Truthbusters


In the checkout line of any Whole Foods Market, you can pick up a copy of a magazine called Adbusters. It’s a 120,00-circulation leftist journal, published in Vancouver, with a corresponding Web site that prides itself on deconstructing the commercial forces its editors believe erode “our physical and cultural environments.”

The current March/April issue features a lead-in piece by editor Kalle Lasn titled, “Why won’t anyone say they are Jewish?” In it, Lasn points out the fact that of the 50 or so neocons influencing United States diplomatic and defense policy either within government or in media and think tanks, about half are Jewish.

“Deciding exactly who is a neocon is difficult since some neocons reject the term while others embrace it. Some shape policy from within the White House, while others are more peripheral, exacting influence indirectly as journalists, academics and think tank policy wonks. What they all share is the view that the U.S. is a benevolent hyper-power that must protect itself by reshaping the rest of the world into its morally superior image. And half of the them are Jewish.”

The last sentence wasn’t an aside, it was the point. To prove it, Lasn thoughtfully listed alphabetically every neocon he could think of (he missed some) and put a black dot next to the Jews (he missed some). The design department may have flirted with the idea of a yellow star, but decided to go for understated. The fact that many of these post-Cold War warriors are Jewish has been remarked upon and written about quite a bit since the lead up to the second Gulf War, especially in the European and Arab press. Pat Buchanan has been hyperventilating about it for years.

Lasn presented his point not in the spirit of revelation, but of social inquiry. “But the point is not that Jews (who make up less than 2 percent of the American population) have a monolithic perspective,” he wrote. “Indeed, American Jews overwhelmingly vote Democrat and many of them disagree strongly with Ariel Sharon’s policies and Bush’s aggression in Iraq. The point is simply that the neocons seem to have a special affinity for Israel that influences their political thinking and consequently American foreign policy in the Middle East.”

And the point of “The Passion of the Christ” was not to prove that heinous Jews dressed as medieval Shylocks killed Christ, just that the Temple priests had an affinity for power and money that led to the death of the Christian savior. Hey, as Mel Gibson says, the facts are the facts.

At the end of his piece, Lasn posed the question, “Does the Jewishness of the neocons influence American foreign policy in the Middle East? Or is this analysis just more anti-Semitism?”

I think on “Law and Order” they call that leading the witness. On the eve of Gulf War II, I wrote that if it were to turn into Vietnam II, fingers may very well start pointing at these Jewish neocons. After all, as David Brooks wrote in that Jewish neocon redoubt, The New York Times, in the code language of conspiracy mongers, “con is short for ‘conservative’ and neo is short for ‘Jewish.'” The hard left and hard right converge, as humorist Tom Lehrer always knew they would, in their suspicion of “The Jews.”

A policy maker’s religion can be relevant, whether you are Jewish, Muslim or born-again Christian.

Adbusters is free to single out Jewish names on a list, but to do so without a deeper, considered analysis of what that so-called phenomenon means is an invitation to anti-Semitism and conspiracy-mongering. It’s incitement under the guise of insightfulness.

We are on the cusp of Purim, a joyous, joke-filled holiday (see cover) that recalls a time Jews found themselves in the corridors of power yet faced with an existential threat. Then, as now, Jews were powerful and weak, poor and rich, assimilated and separate, liberal and conservative; yet the Hamans of the world were all too happy to scapegoat them all and be done with it.

“If you can give your foes a collective name – liberals, fundamentalists or neocons – you can rob them of their individual humanity,” Brooks wrote. “All inhibitions are removed. You can say anything about them. You get to feed off their villainy and luxuriate in your own contrasting virtue. … Improvements in information technology have not made public debate more realistic. On the contrary, anti-Semitism is resurgent. Conspiracy theories are prevalent. Partisanship has left many people unhinged.”

Happy Purim.

British Writer Snubs Pro-Israel Letters


A British newspaper columnist who admits that he ignores pro-Israel letters to the editor if the writer has a Jewish name will not be punished, the country’s media watchdog has decided.

Richard Ingrams, a columnist for the Observer newspaper, made the remark last month in a column criticizing Barbara Amiel, a journalist and the wife of Jerusalem Post proprietor Conrad Black.

"I have developed a habit when confronted by letters to the editor in support of the Israeli government to look at the signature to see if the writer has a Jewish name. If so, I tend not to read it," Ingrams wrote in his July 13 column.

The Observer received about 50 letters and e-mails in response to the column, including one from the Board of Deputies, the umbrella organization that represents most British Jews.

Neville Nagler, the director general of the board, called Ingrams’ position "quite unacceptable."

"If a Jewish person chooses to support the Israeli government, this does not make his argument any less legitimate than a non-Jewish person’s," Nagler wrote. "It is deeply worrying that a journalist of your paper is so willing to blind himself to one side of this sad conflict."

Another person who complained to the paper about the column pointed out that many Jews are highly critical of Israel.

"Ingrams would thus exclude names such as [Noam Chomsky, Susan Sontag and David Grossman — all fierce critics of Israeli policy –] from the public debate on Israel, on much the same ethnic principle as Jews were once blackballed from certain gentlemen’s clubs," R.J. Chisholm wrote.

The Observer’s own journalist employed to investigate reader complaints admitted that the piece was "inflammatory" and "bigoted."

"I agree with a reader who pointed out that Ingrams’ piece displayed such a degree of prejudice against Jews that it will be impossible ever again to take seriously anything he writes about Israel," journalist Stephen Pritchard wrote on Aug. 3.

But the Press Complaints Commission, which received two formal complaints about the piece, has decided not to take action against Ingrams.

"It is clear there has been no breach of the code" governing newspapers, commission spokesman Stephen Abell told Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

Complaints were filed on two grounds, he explained: accuracy and discrimination.

The column did not breach the accuracy clause because it was clearly labeled opinion, rather than news, Abell said. And the code’s discrimination clause applies only to named individuals, not to groups, he said.

"[Ingrams] wasn’t naming individuals, he was making a point about a group," Abell said.

The column might have been offensive, he said, but that is not a violation of newspaper guidelines.

"Matters of taste and offensiveness aren’t covered by the code," he said.

Norman Lebrecht, a former columnist for Britain’s Jewish Chronicle newspaper, supported the commission’s decision.

He called it a matter of courtesy to read one’s mail, adding, "If a columnist chooses to be discourteous, that isn’t a matter for the Press Complaints Commission."

"There is no anti-Semitism" in Ingrams’ refusal to read mail from Jews in support of Israel, he told JTA.

The reaction to the column stemmed from anxiety in the Jewish community, Lebrecht said.

"There is an awful lot of nervousness in the community at the moment, [and the complaints] are a manifestation of that," he said.

In May, the Press Complaints Commission rejected a complaint that a cartoon depicting Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon eating a baby was anti-Semitic. The commission said it based its decision on the grounds that the cartoon criticized Sharon’s policies, not his religion.

Tales Told Out of School


(This column is prompted by the controversy at the Los Angeles Times over the Staples Magazine special issue, and the mea culpa independent report the paper published last Monday.)

Some of the differences between The Jewish Journal and the Los Angeles Times are obvious. They have more than 300 editors and reporters; we would need to draft a couple of additional reporters just to form a minyan.

I suspect our readers and advertisers differ as well in their assumptions and expectations. It is commonplace for a Jewish organization to telephone and request a story about a special event, or a dinner, in which a major figure or benefactor is being honored. These are not just our advertisers asking for coverage, but our readers as well. We try to give some mention( a picture and a caption) precisely because they are readers.

Don’t misunderstand: This is not a case of pleasing advertisers indirectly. A few years ago a national Jewish agency drew attention to itself because of improprieties in its budget and accounting procedures. Our ad representative came into the editorial offices and pleaded with me not to run the story. We might lose the account, she said.

But we would look like a sell-out to our readers, I replied. They would certainly discover which story we had failed to run and why. We need to publish an accurate account out of self interest, I explained. It isn’t principle at all.

Every newspaper presents a different image to different readers. A close friend of mine complains that we do not provide adequate religious coverage. He’s a rabbi and a scholar based in one of the Jewish colleges in town. The Orthodox community believes, by and large, that we are anti-Orthodox… even though Julie Fax, our religion editor, is herself Orthodox. But many of our columnists and correspondents are not, and it is their biases to which the Orthodox respond.

We try to listen, to balance, to adjust. We are, after all, a community newspaper. But we are not a blackboard, present simply to reflect back all the beliefs and views of our readers. A newspaper — particularly a community newspaper — needs to make judgment calls, needs to inform about facts and truths which may at times seem unpalatable; needs to help create a passionate and informed citizenry; needs to write in what its editors perceive are the interests of the community.

One problem is that we — journalists and editors — are fallible. We make mistakes; errors of judgment. And they are there in print and large type for everyone to read. When we published a cover story on Monica Lewinsky, many readers of The Jewish Journal were outraged.

Recently we appear to have antagonized our readers once again, when we published a lead story on the 130 most influential Jews in Los Angeles. The complaints still have not ceased.

Of course we also “kill” stories. Sometimes the facts seems thin to me; sometimes the story just isn’t there. These are decisions all editors make, all the time; at The Jewish Journal no less than at the Los Angeles Times.

Occasionally the editorial call is made at our newspaper because of the community itself. In the first few years of this newspaper I killed a story that Naomi Pfefferman wrote about a leading Jewish institution in our city. She had worked long and hard on the story; had interviewed the many parties involved in what was an in-house conflict. Facts were checked and double checked. It was first rate reporting.

And then I set it aside. I am still not certain I made the right call. But in that story everyone emerged tarnished. It may not have been my finest hour, but it definitely was not theirs. These were respected, much loved leaders in the community. But they were behaving badly. And the person challenging them did not remain unscathed either. It was, if you will, all negative.

Should our readers have been informed about a battle that tarred everyone? I may have underestimated them/you. But we were relatively new; had not yet earned the right to speak in behalf of the community. And so I apologized to Naomi and did not run the story. There was no advertising pressure applied.

I am not sure I would follow the same course today.

Readers and advertisers. All newspapers must serve each constituency. But the conflict at the Los Angeles Times today seems to me fueled by a separate agenda: It reads to me like a struggle between the reporters and editors on one side and management, that is, money men, on the other. It is the journalists who feel embarrassed and betrayed, more so than the readers, particularly after their peers in New York and at The Wall Street Journal have called into question their newspaper’s integrity.

In short, the present pitched battle at the Los Angeles Times looks to be more about the self respect of the working press than a deep, abiding concern for either readers or advertisers. –Gene Lichtenstein