|NCR, the National Catholic Reporter (which has no official ties to the Roman Catholic Church) offers its readers an ideologically-driven narrative of the Middle East conflict that demonizes Israel and excuses and minimizes the behavior of those who seek its destruction. It portrays the state of Israel’s history as a trail of blood, bereft of any efforts to make peace with its adversaries. And yes, in the process of offering this distorted narrative, NCR uses Jewish “self- criticism” as an important source for its remorseless denunciation of Israel….|
Walking With Angels at the National Catholic Reporter
by Dexter Van Zile
|When it comes to covering the Arab-Israeli conflict, the National Catholic Reporter, a Catholic weekly published in Kansas City, Missouri, makes no pretense of offering is readers a factual, fair and comprehensive view of events so that its readers can make responsible assessments about what policies should be pursued in the Middle East. Instead, the NCR (which has no official ties to the Roman Catholic Church) offers its readers an ideologically-driven narrative of the conflict that demonizes Israel and excuses and minimizes the behavior of those who seek its destruction.
The NCR’s anti-Israel animus recently manifested itself in the July 11, 2008 issue of the paper, which included an article by Fr. Raymond A. Schroth, S.J., who lionized Robert Fisk, a journalist for The Independent whose numerous factual errors and faulty logic has invited so many devastating detailed rebuttals that his last name has become a verb meaning “to deconstruct an article on a point by point basis in a highly critical manner.” Nevertheless, Fr. Schroth writes that Fisk “has the three qualities every good journalist must possess: courage, compassion and a command of the language.”
Tellingly, Fr. Schroth (who describes Israel as a “Western colonial intrusion”), fails to acknowledge another characteristic every good journalist must possess: a commitment to factual accuracy. In a devastating review of Fisk’s book, The Great War for Civilisation Ephraim Karsh writes that the author falls short in his efforts to “be taken seriously, both as a journalist and as a writer with wider intellectual and historiographical ambitions.”
First there is the problem of simple accuracy. It is difficult to turn a page of The Great War for Civilisation without encountering some basic error. Jesus was born in Bethlehem, not, as Fisk has it, in Jerusalem. The Caliph Ali, the Prophet Mohammed’s cousin and son-in-law, was murdered in the year 661, not in the 8th century. Emir Abdallah became king of Transjordan in 1946, not 1921. The Iraqi monarchy was overthrown in 1958, not 1962; Hajj Amin al-Husseini, the mufti of Jerusalem, was appointed by the British authorities, not elected; Ayatollah Khomeini transferred his exile from Turkey to the holy Shiite city of Najaf not during Saddam Hussein’s rule but fourteen years before Saddam seized power. Security Council resolution 242 was passed in November 1967, not 1968; Anwar Sadat of Egypt signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1979, not 1977, and was assassinated in October 1981, not 1979. Yitzhak Rabin was Minister of Defence, not prime minister, during the first Palestinian intifada, and al-Qaeda was established not in 1998 but a decade earlier. And so on and so forth.
Karsh writes that “the deeper problem with Fisk’s work” cannot be fixed with a greater emphasis on fact-checking. “Facts must be placed in their proper context, after all, and this demands a degree of good faith that Fisk utterly lacks.”
Fisk’s lack of good faith is clearly evident his coverage of the battle of Jenin, in 2002 and in his writings about the Al-Dura controversy which broke in 2000. In April 2002, Fisk wrote about Israeli soldiers “running amok in Jenin” and of the IDF of “keeping the Red Cross and journalists from seeing the evidence of the mass killings that have taken place there.” Well, as it turned out, Jenin was not a massacre, as Fisk portrayed, but was in fact a pitched battle between IDF forces and Palestinian terrorists who had taken refuge amongst a highly concentrated civilian population. A UN investigation revealed that the IDF’s incursion into Jenin resulted in the death of 23 Israeli soldiers, and a total of 52 Palestinians, most of whom were combatants. By the time the facts were known, the image of Israelis perpetrating a massacre had been seared into the collective memory of the civilized world and Fisk had moved onto other subjects. Fisk’s coverage of the Al-Dura controversy is equally bad. In An Oct. 2, 2000 piece, Fisk accuses Israel of killing 12-year-old Mohammed Al-Dura during a firefight in the Gaza Strip. In this piece he chides journalists for failing to tell the truth. Fisk writes:
… when 12-year-old Mohammed al-Dura was killed in Gaza on Saturday and I read on the Associated Press wire that the child was “caught in the crossfire”, I knew at once who had killed him. Sure enough, reporters investigating the killing said the boy was shot by Israeli troops. So was his father – who survived – and so was the ambulance driver who was killed trying to rescue the boy. Yet BBC World Service Television was still saying yesterday morning that Mohammed al-Durah was “caught in the crossfire of a battle that has left hundreds wounded and killed many others”. I knew what this meant.
Fisk’s reporting is divorced from reality on two counts. First off all, news outlets were relentless in their efforts to blame Israel for Al-Dura’s alleged death. (France 2 distributed the footage of the gunfight to other news outlets free of charge.) Secondly, the footage French journalist Charles Enderlin used to convince the world that Al-Durah was killed by Israeli bullets was filled with inconsistencies – the most obvious being that at the end of the 18 minutes of footage displayed in a French courtroom in November 2007, the boy was still alive. (For more information about the Al-Dura case, go here.)
For more information about Palestinian efforts to manufacture footage for the consumption of Western audiences – a topic that has been largely ignored by Israel’s critics in the U.S. – go here.
Fisk invoked the Al-Dura story numerous times after his original piece, using them as a touchstone to score points against Israel. For example, in April 2001 Fisk wrote a piece in which he described the boy as “Dura dying under a hail of Israeli bullets in Gaza.” He used it again in August 2001 where he descirbes Al-Durah as “the little Palestinian boy shot dead by Israeli troops in Gaza last year, [who] became an iconic symbol of the Palestinian ‘intifada’.”
Journalists investigating the boy’s death, including The Independent’s Jerusalem, correspondent were in no doubt that the bullets which hit him were Israeli (albeit that the soldiers involved may not have seen him). Yet after a bogus Israeli military inquiry denounced in the Knesset by an Israeli member of parliament, all the major Western picture agencies placed captions on the photo for future subscribers. Yes, you’ve guessed it, the captions said he was killed in “crossfire”.
As the Al-Dura myth has fallen apart under the scrutiny of people like Philippe Karsenty, James Fallows, and Richard Landes, a search of the Independent’s online archive indicates Fisk has lost interest in the episode, ignoring French Journalist Charles Enderlin’s defeat in the French court system, where he pressed a libel charge against Phillipe Karsenty – who said the scene was staged. Fisk’s apparent loss of interest is interesting, given Fisk’s repeated claims that his journalistic competitors are dishonest and too afraid to write the truth. “Truth is a hard bullet to bite,” he wrote in his first piece that mentioned the Al-Dura episode. Fisk apparently does not want to bite the bullet regarding this story.
If Fr. Schroth was unable to detect problems with Fisk’s coverage of Jenin and the Al-Dura controversy, he should, as a Jesuit, at least be able to detect the anti-Judaic polemic in Fisk’s book, The Great War For Civilisation: The Conquest of the Middle East. In an excerpt of published by The Independent in January 2006, Fisk describes an undated conversation he had with a rabbi in Jerusalem. At first the conversation was pleasant, but then it turns ugly when the rabbi says some admittedly harsh and ugly things about the Palestinians.
Fisk’s description of Judaism as “bumping up against Christianity” and of his father instructing him to turn the other cheek is reminiscent of classical anti-Judaic polemic which portrays Judaism as a uniquely war-like religion that encourages its adherents to engage in acts of violence and Christianity as having transcended the violent impulse – a characterization that is untenable given the historical data. Ultimately, what is the source of violence in the Middle East – Judaism bumping up against Christianity and Islam or Muslim extremists as they contend with the shocks of modernity and globalization? And Fisk’s description of Muslims “beginning to express ever harsher view of Jews” [emphasis added] suggests that Muslim hostility toward Jews is a new phenomenon when in fact, anti-Jewish polemic has been present in Muslim teachings for centuries, and is now rampant in the Middle East. Yes, some Israeli Jews do say terrible things about Muslims and Arabs, but their views are not sanctioned by the government. Anti-Semitic imagery, however, is disseminated in state-sponsored media outlets and textbooks in the Middle East. Yes, Fr. Schroth’s does acknowledge that Fisk has his critics, but overall his lionization of Robert Fisk in the pages of NCR speaks volumes about what the publication values in its own contributors. In the pages of NCR, animus toward Israel comes first, florid prose next, accuracy and fairness in a tie for third. And the notion that journalists have an obligation to revisit topics they have covered in the past when new information is available comes in dead last, if it even finishes the race. (So far, there is no acknowledgement from Fisk that he got it wrong in April 2003 when he called reports that Hezbollah had 10,000 missiles ready to launch at Israel “a myth.” “The missiles are a myth – I travel the roads of southern Lebanon every two weeks and there are no such missiles, as the UN force three will confirm – but this doesn’t matter,” He wrote. Hezbollah’s barrage of Israel in 2006 demonstrates that these missiles were anything but mythical.) Rosemary Radford Ruether Fr. Schroth’s lionization of Robert Fisk is only one example of the NCR’s anti-Israel animus. Another journalist Radford Ruether is another commentator who uses the pages of the NCR to demonize Israel. For instance, NCR’s April 4, 2008 issue included an article by Ruether that blamed Holocaust denial in the Middle East on Israel. The main thrust of Ruether’s piece was that Israeli Jews allegedly regard Israeli territory as “payment” for the Holocaust – a terrible tragedy for which the writer says Palestinians were not responsible. (Ruether makes no mention of the role Haj-Amin el-Husseini, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, played in Europe during the Holocaust.) The cornerstone of Ruether’s argument is an anecdotal confrontation with Israeli settlers that took place in the Gaza Strip, which according to Ruether, occurred “about 10 years ago.” The confrontation allegedly took place when Ruether and other members of a group went to a plot of farmland in the Gaza Strip with greenhouses and crops ready for harvest that had allegedly been bulldozed and confiscated by Israeli settlers. According to Ruether, the group’s arrival at the scene prompted the arrival of two Israelis “carrying the ubiquitous Uzis.” Ruether continues:
Two women of our delegation asked, ‘Why did you do this to these villagers?’ The settlers shouted back, ‘It’s because of what happened to us in the war.’ ‘But these Palestinians had nothing to do with what happened to you,’ the women protested. ‘It makes no difference,’ the settlers replied. ‘Everyone must pay. The whole world must pay.’
Ruether has used this anecdote before in the pages of NCR. In a Dec. 8, 2000 article titled “Bombing in the Name of Redemption,” Ruether invokes this episode to buttress her claim that “reference to the Holocaust has too often degenerated into a justification of the oppression that the state of Israel is visiting upon the Palestinians.” (This anecdote also appears on page 10 of Whose Land? Whose Promise? an error-laden book by Rev. Dr. Gary Burge.) In both of Radford’s articles (and Burge’s book), this anecdote is used to portray Israelis as denying the Palestinian desire for freedom and statehood, but these portrayals only work if the reader ignores recent history, as does Ruether (and Burge, for that matter). In the Dec. 2000 article, she ignores the negotiations that took place earlier that summer at Camp David where Ehud Barak offered the Palestinians a state of their own that included all of Gaza and most of the West Bank. Israel made a counter offer, the Palestinian Authority refused, and did not make a counter-offer. And in 2008, Ruether ignores Israel’s withdrawal from the Gaza Strip in 2005 – giving the Palestinians what they have claimed to want for years – territory of their own. The response to this withdrawal was unrelenting rocket attacks (which Ruether conveniently ignores in her portrayal of the Palestinians with no responsibility for their actions). Despite Israel’s repeated withdrawals from territory in an effort to mollify its enemies, Ruether accuses Israelis of “using the Holocaust to justify the catastrophic destruction of Palestinian life and confiscation of their land.” Ultimately, who is responsible for the collapse of civil society (such as it was) in the Gaza Strip? Israel, which withdrew in 2005, or Hamas and Fatah, who threw one another off of rooftops last June? Ruether also accuses Israelis as perpetrating a “Nakba denial” by refusing to acknowledge the 800,000 Palestinians who “fled or were forcibly expelled from their towns and villages” during the 1948 War. She writes:
The un-named studies that Ruether invokes do not prove that Arab leaders did not call for Palestinians to flee Israel, but merely indicate that there were no recorded broadcasts of these messages. Predictably, Ruether does not acknowledge numerous reports and admissions by Arab leaders and commentators that they did. Three examples: Before the war, Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Said declared: “We will smash the country with our guns and obliterate every place the Jews seek shelter in. The Arabs should conduct their wives and children to safe areas until the fighting has died down.” (Myron Kaufman, The Coming Destruction of Israel, NY: The American Library Inc., 1970, pp. 26-27). In his memoirs published in 1973, the former Prime Minister of Syria, Khaled al-Azem, listed what he thought were the reasons for the Arab failure in 1948: “The fifth factor was the call by the Arab governments to the inhabitants of Palestine to evacuate it and leave for the bordering Arab countries… We brought destruction upon a million Arab refugees by calling on them and pleading with them to leave their land.” He also wrote: “Since 1948 we have been demanding the return of the refugees to their homes. But we ourselves are the ones who encouraged them to leave. Only a few months separated our call to them to leave and our appeal to the United Nations to resolve on their return.” An in March 1976. Mahmoud Abbas, the current president of the Palestinian Authority, wrote: “The Arab armies entered Palestine to protect the Palestinians from the Zionist tyranny but, instead, they abandoned them, forced them to emigrate and to leave their homeland, and threw them into prisons similar to the ghettos in which the Jews used to live.” This is not to say that every Palestinian left his home because Arab leaders told him to. Clearly, some were forced out by Israelis, but it was a very small percentage. Professor Efraim Karsh estimates only 5-10 percent were expelled by Israelis, and these from areas where Israel’s survival was seriously threatened by armed Arabs, such as in Ramla and Lod. Others chose to leave to avoid the coming conflict. And as much as Ruether and other commentators would like to discount this reality, some Palestinians left their homes because they were encouraged to do so by their own leaders to make way for the destruction of Israel. To buttress her distorted narrative, Ruether invokes and criticizes revisionist historian Benny Morris at the same time, writing “while still confirming the Palestinians were intentionally expelled, has turned to justifying this, saying it was necessary to create a Jewish majority in Israel. He has suggested that it should have been done more thoroughly.” While Morris’s The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, (Cambridge University Press, 1987) has been widely criticized for offering a rather one-sided narrative, it still provides more detail than Ruether lets on. Ruether’s claim that Morris concluded the Palestinians – which implies all the Palestinians – were “intentionally expelled” runs counter to his description of the refugee problem, which he writes
was born of war, not by design, Jewish or Arab. It was largely a by-product of Arab and Jewish fears and of the protracted, bitter fighting that characterized the first Israeli-Arab war; in smaller part it was the deliberate creation of Jewish and Arab military commanders and politicians.” (Page 286)
Predictably, Ruether ignores the ethnic cleansing of Jews in eastern Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza, as well as in the rest of the Middle East during and after the 1948 War. Approximately 800,000 Jews were kicked out of Muslim and Arab countries after Israel’s creation and moved to Israel – undercutting by the way, Fr. Schroth’s description of the Jewish state as a “Western colonial intrusion.” Neve Gordon The NCR also features a Jewish critic of Israel prominently in its pages. Neve Gordon, the writer in question, is a professor at Ben Gurion University has used the pages of NCR to falsely portray Israel as attempting to starve its neighbors. In a Feb. 8, 2008 NCR piece titled “The iron wall in Gaza,” Gordon wrote “The experiment in famine began on Jan. 18. Israel hermetically closed all of Gaza’s borders, preventing even food, medicine and fuel from entering the Strip.” On this score, Gordon accepts as fact, Hamas’s complaints about a lack of food and fuel in the Gaza Strip, even as other Palestinian leaders blamed Hamas for manufacturing the crisis. Khaled Abu Toameh, reporting in the Jerusalem Post on Jan. 21, 2008, quoted a Palestinian Authority official who insisted that the bakeries were sufficiently stocked with fuel and flour:
And while Gordon accuses Israel of conducting an “experiment in famine” he makes no acknowledgement of the humanitarian convoys that were allowed into the Gaza Strip on Jan. 22, four days after the so-called “experiment in famine” began. Gordon also fails to acknowledge that the humanitarian convoys that have been allowed into the Gaza Strip have been used to smuggle explosives into the territory. Ynet reported on Jan. 14, 2007:
The same Ynet article also contradicts Gordon’s assertion that Israel is preventing the shipment of medicine into the Gaza Strip:
Despite the security restrictions and economic siege of Gaza, Israel allows the transfer of medical equipment and drugs into Gaza at the insistence of the World Health Organization.
Gordon introduced the “experiment in famine” trope in an NCR article published on Feb. 9, 2007. In this article, titled “Another Somalia in the Making?” Gordon writes that a decrease in foreign aid into the West Bank and the Gaza Strip could lead to “an experiment in famine” and lead to increased factional violence between Hamas and Fatah. The problem is that the decrease in foreign aid to the Palestinian that Gordon writes about with such vehemence was non-existent. In fact, as previous CAMERA analysis reveals, foreign aid to the Palestinians increased between 2005 and 2006.
These two articles indicate that Neve Gordon is intent on telling a story about IsraelIsrael is pretty one-sided in a May 30, 2008 NCR article titled “Why I live in Israel.” Gordon wrote: starving its neighbors – even when the facts do not support his thesis. Gordon himself admits his coverage of
By asking Gordon why he didn’t just pack his bags and leave Israel, the unnamed editor at NCR implicitly (if accidentally) acknowledges that Gordon’s writing is not merely forceful and continuous critique of Israeli policies, but a delegitizimation of the country itself. No decent person could, in good conscience, remain in the country described in the pages of NCR, unless of course, he were a prophet such as Amos or Martin Luther King – which is clearly what Gordon is trying to suggest. In his coverage of the Arab-Israeli conflict, Gordon’s “grand unifying theme” is Gordon himself. (Ephraim Karsh made the same assessment of Robert Fisk in the critique that Fr. Schroth must have missed.) FOSNA Contributions The NCR’s anti-Israel bias is also evident in the writings of the publication’s Opinion/Arts editor, Margot Patterson, who according to a 2006 list of donors, gave between $500 or more to Friends of Sabeel North America (FOSNA). The message FOSNA and the organization it supports – Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center – offers to American audiences includes support for a one-state solution (“One state for two nations and three religions”) and a dishonest “end-the-occupation-and-the-violence-will-end” narrative. And Sabeel’s founder, Rev. Dr. Naim Ateek, has proven adept at using anti-Jewish polemic from the New Testament that portrays the modern State of Israel as a cosmological affront to Christian sensibilities. Taken together, these messages help demonize Israel as solely responsible for the Arab-Israeli conflict and render violence against Israelis unremarkable in the minds of mainline churches in the U.S. FOSNA is clearly a partisan player in the debate over the Arab-Israeli conflict in the U.S. religious community and for one of NCR’s staffers to be listed as contributors raises serious questions about the publication’s adherence to the Code of Ethics issued by the Society of Professional Journalists, which calls on journalists to “avoid conflicts of interests, real or perceived” and “remain free of associations and activities that may compromise integrity or damage credibility.” When asked via email about Patterson’s presence on the list, Tom Roberts, NCR’s editor (who reports the publication uses the SPJ’s code as guidelines) responded with the following: Yes, the 2006 list does have her as a donor. This is ground we’ve been over before. That information is not going to change. We’ve spoken about it and she’s not contributed since. As far as I know NCR as an institution has never donated to the organization. [Note: FOSNA’s list of donors also includes the National Catholic Reporter and Rosemary Radford Ruether.] Some consider FOSNA partisan, others justifiably see it as an organization that advocates non-violence. Not a bad thing to advocate. And the conference in 2006, it probably should be noted, included representatives of American Jewish organizations and their points of view. As a general case, we try to maintain objectivity while still allowing people to exercise their citizenship and civic duties. In this case, we’ve agreed, it is prudent that Margot not donate to the cause and she has not in the past two years. Roberts’ defense of FOSNA as a proponent of non-violence whose conferences are attended by Jewish groups in the United States ignores the deceptive end-the-occupation-and-the-violence-will-end narrative it offers at these conferences. And while FOSNA and Sabeel does advocate non-violence, its target audience – English-speaking Congregationalists, Presbyterians and Episcopalians in the U.S. – is not known for committing acts of terror. The fact that Jewish groups have participated in Sabeel conferences does not mean as much as Roberts suggests. As a previous CAMERA analysis reveals, Claire E. Gorfinkel, issued an open letter to Sabeel on February 19, 2008 in which she challenges Sabeel’s one-sided criticism of Israel, its failure to provide historical context to Israel’s actions and its use of marginal Jewish voices in its program. Gorfinkel wrote that while the conference was not all Israel bashing all the time she reported “it was all Israel-bashing 80% of the time” and that “the conference did its audience a disservice by failing to acknowledge that actions and in-actions by others (including the United States and the Palestinian leadership) have also contributed to the conflict.” She also questioned why Sabeel invited Gabriel Piterberg and Marcy Winograd to speak at the event. Gorfinkel wrote:
Neither Piterberg nor Winograd actively promotes nonviolence or a two-State solution, and more importantly, none of them represents a significant constituency. Were they there just so you could say you had Jews on your program?
And when Rabbi Arthur Waskow appeared at Old South Church following after a Sabeel Conference in October 2007, he condemned Sabeel’s use of deicide imagery in reference to Israel and its insistence on the right of return. For some reason, NCR has not seen fit to cover the concerns of the Jewish community about FOSNA, despite the fact that Sabeel events have taken place at two Catholic institutions – Villanova and the University of San Diego. It’s very unlikely that Tom Roberts has not heard these concerns. Roberts himself has written publicly about his friendship with Rabbi Yehiel Poupko, Judaic scholar at the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago, who has repeatedly condemned Sabeel’s use of crucifixion imagery in reference to Israel. In short, when challenged about his publication’s relationship to FOSNA Roberts invokes some Jews to defend the organization, and ignores the complaints of other Jews – one of whom he describes as a friend on the front page of the newspaper he edits. Margot Patterson’s Coverage of Hezbollah Given the financial support Patterson has given to Sabeel’s wing in the U.S., it should come as no surprise that a version of the organization’s “end-the-occupation-and-the-violence-will-end” narrative shows up in her coverage of the Arab-Israeli conflict. In particular, Patterson wrote an article titled “Disarming Hezbollah next stage in Middle East Drama” that appeared in the Aug. 25, 2006 issue of NCR.
When challenged by CAMERA for whitewashing Hezbollah’s hostility toward Jews and Israel Patterson asked, in all seriousness, “[M]ust every article about Hezbollah discuss its anti-Semitism?” (Interestingly enough, the NCR has made repeated mention of John Hagee’s allegedly anti-Catholic comments, for which he has apologized.)