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Mike Wallace and Israel — a complicated legacy

Legendary journalist Mike Wallace, who died this week at 93, was a passionate, provocative interviewer. He never hid his Jewish roots, but some have taken his reporting as anti-Israel. Is that so?

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I wasn’t going to file anything on Mike Wallace. What could the Eulogizer add that hadn’t already been said by the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and many others?

But some vicious trash has been written about Wallace by self-proclaimed friends of Israel. One of the more polite attacks came from Israeli news agency Arutz 7, which titled its obit of him, Iconic Reporter, Mike Wallace, Leaves Contentious Legacy. A fuller appraisal of Wallace’s journalistic legacy will take some time, but some of the recent attacks compel me to offer, if not rebuttal, some context and additional evidence.

Wallace was a thoroughly assimilated American Jew and made no bones about it. As the Times of Israel reported it, Wallace, who was born Myron Wallace in Brookline, Massachusetts to Frank and Zina Wallace. They were Jewish Russian immigrants who had Anglicized their name from Wallik, the New York Times and other sources reported. Wallace once said he considered himself “Jewish by heritage and in a certain way by feeling, but not a particularly religious or pious Jew.”

In an interview, Wallace said to Louis Farrakhan: “You don’t trust the media; you’ve said so. You don’t trust whites; you’ve said so. You don’t trust Jews; you’ve said so. Well, here I am.”

But was Wallace’s "when did you stop beating your wife" style of questioning suggestive of an anti-Israeli position?  In 1958, long before the “60 Minutes” years, Wallace conducted a lengthy interview with Israel’s Abba Eban on TV. Toward the end of a long interview, in which Eban practiced an early version of “hasbara,” Israeli PR/propaganda, by hitting back softball questions Wallace had lobbed him, Wallace cited an anti-Zionist rabbi and hit Eban with tough questions about so-called “dual loyalty” charges against American Jews. (Hat tip to +972 Magazine for posting this, even if the author may have had a different intent.)

WALLACE: Would a Jew, in your estimation, would a Jew be any the less a Jew if he were opposed to Zionism and to Israel?

EBAN: Well, we are dealing here with subjective terms, “more of a Jew”, or “less of a Jew”. I think it is for Jews outside of Israel to determine the exact degree and measure of their intimacy with us. We believe that Israel’s emergence is the greatest collective event in the history of the Jewish people, and that there is no pride and no dignity for a Jew such as those to be found in giving aid and sustenance to Israel in the great hour of her resurgence.

WALLACE: I still, if I may say so, sir, do not feel that you have been responsive to that question. Can a Jew be a good Jew and still be opposed to Zionism and to Israel?

EBAN: I think that’s for him to decide… I wouldn’t say

WALLACE: But, of course, it is. But in your estimation?

EBAN: In my own personal interpretation, I would say that a man who opposed the State of Israel and the great movement which brought it about, would be in revolt against the most constructive and creative events in the life of the Jewish people, and it’s a fact that the great majority of our kinsmen everywhere, are exalted and uplifted by these events.

WALLACE: But Judaism is a religion, sir

EBAN: It is a religion, and it is a peoplehood, and it is a civilization, and it is a faith, and it is a memory; it is a world of thought and of spirit and of action and it cannot be restrictively defined.

WALLACE: Therefore, in your estimation again, to be a good Jew one has to be more than just a religious practicing Jew, one has to enter the religion and the peoplehood at one and the same time to be a fulfilled Jew.

EBAN: I believe that religion has been the field in which the genius of our people has been most profoundly stirred. But… but being Jewish goes beyond this vital domain, and covers a whole complex of spiritual and other emotions, and that to live within the fullness of Jewish history is a deeply satisfying experience.

Many years later, Wallace conducted several interviews with Yasser Arafat, some of which were cited by media watchdog group CAMERA as showing Wallace had an “Israel problem.” A compilation of some of Wallace’s interviews with Arafat was published by CBS shortly after the Palestinian leader died. Here are a few excerpts of Wallace’s last conversation with Arafat in 2007 with commentary by a CBS producer who had worked with Wallace:

Wallace: You say you want peace, correct, Mr. President?

Arafat: Yes

Wallace: But you incite Palestinians, especially young Palestinians, to violence. Just this past week, you said publicly, "Millions of holy warriors are on their way to Jerusalem. Jihad, jihad, jihad, jihad, holy war, holy war, holy war." What does that mean?

Arafat: I am repeating some of holy Muslim words, not mine.

Wallace: On your state-controlled television, a cleric – here’s what he said. "Whoever can fight them with his weapons should go out to battle. Nothing will deter the Jews, except the color of their filthy people’s blood. Nothing will deter them, except for us voluntarily detonating ourselves in their midst." I found it difficult to believe.

Arafat: I didn’t, I didn’t hear it.

He told Wallace he hadn’t heard it himself. Israel claimed that Arafat refused to stop the suicide bombers. Arafat said he tried to, but that no one could stop those zealots.

And he didn’t want to go near Wallace’s next question.

Wallace: Your state-controlled television carried a sermon by a sheik telling worshippers that martyrs will go to paradise and marry 70 beautiful virgins. Do you believe that’s a correct interpretation of the Koran?

Arafat: I am not now in a position to translate for you what had been mentioned in our Koran.

Wallace: Will martyrs be met in heaven by 70 virgins?

Arafat: I will not inter—it’s better not to, because I am not a … scholar.

Arafat was often evasive over the years, especially when 60 Minutes asked about his wealth or alleged corruption. Fact is, he was a very wealthy man – with much of his money coming from Arab leaders who didn’t want him and his troublesome Palestinians living and working in their countries. So, in effect, they paid him to stay away.

The Eulogizer highlights the life accomplishments of famous and not-so-famous Jews who have passed away recently. Write to the Eulogizer at eulogizer@jta.org. Follow the Eulogizer on Twitter @TheEulogizer

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