Just Say No to NPR

Recent boycotts of media outlets, launched mostly by grass-roots groups concerned about anti-Israel bias, have prompted criticism from a few establishment Jewish organizations that have argued that because the Jews and Israel have been the victims of boycotts, the tactic is illegitimate and immoral.

But these arguments ignore certain basics.

First, to state the obvious, the current campaigns bear no resemblance to the protracted, global economic, diplomatic and cultural exclusions Israel has suffered or the ferocious campaigns against Jewish businesses in Nazi-era Europe. Those anti-Jewish boycotts, dictated by ruling regimes, were rooted in a hateful bigotry and aimed at the elimination of a people and a state, not the redress of an offending policy.

The protests against The New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Philadelphia Inquirer and others are initiatives by individuals, not governments, and are freely joined by anyone who accepts the arguments of the campaigners. No one is compelled to end their subscriptions to the publications, just as no one, surely, is compelled to continue them.

Boycotts in the American context have long been a tool of consumer complaint and social policy activism, sometimes an effective one — often not — and Jews, including Jewish organizations, have participated in them.

For example, was the Central Conference of American Rabbis wrong in 1985 to call on 1.2 million Reform congregants to boycott nonunion California grapes in support of Cesar Chavez’s campaign?

From another perspective, to say that boycotts should not be used by Jews because Jews have been the victims of boycotts makes no more sense than to assert that because guns and soldiers have been wielded against Jews and Israel, Jews should forego their use, no matter what the provocation, in order to present a more pure moral face to the world.

Although the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA) has not initiated or sponsored boycott campaigns against any national or regional newspapers, there has been a call to suspend financial support for one media outlet until its harmful anti-Israel bias ends.

That institution is National Public Radio (NPR).

The network receives tax support, both directly and indirectly, via the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and aggressively solicits financial gifts from listeners and underwriters (who are actually business and institutional advertisers). A matrix of local and national boards cultivates supporters and helps advance NPR’s fundraising efforts.

Are Jewish listeners under obligation to provide both the involuntary support to NPR, entailed in their taxes allotted to the network, and additional donations in response to the constant entreaties by station managers and NPR officials?

Are Jewish listeners duty bound to send checks to help finance programming in which grave allegations are routinely leveled at Israel without a single Israeli given the right of response?

The many examples of distortion are far too numerous to recite in detail. A July 1 program, for instance, charged that Israel continuously shoots at innocent sewer repairmen in Gaza, thwarting efforts to assure healthy conditions for Palestinian civilians. So relentless are Israeli snipers, according to NPR, that international “activists” must position themselves, physically, between the shooters and the repairmen. Palestinian “human rights” and medical workers all join in attesting to the allegedly malevolent role of Israel.

But not a single Israeli is permitted to answer the charges.

Israel Defense Forces (IDF) spokesmen categorically denied the NPR claims to CAMERA and said, moreover, NPR had never contacted them about the story. The IDF spokesman also noted that the network’s reporters rarely call to fact check allegations made against the military.

Under public pressure in this instance, NPR posted a note on its Web site expressing “regrets” for failing to include any Israeli spokesman. The regrets were not broadcast on-air where a substantial audience might hear them, nor was there a follow-up story presenting the Israeli version of events.

The “regrets” were evidently insincere since one-sided, accusatory coverage continues unabated.

An especially incendiary story on Aug. 31 by Anne Garrels included six Palestinians leveling charges against Israel for allegedly depriving them of needed water in West Bank towns.

No Israeli or pro-Israel voices were included.

Garrels herself added to the deceptions, twice stating that only half of West Bank towns have tap water. What she neglected to mention is that all towns were given the option of being connected to the National Water Carrier to tap water, but some refused on political grounds, refusing to recognize Israel’s presence in any guise.

That excluded bit of information would have radically altered Garrels’ story of blameless Palestinians victimized by stone-hearted Israelis. But her reports are typically short on factual accuracy and long on emotive editorializing.

Troubled at rising public dismay over the coverage, NPR executives have responded, not by rigorous attention to assuring every broadcast is balanced and accurate, but by hiring a PR firm to help spin their image in the Jewish community.

All the while, the distortions continue.

A media outlet unwilling to address serious substantive complaints through the normal channels of interaction over a more than a decade, which is the case with NPR, cannot expect the Jewish community to underwrite unfair and damaging distortions.

What self-respecting people supports its own defamation?

Andrea Levin is executive director of CAMERA,

Shas Blinks First

Prime Minister Ehud Barak last weekend won his first trial of strength with his religious coalition partners. The Israel Electric Corporation defied Orthodox protests and laboriously transported 250 tons of turbine parts over Friday night from a factory in Ramat Hasharon, north of Tel Aviv, to a new power station 80 miles away in Ashkelon.

Officials appeared to have postponed the shipment while they reviewed alternative routes and timings, but, with the panache of a commando operation, they decided at the last minute that they had no choice and sent the massive load on its 13-hour journey at 8 p.m. Hundreds of secular Jews lined the highway and cheered the convoy of flatbed trucks that was accompanied by nine police cars and crawling along at barely 5 miles per hour.

The traffic police argued that moving the turbine on a weekday would snarl up major roads for hours in the heart of the country. Engineers ruled out minor roads for fear that bridges would collapse under the weight. Another suggestion, to transport the load over three nights, was dropped because no suitable stop-over points were found along the route.

The Sephardic Shas Party, which had threatened to pull its 17 Knesset members out of the coalition if the turbine rolled, was left spluttering with indignation. National Infrastructure Minister Eli Suissa, who spearheaded resistance to the move, branded it “unprecedented chutzpah.”

The Electric Corporation decision was endorsed in advance by the prime minister, who insisted afterward that it was a professional, not a political, matter. “In line with the status quo, which has been in place for 50 years,” his office announced, “the movement of such unusually large loads has been carried out on Shabbat and festivals.”

Government officials pointed out that 20 similar journeys had taken place on the Sabbath over the past six months, two as recently as July. Until now, the religious parties had never complained.

The battle of the turbine is not yet over, however. Another five shipments, each as huge as last weekend’s, have still to be moved south. The same experts who couldn’t find an alternative to Sabbath “desecration” last week are looking again, but the dilemma hasn’t changed.

Shas is still breathing fire and brimstone, with United Torah Judaism and the National Religious Party panting reluctantly in its wake. But few, if any, political observers believe it will pull out. Shas leaders know that Barak could manage without them. He would have little difficulty adding secular fringe parties to the 58 seats he would still command in the 120-member parliament.

The turbine campaign is widely interpreted as part of the struggle to succeed the disgraced Shas leader, Aryeh Deri, who is due back in Israel this weekend after a summer’s seclusion in New Jersey. Eli Suissa, who wants to stop the loads moving, is pitted against the more malleable Labor and Social Affairs Minister Eli Yishai, who enjoys the blessing of the movement’s spiritual leader, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef.

More to the point, Shas cannot afford to be out of government. Rabbi Yosef said so in as many words during the coalition negotiations in June (which made it much easier for Barak to bring Shas on board with a minimum of concessions). The Shas independent school network, the foundation of its power in the impoverished “development” towns and inner-city slums, has a deficit of at least 65 million shekels (about $16 million).

“As of today,” Shlomo Ceszana wrote in Ma’ariv this week, “the network is on the verge of collapse. It has no money for salaries, and, though it expands every year by thousands of pupils, it wants to keep growing. Such growth is only possible if the funds keep flowing.”

For funds read state subsidies. Over the past decade, Shas has eaten into the Likud’s blue-collar heartland by providing free education, from kindergarten up, for more hours a day than the state secular and religious schools can afford. It throws in free meals as a bonus. All of this is paid for by the often-reluctant taxpayer.

The expansion was particularly marked during Binyamin Netanyahu’s precarious government, when religious parties were constantly upping the price for their allegiance. Barak promised to bail out the Shas schools, but only if they opened their account books, taught secular as well as Torah studies and raised their teaching standards.

Rabbi Yosef knows that this is his only hope. Without the fund-raising talents of Aryeh Deri, who is appealing a four-year corruption sentence, Shas has no alternative source of finance. It would also lose the patronage commanded by the party’s four ministries, which provide hundreds of jobs for Shas loyalists.

Ma’ariv’s Ceszana estimates that Rabbi Yosef “controls the tap on a budget of about 1.5 billion shekels in the Religious Affairs Ministry, and the appointment of local rabbis and religious councils.”

Without the schools, without the charismatic Deri and without the pay packets, Shas would soon shrink back to its old level of about four Knesset members. It doesn’t look like a party about to commit suicide.