US President John F. Kennedy’s 1957 book Profiles in Courage enumerated three “terrible pressures which discourage acts of political courage,” and that “drive a [politician] to abandon or subdue his conscience.” The first is criticism for lack of forthright principles. A second stems from the desire to be reelected, which “exercises a strong brake on independent courage.”
The third “is the pressure of his constituency, the interest groups, the organized letter writers, the economic blocs and even the average voter.” In the book, Kennedy dealt with eight politicians who felt that what they were doing was right and paid a steep political price for their actions.
There are pundits in Israel’s media who studied Kennedy’s book and are calling upon Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to be “courageous.” They ask him to disassociate from his ideological roots, from his promises to his constituency, and do what is “right”: accept the dictates of the US government. This “courage” means dividing Jerusalem and uprooting hundreds of thousands of citizens from their homes. The pinnacle of courage is to take a huge risk for the sake of “peace.”
There are other definitions of courage, however, which are somehow missing in our media’s discourse. Courage also means to be fearless. For example, courage might mean not fearing the boycott threats of Secretary of State John Kerry and other European countries. It might mean not fearing international pressure aimed at preventing imposition of Israeli law in the disputed territories.
Courage could also mean the willingness to face the challenge of a large Arab minority within the State of Israel.
Our media has made its choice, and not only when it comes to the negotiations between Israel and the United States. Its misunderstanding of the word can be measured by its attitude to people who actually are fearless, and willing to face the consequences of adhering to their beliefs even in the face of media pressure.
A fitting example is that of Sapir Sabah, a 17-year old student in the ORT high school in Tivon. Sabah complained in a letter to Education Minister Rabbi Shai Piron about her teacher, Adam Werte. In her words: “During most of the lessons I face difficulties. Adam makes sure to emphasize his political opinions.
He explains that he is an extreme left-winger, that from his point of view our state is not at all the state of the Jews but that of the Palestinians and that we the Jews have no business being here. He stresses that the IDF acts more cruelly and violently than all other armies. He explains that the IDF is immoral and that he is ashamed of the army in our state.” She further accused him of publicly ridiculing her.
Sabah is a fighter, and brave. She complained to the school directors, but this did not help.
Consider the pressure that this young woman faced. She has to pass matriculation exams, is at the mercy of her teachers and yet dares to voice her opinion and open criticism.
Our media treated her despicably. Ben Caspit and Hagai Golan “interviewed” her on the 103 FM radio station. No, it was not an interview but rather a lesson, similar to those Sabah had to hear from Werte. Caspit did not let her express her opinions but tried to instill in her his perverted values. In his words: “he [Werte] is in distress, you are violent!” It was so bad that Sabah did the unthinkable in the eyes of Caspit, and discontinued the interview.
Caspit was not alone. On January 20, Oded Ben-Ami interviewed her on his 6 p.m. Channel 2 TV program alongside a friend of Werte, Ram Cohen, the principal of the Alterman High School in Tel Aviv. At that time, it still seemed that Werte would be fired. So Ben-Ami asked: “You do not retract what you wrote since your letter is the cause for Werte’s dismissal?” Ending his interview with Sabah and as a preamble to his congenial interview with Cohen, he quotes from a letter written by Sabah’s fellow students, who claimed that the atmosphere in Werte’s lessons was congenial, giving the immediate impression that Sabah was way out on a limb. He did not have the courtesy to let her respond to this accusation, even though she stayed on air.
In his amicable discussion with Cohen, Ben- Ami makes it clear that the “ease” with which Werte was to be dismissed was just not right.
At the end he again turns to Sabah and asks: “After you listened to Cohen, don’t you think that you went too far?” Sabah, with poise, responded that no, she didn’t, and also explained how she was encouraged by many for her actions.
As of the writing of this article we are informed that Sabah is not accepting the decision of ORT to let Werte continue to teach teenagers how to hate the army. She is appealing it.
It doesn’t have to be this way. A different kind of interview took place on the same morning on the Orly and Guy program on Channel 10. The moderators, Orly Vilnai and Guy Meroz, took pains to make Sabah feel comfortable, asked her questions – but let her answer. Their other guest was Professor Nimrod Aloni, head of the Institute for Advanced Education at the Kibbutz College, or Seminar Hakibbutzim, and an outspoken left-winger.
The discussion that ensued was civilized and exemplified by their first question to him: “Had a teacher exhorted his students that we must invade area A [in the West Bank] or Gaza, the three of us would have raised an outcry – ‘how can a teacher talk this way’?” Ben-Ami could learn something from Orly and Guy and others who did a decent job of interviewing Sabah.
The absurdity of the media response to Sabah’s challenge was exemplified, ironically, by the IDF radio station itself. Thursday of last week, Yaron Vilensky on the 5 p.m. news magazine interviewed Werte’s lawyer, Michael Sefard, and then Sabah. Sefard is an experienced attorney. One might have thought that therefore he would be presented with tough questions. His interview lasted four minutes, and he was asked four bland questions by Vilensky: What was in the hearing of Werte? What were your arguments against his dismissal? It is said that a teacher cannot proclaim in a school that the IDF is an immoral army? Did you get an impression from the panel at the hearing what they would decide? In contrast, the 17-year old Sabah was grilled.
Her “interview” lasted just over three minutes, during which she was asked eight questions, some of them lengthy. Vilensky was not very interested in her answers; his purpose, it would seem, was to discredit her – a young woman who will be joining the army within a year.
Does the army encourage, through its sponsorship of Galatz Radio, people like Werte? Our “profiles in courage” will be continued, there are many more people who have demonstrated courageous behavior, facing a biased, unfair and even vicious media, out to make sure that the politically incorrect opinion in their eyes is suppressed. “Courage” is a foreign word to these people.
The authors are respectively vice chairman and chairman of Israel’s Media Watch (www.imw.org.il).