The following is a letter I’ve sent to Chad Nackers, editor of “The Onion.” Although directed to that satirical newspaper, its core message applies to many outlets now catering to politically minded young people, particularly online.
Let me volunteer that I’ve been a diehard fan of The Onion. “Our Front Pages” and “Our Dumb World” enjoy a more prominent place in my home than I probably should admit.
I also hesitate to approach you with a substantive concern. Writing satirists a serious response to their work might seem a questionable choice.
I do so, though, because I know that even satirical publications can have a conscience—and many aim to balance or even guide their entertainment with a sense of social responsibility.
I’m writing about multiple posts by The Onion during the unnerving 11 days of the latest fighting between Israel and Hamas, the Islamist group that controls the Gaza Strip.
With headlines like “Palestinian Family Who Lost Home In Airstrike Takes Comfort In Knowing This All Very Complicated” and “Israel Returns Occupied Territories To Palestinians After Running Out Of Targets To Hit In Gaza,” in practically all of these stories, Palestinians feature exclusively as victims and Israelis feature exclusively as aggressors.
A quick search of your website finds the same stark pattern over a stunningly long period—with criticism even of Palestinian radicals last surfacing only years ago. A biting piece like “Crazed Palestinian Gunman Angered by Stereotypes” goes back all the way to 1997.
To be clear, I recognize and am pained by the suffering of every innocent person. And under normal circumstances, I’d welcome the dishing out of smart, good-natured mockery on an equal-opportunity basis. But seeing humanity and suffering on only one side of a conflict isn’t fair, and it isn’t funny.
I’m not going to litigate the conflict here—not the causes of Israel’s specific military actions, its efforts to try avoiding civilian casualties or the reasons for higher losses among Palestinians nonetheless.
This said, over recent weeks—and this conflict, of course, is not limited to recent weeks--millions of Israeli civilians were terrorized by more than 4,000 rockets fired indiscriminately from Gaza. Their lives matter, too. Other countries would be expected to exact a massive response to much less.
Now, a few words about me.
I’m a Jew. Almost all of my grandfather’s family was murdered in the Holocaust. I still have the bullet that entered my grandfather’s back in a deliberate attempt to end his life, and mine, too. When as a boy, I visited his native Poland—home now to perhaps 10,000 Jews, where there were 3 million before the genocide—I was greeted with ubiquitous spray-painted swastikas, Stars of David on a gallows and the words Żydzi, wydostać się z Polski (“Jews, out of Poland”) on a synagogue.
Years later, I went to Israel, to take courses at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem—overwhelmingly a bastion of liberalism, where Arabs, Jews and others pursue higher learning together. That summer, the cafeteria of the university’s international school was bombed in an attack proudly claimed by Hamas. Nine people were killed, 100 were wounded, and countless more were traumatized.
Fast-forward to 2021, when my family members in Israel, including little children, have again repeatedly been forced to take cover from relentless assaults by fanatics who aren’t engaged in a limited territorial or political dispute with Israel but openly, doctrinally, pledge the destruction of the Jewish state in its entirety.
And now, in the United States, where I live, a spate of unprovoked attacks on Jews by pro-Palestinian extremists is being widely reported.
Well prior to the renewed hostilities in the Middle East, Jews—a small minority—were already by far the leading targets of faith-based hate crimes. In my community, some mothers now tell their children not to wear a skullcap or Star of David in public, even in America—far removed from the tensions in the Middle East.
One-sided “reporting” by a publication like The Onion might not seem to be the most critical problem today, and it’s not. But we could probably agree that your outlet can serve a vital role by giving readers a respite from the hardships they endure. Even more importantly, it can entrench prejudice or dispel it, exacerbate divisions or help ease them.
Young people in particular actually look to your “news” for just that—and this has implications in the real world. Even jokes carry a message and can imbibe assumed truths, especially when they are repeatedly reinforced.
Please ensure that your work does not erase the story and the experience of Israeli Jews.
Read David's expert analysis in JNS.
Remarkably few people know that the United Nations – with nearly 60 Muslim and Arab member states – condemns Israel more than it does all other countries combined.The only state routinely criticized by the Commission on the Status of Women? Israel.
The only state attacked by the World Health Assembly? Israel. The only state targeted by a permanent agenda item at the Human Rights Council? Not North Korea or Iran, but Israel.
One effort, though, to weaponize the UN against Israel was so offensive that it was repealed 30 years ago. In 1991, the General Assembly rescinded a resolution that singled out Jews’ self-determination movement, Zionism, for equation with racism.
Zionism simply means support for Israel’s right to exist in Jews’ sole historic homeland. Recognition of that right is almost universal.
As George H.W. Bush put it at the time, “To equate Zionism with the intolerable sin of racism is to twist history and forget the terrible plight of Jews in World War II and, indeed, throughout history. To equate Zionism with racism is to reject Israel itself.... This body cannot claim to seek peace and at the same time challenge Israel’s right to exist.”
Only a decade after Zionism-is-racism was repealed, however, its specter rose again. The UN’s 2001 World Conference against Racism in Durban, South Africa, perversely became the latest symbol of anti-Zionism as the predominant contemporary assault on Jews’ identity, legitimacy and equal rights.
With a backdrop of shocking antisemitic rhetoric and attacks on Jewish attendees, Durban’s outcome document implied that Israel alone was a racist state. Its forum of non-governmental organizations went even further, calling Israel alone a “racist, apartheid regime” and featuring calls for economic warfare against it. Even Mary Robinson, the conference chairwoman, later acknowledged, “There was horrible antisemitism present.”
Nonetheless, in 2009, the follow-up Durban Review Conference hosted Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a Holocaust-denier known for saying Israel would be wiped “off the map.” This September, the UN will “commemorate” Durban’s 20th anniversary.
And now, after the latest fighting between Israel and Hamas – a terrorist group whose explicitly antisemitic charter pledges Israel’s destruction – an unusual alliance between Palestinian activists and global progressives has not merely excoriated Israeli policy, but called it racist.
For these voices, Palestinian nationalism is embraced, but Israeli nationalism is demonized. Those who shun majoritarianism elsewhere, and would otherwise cry “no person is illegal,” overlook Arab conquests and discrimination, and stigmatize Jews as a “colonial” presence in the land from which they had been collectively exiled.
SINCE ISRAEL’S establishment, the number of Palestinians in the land has increased five-fold. In Arab countries, the number of Jews has plummeted from 850,000 to barely 5,000.
Of course, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict has nothing to do with skin color, just territory and security.
No society is free of inequities or of prejudices. But in Israel – the Middle East’s sole democracy – Arabs, let alone Jews and other regional minorities, enjoy far more civil liberties than in any Arab country.
Moreover, Zionists span the political spectrum. On horrifying but exceedingly rare occasions when fringe Jewish fanatics have perpetrated lethal attacks against Arab civilians – in 1994, 2005 and 2015 – Israelis from Left to Right, including their national leaders, have reacted with nothing less than revulsion and denunciation.
During the same period, innumerable suicide bombings, rocket bombardments, shootings, stabbings, stoning attacks and hostage-takings have targeted Israelis. Not just do jihadists often celebrate this deliberate bloodshed by distributing candies on Palestinian streets, but mainstream Palestinian leaders regularly glorify the attackers as heroes and “martyrs.”
Over the past 75 years, Muslim citizens, mosques, Islamic schools and halal restaurants have not been attacked, by Zionists, as have Jews and Jewish institutions in the name of Palestinian nationalism across Europe and elsewhere. Such violence was repeated over recent days from Berlin to Los Angeles.
Sen. Bernie Sanders has now repeatedly called Israeli leaders “racist,” a label he hasn’t afforded Arabs or others. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, too, has smeared Israel alone as an “apartheid” state.
Jews and Arabs do not represent different “races,” and there is nothing more racist about Israel, the world’s only Jewish state, than the dozens of Christian, Muslim and other countries whose identity is reflected in their state symbols.
To call Israel – with its Arab justices, parliamentarians, diplomats, academics and business leaders – an apartheid state is to not know the meaning of apartheid. It also is to not know substantial Israeli attempts at peace with the Palestinians.
Martin Luther King Jr. and other luminaries of the civil rights movement recognized Jews’ disproportionate contribution to their struggle. In turn, they consistently defended Israel’s own right to acceptance and security. Said King, “When people criticize Zionists, they mean Jews.”
On the hard Left no less than the hard Right, words matter and truth matters. The fight against racism is too important to be tarnished by ignorance, politics and bigotry.
Read David's expert analysis in the Jerusalem Post.
As Palestinians and Israelis are again locked in conflict, innumerable citizen advocates aim to promote the side with which they identify. Supporters of Israel face structural disadvantages in a fight for hearts and minds that can have real-world implications. Here’s why.
Going back nearly a century, the Zionist position was not against the creation of a Palestinian Arab state, simply in favor of reviving the Jewish state alongside it.
By now, a pragmatist element of Palestinian leaders has technically accepted Israel’s existence but failed to abandon domestic messaging that demonizes and delegitimizes Israel. Moreover, jihadist groups like Hamas—which seized control of the Gaza Strip—remain openly committed to Israel’s destruction.
While this extremism might be expected to bolster the standing of Israel’s defenders, it deprives them of stridency that can resonate: Typically these defenders do remain on the defensive, while Palestinian activists go on the offense. Mainstream Israel-advocates appeal for coexistence, for calm. Often, however, pro-Palestinian voices demand “justice.” That can be impactful.
Justice can imply the existence of one victim and one villain, a convenient narrative in an era of zero-sum populism and social media platforms that favor easy-to-rouse hashtags. Anti-intellectual, “anti-elite” sentiment on the far-right is increasingly matched by disdain for moderation and nuance on the far-left.
And so, a tendency has hardened among some to see power as confirmation of unjust privilege—and also to recognize only certain forms of power. Palestinians are seen to be stateless and weaker than Israel militarily. But too many do not ask whether Palestinians have had opportunities for statehood, as they have, or whether Palestinians “offset” military inferiority, as their combatants do, through asymmetric warfare that exploits limitations on a uniformed military.
Too many see a blockade on Gaza, but not the violence and explicit threats that precipitated it. Too many see Israel’s relative strength, but not its longtime vulnerability in the midst of a vast Arab world, let alone nearly 60 Muslim-majority states at the United Nations.
The UN condemns Israel, the Middle East’s sole democracy, more than all other countries combined. UN bodies tend to dedicate extraordinary attention to Israel only after it responds to attacks—not before.
But the realities are even more daunting outside such halls of power. Not all Muslims or Jews are animated by the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, but the fact that the world is home to some 1.5 billion Muslims and only around 15 million Jews affects what goes viral on social media, the size of solidarity rallies, and that which politicians and news outlets hear.
After a year of the pandemic, audiences are eager to change focus. Among Palestinians, the realization that more Arab governments have recently shifted toward accepting Israel has sparked a determination to regain visibility.
Progressives also perceive conservatives as generally supportive of Israel—and react by emphasizing Palestinian goals over regional peacemaking. Palestinian activists’ campaign to tie their nationalism to the Black Lives Matter movement—while stigmatizing Jews’ nationalism as “racist”—is giving their efforts yet another edge.
An under-appreciated reality is that there is little cost or risk to excoriating Israel, something that isn’t true of major world powers or authoritarian regimes.
Israel is one of the world’s smallest countries and it long lacked natural resources, in contrast with its oil-rich neighbors. With fewer than 10 million citizens, it does not wield a tremendous consumer market. Additionally, Israel remains isolated and boycotted by adversaries. Its assets are strained by the need for defense against relentless, recurrently existential, threats.
Despite this, political debate is always robust in Israel—which can do little to silence critics abroad.
The fact that many vilify the Jewish state does not confer guilt; it shows that detractors face few consequences for doing so.
Journalists are fallible. From story placement to selective data, and from editorializing in reportage to objective errors, providing true context to complex subjects is a tall order.
These hazards especially apply to Israel—the focus, quantitatively and qualitatively, of unsurpassed scrutiny. No other nation is so critiqued for counterterrorism efforts, let alone equated with terrorist aggressors. Why are terrorists described as such elsewhere but often called “militants” when their targets are Israelis? Why are Israeli leaders labeled “hard-line” but Palestinian nationalists, Lebanese or Iranians rarely are? Why are the terms “occupation” and “settler” applied to Israeli Jews but few others? Why does endemic Palestinian incitement go unreported?
More people have been killed in numerous countries than in Israeli operations against Hamas. Unequal reporting devalues the lives of those deemed unworthy of attention and advocacy.
Finally, at a time when new technology is available to document facts, imagery can also be manipulated—or tell just part of a story.
Are observers aware that Israel acts to minimize civilian casualties, while Hamas seeks (however successfully) to maximize them? Have readers been reminded that Palestinian violence spiked after Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005? Do viewers know that Israel has maintained Muslim administration of Jerusalem’s Temple Mount—Judaism’s holiest site?
Too often Palestinians are treated as powerless people, but Israel as a faceless state.
In reality, there is real suffering among both peoples—and each side holds critical responsibilities.
But this is likely too nuanced a message for the moment. Israel contends with asymmetric warfare not only on the battlefield but also in the battle for public opinion.
Read David's expert analysis in InsideSources.
David J. Michaels is Director of United Nations and Intercommunal Affairs at B'nai B'rith International, where he began working in 2004 as Special Assistant to the Executive Vice President. A Wexner Fellow/Davidson Scholar, and past winner of the Young Professional Award of the Jewish Communal Service Association of North America, he holds degrees from Yale and Yeshiva University. Click here to view more of his content.
Just over a year ago, an extraordinary series of violent attacks against local Jews hit the New York area—by far the largest Jewish population center in the diaspora. In response, one large rally was organized to call out the acts of hate. Months before the killing of George Floyd had prompted mass demonstrations against racism around the country, the protesters seemed overwhelmingly to be members of the Jewish community itself, with a few exceptions. One such exception stood out to me: a young person holding a hand-written sign that read, “Asians Against Anti-Semitism.” That one demonstrator’s solidarity meant a lot to me, as surely it did to others present.
Sadly, but unmistakably, it is now time to reciprocate the solidarity.
As a country and an international community, we now mark one year since an epidemic, first detected in east Asia, quickly became a global pandemic, the first of its kind in a century. Over the course of the year, people of Asian descent have suffered two-fold: first, the health, emotional and economic implications of the pandemic like virtually everyone else, but also a spate of assaults, harassment and stigmatization that has again intensified recently even as COVID-19 vaccines have provided hope in an eventual end to the coronavirus-related disruption.
In the United States alone, there were 2,800 reported attacks against Asian-Americans from the start of the pandemic through the end of 2020. Last year, in just the New York City area, an astonishing 867% increase in such attacks was logged. People of Asian ancestry have publicly and without provocation been accosted, shoved, slashed, spit at, told to “go home” and blamed for the public health crisis.
And this may well not tell the full story. Undoubtedly, some people may not have reported their victimization out of shame, fear, a sense that criminal behavior could not or would not be effectively prosecuted or not knowing where to turn. Even among those not targeted but whose ethnic origin cannot be concealed, a sense of trauma risks taking root. It has not helped that even some media outlets have spoken of victims as “Asians” as if most or all weren’t fellow citizens, that those of disparate Asian backgrounds have sometimes been lumped together outside the Asian community, that rhetoric like that concerning a “kung flu” has been spouted by public figures and that it has proven difficult to support hate-crime charges without elusive evidence of victims’ targeting specifically on account of their ethnicity.
Of course, the pervasive nature of the pandemic and its effects has also created for some members of Asian diasporic communities a feeling of being under siege or at least acutely vulnerable, and with suddenness, even as wider awareness of this feeling is limited. Before face coverings became far more commonplace, some community members reported discontinuing mask-wearing precisely so they might not stand out or be suspect as diseased, thus putting their own health at greater risk.
Fortunately, a growing coalition of groups and an increasing number of elected officials are standing up to denounce prejudice against and animosity toward neighbors of Asian descent. As with the fight against anti-Semitism and against racism, our societies will only be free of violent xenophobia when those who are subjected to incitement and abuse are joined in common cause by those who, at least at the moment, are not. The Jewish community knows particularly well that bigotry and discrimination are viruses not likely to be contained to any one population.
Let it be clear: We stand resolutely with our friends of Asian heritage—and for their right to equality, safety and dignity.
2020 has been a trying year. The COVID-19 pandemic has taken a terrible toll – in human life, in economic terms, in the functioning of society and in frayed nerves. The impact has been universal, if unequal. Our hearts go out particularly to those who have suffered, and lost, the most.
While the swift emergence of not only one but multiple vaccines effective at combating the coronavirus represents a substantial source of hope – and a scientific marvel – all signs indicate that months will pass before the treatment is very widely accessible, and during these months thousands more may yet die. Despite that threat, fatigue over restrictions meant to contain the pandemic have too many – from virtually every demographic group – relaxing or outright refusing to abide by precautions that grate on all of us. Some people, perhaps given pause by the very speed of the new vaccinations’ development, will hesitate to accept inoculation once possible.
Highly religious communities – by their nature placing a premium on congregating for prayer and other rites, on tradition uninterrupted and on faith – have been especially vulnerable to the spread of the novel coronavirus, and to resisting the perceived dictates of secular authorities. Certain religious groups, including Catholics and fervently observant Jews, have gone to court to fight, of late successfully, against curbs on gatherings for prayer. National media have shown some hassidic Jews continuing to gather in large numbers for weddings, schooling and eminent rabbis’ funerals. These episodes, though not reflecting the entirety of a large and diverse population – and not necessarily implying the absence of any health precautions – do indicate a suspicion of anti-religious (or specifically anti-Jewish) tendencies by some in government. This outlook is the product of long and difficult historical experience, and is also borne of a sense that in some places gyms and bars have been subjected to less scrutiny and regulation than synagogues and other places of worship.
Of course, ultimately nothing can condone reckless behavior that endangers the collective well-being. Scenes of crowds – of whatever stripe – completely flouting public health guidance are deplorable.
But what does Judaism itself have to say about exceptional circumstances like those we have confronted over the past year?
While undoubtedly committing the fate of human beings to God – and charging human beings with reaching out to God and with bettering their treatment of fellow creatures in the divine image – the Torah says “v’nishmartem me’od l’nafshoteichem” (Deut. 4), commanding: “and you shall guard your souls exceedingly.” It further says, of keeping God’s ordinances, “v’chai bahem” (Lev. 18), that “you shall live by them” – not perish by them. Additionally, relates Deuteronomy (chap. 30), “lo bashamayim hi” – the Torah is “not in the heavens,” but is to be observed within earthly realities.
Accordingly, rabbinic tradition has held that “pikuach nefesh docheh et kol haTorah kula,” that saving a life takes precedence over nearly all other obligations in Judaism; indeed, if a Sabbath must be violated by first responders to prevent death, or if medical experts require a patient not to fast on Yom Kippur for the same reason, doing so is not only allowed but mandatory. After all, the Ten Commandments themselves include “You shall not murder” (Exodus 20) – and the Mishnah (Sanhedrin 4) says that “anyone who destroys a life, it is considered as if he has destroyed an entire world, while anyone who sustains a life, it is considered as if he has sustained an entire world.”
Preserving life, then, is a most elemental of Jewish religious duties – a righteous deed that is prerequisite for all the rest. “I have set before you life and death... And you shall choose life,” states Deuteronomy.
Of relevance, the Talmud also repeatedly makes clear that “dina d’malchuta dina,” the law of the land is the law: when official regulations are established, they demand compliance. And Jews are called upon to be paragons of rectitude – for their public trespasses create “chillul Hashem,” a desecration of God’s name, while their acting justly represents “kiddush Hashem,” sanctification of God’s name.
And not least, Jews are instructed to choose “darchei shalom,” paths conducive to peace among people. The Talmudic Rabbi Elazar said in the name of Rabbi Chanina (Berachot 64a), “Torah scholars increase peace in the world.” The sage Hillel famously taught (Avot 1), “Be among the disciples of Aaron: love peace and pursue peace, love humanity and bring them closer to the Torah.”
Life, and observing dueling commitments within its confines, involves complexity. Virtually all action involves some sort of risk, and it is for competent decisors to provide guidance on navigating tension of the kind that will periodically surface between religious commitments and civic commitments, let alone between religious commitments and the call to “choose life.” What is clear, though, is that for all the importance of communal religious practice – and in a community-centered people, places and acts of public worship are indeed vital – saving lives and preserving societal harmony are also critically important religious imperatives.
Believers, who discern God’s hand even in dark times, must work to see God’s hand in solutions to plight as well. And they must strive to be active partners in enabling these solutions to bring their healing.
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