What happens when the shoe’s on the other foot?
David A. Harris
American Jewish Committee
April 6, 2008
A small but influential chorus of American voices has made a mantra out of the notion that criticism of Israel is stifled by the pro-Israel community. Indeed, when NYU professor Tony Judt’s lecture at the Polish Consulate in New York was canceled in 2006 by the consul general, because Poland did not subscribe to Judt’s view of a one-state solution for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a group of intellectuals rushed to his defense. In a widely-publicized petition, they asserted that “We are united in believing that a climate of intimidation is inconsistent with fundamental principles of debate in a democracy. The Polish Consulate is not obliged to promote free speech. But the rules of the game in America oblige citizens to encourage rather than stifle debate.” Let’s set aside the absurdity of the entire effort. After all, Judt had given countless lectures before that October date, not to mention his articles on the subject in the New York Review of Books and elsewhere. None of his defenders could cite a second instance of ”intimidation,” nor, for that matter, would they be able to cite an instance since then, either. In fact, Judt’s meeting was moved to a different venue in New York and that was that. But there’s another side to the coin. While Judt and his erstwhile supporters, joined by Jimmy Carter, Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer, have been making their case about their inability to be heard – ironically, in think tanks, universities and media outlets only too happy to have them speak out about how they cannot speak out – some are trying to silence a very different viewpoint. On behalf of AJC, I do a weekly national 60-second radio spot. The time is purchased as any advertisement would be. For the past nearly seven years, it has been broadcast across the United States on the CBS radio network, on hundreds of stations, without incident. Earlier this year, we expanded the reach by adding in the New York area WQXR, a popular classical music station owned by the New York Times. For the week of March 31, here was the text to be aired: Fifteen seconds. Imagine you had fifteen seconds to find shelter from an incoming missile. Fifteen seconds to locate your children, help an elderly relative, assist a disabled person to find shelter. That’s all the residents of Sderot and neighboring Israeli towns have. Day or night, the sirens go on. Fifteen seconds later, the missiles, fired from Hamas-controlled Gaza, hit. They could hit a home, a school, a hospital. Their aim is to kill and wound and demoralize. Imagine yourself in that situation. The sirens blast. 15, 14, 13, 12, 11, 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1. The time to seek shelter has ended. The missiles hit. This is what Israelis experience daily. But, amazingly, they refuse to be cowed. Help us help those Israelis. Visit ajc.org. The spot was broadcast several times, as is customary, on the CBS radio network, but WQXR refused to do so. Here’s the written explanation from Tom Bartunek, president of New York Times Radio and general manager of WQXR: ”In my judgement several elements of this spot are outside our bounds of acceptability. First, the opening line— `Imagine you had fifteen seconds to find shelter from an oncoming missile’—does not make clear that the potential target of the missile is not our listening area, and as a consequence, runs the risk of raising anxiety in a misleading way. Second, the description of the missiles as arriving `day or night’ and `daily’ is also subject to challenge as being misleading, at least to the degree that reasonable people might be troubled by the absence of any acknowledgement of reciprocal Israeli military actions. Finally, in my judgement the `countdown’ device and the general tone of the message do not meet our guidelines for decorum.” Stunning, above all, is the reference to “the absence of any acknowledgement of reciprocal Israeli military actions.” In other words, according to Bartunek’s logic, the only way to broadcast the plight of Sderot’s residents over the airwaves is to equate Israel’s right of self-defense with Hamas’s and Islamic Jihad’s right to strike Israel at will. Notice I didn’t say ”day or night” or ”daily” this time, because that might be construed as ”misleading.” Next time I’m in Sderot, I’ll be sure to let its residents know they have less to worry about than they thought because, according to some in the United States, their attackers keep banker’s hours. Meanwhile, Bartunek ought to read about the situation in Sderot in the April 5 front-page article in the paper that owns his station. In a subsequent phone conversation with one of my AJC colleagues, Bartunek went further. He explained that the radio station does not run ads with sirens or gun shots, neither of which was included in our spots, nor does it carry spots about ”hemorrhoid cream or sexual potency pills.” Well, that certainly helps clarify matters about rejecting a spot that sought to draw attention to innocent people under rocket attack who might need understanding and support. I can only imagine what would have been the response had we done a spot during the London blitz. Would it have been turned down as well, perhaps on the grounds that we failed to refer to reciprocal British military actions against Nazi Germany? Lest anyone think this was an isolated incident, a similar incident occurred with the same station in 2001, leading us to cancel our contract. We had resumed years later in the mistaken belief that things would be different. Here’s the 2001 text: No one is born hating, but too many are taught to hate. One thing we’ve learned since September 11th is that in some unexpected places, children are taught to hate us. Recently, The New York Times (October 19, 2001) reported that in Saudi Arabia, tenth graders are warned of “the dangers of having Christian and Jewish friends,” and in Pakistan, a million children attending religious schools are taught to “distrust and even hate the United States.” (October 14, 2001) Our planet is increasingly crowded – six billion people practicing hundreds of faiths and identifying with countless ethnic backgrounds. Either we all learn to respect one another, or else we’ll be doomed to more deadly acts inspired by blind hatred. Our government needs to begin addressing this pressing challenge abroad, starting with those nations ostensibly close to our own. Meanwhile, here at home, let’s continue to show the world what mutual respect and understanding are really all about. At the time, two months after the September 11th attacks, the WQXR station manager cited the third paragraph as particularly objectionable. When we noted that the quotes were taken from the New York Times—again, the newspaper which owns the radio station—we were told that the language did not meet the station’s standards. And, yes, we were lumped in then, too, with hemorrhoids. The suppressing of our message doesn’t end with the New York Times-owned station. A week before the most recent incident with WQXR, I recorded another spot. It ran without any problem on CBS nationwide and, interestingly, WQXR broadcast it as well. But this time Bloomberg radio, a financial news station in New York, refused. AJC began airing the weekly spots on Bloomberg in January. (By the way, though the station carries his name, I am certain that Mayor Michael Bloomberg was unaware of the decision made by station officials.) Here’s the full message: No one is born hating. Children are taught to hate. AJC has sponsored studies of textbooks in Egypt, Iran, and Saudi Arabia. In Saudi Arabia, for example, children are taught to hate people of other faiths. This teaching, we found, permeates the schools. Now we’ve released a study on Palestinian textbooks. Once again, the picture isn’t pretty. The textbooks largely fail to recognize Israel. Israeli cities are described as Palestinian. Jewish holy places are presented as Muslim holy places taken over by the Jews—odd, considering that Judaism preceded Islam by more than 1,500 years. As early as the seventh grade, Palestinian children are taught to demonize the ‘other,’ meaning the Jew. And no, there’s no comparable negative teaching in Israeli schools about Arab or Islamic societies. For those who pray for peace, it begins with children. They should be taught respect for others, not contempt. That’s how peace begins. Everything written in this spot was verifiable. It was drawn, as noted, from a new study of Palestinian textbooks in which AJC was involved. Precisely because we knew this study, like its three predecessors, would be scrutinized microscopically by those seeking to discredit it, every translation from Arabic was reviewed by top experts in the field to ensure total accuracy. And the study itself, available at www.ajc.org, reflects context, nuance, and precision of language. Yet, all this wasn’t good enough for the station, which, without putting anything down on paper, asserted that there were some questions about what was being said. Actually, a few days later, the New York Times had a front-page story on anti-Semitism, not anti-Israelism, in Gaza and made essentially the same point that schools are a key transmission belt for such hatred and incitement. We canceled our contract with Bloomberg. Our right to express our point of view – with an ironclad commitment in our texts to responsible messaging – was being stifled by those who, for whatever political or commercial reasons, were unwilling to allow us that right. I wonder if some of those same academic and cultural leading lights – from the United States, United Kingdom, Germany, France, Israel and Norway – who rushed to Judt’s side might be similarly disposed to support ”the rules of the game in America” for us as well. After all, fair’s fair, isn’t it?