(June 3, 2021 / JNS) 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.
David J. Michaels is the 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 universities.
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