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Jewish Press Seeks Context in Covering Middle East Crisis

February 19, 1988
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Context, balance and history are the words used by editors of North American Jewish newspapers to describe their coverage of the Palestinian unrest in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank.

They said in interviews that they can be supportive of Israel while remaining true to journalistic standards of objectivity and fairness.

Their general approach is not to apologize for Israel or deny the severity of incidents, but to provide the context that they say is too often missing from the general media’s Middle East reporting.

“We’re trying to do whatever we can to give the Israelis’ point of view,” said Gary Rosenblatt, editor of the privately-owned Baltimore Jewish Times and Jewish News of Detroit. “We always walk a thin line between being an advocate and being a cheerleader, of being in support of Israel without losing our credibility. It’s something we’re always going to struggle to do.”

Rosenblatt pointed to his editorial critical of the Israeli policy of beating suspected Palestinian rioters. But even as the editorial described the policy as “inhumane and indefensible,” it took pains to describe the regional conflict, including the “callous and calculated disregard by the Arab states,” that led to the Palestinian problem.

Marc Klein, editor and publisher of the Northern California Jewish Bulletin in San Francisco, had a similar answer. “As editor of a Jewish paper, my tone has to be different (than the mainstream press).We need to present a situation in its total context, its historical context, its emotional context,” he said.

Klein added, however, that “Our responsibility is not to color stories, but put them in the best possible light. The news stories are all there for people to see. We’re not hiding any facts.”


The Canadian Jewish News of Toronto seems to take a stronger advocacy role. “Ninety-five percent of my coverage has been in the interest of Israel,” said editor Maurice Lucow. “Five percent has been description of the rioting” provided by news services, including the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

Updates on the rioting are relegated to the inside pages, he said, while his front-page stories have focused on the American government’s role in reactivating the peace process or Israeli President Chaim Herzog’s rebuttal to American Jewish leaders critical of the beatings policy.

Lucow said he would not be “comfortable” publishing an editorial critical of the beatings policy.

Like many editors, Lucow is critical of the general media’s coverage of Israel since the riots began last Dec. 9. General newspaper and television coverage of the crisis has not only been overplayed in comparison to other strife, editors say, but in failing to treat the story as a dispute of at least 40 years has demonized the Israeli military.

Most Jewish weeklies have published editorials or news stories pointing out that the media work under few restrictions in Israel, and are able to obtain — and eagerly broadcast — dramatic footage of stone-throwing youths.

But according to Cynthia Dettelbach, editor of the Cleveland Jewish News, “I don’t think it is our role simply to be the antidote to what the ‘other side’ is saying. . . The media have been biased, but that is not carte blanche to say that Israel is always right. These issues are not black and white. There are gray areas. And it’s not my job to whitewash the gray areas.”

Yet some critics believe that Jewish newspapers, whose editors often answer directly to the local Jewish federation or a board of directors that overlaps with local fund-raising leadership, have no choice but to “whitewash” their coverage of Israeli and other Jewish news.

Probably the most outspoken critic has been Jerome Lippman, editor and publisher of the Long Island Jewish World and past-president of the American Jewish Press Association.

“A majority of Jewish newspapers are house organs (of the federations), and as a result it is a shock to most Jews to read (mainstream) dailies and find news that is not positive about the State of Israel or Judaism,” he said.

According to Robert Cohn, editor of the St. Louis Jewish Light and current president of AJPA, half of North America’s Jewish newspapers have affiliations with federations or other organizations. (The Cleveland, San Francisco and Toronto newspapers also accept local federation subsidies.) To debate whether such affiliation is best for Jewish journalism is “counterproductive,” he said.

Cohn, whose own paper is a constituent agency of the Jewish Federation of St. Louis and has an autonomous board of directors, said the debate has shifted to how federations get involved in editorial policy — especially in smaller communities where, according to Cohn, “editors feel weak editorially.”


Federation-run newspapers range from 12-page bulletins with limited national and international coverage to more comprehensive weeklies of 100 pages and more.

One of the latter is the Jewish Exponent, published by the Federation of Jewish Agencies of Greater Philadelphia. Its managing editor, Al Erlick, said his editorial pages represent the spectrum of Jewish opinion.

“Is there federation input? Certainly,” said Erlick. “Just like there’s input from any publisher. Is an editor ever a free agent? No, he’s not.” But, said Erlick, “I’ve never been told to print anything but the truth.”

Robert Forman, federation executive vice president and publisher’s representative of the Exponent, said he sees the Exponent as “a vehicle to help build the Jewish community.”

According to Forman, the federation meets on a regular basis with the newspaper’s editorial staff. And it does set limits on what can be printed in the paper.

Recently, the federation declined to sell advertising space in the Exponent for a petition signed by 240 Philadelphians critical of Israel’s occupation of the territories.

According to Forman, the board does not approve any ad that “blatantly misrepresents” Israel or any other issue. However, a revised version was allowed to be published.

Yet, independent ownership is no more an indication of editorial quality or diversity of opinion than is federation sponsorship, most of the editors said. As Dettelbach of the Cleveland Jewish News put it, the papers publish “what I feel in my conscience is the right way to go.”

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