< A Zion in the Sand

Transcript

Friday, February 16, 2007

BROOKE GLADSTONE:
This is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD:
And I'm Bob Garfield. We're about to go where many American news organizations prefer not to go, knowing full well that doing so amounts to an invitation for angry mail from all sides. I speak, of course, of the conflict in the Middle East and specifically the debate over Israel's policies in the occupied territories – or rather, the debate about that debate, as in how free are Americans to publicly criticize Israel?
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
Last year, two prominent academics, John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, published a paper accusing the pro-Israel lobby of hijacking American foreign policy and trying to silence its media critics. The response came fast and furious, with charges of anti-Semitism.

The uproar had barely subsided last fall when Jimmy Carter released his book, provocatively titled Palestine: Peace, not Apartheid. More controversy, more charges of anti-Semitism.

Last month, the influential American Jewish Committee hit back with an essay by Indiana University professor Alvin Rosenfeld. It was called Progressive Jewish Thought and the New Anti-Semitism, and it charged that liberal American Jews, from playwright Tony Kushner to Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen, were aiding and abetting Israel's enemies. Was that proof that powerful Jewish groups were squelching debate? We asked J.J. Goldberg, the editor of the liberal Jewish daily, The Forward, what he thought about Rosenfeld's essay.
J.J. GOLDBERG:
He maintains the position that progressive is tantamount to anti-Israel and anti-Jewish. There are vast numbers, probably more Jews who call themselves progressive or liberal who are pro-Israel, pro-Jewish, who are [LAUGHS] generals in the Israeli Army, who are progressive. But there's not a hint of recognition of that in the booklet, so that if you read it, you have to assume that when somebody says, I'm a progressive Jew, you have to watch out for an anti-Semite. And that verges, in my mind, on slander.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
So the article starts with a discussion of historic anti-Semitism, mentioning things like the protocols of the Elders of Zion and the new Arabic translations of Mein Kampf. And then it goes on to basically equate criticism of Israeli policies in the Palestinian territories with that kind of anti-Semitism.
J.J. GOLDBERG:
Well, there are people out there who are saying – I would say with increasing vigor – that Israeli policies in the West Bank toward the Palestinians are an inherent outgrowth of the nature of a Zionist state, and therefore Israel shouldn't exist.

Now, for many activists in the Jewish community, the notion that Israel shouldn't exist is tantamount to the notion that the Jews alone among all the world's peoples aren't allowed to have a state, that they've been singled out. And so it becomes a vision of anti-Semitism.

Now what he's got is a collection of Jews who say that creating Israel was a mistake. Then he's got people who say one could reach that conclusion the way things are going. Then he's got people who say it may not have been a smart idea, although now it is a reality. And then he's got people who say - sometimes I feel like this, I'm so frustrated.

So it reaches from Israel is evil and Jews are evil down a slippery slope to, I got up this morning and I was just fed up.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
Now, there have been arguments about Israel within the Jewish community forever, pretty much. But do you think that the debate has recently intensified?
J.J. GOLDBERG:
The debate has certainly intensified. The conflict, the longer it goes on and the more violent it becomes and the more intractable it seems, the less sympathy there is for Israel. There's a sense in other countries, and increasingly in the intellectual class in this country, that the world has reached an incendiary state that has, as at least part of its core, this conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, and it's making people angry and frustrated.

In my mind, the best way to stop that alarming growth of hostility toward Israel and its allies – namely us Jews – is to try and resolve the conflict, rather than try and stop people from feeling the way they feel.

There's an old Groucho Marx line in one of his movies where he looks at somebody and says, who are you going to believe, me or your own two eyes?
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
[LAUGHS]
J.J. GOLDBERG:
At a certain point, people are really, really, really angry, and you have to start saying, well, what's making them so angry.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
One of the prime examples that people point to when they say that organized Jewish groups are squelching debate in this country is the recent example of New York University historian Tony Judt who wrote an article in 2003 that has been highly criticized by Jewish groups. He was scheduled to speak at the Polish consulate.
J.J. GOLDBERG:
In fact, he was scheduled to be a lecturer at a group that rents space from the Polish Cultural Center in New York once a month. It was publicized in a local newspaper. Two Jewish organizations called up to find out what it was about. The first was the Anti-Defamation League. An official from the ADL called up, found out it was a rented space and hung up, and that was the end of it.

The American Jewish Committee went a step further. Their executive director called and said, do you know what the likely reaction would be if you go ahead with this program. The consul said, no, I don't know. He said, well, there would probably be anger. And, in fact, there would; there would be picket lines. At which point the ambassador googled Tony Judt and found out how much he's disliked among activist Jews, and decided to cancel the program.

Was it a threat or was it friendly advice that the streets are going to erupt? Probably the latter. It was taken as a threat. And the worst part is that the Anti-Defamation League, which is the better known of the two organizations, became the whipping boy for something that it was only tangentially involved in.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
So let's talk about the Jimmy Carter book in which in the title comes the word "Apartheid." Do you think that the anger generated by this book is a question of people overly hung up on the title?
J.J. GOLDBERG:
The title does, to a degree, reflect the book. The book takes the Israel/Palestine conflict and lays it out as though it were entirely Israel's fault, as though Israel had the opportunity at every stage, going back 38 years, to choose the path of peace, and rejected it. And the implication in the title, Peace or Apartheid, is it did that because there is a belief system, which sees Jews as somehow superior to Arabs.

That is deeply offensive to the vast majority of Jews. It doesn't reflect, I think, the fundamental truths of the situation. It's as unfair as Alvin Rosenfeld's use of the word "progressives" and "anti-Semitism" to draw a parallel that really doesn't exist. They're both highly inflammatory titles.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
And yet, last month in your own newspaper, you published an opinion piece about the Carter book by Yossi Beilin, a member of Israel's Knesset, and he basically said that while he disagreed with the term "apartheid," he'd heard this argument all before, within Israel. Would you say that it's simply easier to level criticisms at the Israeli state in Israel than it is here?
J.J. GOLDBERG:
There is certainly truth in that. I'd also add that it's easier to level criticisms at Israel in Israel than at the Palestinians among Palestinians, so that you hear a more nuanced debate among the Israelis than you do among the Palestinians, which would create the impression that the Israelis have more to regret than the Palestinians do, because you don't hear the expressions of regret on the Palestinian side.

Now in Israel - because they're living in this situation, it's their lives on the line, it's their children getting blown up and shot - they need to find a way out of this mess. So there is going to be a readiness to consider all kinds of possibilities.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:
And is that why you think that there are discussions taking place in the Israeli press that we simply don't see here in the American media?
J.J. GOLDBERG:
We're hearing it right now, on this program. We're hearing it on this program because Jimmy Carter published a book, because various professors have published papers. There is a very lively discussion in the American media.

There is a tendency among American Jews and among American allies of Israel to view open discussion of Israel's faults as a threat to Israel's existence. Because of that tendency, people are afraid. When your switchboard lights up with 500 angry phone calls, you're going to think twice. If you're a congressman and you get 15 or 20 angry letters or somebody organizing fundraising for your opponent, no matter who it is, because you've offended them, you will think twice.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
These perceptions you have about how the debate has transpired in this country come from the editor of a left-leaning newspaper that would probably be tarred as progressive in the worst possible way by some of the groups that we're discussing, and yet you feel that it's wrong to say that they have successfully squelched the discussion in this country, that actually they may have tried but they haven't done it.
J.J. GOLDBERG:
I would say the amount we hear of complaint about the squelching is proof that there isn't squelching.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
J.J., thank you so much.
J.J. GOLDBERG:
Thank you, Brooke. It's a pleasure to be here.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
J.J. Goldberg is editor-in-chief of The Jewish Daily Forward in New York City.