Should the American Jewish World provide varied sources of information and contending opinions about Israel, or should the paper simply serve as a source of hasbara, pro-Israeli propaganda?
This is the question some of my colleagues have been discussing through a listserv for members of the American Jewish Press Association. Simply by reporting on local demonstrations against Israel’s war in Gaza, editors of Jewish newspapers around the United States are getting flak from their readers.
The AJW did not publish an edition last week. (We published a combined edition for Jan. 9-16, and we will publish another combined edition in July.) As it turned out, it was a week that saw more war and suffering on the Gaza front, rocket attacks from Gaza on Israel, and local events in reaction to the war.
There was a well attended Jewish solidarity gathering for Israel on Jan. 11 at the Sabes JCC. Elected officials and others spoke on behalf of Israel. In an eloquent expression of the discomfit felt among most Minnesota Jews about the civilian casualties in Gaza, Rabbi David Locketz, of Bet Shalom Congregation, reminded those in attendance of the Exodus story that is explained in the Talmud: “We are taught there that when the Israelites miraculously crossed the sea on dry land, angels up above were watching the Egyptians. As the walls of water folded back over Pharaoh’s army and horses, destroying them all, the celestial beings began to cheer jubilantly.Â In that moment, God rebuked them saying, ‘My creatures are perishing and you sing praises?’”
In his invocation to the gathering, Locketz continued, “There is so much pain it is hard to sing praises of Israel’s successes when God’s creatures are perishing. But we also know that Israel has to do what Israel is doing.Â Even so, doing what is right doesn’t always feel good.”
Perhaps she came late to the event and missed the remarks by Rabbi Locketz, but Rep. Michele Bachmann asserted that the solidarity gathering was “a day of great joy and a day of great triumph.” It was a discordant remark; rather, the day of the Sabes JCC event was one for solemn reflection on the future of Israel and the relationship of our Jewish community to Israel.
On the street leading to the Sabes JCC parking lot, demonstrators, including a number of Jews, demonstrated against the war. Just as the last editorial in the AJW was deemed by some readers as too tepid or equivocal about supporting Israel’s latest war, a Jewish protester on Jan. 11 called on me to denounce Israel’s “genocide” of Palestinians in Gaza. The truth of the matter likely lies somewhere on the continuum between purely demonizing Israel and standing up for Israel no matter what political and military course its leaders pursue.
Since we last went to press, both the U.S. Senate and the House of Representatives passed resolutions supporting Israel’s war in Gaza. However, the two House members representing the Twin Cities — Keith Ellison and Betty McCollum — voted “present,” rather than supporting or opposing the nonbinding resolution. Both Ellison and McCollum defended their votes by citing the fact that the pro-Israel resolution did not mention the civilian casualties in Gaza.
For his part, Ellison said that the resolution, which was overwhelmingly passed by House members, “does little to move toward a stable and durable peace in the Middle East. I cannot vote against this resolution because I believe every country in the world has the right to defend itself.”
The congressman from Minneapolis added, “I have been to Sderot and I have seen firsthand both the physical and emotional destruction caused by the rocket attacks launched by Hamas. Israeli citizens living near the Gaza border have been repeatedly harassed and live daily in fear. Hamas, a terrorist organization founded with the goal of destroying Israel, has launched more than 6,000 rockets and mortars into Israel since 2005. Last fall I voted for a resolution specifically condemning these rocket attacks into Israel. At the same time I cannot vote for this resolution because it barely mentions the human suffering of the Palestinians in Gaza. Over 750 people have been killed, including 250 children and 50 women, with over 3,000 people injured.”
Since Ellison made that statement, the death toll in Gaza has risen to 1,300, according to Palestinian medical officials, with around 5,000 injured. It was difficult to get reliable reports from Gaza, because Israeli authorities effectively barred journalists from the territory during the three-week war.
I also want to note that Rep. Ellison was invited by one of his campaign workers to speak at a protest rally on the steps of the State Capitol during the outset of the war. Ellison told the AJW that Amir, a student at the University of Minnesota, invited him to speak at the rally. Ellison said that he wanted to address the protest rally and explain that Minnesotans can “use this tragic moment to talk about why Mideast peace is so vitally important,” and to urge the U.S. government to actively engage in peacemaking efforts.
Someone in the crowd on the Capitol steps called on Ellison to condemn Israel.
“I said I’m not here to condemn anybody, then the crowd erupted in boos, and I tried to finish but I couldn’t finish,” the congressman related during a telephone interview from his Washington office. The protesters booed Ellison off the podium.
Regarding the votes by Ellison and McCollum on the House resolution, Steve Hunegs, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC), said that the matter amounts to a “disagreement among friends.” He continues to regard both House members as supporters of Israel.
The tragic recent events in the Middle East have inflamed passions, and have rippled far beyond the battlefield and the region. Some benighted opponents of Israel have vandalized synagogues in this country — transferred their anger against Israeli government actions to the Jewish community generally. Some of the most severe reactions have taken place in Europe, such as the situation that has developed in Sweden, according to Anders Carlberg, president of the Jewish community in Gothenburg (see page 5).
It is clear that what happens in Israel affects Jews in the Diaspora; so, American Jews — tied to Israel through religion and peoplehood, and through their government’s support of Israel — should not shrink from forming an opinion, or owning up to their conflicted nature, about Israeli policies.
This newspaper will continue to attempt to foster a respectful and civil discussion of the issues. As we note over and over, there is a vigorous debate in Israel about the course of the ship of state. In the case of war in Gaza, Israelis of all stripes have their problems with the current government and those vying to lead it — there are elections set for next month.
To end on a note of hope, the AJW staff gathered around the television on Tuesday to watch the inauguration of Barack Obama. Americans recognize the tough job he’s taken on and wish him success in the Oval Office.
We did not expect that Obama would come into office and be faced with the aftermath of the war in Gaza. The U.S., despite its involvement in two foreign wars, still has outsize influence in the Middle East, and the Obama administration can influence the seemingly intractable Israeli-Palestinian conflict toward stability and, perhaps, a just and peaceful resolution.
The new Obama administration gives us reason to hope for better days ahead. And we were thrilled to hear the benedictory words of the Rev. Joseph Lowery, an associate of the late Martin Luther King, Jr., who updated the passages from Micah (and Isaiah), that nations should “beat tanks into tractors,” and that every man shall sit under his vine and fig tree and live in peace and unafraid. And, finally, the minister quoted the prophet Amos, who looked ahead to the day when people will “let justice roll down like waters.”
And we say, “Amen!”
— Mordecai Specktor
(American Jewish World, 1.23.09)