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That’s Where The Debate Is Going

David Peyman and Sam Yebri

April 2, 2009 | 2:28 pm

Last week, we and three senior officials of the Jewish Federation met with a senior editor of the Los Angeles Times editorial page. We arranged the meeting to express widespread criticism among members of the Los Angeles Jewish community of editorial decisions by the Times regarding Israel. Specifically, we focused on the newspaper’s decision to publish an opinion piece by Hamas political deputy Mousa Abu Marzook on Jan. 6, during the peak of the Gaza conflict.

In his piece, Marzook dismissed Israel’s response to Hamas’ indiscriminate rocket fire as a “preemptive strike” and “simpl[e] aggression ... designed to sow terror and loose anarchy.” In his sole reference to rocket fire from Gaza, Marzook claimed that only one Israeli had been killed in the six months prior to the conflict. The Times later corrected this outright lie. Marzook also slammed calls for Hamas to recognize the right of Israel to exist as “hollow,” given Israel’s “murderous onslaught” and “military occup[ation].”

We asserted that publishing such a piece in the Times lends credibility to the views and actions of Hamas. The editor, however, pointed to the democratic election of Hamas in Gaza and the favorable views of some world leaders toward Hamas, including former President Jimmy Carter. We understand the journalistic obligation to publish a broad spectrum of viewpoints and to let the marketplace of ideas rebut those views that some find pernicious. But, our freedom of speech and freedom of press must be used responsibly. This is especially true given that Hamas’ ultimate aim is the murder of Jews and the destruction of Israel. Disseminating the views of a senior Hamas leader in a mainstream newspaper furthers those objectives.

Our conversation returned often to the larger issue of context. We debated whether the average reader is aware of the founding Charter of Hamas or of Marzook’s terrorist history. The Hamas Charter calls for the “obliteration” of Israel and its replacement with an Islamic state, and quotes from the infamous Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Marzook, meanwhile, is no political official, but a man the United States government indicted as conspiring to fund terrorism and listed as a “Specially Designated Global Terrorist.” The editor noted that the Israeli media prints much more controversial pieces. That argument is, of course, a straw man. Every Israeli reader is aware that Hamas is committed to the death of innocent Jews; Israelis live daily in the shadow of Hamas’ terror. Not all American readers are similarly aware of Hamas’ genocidal goals. Publishing a piece by Marzook with a byline that fails to mention his admitted aim of killing Jews is akin to publishing a piece by former senatorial candidate and former Ku Klux Klan “Grand Wizard” David Duke with a byline that identifies Duke solely as a “political candidate.” Doing so is dishonest and dangerous.

The editor, a thoughtful journalist who to his credit welcomed our meeting, assured us that neither he nor his editorial board treats the decision to publish pieces by Hamas lightly. We discussed the decision by The Washington Post to run an editorial critical of Hamas alongside an opinion piece by Hamas foreign minister and founder, Mahmoud al-Zahar. Whether The Post’s decision was designed to avoid meetings like ours or reflected the newspaper’s desire to make a bold statement about the terrorist organization, it seems unlikely that Hamas would submit any pieces to The Post in the future.

Recently, the Los Angeles Times ran a pair of dueling opinion pieces: “Zionism is the Problem” by Ben Ehrenreich and “Is Anti-Zionism Hate?” by Judea Pearl. We maintained that the editorial decisions of the Times frame debates on important issues — as evidenced by the Ehrenreich and Pearl pieces — and shape how policymakers view those issues. The editor responded that while newspapers may to some extent frame debates, they also follow debates. He then made a startling observation — that whether Israel should continue to exist as a Jewish state or whether Hamas’ grievances are valid and justified ... “that’s where the debate is going.”

If that is true, anyone who values Israel as a bastion of freedom and democracy and a historical homeland for the Jewish people should be concerned. That after 60 years and countless wars and conflicts the very right of the Jewish people to peace and autonomy is being revisited reflects an incalculable failure: the failure to stand up effectively to Israel’s critics. Our failure to speak up in a united and consistent fashion enables former American Presidents to label Israel an apartheid state, American diplomats to blast the “dishonor” and “indecency” of the “Israel lobby” when they are passed over for government positions, and the President of the United Nations General Assembly to accuse Israel of “genocide” for defending its citizens from rocket fire.

If indeed newspapers like the Times follow the debate and that is where the debate is going, our community must speak up. If you disagree with something that a newspaper publishes, write a letter to the editor (for the Times, e-mail letters@latimes.com). Submit opinion pieces. Request meetings with newspaper editorial boards. Demand that your elected officials use their positions to frame the debate around legitimate issues. Our silence, especially after a piece like Marzook’s, is deafening.

We are losing the debate and have no one to blame but ourselves.


David Peyman and Sam Yebri are co-founders of the Iranian-Jewish civic action organization “30 Years After” (www.30yearsafter.org). Peyman, a graduate of UCLA and Harvard Law School, and Yebri, a graduate of Yale University and USC Law School, are attorneys in Los Angeles.

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