NEW YORK (Mar. 21)
The picture of Syrian Jewry presented by Mike Wallace on tonight’s telecast of “60 Minutes” on the CBS-TV network, although more accurate and better balanced than his broadcast a year ago on the same subject, still gives a somewhat more positive slant to the story than was warranted, according to the American Jewish Committee which previewed the show prior to the telecast.
Tonight’s presentation was the long-awaited second look at the situation of the Jews in Syria that Wallace promised to take in response to the storm of critical comment that was provoked by the first program Feb. 16, 1975, the AJCommittee noted. At that time numerous Jewish organizations attacked the telecast and thousands of viewers objected to the assessment that life was getting better for Jews in Syria.
According to the preview, Wallace notes in tonight’s telecast that the critics felt he had been had and their views were summed up by the American Jewish Congress which called the initial report inaccurate and distorted. Wallace reiterates that life for Syria’s Jews is “better than in years past,” that “it is getting better under President (Hafez) Assad” for all Syrians, “Syrian Jews among them. To deny that is to deny what we have seen.” These are roughly the remarks that touched off the earlier storm.
In a detailed analysis of tonight’s program, George E. Gruen, the AJCommittee’s director of Israel and Middle East Affairs, commended Wallace for correcting the erroneous impression left by some of his previous comments, but also pointed out that Wallace still did not fully convey the sense of insecurity felt by Syrian Jews, despite the recent economic improvement and easing of certain internal restrictions.
SITUATION REMAINS PRECARIOUS
“Even if one shares Mr. Wallace’s impression that life has been getting somewhat better for Jews in Syria-under President Assad’s rule and that there are no apparent signs of blatant physical persecution at present, we believe that their situation remains precarious, since it is dependent upon the good will of the rulers and is not yet firmly based in a legal tradition respecting human rights,” Gruen stated.
On the plus side, the AJCommittee expressed approval of the fact that Wallace identified Syria as a “police state,” calling it “a poor country by our standards–difficult, totalitarian–and for Jews it is more difficult than for the others.”
Gruen also noted favorably that Wallace had included an interview with a young Jewish doctor who had escaped from Syria. This was in contrast to last year’s program, in which the only interviews with Jews had been filmed in Syria under the watchful eyes of Syrian secret police. The interview with the doctor, who now lives in the United States, Wallace notes in the program, had come about through the assistance of the AJCommittee.
“We have been in frequent contact with Mr. Wallace over the past year to provide him with background information, suggest leads he might wish to follow up on, and share our assessment of changing developments affecting Syrian Jewry,” Gruen stated.
In his criticism of the program, Gruen noted that “the factual information” presented in tonight’s program “in general corresponds to the latest information we have received from other sources, although one may differ with Wallace’s report in some matters of interpretation and nuances.”
CRITICISM OF SEVERAL ASPECTS
Gruen also regretted the fact, for instance, that the program was concerned primarily with “Jews who are successful in business or the professions,” and did not deal with “any of the estimated 200 Jewish families in Damascus who reportedly live close to or below the poverty line” even though the program noted that “the average per capita income for all Syrians is less than $10 a week.”
Similarly, on the question of Jewish students at the University of Damascus, “it is true that the number of 35 Jewish students currently enrolled in relation to total student enrollment corresponds to the proportion of Jews within Syria’s population as a whole,” Gruen stated, “but the program does not take into account the fact that since Jews live in urban centers and tend toward middle-class professions, they are likely to have a higher percentage of children who wish to go on to college than do Syrians who live in rural areas.”
Gruen also regretted the fact that tonight’s program did not directly retract a statement in the previous program which claimed that “four young Syrian Jews were executed for espionage in 1969.” The AJCommittee, he stated, “pointed out that this alleged incident was unknown to any of our reliable sources and that even the Syrian ambassador in Washington had categorically denied that any Syrian Jews had been tried or executed for espionage.”
SPOTLIGHT HELPS TO BRING ABOUT IMPROVEMENT
As in its criticism of the earlier program, the AJCommittee challenged Wallace’s assumption that the comments he elicited from the Syrian Jews he interviewed were candid because he had been “permitted to talk to anyone we wanted many of them in private.”
People who have experienced totalitarian government have pointed out, Gruen stated, that “Americans, such as Mike Wallace and his CBS colleagues, who have lived their entire lives in freedom, cannot really appreciate the sense of insecurity and fear that is second nature to a person who has grown up in a police state and which, therefore, colors his every action and conversation.”
He noted that the “continuing spotlight of public attention that has been focussed on the problem of Syrian Jewry by responsible persons with a humanitarian concern for their plight and by representatives of the media, such as CBS, have helped bring about the measure of improvement reported by Mr. Wallace.”