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Jewish World Review July 5, 2001 / 14 Tamuz, 5761

Jonathan Tobin

Jonathan Tobin
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Missing in Action

American Jewish support for Israel is handicapped by a media-fed indifference -- RECENTLY while listening to the news on National Public Radio, the announcer reading the headlines inadvertently summed up the contradictions and misperceptions inherent in the conventional wisdom of the day about the Middle East. Listeners were told that a Palestinian suicide-bomber had managed to murder two Israeli soldiers with a roadside bomb, and then added that "both sides exchanged complaints about cease-fire violations."

The brief summary of this terrible story of how two Israelis were lured to their deaths by a Palestinian Arab pretending to need roadside assistance was bad enough. But it was not enough to shatter the frame of reference of the news writers or the editors at NPR. No matter what the Palestinians do, the best the Israelis can hope for in the information war is an "evenhanded" account that will see the two sides as morally equivalent.

Events in the last year have shown that this mindset has proven to be virtually invincible. If the Palestinians' rejection last summer of former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak's ridiculous offer of more than 90 percent of the territories and half of Jerusalem could not convince the media that the Palestinians don't want peace, then would anything? The Palestinian decision to follow up this move with a decision to launch a low-level war of attrition and terrorism against Israel -- the so-called "al-Aqsa intifada" -- didn't change it either.

The complaints of friends of Israel about this situation have generally fallen on deaf ears in the media. That is bad news for those of us who care about the integrity of journalism. But how much damage is it really doing to Israel?

Critics of the media have pointed out, with some justification, that despite all of the garbage that is published or broadcast about Israel in this country, the Jewish state's hold on American public opinion has remained relatively strong. Polls show that most Americans support Israel.

Despite the affectionate coverage their cause has generated from foreign journalists, the Arabs are handicapped by Palestinian Authority leader Yasser Arafat's well-earned reputation as a bloodthirsty murderer and terrorist. But what worries me most about this is not the effect the bad press has on that ordinary, fairminded American.

Most of our compatriots out in the heartland are already skeptical about the media. And many of them base their support of Israel on factors that have little to do with what is said on "All Things Considered" or published in The New York Times, and everything to do with they've read in the Bible and believe in their hearts to be just.

No, I've come to believe the real danger that anti-Israel media bias poses is to American Jewish opinion of Israel. After all, the folks out in Kansas don't care that much about what the Times or even The Philadelphia Inquirer, is saying. But many Jews are still insecure enough to care about what the media elites think of them. And they care desperately about what is written about Israel since, by extension, that affects their own image. So if Israel is falsely portrayed as the Goliath menacing the little Palestinian David, then it makes many American Jews feel like bad guys themselves. And that, they do not like.

But rather than get mad about these misperceptions, many of us have internalized them. The universalist element of Judaism that calls upon us to care about the downtrodden and to grieve even at the deaths of our enemies has led all too many Jews -- Israelis and Americans -- to see the world from the point of view of the Palestinians' demands and not Israel's security or Jewish rights.

How else to explain the fact that every time Israel is pushed to the wall by an egregious act of Palestinian terrorism -- such as the lynching of two Israeli soldiers or the bombing of a Tel Aviv disco, which took the lives of 21 Israeli kids out for a night of fun -- Jews can be found to demonstrate against Israel?

Groups such as the "Jews United for Social Justice," which held one such "vigil" earlier this month outside the Israeli consulate in Philadelphia, blasted Israel while not even mentioning the Tel Aviv bombing. A rival leftist group attempted a more balanced critique of the Jewish state and did note the misdeeds of the Palestinians.

The left and the media may want to change the subject to whether or not Jewish settlements in Judea and Samaria are illegal or an obstacle to peace. They are neither illegal nor an obstacle, but this debate is irrelevant to the reality of the Palestinian war.

Of course, the demonstrators and others like them throughout the country don't represent anything more than a marginal element. But when you think about the feeble number of Jews turning out for solidarity rallies for Israel -- not to mention how few American Jews are traveling to Israel these days -- you realize that there is a substantial portion of American Jewry that is largely indifferent to what's going on in Israel.

And when you consider that our politicians look to American Jews -- and not to the more fervently pro-Israel evangelical Christians -- for guidance about Israel, then you see that a media-inspired distancing from Israel by American Jews could be very costly to Israel.

For the last decade, American Jews have been told via the media and mainstream Jewish groups that peace is upon us, and that the Palestinians have accepted the existence of Israel. The drumbeat of media assaults on Israel has bred an impatience about the Jewish nation's inability to conclude peace in even those American Jews who are not the sort to preen about their supposed moral rectitude -- and exhibit it in front of an Israeli consulate like the "Jews United for Social Justice."

The point here isn't to say that Jews shouldn't criticize Israel. Israel's governments and its politicians are no more worthy of adoration than their American counterparts -- and often worthy of every bit of criticism we can muster. But the crisis Israel currently faces has created a situation that makes the traditional left-right debate about what Israel should do with the territories irrelevant. Yet so long as American Jews are still stuck on these media-fed myths, mobilizing them is going to be very difficult.

A strong American Jewry community united in support of a beleaguered Israel could have a massive impact on the Bush administration and Congress as they ponder whether or not to pursue a strategy that will mean pressure for more Israeli concessions. Unfortunately, unless we can shake off the current media-fed miasma of Jewish complacency about Israel, American Jews will not play that crucial role.

JWR contributor Jonathan S. Tobin is executive editor of the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent. Let him know what you think by clicking here.

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