What does it mean to be Jewish? Is it belief in a set of religious values, identity with a much-splintered ethnic tribe or automatic membership among God's chosen people as certified by the lineage of one's mother?
For many, being Jewish carries with it the lessons of universal tolerance and compassion, while for others it is a "never again" pride in the military power of a David turned modern-day Goliath.
This latter allusion to the Holocaust, a horror that occurred in the center of modern European civilization and had little to do with the Arabs, nonetheless provides the enduring rationale for Israeli brutality in the name of self-defense. What irony that many Jews now comfortably vacation in Germany but insist that Arab anti-Semitism is an immutable aspect of Muslim culture that can only be met with the crushing power of tanks. Not that anyone asked me, but those are not my tanks careening around the West Bank bringing fear and havoc in their wake. Yet they are marked as Jewish tanks and consequently they and I bear some familial resemblance on my mother's side. I am thus obligated to consider what cruelty is being done in the name of defending my people.
Some of us make a deliberate effort to disassociate from the mayhem of Ariel Sharon's carnage, while others seem to wallow in it, as if displaying the awesome firepower of the Israeli army is necessary to the survival of the Jewish state. I would like to think that the peacemakers still outnumber the militarists among US Jews, but my own e-mail and street-corner conversations no longer bear that hope out.
While Jews are hardly monolithic, even in their views of Israel, their large presence in the media contrasts sharply with a near total exclusion of Palestinian Americans.
Palestinian Americans in particular, and Arabs in general, are the ghosts haunting US newsrooms by their embarrassing absence. As journalists, we do not know them as a people, we have little connection with their slights and sorrows, and we can only, even with the best of intentions, experience their suffering as an abstraction.
While the family tales of Jewish oppression during the pogroms of czars, the Holocaust and Soviet anti-Semitism have been merged into the dominant American culture, horrific tales of Arab suffering are systematically ignored. But, as when blacks and Latinos were absent from newsrooms and nightly death in the ghetto was not thought to be news, it is difficult to escape the notion that many in the media, Jews and non-Jews alike, lean to the view that Arab life is cheap.
Despite all the attention accorded affirmative action by news organizations on the grounds that diversity is necessary to better news reporting, the exclusion of Arabs has been ignored. It is not appropriate, particularly given the past decades in which Arab-Israeli strife has never left the news and has frequently been a front-page headline--a story covered far differently by the European media, where Arab voices are much more integrated.
One can recognize this enormous imbalance without endorsing the anti-Semitic slanders of the late Richard M. Nixon and the Rev. Billy Graham, who asserted in tapes made 30 years ago, which were recently released, that Jews control the media. They don't own the media. Nor do Jewish journalists toe a common Israeli party line. Indeed, they are less inclined to apologize for Israel than Graham, who has lined up consistently behind Israeli militarism as somehow godly.
For Nixon there were good Jews, such as his speech writer William Safire, who was hawkish back then and whose current columns in the New York Times provide the most reliable outlet for Sharon's propaganda.
Sharon himself is a man of barbaric impulse, demonstrated all too clearly in his terrorizing of civilians two decades ago in Lebanon and now on the West Bank. He has been a consistent provocateur, undermining peace efforts no matter their content, and now he is using his tanks to poison the ground for future generations.
Yes, Yasser Arafat also has poisoned the ground under his feet and shares responsibility with Sharon for the breakdown of the peace process. But until recently, Arafat has been unrelentingly reviled by the news media while Sharon, no less monstrous in his behavior, hardly has been criticized.
Both are killers of the innocent. Both are to be roundly condemned by all, and the failure of prominent moderate Arabs to do their part to restrain Arafat is all too obvious. No less a moral offense is the acquiescence of too many Jews, in Israel and abroad, to the comparable crimes of Sharon.