This year, 2011, proves that even top journalists can have a bad year. Thomas Friedman started the year with naive reports about the Arab spring as democratic idyll. Friedman turned cranky in mid-year when he witnessed an impressive democratic moment, the ecstatic bipartisan greeting America’s Congress gave Israel’s Prime Minister. Most recently, Friedman’s claim that the “ovation was bought and paid for by the Israel lobby” evoked the ugly anti-Semitic stereotype of rich, powerful and manipulative Jews. It also ignored most Americans’ genuine love for Israel.
But Friedman is neither anti-Semite nor self-hating Jew. Using either epithet to defame him is simplistic and offensive. If Friedman is “a dyed-in-the-wool Israel hater,” as my esteemed fellow columnist Caroline Glick called him yesterday, despite many ties to Israel and his deep, conflicted feelings about the place, what do you call Noam Chomsky? If we group his columns with The Protocols of the Elders of Zion how should we respond to the real, virulent, anti-Semitism so prevalent in the Arab press – or increasingly in the European press? My broad Zionist tent is big enough to welcome Friedman, even while slamming him for being sloppy and insensitive, letting his distaste for Bibi Netanyahu override good taste.
Twenty years ago, President George H.W. Bush called himself “one lonely little guy” facing “powerful political forces” after 1200 Israel activists lobbied Congress seeking loan guarantees to help Israel resettle emigrating Soviet Jews. Shoshana Cardin, the President of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, asked to meet Bush. As Sheila Segal recounts, when Cardin explained that implying that Jewish lobbyists outmuscled America’s President echoed traditional exaggerations about Jewish power and stirred anti-Semitism. Bush replied, “But I didn’t specifically mention the Jews, did I?” Cardin replied: “You didn’t have to. It was very clear to us and to everyone. It was offensive, and it was personally painful.” Bush, abashed, apologized. So should Friedman.
Friedman, of course, is not the only reporter whose pen often becomes a negatively-charged magic wand to make Israel look ugly. Israel excites much passion and too much exaggeration. Some Israel reporters suffer chronotaraxis -- time disorientation – confusing legislation that is proposed with legislation actually enacted. We are currently living through the Israeli version of 2002’s Steven Spielberg-Tom Cruise movie, “Minority Report,” where criminals are punished before committing any crimes, simply for considering them.
Believe it or not, most of the controversial “anti-democratic” laws recently proposed have NOT passed. Nevertheless, hysterical reporting decries these pre-crimes and prematurely eulogizes Israeli democracy, when it is working effectively, resisting many bad initiatives. I also wonder how foolish the U.S. Congress would look if every ridiculous law proposed made headlines worldwide.
Reporters also suffer from historical hysteria, analogy inflation, overstating the significance of contemporary actions by invoking some legendary game-changer. Tanya Rosenblit deserves praise for bravely sitting in the front of a gender-segregated bus from Ashdod to Jerusalem, resisting Hareidi harassment. Gender segregation on buses does not belong in a modern state nor is it required by our ancestral religion. Still, Rosenblit’s actions don’t match Rosa Parks’ heroism. In 1955, Parks, a black woman in a racist South, broke the law, defied convention, shattered what Southerners considered to be the natural order of things when she sat in the front of a Montgomery, Alabama bus. Similarly, it’s not McCarthyism if someone disagrees with you, even if they hurt your feelings; it’s McCarthyism when a demagogue exploits government and media power to try blacklisting you, ruining your life, imprisoning you.
Once upon a time, exaggerations about Israel cut in Israel’s favor. Just a few decades ago, in the Israel of “Exodus” and Moshe Dayan, every soldier was a Maccabee, every blemish overlooked. The renowned liberal historian Henry Steele Commager praised Zionism on Israel’s tenth anniversary as “benign” and peace-loving, while characterizing Israel’s neighbors as committed to "chauvinism, militarism, and territorial and cultural imperialism."
Things changed, thanks to a systematic Palestinian propaganda campaign that resonated with a post-1960s, post-liberal, post-modernist ideology – here Glick and I agree. This worldview caricatured Israel as a white Western racist, colonial power, amid automatic sympathy for the weak over the powerful, the non-white over the white, the Third World over the West, anti-colonial nationalism over liberal democratic nationalism. Just as a concave lens makes an object look bigger while a convex lens makes it look smaller, much of world opinion switched lenses from convex to concave when examining Israel. Viewing Israel through this distorting black-versus-white concave lens magnified even minor flaws into seemingly major sins.
These days, many people also see the Hanukkah holiday through one distorting lens or another. It is easy to caricature Hanukkah as the holiday of violence, of fanaticism, turning the Maccabees into Spartan warriors or Second Temple Hareidim. Examining Hanukkah in America, we could distort it as the holiday of mindless consumption or of dangerous assimiliation – with Christmukkah, the Hanukkah Bush, and, yes, Hanukkah Harry.
But Hanukkah’s power and meaning lie in its Zen balance. Was it God or the Maccabees? Yes. Is the triumph military or spiritual? Yes. Is it a national or a religious moment? Yes. Should we indulge by giving gifts, scarfing down sickly sweet doughnuts, ingesting grease-laden latkes – or should we give charity, celebrate with friends and families, delight in our traditions? Again yes.
Hanukkah’s power stems from its proportionality. Israel’s maturity – as a democracy, as a society, as a topic of concern and conversation, and in coping with critics – will also come from a similar search for balance. We need some Zen in our Zionism while reporters need some poise in their prose – even when writing about Israel.
The writer is professor of history at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Research Fellow in Jerusalem. He is the author of Why I Am A Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today and The History of American Presidential Elections. [email protected]