NEW YORK — Pro-Israel advocates have been taking it on the chin of late. This week they fired back, holding a conference aimed at Jewish critics that they accuse of subverting and distorting the truth in their rush to heap scorn upon Israel.
The conference, titled “Israel’s Jewish Defamers,” was organized by the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America. The group, known by the acronym CAMERA, specifically targeted Jews who blast Israel with comparisons to Nazi Germany and apartheid South Africa — and who sometimes appear to trip over facts in their eagerness to keep Israel in the dock.
“What we are addressing today,” said Andrea Levin, CAMERA’s executive director, in her introductory remarks, “is criticism rooted in outright demonstrable falsehood or wildly extreme, out-of-context distortion.”
The conference comes amidst a growing assault on American Jewish supporters of Israel for their alleged role in stifling free debate of American policy in the Middle East. At a conference in Chicago earlier this month, several “defamers” fingered by CAMERA in the past accused the pro-Israel community of working to suppress criticism of Israel.
In her opening remarks, Levin insisted that it is not criticism that is at issue, but defamation, which, when coming from Jews, is afforded added potency. She singled out Israel’s Ha’aretz newspaper, one of the country’s most respected news sources and — through its English-language edition and Web site — a chief source of media perspective on Israel abroad. Levin accused the paper of printing outright lies and failing to issue corrections, even when the mistakes are pointed out.
David Landau, Ha’aretz’s editor-in-chief, refused — “as a matter of policy and principle” — to respond to the substance of Levin’s criticisms because they came from CAMERA, an organization that he dismissed as “Mcarthyite.”
“I advise your readers to relate to CAMERA’s tendentious statements and comments with the same measure of skepticism,” Landau said, “and to read Ha’aretz.com and draw their own conclusions as to the veracity of our reporting and the contribution of our op-ed columns to honest and caring debate within Israel and the Jewish world.”
The real heat at the conference came later, with a tour de force from celebrated author Cynthia Ozick, whose presentation, “Reflections on Apostasy,” vilified Jews who appear to identify with the enemies of the Jewish people. Ozick reserved particular vitriol for Rabbi Michael Lerner, editor of the left-wing journal Tikkun and a frequent critic of Israel.
After ridiculing him as a “garrulous mime,” questioning the validity of his rabbinical ordination, and slapping him with a flurry of unflattering adjectives — chaotic, disorganized, self-contradictory, puerile, and unbearably long-winded, to name but a few — Ozick accused the yarmulke-wearing rabbi of providing Jewish sanction to some of Israel’s most implacable foes.
“Only imagine Karl Marx davening and you will comprehend the dazzlement of Rabbi Lernerâ€™s current achievement,” Ozick said.
Lerner is “one of a growing band of ambitious, self-touting Jews whose hostility to the State of Israel more and more takes on the character of the spite that kills,” she said. “The noise they make they call a silencing. The debate they attract they call a censoring.”
In an interview with JTA, Lerner adamantly rejected the notion that he was anti-Israel, noting that he has traveled and lived in the Jewish state and that his only child served in a combat unit of the Israeli military. He further accused those who portray critics of Israel as anti-Israel as being responsible for the alienation of young Jews from their heritage by forcing a choice between communal loyalty and moral conviction.
“I’m a strong supporter of Israel and that’s why I want to change its policies,” Lerner said. “I will continue to push for Israel to be a Jewish state, not just a state in which a lot of Jews live.”
Ozick was joined on her panel by Alvin Rosenfeld, a professor of English at Indiana University and author of the controversial tract “Progressive Jewish Thought and the New Anti-Semitism,” and Kenneth Levin, a clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard University.
Rosenfeld called furious criticism of Israel by Jews a “new genre,” a central convention of which is the notion that Israel’s supporters try to shut up critics with charges of anti-Semitism.
Rather, Rosenfeld argued, it is Israel’s Jewish defamers who have contributed to rising anti-Semitism with their relentless demonization of the Jewish state.
“There is a connection between anti-Semitic acts and anti-Semitic utterances,” Rosenfeld said. “Along with these words is street-level hostility against Jews, Jewish institutions, and of course in the Middle East, against the Jewish state itself.”
Kenneth Levin suggested that the tendency to identify with one’s attackers is typical of besieged populations. He likened the condition to that of an abused child that blames himself, rather than his alcoholic father, for his suffering.
A self-described non-partisan group, CAMERA professes no public interest beyond the promotion of accuracy in news reporting on the Middle East. Critics of the group dispute that characterization, saying CAMERA is a right-wing outfit masquerading as an impartial media-monitoring organization.
“I don’t at all buy the fact that what they’re looking for is balanced coverage,” said Samuel Freedman, a professor of journalism at Columbia University and a regular contributor to the New York Times. “What they’re looking for is coverage that subscribes to their view of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which is a pro-Israel view.”
That the Jewish “defamers” targeted Sunday were virtually all figures of the political left will do little to dispel that notion.
Andrea Levin vehemently rejected the suggestion that CAMERA is a partisan group, saying it is interested solely in accuracy.
“There may be Jewish defamers on the right,” Levin said. “But the ones that are terming Israel ‘apartheid,’ that are featured in newspapers, in conferences, and awarded prizes and celebrated, are not.”