Fund, had been to America a few days earlier in his capacity as a member of the international advisory board of the U.S. Council on Foreign Relations. Anyone who listens to American economists, Shoval said, might think that America is on the verge of bankruptcy. Certainly if one looked at the deficit in the U.S. balance of payments, there is room for worry, he remarked.

On the other hand, he said, there has been an impressive improvement in Israel’s economic situation. The deficit in the budget stands at NIS 2.9 billion compared to NIS 10.6 billion in the previous year; the gross domestic product per capita has expanded by 7.5 percent, and 180,000 new jobs have been made available.

In Shoval’s perception, this positive trend will continue, but could be hampered by the fact that Israel is in an election year. This could have a reverse effect on economic gains if the political leadership gives in to populist demands, he said.

 

Links to Christian Zionists Pose Peril


People are judged by the friends they keep. And for the Jewish right, some friends are unsavory, indeed.

Take the Rev. Pat Robertson, who was back in the news last week for statements that were both buffoonish and chilling. For some on the Jewish right, the televangelist/politician/businessman is mishpachah, thanks to his vocal opposition to Israel’s recent Gaza withdrawal.

But that connection is also having an impact on the broader Jewish community, most of which regards the more extreme members of the religious right as a little wacky and a lot dangerous.

The perception of a Jewish alliance with some of the most polarizing forces in American society threatens the broad-based, bipartisan support that has always been the goal of the pro-Israel movement. It has also been one of many factors driving the current effort by mainline Protestant denominations to “divest” from Israel.

Recently, Robertson warmed the hearts of Jewish right-wingers when he expressed rage at Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza and suggested God’s probable response: “‘I am going to judge the nations who have parted my land.’ He said ‘I am going to bring judgment against them.'”

Robertson is big on providential retribution. He once suggested America could face terrorists, tornadoes, earthquakes and “possibly a meteor” because of its tolerance of homosexuality. He also produced headlines when he seemed to agree with the Rev. Jerry Falwell, another big Israel supporter, that Sept. 11 was God’s way of chastising the nation for abortion, feminism and the ACLU.

That illustrates one of the biggest problems of linking pro-Israel efforts to the Christian Zionists: Robertson and his evangelical colleagues are among the nation’s most polarizing figures.

Robertson’s views resonate for millions of viewers of his “700 Club” broadcasts, but many others suspect he is just this side of a padded cell.

Although all evangelicals are not as colorful as the Christian Coalition founder, as a group, the ardent Christian Zionists tend to come from the most radical segments of American Christianity, with views on a range of subjects that are far outside the American mainstream and a self-righteous attitude that equates compromise with surrender.

That represents a direct threat to a pro-Israel movement that has always tried to bridge political and ideological gaps. There may be short-term benefits to allying pro-Israel activism to this rising force in American politics, but the long-term political costs could be enormous, as the nation’s bitter divisions widen.

The Christian Zionist connection is already affecting Jewish relations with other important groups. Mainline Protestant churches are waging economic warfare against Israel for a variety of reasons, but a contributing factor is rage over what is seen as a blanket Jewish endorsement of the Christian right, because of its support for Israel.

Only a small minority of Jews actively seek links to the religious right, but the reluctance of mainstream Jewish leaders to criticize their efforts reinforces the view that the community is cozying up to the pro-Israel evangelicals.

These new best friends of Israel also have a growing potential for influencing U.S. policy in destructive ways.

The theology of many Christian Zionists states there can be no peace for Israel until the longed-for “second coming” of Jesus, and that, in fact, the “end times” will include efforts to deceive the world with false promises of peace. That theology would be a matter of scant interest for most Jews, except for this concern: If the evangelicals’ new political power helps them prevent new peace efforts because they view all peacemaking in the here-and-now as literally satanic, the costs could be paid in Israeli blood.

In the Gaza debate, their Bible-based view that Israel shouldn’t give up an inch of land — some claim Israel’s holy birthright is “50 times” the size of the current Israel — encouraged the most radical elements in Israel, adding to the pressures that threaten to tear Israeli society apart.

Some Jewish leaders correctly point out that you don’t have to share a theology with groups to work with them on important public policy issues, and that with the Protestant mainline churches increasingly hostile, Israel needs all the friends it can get.

“We’ve agreed that when the Messiah comes, we’ll know who was right,” has become the mantra of Jewish defenders of the emerging relationship, when asked about the Christian prophecies. That misses the point that extreme theology and political power is a dangerous mix.

And mainstream Jewish leaders who keep quiet about the alliance miss the point that silence, in this case, is a form of approval.

 

The Same Boat


Former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Henry Cisneros once gave a speech about the tremendous growth of the Latino population in the United States.

"I hear what you’re saying," a non-Latino woman in the audience said, her voice filled with anxiety. "But can’t anybody do anything about it?"

Cisneros, who in 1981 became the first Latino mayor of a major U.S. city (San Antonio), didn’t share her fear. The enormous growth of the Latino population in the United States — and especially in the Los Angeles region — presents many challenges, but it also offers many opportunities. Not least among the latter is the opportunity for coalitions with other groups, like, for instance, us.

Many people in the Jewish community, to their credit, get this. Yuval Rotem, Israel’s ambassador to the Western United States, initiated a series of formal and informal gatherings with Latino and Jewish activists and politicians, including Cisneros and Rep. Howard Berman (D-Van Nuys). This year, as in 2002, these culminated in a twilight cruise aboard Fantasea Charter Yachts out of Marina del Rey.

"The Jewish community has always understood it doesn’t have the numbers, and it has to be in alliance with people who do," Cisneros said during his speech on the cruise. "There is a practical reason to make common cause."

Here are a few other reasons: one out of every three Californians is of Latino descent. One out of every two kindergarten students is of Latino descent. There are 35 million Latinos in the United States. By 2050 there will be 100 million. By 2010 more than half Los Angeles’ population will be Latino.

Some see this reality not as a common cause but as a common threat.

In his new book "Who Are We?" Harvard professor Samuel P. Huntington argues that Latino immigrants threaten America’s values, identity and way of life. In the March/April issue of Foreign Policy, Huntington presented the heart of his argument: that the contiguity, scale, illegality, regional concentration, persistence and historical presence of Hispanics in America make this immigration an imminent threat. Latinos are slow to assimilate, he argued, and the end result will be "a country of two languages and two cultures."

Huntington’s conclusions are highly arguable, and, to my mind, ultimately unpersuasive (for the piquant back-and-forth, visit www.foreignpolicy.com). He acknowledges that by the second generation, the overwhelming majority of Latinos — 93 percent, to be exact — are primarily English speaking.

Beyond that, as New America Foundation’s Gregory Rodriguez has long pointed out, Latinos are not a monolithic ethnic group, and have never built "parallel ethnic institutions," as have Jews and other minorities, or supported a separatist movement. Rodriguez wrote that Huntington ignores "Mexicans’ history of racial and cultural blending and the reams of survey data that show Mexican Americans place great faith in U.S. institutions."

The problem is not the numbers, but our fear of these numbers, and our lack of preparedness.

"Jews in Los Angeles can pull away from public schools and put gates on their communities," Berman said on the cruise, "but little by little the demographic and political complexion of our community is changing. For us to turn to a strategy of insularity when the country is changing is very dangerous."

We can choose not to engage for now, but the price for that will be grave. How well we manage the growth and change depends on how quickly we can fix four broken systems in our region — healthcare, housing, transportation and education — and how carefully we manage a fifth: our environment. Whatever coalitions we form should plunge headlong into these issues. Immigrants don’t trek to Los Angeles to become better Mexicans or Guatemalans; they come to be Americans. Improving these systems makes that task easier and faster.

Reading Huntington’s article put me in the mood, as theoretical treatises usually do, for reality. So last Sunday I took my daughter to Fiesta Broadway, the largest Cinco de Mayo celebration in America. The street was closed to traffic for several blocks, and filled with 500,000 people. As far as I could tell, two of them were Jewish — us — and not many more were non-Latino.

They crowded around hundreds of booths offering product samples of everything from Wishbone dressing to Lactaid. They ate hot dogs and tamales. I didn’t see Samuel Huntington there, but no doubt he would have had a different perception of this uninterrupted flow of humanity. He might have seen a "beachhead," as he put it, of a half-million potential separatists. I saw a half-million Americans, which is to say, eager consumers.

"American Jews have taught us how to be part of America and still maintain our culture," Cisneros said. "These things happen in the American Jewish community not accidentally but because of planning and resolution."

With planning and resolution, Latino-Jewish coalitions can be instrumental in proving Huntington’s worst fears wrong. Because just as we were on the evening of Rotem’s cruise, we are all on the same boat.

Happy Cinco de Mayo.

New Shot Fired in Media Bias War


The never-ending debate over the existence of left-wing bias in the media got a boost a few days ago with the revelation that the editor of one of America’s top daily newspapers had evidently joined the ranks of critics of the “liberal media.” A leaked memo from Los Angeles Times editor John Carroll discussed “the perception — and the occasional reality — that the Times is a liberal, ‘politically correct’ newspaper” and noted that “occasionally we prove our critics right.”

The specific target of his displeasure was a front-page story about a new Texas measure requiring women who seek abortions to receive counseling about abortion alternatives and abortion’s alleged risks. The article, Carroll complained, showed a clear slant in favor of the law’s pro-choice critics.

Conservatives generally responded to the story with a mix of, “What else is new?” and, “We told you so.” Meanwhile, some liberals voiced concern that the media were bending over backward to appease their right-wing critics.

These reactions are fairly typical. To most people on the right, the liberal slant in news coverage on television networks and in the major newspapers is a self-evident truth. To most people on the left, it’s a right-wing canard that much of the public believes, simply because it’s repeated often enough — for instance, in books such as last year’s best-seller, “Bias: A CBS Insider Exposes How the Media Distort the News,” by Bernard Goldberg, and “Slander: Liberal Lies About the American Right,” by Ann Coulter.

The latest book to charge into the battle of the media, “What Liberal Media?: The Truth About ‘Bias’ and the News,” by Nation columnist Eric Alterman, attempts to give ammunition to the liberal side. According to Alterman, liberal bias in the major news media did exist once but withered away with the start of the Reagan years. He argues that in the past two decades, conservative complaints on the subject have been either deluded or manipulative — a way to intimidate the media into favoring the right for fear of being accused of favoritism toward the left.

Like many liberals, Alterman deplores the prevalence of conservative opinions on talk radio, in television punditry and even in print commentary. But in all these cases, the audience knows what it’s getting: political opinion, not straight-up news coverage. Goldberg and other critics argue that truly insidious bias comes wrapped in the cloak of neutrality, when reporters confuse their biases with facts. Thus, the Los Angeles Times story on the Texas abortion law referred to “so-called counseling.”

Actually, Alterman concedes a major part of the conservative critics’ case. He writes that most elite journalists are “pro-choice, pro-gun control, pro-separation of church and state, pro-feminism, pro-affirmative action and supportive of gay rights,” and that coverage of these issues tends to reflect those views. On the other hand, he asserts that the media lean rightward on economic matters and tend to be tougher on Democrats than on Republicans in their political coverage.

Media criticism is a tricky business. It’s relatively easy, without resorting to outright distortion, to produce phony or dubious evidence of bias by focusing on particular articles or TV stories — or even portions of stories — while ignoring other things that do not fit one’s argument. To some extent, both sides in the media wars resort to such tactics.

What’s more, there’s some truth to the cliche that bias is in the eye of the beholder. Many of my liberal friends hold the media guilty of fawning on George W. Bush and demonizing Bill Clinton; my conservative friends believe the opposite.

In many ways, conservative and liberal critiques of media bias mirror each other. Both are skewed by the critics’ often extreme ideologies. To Coulter, journalists who have once worked for liberal politicians, such as New York Mayor John Lindsay, are members of the “far left,” comparable to the John Birch Society on the right. To Alterman, conservative pundits such as George Will and Bill O’Reilly are radical rightists, whose counterparts on the left would be unreconstructed Stalinist Alexander Cockburn and Cuban dictator Fidel Castro.

Both sides are also given to using media bias as a convenient excuse for the political failures of their camp. In my view, the conservatives, for all the flaws and the hyperbole, make a stronger case. Nonetheless, complaints about the liberal media often smack of a right-wing version of the “victim culture,” which conservatives, themselves, have so heartily mocked.

The dispute over media bias is unlikely to be settled any time soon. For the readers and viewers, a strong dose of skepticism toward both sides might be the only healthy response.


Cathy Young is a contributing editor at Reason magazine and a columnist at the Boston Globe.