20 February, 2004
When mistakes become libels

Journalists are, after all, only human. They're entitled to make mistakes.

By Ben Dror Yemini

Thomas Friedman, the New York Times columnist often described as one of the most important and influential journalists in the world stands in the midst of a small tumult. Two weeks ago he published an extremely critical column dealing with the Bush administration and the Sharon Government. He cautioned that the Bush foreign policy might end up in a strategic disaster, the establishment of two Islamic republics, in Iraq and Palestine. One should be familiar with Friedman’s opinions on the Islamists, in order to understand that he really means disaster.

Friedman dealt with the unilateral withdrawal initiative and claimed that Sharon holds two public figures in detention. The first is Arafat, ‘who is surrounded by tanks’, the other is George Bush, who, and here comes the part that makes waves, is surrounded by Jewish and Pro-Israeli lobbyists and by Vice President, Dick Cheney, who is always prepared to succumb to any dictate from Sharon’.

These words unleashed a furor, as they brought to mind traditional anti- Semitic claims about the Jewish dominance in the American Administration. Ultra right wing white supremacy groups often refer to their battle against ZOG (Zionist Occupation Government) when, in fact, they mean the American administration, which is governed by the Zionists
But Thomas Friedman is not anti-Semitic, and not due to the fact that he is Jewish (since Jewish anti-Semites already exist). In fact, he is one of the ‘stars’, of anti-Semitic propaganda. The newspaper, in which he works, the New York Times, is considered a part of the media under Jewish and Zionist dominance, despite the fact that it is a liberal newspaper, ‘leftist’ in the American viewpoint. And Friedman himself is at times cited as an example of that Jewish dominance of the global media.

Altogether, since the terror attacks on The United States, Friedman has published dozens of articles that have been mistakably categorized as anti- Islamic. (He is for the reinforcement of moderate Islam.) Friedman is one of the most prominent advocates of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state, one of the sharpest critics of Arafat, and a long-standing opponent of the Right of Return. True, he is not fond of the Jewish settlements and claims that they will lead to the materialization of the Arafat vision of the termination of the Jewish state, but this is also the stand of most Israelis. Fascist circles claim that Friedman is a Zionist and Pro-Israeli. They are probably right.

And thus, this experienced journalist has failed. It happens to the best. Ari Shavit of Ha’aretz fell into the trap last April, when he wrote that ‘the passionate faith (in the Iraqi war – B. Y.) was spread by a small group of neo-conservatives, most of whom are Jews. And he, too, was vilified as a promoter of anti-Semitic propaganda, despite the fact that calling him an anti-Semite is an insult to the intelligence of a not-very-smart 12-year-old. If one needs to explain that Shavit is not anti Semitic, I don’t know what the world is coming to. But he, too, exactly like Friedman, fell into the trap and his words, like those of Friedman, were sharply criticized.

The pro-Israeli site mideasttruth.com put on a poster that makes a comparison between Friedman’s words to those of Mohammad Mahtir, who caused an outcry due to his anti-Semitic words. The poster title says: ‘What is the next thing, Mr. Friedman? The Protocols of the Elders of Zion’? The poster, naturally, got storming responses.

So who is right? The dilemma is not simple at all. After all, each generalization that ‘Jews’ dominate the White House or preach for war immediately turns into substance to be used by anti-Semites. It is true that Jews are of great influence, but it derives from numerous historical and sociological reasons. The Jews are also dominant among the Nobel Prize winners; this doesn’t mean that the prize committee is dominated by Jews. Many Jewish professors are among the distributors of anti-Israeli propaganda in American campuses. And just as there is no Jewish conspiracy for Israel, there is no anti-Israeli Jewish conspiracy.

I had the privilege to be among those who responded to the affair, when the editors of the pro-Israeli site asked for my opinion on the matter. There are times when columnists deserve to be put on the spot by their own words. Sometimes it is reasonable to say both that Thomas Friedman is one of the most significant supporters of Israel, and that the things he had written in a particular article were not worthy of him as well as being unworthy of publication. In this article, I admit, I wrote and changed and erased and rewrote. And, eventually, erased. Because it is exactly a case of ambiguity. If important journalists as Friedman and Shavit got to be momentary heroes of both the anti-Semites and those fighting anti-Semitism, then we, the writers, need a lot of precaution. We make mistakes. This, unfortunately, is our right and privilege as human beings. However, as writers with large and discerning audiences, we are obliged to be extra careful, since these mistakes might sometimes become substance for plotting.