Front-page headlines in practically every major American
newspaper about criticism of Israel's missile attack on a
building housing a Hamas leader, accompanied by graphic
photographs of unintended civilian casualties of the attack,
formed the unanticipated but poignant background for a two-
hour session on "The Media and the Middle East" in Washington
this past week.
The historic National Press Club was the setting for the
unusual July 25 session, which constituted the morning
portion of Agudath Israel of America' s 2002 National
Leadership Mission to Washington.
The forum featured an understated but powerful keynote
address by respected syndicated columnist and Pulitzer Prize
winner Dr. Charles Krauthammer, and a panel discussion
involving the ombudsmen of National Public Radio and The
Washington Post, Jeffrey Dvorkin and Michael Getler,
respectively, as well as an expert on international
terrorism, Clifford May, president of the Foundation for the
Defense of Democracies.
The starting point of Dr. Krauthammer's analysis was his
premise that media bias against Israel -- in Arab media,
obviously, but also in European and even American outlets --
is an undeniable reality.
Citing specific examples, he noted that in some instances the
bias is blatant; while in others, it is far more subtle,
consisting of such things as choice of terminology,
presentation of visual imagery, and "moral agnosticism" on
the part of reporters who refuse to recognize the essential
difference between terrorism and self-defense.
Having made his case for the fact of media bias, Dr.
Krauthammer focused the lion's share of his remarks on the
reasons behind the fact. In Arab countries, he contended,
the motivation is "pure and simple" anti- Semitism. European
anti-Israel sentiment, he went on, was "more complicated,"
though not greatly so.
In addition to greatly increased Islamic populations in
European countries in recent decades, Dr. Krauthammer
contended, there exists a "recrudescence" of "classical anti-
Semitism" across Europe, masquerading in the guise of anti-
The "statute of limitations" on Jew-hatred in Europe, he
explained, informally instituted in the wake of the
Holocaust, has apparently now expired. "It was really the 50-
year hiatus," he noted wryly, "that was the anomaly."
Anti-Israel media bias in the United States, however, he went
on, owes itself less to malice than to ignorance and
misguided liberal instincts.
A simple unawareness of the historical facts allows reporters
to miss entirely the essential context of much that
transpires in the Middle East, and a number of other, more
subtle factors -- from American antipathy toward real or
imagined colonialism to a misguided understanding of what
constitutes a civil rights cause to automatic identification
with a perceived underdog -- all help foster an unjustified
animus toward Israel that is all too often as unrecognized by
those who possess it as it is evident to more clear-headed
As to what might be done about the problem of American media
bias, Mr. Krauthammer stressed the importance of relentless
efforts at confronting the press with the facts it seems to
lack, or chooses to ignore. Keeping on top of the media is
vital, he maintained -- but so, he said, is "buy[ing] a lot
Mr. May was fully in agreement with Mr. Krauthammer's
understanding of the situation, as became evident in the
question-and-answer session that ensued, which was moderated
by Agudath Israel's director of public affairs, Rabbi Avi
He also made the interesting point that Israeli authorities
themselves have been too quick to "yield rhetorical
territory" -- allowing such judgment-laden and misleading
terms as "occupied territories" to become part of the
vernacular in discussions of the Middle East.
On the other hand, Mr. Dvorkin and Mr. Getler took issue,
each in his own way, with Dr. Krauthammer's broad indictment
of the media.
While the two ombudsmen conceded that coverage of the Israeli-
Palestinian conflict has been less than perfect -- even
within their own news organizations -- they maintained that
on balance the media has been fair and objective in its
reportage of an extremely complicated subject.
A polite but spirited discussion of the issue, and of
particular perceived offenses of the American media, went on
until the session had to be ended so that the delegates could
make the trip to Capitol Hill for the mission's next segment,
a luncheon with members of Congress.
The announcement that the buses were ready, though, didn't
prevent dozens of delegates from mobbing the dais to continue
discussions with the keynote speaker and panelists until the
very last minute.
At the Capitol Hill luncheon, the Agudath Israel delegates,
nearly 200 men and women from 25 states, were greeted by the
following United States Senators: Sam Brownback (R. Kansas),
Hillary Clinton (D. NY), Jon Corzine (D. NJ), James Inhof (R.
Oklahoma), Daniel Inouye (D. Hawaii), Bill Nelson (D.
Florida), Deborah Ann Stabenow (D. Michigan) and Ron Wyden
(D. Oregon) - and Congressmembers: Eric Cantor (R. VA), Peter
Deutsch (D. FL), Elliot Engel (D. NY), Ben Gilman (R. NY),
Sandor Levin (D. Michigan), Jerrold Nadler (D. NY), Dianne
Watson (D. CA) and Anthony Weiner (D. NY), who generously
arranged a hospitality suite for the Agudath Israel
In their remarks, the Senators and Congressmembers addressed
a number of issues of concern to the Orthodox Jewish
community, ranging from black-Jewish relations to religious
rights to school vouchers to special education funding.
Indeed, special-ed funding had been the focus, a day earlier,
of an advocacy mission by Agudath Israel, at which Jewish
special education activists from 13 states met with officials
at the White House, the U.S. Department of Education and
members of Congress, to help promote the interests of special-
needs children in yeshiva settings in light of the pending re-
authorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Education
However, Israel's security was at the top of the agenda.
Every congressional visitor took the opportunity to voice his
or her passionate support for Israel; and the Agudath Israel
delegates were clearly gratified at the congressional
demonstrations of solidarity with the beleaguered people of
Israel -- responding repeatedly to the ardent oratory with
Chaim Dovid Zwiebel, Agudath Israel's executive vice
president for government and public affairs, chaired the
luncheon session and introduced each visitor, often with a
personal account of an important interaction. Later he noted
that "as impressive as was the parade of public officials who
joined us for lunch, even more impressive was the depth of
their support for Israel at a time when so many other
government leaders across the globe have taken up the
From Capitol Hill, the Agudath Israel delegates proceeded to
the White House for a briefing by several top Administration
Rabbi Shmuel Bloom, Agudath Israel's executive vice
president, introduced the session by recalling how Rabbi
Moshe Sherer, z"l, the late president of Agudath Israel who
had pioneered American Orthodoxy's "shtadlonus" efforts in
Washington and led numerous Agudath Israel leadership
missions in years past, often wondered how different things
might have been if only our community would have had the same
access to the White House 60 years ago as we do today. "But
now we do have access," said Rabbi Bloom. "Let's use it
Elliot Abrams, Special Assistant to the President and
National Security Council Senior Director for Democracy,
Human Rights and International Operations, was the first
White House official to address the delegates, focusing on
the alarming re-emergence of anti-Semitism in the Islamic
world and in many parts of Europe.
Mr. Abrams has been a longstanding friend of the Orthodox
Jewish community -- he was the recipient of Agudath Israel's
Humanitarian Award in 1984, as a high- ranking official in
the Reagan Administration -- and his penetrating analysis of
the troubling events in the Middle East and other corners of
the world were extremely well-received.
Similarly well-received were the remarks of the next speaker,
Jay Lefkowitz, director of the President's Domestic Policy
Council. He spoke of a number of matters, including his
puzzlement at choices that have been made by the broader
Jewish community -- in areas like school choice -- that
seemed to evidence less concern with the Jewish future than
with attempting to maintain discredited liberal societal
Mr. Lefkowitz also delighted his listeners with the
disclosure that he is personally a "shomer Torah u'mitzvot"
who has openly shared that fact with the President and has
received only respect as a result from the First Citizen, who
fully understands and accepts things like his aide's need to
leave early on winter Fridays.
The State Department's Aaron Miller, Senior Advisor on the
Israeli-Palestinian conflict, was next to brief the Agudath
In an articulate and provocative address, he made the case
for the contention that only new negotiations between Israel
and hopefully more responsible Palestinian leaders can
conceivably lead to a realistic peace in the Middle East.
While there are no guarantees that any such leadership will
evolve, or that good will on the part of the Palestinians
will ever inform any such future negotiations, Mr. Miller
insisted that with the alternative unthinkable, there is no
choice but to pursue the hope.
The delegates' White House session ended in a high- powered
mode, with an inspiring address from Attorney General John
Ashcroft, who shared his thoughts on religious freedom,
homeland security and the war against terrorism.
The Attorney General has enjoyed a longstanding relationship
with Agudath Israel and the Orthodox Jewish community, and
the warmth of the White House encounter -- even with the air
conditioning operating full blast -- was palpable.
At the conclusion of the mission, Agudath Israel's Washington
Office director and counsel Abba Cohen, whose welcoming
remarks at the National Press Club had opened the day's
proceedings, summed up: "We learned many things today --
including the facts that in these difficult times we still
have many friends in the White House and in Congress, and
that the Bush Administration and Capitol Hill remain firmly
committed to Israel and her security.
"But even more important than what we learned is what we
taught -- that Orthodox Jews from all across the country,
under the banner of Agudath Israel, are knowledgeable,
passionate observers of the current world scene who are
ready, willing and able to speak up, and who command the
attention of the very highest levels of government and media.
Our message was heard, loud and clear, and with Hashem's help
will leave a lasting impression."