Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

29 Av 5762 - August 7, 2002 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly









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U.S. Aguda National Leadership Mission To Washington Comes at Opportune Moment
by B. Issaac

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- Zionism.

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 observers.

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 of Maalox."

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 Shafran.

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 visitors.

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 Act.

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 standing ovations.

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 Palestinian cause."

From Capitol Hill, the Agudath Israel delegates proceeded to the White House for a briefing by several top Administration officials.

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 well!"

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 notions.

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 Israel delegates.

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."


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