Jewish Journal

Braced for Backlash

America is the... expression of modernity

by Sheldon Teitelbaum

Posted on Sep. 20, 2001 at 8:00 pm

The media war over Israel, running hot and heavy in the months before Sept. 11, took a dangerous turn following the tragic terrorists attack on America.

In the hours and days following the attack, sources cited by American print and electronic media, and American media itself, asserted that this country fell victim to these outrages primarily because of its support for Israel.

These and other reports have led some American Jews to suggest that blaming Israel has, or is in the process of becoming, an integral component of the current drumbeat resounding in much of the earlier broadcast coverage. The Journal took a thorough and considered look at the first three days of special-coverage output by CBS, ABC and NBC news.

Some conclusions:

  • The major networks did a yeoman's job covering a difficult, complex and constantly mutating story.
  • The network news anchors and their field reporters generally refrained from overzealous pursuits of potential Jewish and Israeli culpability in the attacks, and for the most part provided a fair and accurate context for the place and significance of Arab and Islamic anti-Israeli sentiment.
  • Some official Israeli spokespeople dropped the ball when asked about the role of American support for Israel in spurring the attack.
  • Some of the best attempts to stay on message came from unlikely quarters, notably Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, while former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu truly glowed in his own efforts to recast the perception that Western support for Israel lay at the heard of Arab enmity.
  • Jewish jitters at the prospect of a possible anti-Israel and anti-Jewish backlash, though not groundless, may have been ratcheted up a few notches by the community's difficulty in grappling with questions intended not as damning so much as provocative. Many taking umbrage at questions regarding Israel's alleged culpability failed to recognize that such questions were indeed inevitable, and that dispensing with them early in the game offered invaluable opportunities to reframe the discussion.

"The broadcast media has generally done a pretty good job describing what's going on and trying to keep up with a fast-paced, difficult and complicated story," says Anti-Defamation League West Coast Director David Lehrer.

"Israel may be getting the occasional backhanded slap in the mouth, but it's part of the story. One can't expect that it won't get some attention. But I think the vast, overwhelming majority of the American public has no misapprehensions as to who is responsible for this, and no interest, inclination or even a hint of a notion that Israel is somehow culpable."

Dan Rather's marathon coverage began Tuesday, 8:48 a.m. PST. He asked Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, "Do you think this terrorist attack on the United States is because of its close friendship with Israel?"

"I think we have to do whatever we can not to permit another war, with terrible consequences to be spread over," Peres answered. "May I say that each of us today feel like an American. Our heart is with the families, with the victims. It's full of pain. But we know the United States is a great and a strong country, and as you've won so many wars, and suffered so many agonies, again, you and us and all of us will emerge stronger and more hopeful."

When asked a similar question by conservative columnist George F. Will, Netanyahu called the attack "a war to reverse the triumph of the West."

"The soldiers of militant Islam and pan-Arabism," Netanyahu said, "do not hate the West because of Israel. They hate Israel because of the West. They hate Zionism as an expression and representation of Western civilization. And they hate America because it is the purest expression of modernity -- individualism, pluralism, freedom, secularism."

Others had to negate the contention that the attack was a result, as Rabbi Marvin Hier of the Simon Wiesenthal Center put it, of a mindset that posited "the Jews as our misfortune."

CBS, for instance, presented the analysis of reporter David Hawkings, who noted what religious fundamentalists of Osama bin Laden's ilk do not need Israel to justify or fuel their hatred for the West. NBC's Andrea Mitchell, meanwhile, said on "The Today Show" that bin Laden's grievances stemmed from a sense of defilement when western troops remained near Muslim holy sites after rescuing his native Saudi Arabia from Saddam Hussein.

Interviewed by Keith Miller on NBC's "Nightly News" on the first day of the attack, author Simon Reeve, who wrote "The New Jackals," noted that bin Laden had "targeted the U.S. because he sees America as 'the head of the snake,' as he calls it. The body of the snake is the corrupt governments of the Middle East he has promised to overthrow, and also Israel."

Even ABC's Jim Wooten, who on "World News Tonight" emphasized the centrality of Israel's "ruthless oppression of Palestinian aspirations for land and independence" in fueling Arab outrage over U.S. complicity, listed American sanctions against Iraq as a key ingredient.

"As an explanation for yesterday's madness shared by many Arabs in the Middle East and elsewhere," he concluded, "it explains nothing and everything."

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