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 Palestinian people.

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 and fired."

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?"'


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 "" e-mailed me: "You 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!!!" 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 "": "Thanks for your support. God willing we will kill all the 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 "," such as: "A good Jew like me is dead, headless and cut to pieces...a mother 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.


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 "security" operations.

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 Palestinians?

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.


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 attacks.'

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.


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 the 1960s.

"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?



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. net.

Middle East watch

Index of Website

Home Page