Strangling the Messengers
Palestine and the high price of telling the truth
by Dennis Bernstein
CovertAction Quarterly, Summer 2002
The word is out: Any U.S. journalist, columnist, editor, college
professor, student-activist, public official or clergy member
who dares to speak critically of Israel or accurately report the
brutalities of its illegal occupation will be vilified as an anti-Semite
by the well-oiled Israeli lobby and its supporters. And any who
dare speak truth about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict aren't
simply vilified: Many have been threatened with death, some have
been fired from their jobs; others' families have been driven
from their homes. Every effort is made to silence these voices
and suppress discussion of what Israel is actually doing to the
Israel's defenders have a special vengeance for Jews who don't
fall in line behind Sharon's scorched earth policy because they
give the lie to the charge that Israel's critics are simply anti-Semites.
Adam Shapiro, whose family is Jewish, is an International Solidarity
Movement (ISM) activist who has been working in the West Bank
for several years. As a member of Seeds of Peace, he works with
Jews and Palestinians to create better understanding between them.
All hell broke loose on March 29, 2002, Good Friday, when
Shapiro seized a rare opportunity on CNN to sketch out some of
the savage realities of the Israeli occupation and remind people
that it is heavily financed by U.S. tax dollars. Shapiro found
himself trapped inside Yasser Arafat's compound after the Israelis
had surrounded it and opened fire. "The Sharon government
sometimes will apologize after it kills an innocent civilian,"
Shapiro told CNN from the besieged compound, "but it does
not apologize for raping the cities and for going in and carrying
out terrorist actions, going house to house much like the Nazis
did in World War II, tearing holes through the walls, roughing
up people, killing people, assassinating people. This is a terrorist
government funded, by the way, by the United States government
to the tune of $3 billion a year in U.S. military aid. These are
American helicopters and tanks and F-16s doing this damage to
the Palestinian people."
The response to Shapiro's CNN appearance was swift and cruel.
On April 1st, the New York Post, launched its opening salvo with
a series of scathing attacks on Shapiro and his family. Overnight,
Shapiro became the "Jewish Taliban," and his family
was characterized in bold print as vile "traitors" to
the Israeli cause. Pro-lsraeli forces then widely distributed
the Shapiros' home address, and his family was besieged by smears
and threats. According to Shapiro, his parents-who publicly supported
him-were forced to flee their home in Brooklyn and to seek police
protection. "My father, who is a New York public high school
teacher and a part time teacher at the Yeshiva [Jewish Day School],
was informed that he was fired from his job at the Yeshiva, without
any reason or grounds," Shapiro told me. Shapiro's brother
Noah said, "...the threats my parents and I are receiving
are severe death threats, calling for our death, calling for my
brother's death, calling for him to burn in hell in a fiery death."
Then there's the case of Livi Regenbaum Saleh, a former reporter
for the Kansas City Jewish Chronicle. She's convinced she lost
her job for marrying a Palestinian and is now suing the paper
for discrimination. Regenbaum's boss gave her stories "rave
reviews" and "good comments," until he found out
that she'd married a Palestinian. "Then unfortunately, I
got married." Regenbaum-Saleh told me in an April 30th interview,
"and I told my boss my husband's name and he asked me how
to spell it. The next day I was called into his boss's office
Rabbi Michael Lerner, the editor and founder of Tkkun Magazine
and a biting critic of Israel's occupation, has also been repeatedly
attacked and threatened. "I certainly get lots of death threats
every single day and I get lots of disgusting attacks," says
Lerner. "Americans are attacked for merely raising questions,
or not being enthusiastic enough for Israeli policies. You hear
Bush's line repeated a thousand times: 'If you're not with us,
you're against us."' Lerner says he knows rabbis and prominent
members of the Jewish community who are terrified of speaking
out and being vilified as traitors to Israel. "Even [Jewish]
parents say this kind of stuff to their kids, if they ask 'what
about the Palestinians, weren't they there first?"'
TARGETING THE PRESS
Lerner notes that pro-lsraeli forces have methodically gone
after the media-leading many a news editor or TV producer to think
twice before putting an Adam Shapiro or a Michael Lerner on to
discuss Israel and Palestine. "These people," says Lerner,
"call up the media day after day. When they hear a Michael
Lerner getting quoted in the Los Angeles Times, you know the editor,
the assignment editor, the author of the article, everybody is
going to be receiving 20-30 phone calls of complaints. "
As the Jewish host of "Flashpoints," a daily news
magazine on Pacifica Radio, I know just what Rabbi Lerner is talking
about. We've reported extensively on the punishing cruelties and
apartheid character of Israel's actions in the West Bank and Gaza,
including its program of ethnically purging the Palestinian population.
And for this reporting, we have been viciously attacked.
Here's a sample. I received the following e-mail after noting
that my grandfather was a revered Orthodox Rabbi of international
prominence. "Dennis spare us this crap about your family.
If your grandfather knew that you-Dennis the homosexual- was slandering
Israel and the Jewish community in the U.S. daily on KPFA [he
wouldn't support you]...Jewish blood is on your hands; you are
known as anti-Semite by the Jewish community in Berkeley."
Of course, labeling me anti-Semitic is about as accurate as
Bush's Orwellian characterization of Sharon as a "man of
peace" at the height of the Jenin onslaught. My grandfather
not only wrote and interpreted prayers and blessed Matzo (his
name appeared on the Matzo boxes), but I am told by my mother
that he also helped rescue Jews from pre-war Nazi Germany. When
my mother was a teenager, her job was to help those he brought
to the U.S. get their papers and find places to live. My uncle,
the late Dr. Leo Pfeffer, was special counsel to the American
Jewish Congress and a leading constitutional authority on the
separation of church and state.
But this history matters little to Israel's unquestioning
defenders. They are simply out to quash on-the-ground, truthful
coverage from Occupied Palestine. And the more blatant and extreme
Israel's atrocities, the greater their frenzied determination
to suppress coverage of it.
During Israel's March and April invasion of the West Bank,
"Flashpoints" did over 100 interviews with people on
the scene. We spoke with people inside Yasser Arafat's compound,
talked with people in Jenin while Israeli tanks were rolling in,
and spoke daily with those inside Bethlehem's besieged Church
of the Nativity. These interviews made it possible for us to paint
a picture of what was really going on, in contrast to the mainstream
media's pro-lsrael bias and its refusal to expose the full extent
of Israel's scorched earth policy. Invariably, after these reports,
I received e-mail and phone call attacks far more vicious and
hateful than any I've received in 20 years of reporting. Some
were quite personal and specific, and clearly meant to spook me
and derail my work. The e-mail attacks were most vicious after
Israel had carried out or was about to carry out a particularly
violent operation-such as the assault on and collective punishment
of civilians in the Jenin refugee camp.
One particularly troubling account came from Chivvis Moore,
an American teacher at Birzeit University in Ramallah, who managed
to get into the Jenin camp just after it had been ravaged by Israeli
tanks and U.S.-made Apache attack helicopters. "There are
dead bodies and the smell of dead bodies throughout the camp,"
Moore reported. "I have seen people who were burned to death
after their houses had missiles dropped on them or some kind of
explosive thrown through the walls. These people are burned sometimes
down to the skeleton. Many people here are buried under the rubble,
but that rubble is not simply the rubble of a house that was crashed
down, that was destroyed. It's rubble created by bulldozers that
came after the destruction and that have turned over the earth
so that now we found one foot in one place and one foot in another
place six yards away from one another in a way that would probably
not have occurred had it just been a death caused by the falling
of a house."
Immediately after Moore's report "AdolfHitler@ss.org"
e-mailed me: "You mother-f...ing-self-hating Jewish piece
of shit. Hitler killed the wrong Jews. He should have killed your
parents, so a piece of Jewish shit like you would not have been
born. God willing, Arab terrorists will cut you to pieces Daniel
Pearl style, AMEN!!!"
Homicidebomber@killajew.org added: "Dennis, keep up the
good work. It gives me more power to commit more Passover massacres.
Thank you!!" After an especially compelling interview with
Palestinian spokeswoman Hanan Ashrawi, I received the following
gem from "firstname.lastname@example.org": "Thanks for your support.
God willing we will kill all the f...ing Jews in the world."
And soon after Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl was killed
and savagely beheaded, I began to receive e-mails that purported
to be from "email@example.com," such as: "A good
Jew like me is dead, headless and cut to pieces...a mother f...ing
asshole like you lives in Luxury in Berkeley. What the f... is
wrong with this picture?"
Israel and its supporters strike hardest at those whose work
reaches the widest audiences. There is perhaps no other journalist
in the West who more vividly conveys the realities of Israel's
actions than Robert Fisk, an award-winning reporter for the London
Independent, based in Beirut, Lebanon. Fisk was recently threatened
by none other than Hollywood heavyweight, John Malkovich.
In a May 14th column titled "Why does John Malkovich
want to kill me?" Fisk writes, "In 26 years in the Middle
East, I have never read so many vile and intimidating messages
addressed to me. Many now demand my death. And last week, the
Hollywood actor John Malkovich did just that, telling the Cambridge
Union that he would like to shoot me. How, I ask myself, did it
come to this? Slowly but surely, the hate has turned to incitement,
the incitement into death threats, the walls of propriety and
legality gradually pulled down so that a reporter can be abused,
his family defamed, his beating at the hands of an angry crowd
greeted with laughter and insults in the pages of an American
newspaper, his life cheapened and made vulnerable by an actor
who-without even saying why, says he wants to kill me. Much of
this disgusting nonsense comes from men and women who say they
are defending Israel," wrote Fisk. Fisk received a recent
e-mail that proclaimed "Your mother was Eichmann's daughter."
"My mother Peggy," he responded, "who died after
a long battle with Parkinson's three and a half years ago, was
in fact an RAF radio repair operator on Spitfires at the height
of the Battle of Britain in 1940."
Unquestionably, such attacks are the work of an organized
campaign, not a few independent crazies. Frank Rich, a columnist
of Jewish descent for the New York Times and a strong supporter
of Israel, wrote on May 11th that just about every major and mid-size
news organization is now being accused of being proPalestinian
simply for reporting some of Israel's most egregious attacks and
carrying some Palestinian perspectives. Rich notes, "just
a partial list of those targeted by protesters for alleged pro-Palestinian
bias includes, in addition to the Times and the Post, Los Angeles
Times, Chicago Tribune, Philadelphia Inquirer, Miami Herald, Sacramento
Bee, 'Nightline': well, you get the idea...Even now the nation's
foremost Jewish newspaper, the Forward, is fielding not just subscription
cancellations but threats for accepting an ad for Jews Against
the Occupation, according to its editor, J.J. Goldberg."
Los Angeles Times media writer David Shaw stated in an April
28th piece on the subject that "major Jewish organizations
and other supporters of Israel in this country have increasingly
bombarded newspapers in recent weeks with charges of biased reporting."
According to Shaw, nearly 1,000 subscribers to the Los Angeles
Times suspended home delivery for one day to protest what they
called inaccurate reporting.
BURYING KEY STORIES
Today, more than ever, the U.S. media are taking their marching
orders from the Bush administration, and its coverage is largely
shaped by the so-called "war on terror." And Israel
and its supporters are waging an unrelenting campaign to cloak
their actions in the rubric of "anti-terrorism," while
suppressing coverage of the real impact and motivations of its
This is why stories about thousands of house demolitions-where
Palestinian families are given 15 minutes to move out of houses
they've lived in for generations and then the house and everything
inside is reduced to rubble in a few terrifying seconds right
before their eyes-are rarely seen.
When have we read coverage of settlers stoning Palestinian
children on their way to school, or attacking them with dogs-Bull
Connor style-while Israeli soldiers stand by?
How often do stories run about the massive expansion of illegal
settlements, or on how these settlements are used as IDF military
outposts, and for jailing and interrogating illegally arrested
And what about exposure of the politics of water-the most
vital resource in the Middle East-and how it is controlled and
abused by settlers, while Palestinians are often left high and
dry? And consider some of the stories suppressed or ignored by
the mainstream media.
STORIES TOO HOT TO HANDLE
The Jewish Forward was not attacked simply for accepting a
few ads against Israel's occupation. It was attacked because on
March 15th it published two explosive stories concerning Israeli
spy rings in the U.S., and the withholding of evidence regarding
the 9/11 attacks.
In one story, the Forward reported that two out of the five
Israeli "moving men" arrested in New Jersey eight hours
after the Twin Towers attacks were Mossad agents. They had been
arrested after witnesses reported a group of men were "acting
strangely" as they watched Manhattan's Twin Towers burn from
the roof of a New Jersey warehouse. The paper quoted a former
high-ranking intelligence official that "Urban Moving Systems
[the moving company for which the arrested men were working] was
a front for the Mossad and operatives employed by it."
A number of potentially incriminating items were found at
the time of the arrests-some in the men's possession, some in
the moving van they were driving. "In addition to their strange
behavior... suspicions were compounded when... $4,000 in cash
were found in the van. Moreover, one man carried two passports
and another had fresh pictures of the men standing with the smoldering
wreckage of the World Trade Center in the background."
In a separate story, the Forward reported on an alleged network
of Israeli spies posing as art students and collectors. According
to the New York-based weekly, ...a preliminary DEA report stated
that more than 100 were arrested, most/y in California, Florida
and Texas...The report said they tried to penetrate several government
facilities, including the Tinker Air Base in Oklahoma City where
AWACS surveillance planes and many B-1 bombers are repaired. The
draft report allegedly states that most of the students questioned
acknowledged serving in military intelligence, electronic-signals
interception or explosive-ordnance units.
"The news picked up steam after it was relayed and amplified
by Le Monde," notes the Forward:
In its own reporting, Le Monde added that Israeli spies may
have been trailing Al Qaeda members in the United States without
informing Washington. Le Monde noted that more than one-third
of the Israelis under investigation lived in Florida, which served
as a temporary home base to at /east 10 of the 19 hijackers in
the September 11 attacks. Those elements, Le Monde wrote, support
'the thesis according to which Israel did not share with the U.S.
all the elements it had about the planning of the September 11
Where might all this lead if a major news organization devoted
serious resources to following the trail?
Then there is the explosive revelation that the U.S. military
was in Israel during the height of the Jenin attacks to learn
something about contemporary urban bulldozer warfare and house
to house searches.
U.S. MILITARY IN JENIN
In its May 31 edition, the Marine Corps Times, a weekly that
serves soldiers and their families, reported that ...while Israeli
forces were engaged in what many termed a brutal-some even say
criminal-campaign to crush Palestinian militants and terrorist
cells in West Bank towns, U.S. military officials were in Israel
seeing what they could learn from that urban fight.
It is not yet clear whether Pentagon representatives were
on the scene in Jenin, but the fact that they were nearby taking
notes puts the lie to any notion that the U.S. is a neutral party.
That this went unreported in the U.S. press is astounding.
Just weeks after the atrocities in Jenin, a senior Israeli
Defense Force intelligence officer visited the United States to
watch U.S. Marines experiment with new urban warfare tactics.
The Marine Corps Times quoted Marine U. Col. Dave Booth, who oversees
the Marine Corps-lsraeli Defense Force exchanges: We're interested
in what they're developing, especially since Sept. 11. We're interested
in their past experience in fighting terrorism. So there's a lot
of things we could learn from them.
It speaks volumes about U.S. media coverage that such stories
are rarely reported-and that Congress's allocation of an additional
$200 million in aid to Israel following its bloody attack on Jenin
goes unquestioned. Meanwhile, right-wing politicians and columnists,
along with Israeli spokespeople and lobbyists, are regularly given
a forum to ruminate on solutions to Israel's "Palestinian
problem," ranging from the mass murder of the families of
suspected militants and suicide bombers to the pros and cons of
assassinating Yasser Arafat. None other than House Majority Leader
Dick Armey (Rep.Tex.) called for the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians,
which is now being widely talked about in Israel, where it is
euphemistically called "transfer."
In this atmosphere, the unthinkable becomes totally acceptable.
Consider the following: Attorney Nathan Lewin is an outspoken
supporter of Israel's clenched fist policies against Palestinians
and an adjunct professor at Columbia University. Lewin suggested
in a recent article for the on-line 'zine, Sh'ma, that Israel
not only target militants, but their families as well. Lewin writes
that since most "terrorists" have "closely knit"
families... what if Israel and the United States announced that
henceforth the perpetrators of all suicide attacks would be treated
as if they had brought their parents and brothers and sisters
with them to the site of the explosion? Suicide killers should
know that they will take the lives of not only themselves and
the many people they don't know... but also the lives of their
parents, brothers, and sisters.
Despite the vicious tactics of the Israeli lobby, Palestinians
on the ground and their supporters in the U.S. say they have no
intention of backing down. Many in the International Solidarity
Movement see themselves as carrying on the civil rights traditions
of the 1960s or following in the footsteps of the Abraham Lincoln
Brigade, whose members went to Spain to fight Franco's fascists
in the 1930s. They say they will not be intimidated by Israel
or its bullying supporters and will stand up for justice. They're
organizing a "Freedom Summer," modeled after the civil
rights movement's Freedom Summer organizing in the South during
"I will stand against this brutal occupation until they
put me in the ground," says Barbara Lubin, founder of the
Middle East Children's Alliance, which supports the building of
cultural centers, clinics, and playgrounds in occupied Palestine.
"And every time the Israelis blow up a playground or center
or ransack a clinic, I'll be back there rebuilding it with my
bare hands if I have to."
For every e-mail I receive threatening me for my Palestine
coverage, I receive five others in support. They come from across
the spectrum-from Holocaust survivors, from devout Muslims, and
from Jews; from people of different ages, nationalities, and political
perspectives. One Ph.D. candidate at the University of California,
Santa Cruz, wrote "Dear Dennis, I don't know how to thank
you...l have cried every day, and been enraged, over the horrendous
reports from the West Bank."
One young woman wrote that "Flashpoints" inspired
her to activism. Yours is the voice I turn to each day to find
caring, unyielding truth. I am frightened and outraged by the
U.S. government's stance regarding the invasion and destruction
of Palestine. I am equally disturbed by the distortion and annihilating
silence in the newspapers and other media I have surveyed outside
of KPFA. I have been shaken out of my inactive stupor by your
urgency My baby steps in activism, while small, are dedicated
to you and all those whom you love and support each day.
One Muslim wrote: After I heardyou for the first time on the
radio, you signed off and I turned to my husband and said, did
he say Bernstein? Is he Jewish? I commend you for building bridges
between the Muslim faith and yours, and giving me hope that there
are more people like you and that someday we Jews, Muslims, Christians
can live in peaceful co-existence.
One "disaffected Jew" shared his letter to the April
12, 2002, edition of the Jewish Bulletin of Northern California:
The moral high ground held by Jews as the premier victims
of atrocities has forever been bulldozed by Sharon and his storm-troopers'
fantasies that a civilian population can be bludgeoned into submission
are simplistic, not to mention not worthy of Jews. Sharon's brutality
cannot succeed. Palestinians will only resist more, as they have
little /left to lose. Israel will not have peace until its right
wing is forced to give back the Occupied Territories. American
Jews would be wise to pressure Israel to pull back. This is no
time for uncritical support.
Despite the best efforts of Israel and its U.S. shock troops,
many more eyes are being opened to Israel's brutality, and many,
many people are questioning just what is going on in the Middle
East-why are the Palestinian people resisting so desperately,
and just what role is the U.S. really playing in the region?
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Dennis Bemstein is producer and host of the radio news magazine
"Flashpoints," heard regularly on Pacifica Network stations
KPFA in Berkeley and KPFT in Houston. He is an award-winning investigative
reporter specializing in coverage of U.S. national security and
human rights issues. Contact the author at: www. flashpoints.