columnU.S.-Israel Relations

What sustains Jewish activism? The courage to speak truth to power

Refusing to bow down to the idols of the popular culture of the day is an essential part of standing up against Israel’s foes.

People rally in New York in solidarity with Israel and against rising antisemitism, May 23, 2021. Photo by Ron Adar/Shutterstock.
People rally in New York in solidarity with Israel and against rising antisemitism, May 23, 2021. Photo by Ron Adar/Shutterstock.
Jonathan S. Tobin
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him @jonathans_tobin.

(The following is adapted from the keynote speech delivered by JNS editor-in-chief Jonathan Tobin at the gala 40th-anniversary dinner for the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting and Analysis (CAMERA) held in New York City on May 15.)

We are at a crucial moment in the history of American Jewry and the pro-Israel movement.

Forty years after CAMERA began its work, it’s worth asking: How did you do it? How did a ragtag activist group not only help set the agenda of the pro-Israel community but change the way we think about the media?

The world has changed a great deal in the last 40 years since the biased and misleading coverage of the 1982 Lebanon War first stirred activists into action calling reporters and editors to account for what they published and broadcast.

At the time, the notion of ordinary readers and grassroots activists organizing to push back against media bias was not something that most people in the organized Jewish world were eager to either join in or support. By and large, the Jewish establishment was more interested in access to the media rather than criticizing it and demanding that it change.

By the same token, most journalists were equally reluctant to regard a group dedicated to correcting their mistakes with an open mind.

In both cases, the problem was one of groupthink.

The majority of those who had risen to positions of influence in the organized Jewish world had been raised on faith in the mainstream media. For them, The New York Times and other major legacy publications, as well as the broadcast channels, were thought of as akin to the Bible, not an active adversary. They preferred to assume objectivity and goodwill on the part of journalists even when the evidence of their malice was right before them. Confronting those who were engaged in undermining Israel wasn’t part of the program.

At the same time, journalists covering the Middle East not only believed in their own objectivity but were victims of their own collective mindset about the Middle East.

By 1982, Israel was no longer regarded as the plucky but poor and weak underdog facing a unified Arab world bent on its destruction and a second Holocaust. In the eyes of mainstream media officials and the foreign-policy establishment professionals whose views they generally mimicked and regurgitated in their reports, Israel had become the Goliath to the Palestinians’ David. They played that underdog theme for Israel’s enemies for all it was worth—even though their David was a blood-drenched terrorist like Yasser Arafat—and thought anyone who didn’t go along with it was hopelessly out-of-touch with contemporary thinking.

That’s the situation that gave birth to CAMERA. It was created out of necessity to play a role that no other group was able or willing to carry out. And in the decades since then, it has done so tenaciously and courageously. More importantly, those involved understood that what was required was not merely a venting of anger and frustration at a biased press that—whether wittingly or unwittingly—was prepared to not merely distort the truth about both Israel and its enemies, but to mainstream anti-Semitic tropes that would otherwise never have made it past the gatekeepers of mainstream outlets.

Instead, CAMERA helped create the model for serious media criticism that relied on putting forward the facts about the issues that stripped the false veneer of objectivity away from anti-Zionist prejudice. And, time after time, it has forced some of the largest and most prestigious publications and broadcast outlets to admit errors and to force corrections. It has created a record for which all who are involved in it should be proud.

Jonathan S. Tobin speaking at the gala 40th anniversary dinner for the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting and Analysis (CAMERA) held in New York City on May 15, 2022. Credit: Moriah Tobin.

Contrary to the naysayers in both official Jewish circles and the complacent journalism and foreign-policy establishments that continue to dismiss the mission of media criticism as mere nitpicking or irrelevant to the big picture of diplomacy, peacemaking and the broad strokes of maintaining relations between Israel and the West, holding the press accountable for lying about Israel and its foes is an absolutely vital job that can neither be shirked nor ignored. Countering falsehoods against Israel is an essential part of maintaining support for its alliance with the United States and the American people.

As we have seen, just this past week with the disinformation that has been circulated about the death of a Palestinian Al Jazeera journalist and thousands of other stories over the years, without a credible and vocal cadre of activists and professionals speaking up to point out errors, missing context as well as open bias, the position of the pro-Israel community, which is often more focused on internecine turf battles and arcane maneuvering for influence, would be in an immeasurably worse position to perform every other aspect of the effort to build and maintain support for the right of the one Jewish state on the planet to exist and thrive.

The bad news is that despite the innumerable small victories that those corrections and admissions of fault that were reluctantly forced out of journalists have represented, the problem has not gone away. To the contrary, it has grown much worse in the last 40 years. Whereas in 1982, outright calls for Israel’s destruction were considered beyond the pale in American mainstream media, today they are commonplace. The assumption that the Jewish state is an oppressor—and, regardless of the facts of each individual case, somehow always at fault in every controversial incident—is now equally pervasive.

Indeed, as daunting as the task facing those who rose up to point out the bias in the coverage of Israel in 1982 was, contemporary pro-Israel activists face a far more difficult task in terms of the inherent prejudice against Israel among journalists and establishment opinion leaders that far outstrips the situation then. Compounding that problem is the fact that the media industry today is a far more complex and diverse environment than it was in the past, making the job of holding journalists accountable one that requires even more resources than it did even in the recent past.

Facing these facts honestly requires us to ask ourselves an important question that is just as important as the ones that we pose to those who peddle misinformation in the press. What keeps us going? What is the one resource, the one quality that is most necessary to continue this vital task? It can be summed up in one word: courage.

Of course, we need a great many other things to continue this vital work.

For one, it requires money. Without the generosity of donors who recognize the importance of what we’re doing, the work of CAMERA couldn’t continue. The same is true for those precious few journalistic outlets that are also engaged in telling the truth about Israel such as JNS, the one that I’m honored to lead as editor-in-chief. We need your help, and we need you to understand just how essential our work is.

We also need dedicated professionals with the education, experience and skills to help lead this campaign of accountability that CAMERA engages in. Without them and the information they disseminate to its members and activists, our work couldn’t go on.

But without the fortitude to speak up when everyone else is telling you not to bother because the task is impossible, without the audacity to speak truth to power, all of this is impossible.

That’s all the more true because of the factors that have made our task more difficult.

What is the one resource, the one quality that is most necessary to continue this vital task? It can be summed up in one word: courage.

When CAMERA began its work and for many years after that, the vast majority of those in the press were not necessarily intent on smearing Israel.

Most of those who composed the generation of Americans who had grown up in the shadow of the Second World War and the Holocaust were not inclined to believe the worst of Israel and the Jews. The truth is that many, if not most, of them were simply ignorant of the facts about the conflict either because they had never studied the history and politics of the Middle East or because they foolishly thought that journalists could also learn everything they needed on the fly to write articles or produce broadcast segments. For many of my colleagues, what happened yesterday is history and what happened the day before yesterday is ancient history. The events of the Second Intifada—now 20 years ago—the Camp David conference of 2000 when Arafat rejected Palestinian statehood or 2008 when his successor did the same, let alone the facts about the Six0-Day War in 1967 or Israel’s War of Independence in 1948 are simply beyond their ken. Still, most were, if not always amenable to corrections, still interested in getting the story right and basically educable.

The ignorance factor has grown over the years since even fewer of those who go into journalism have strong backgrounds in what has happened in the recent past or the basics of the Western canon because of the decline in standards and the popularity of new so-called disciplines with the percentage of those graduating college with degrees in gender or ethnic studies and communication growing and those who study history decline.

But the media environment we face today is even more discouraging because the basic assumptions of many, if not most, of those going into journalism is different from their predecessors. For all of their faults, past generations of journalists at least paid lip service to the idea of objectivity and the search for the truth, regardless of political biases. Now we are faced with a new generation in mainstream media outlets that has been conditioned by the growing acceptance of intersectional ideology and critical race theory. Newsrooms are filled with woke mobs of reporters and editors who can be mobilized on Twitter on behalf of the idea that journalists should take sides and that they should do so on behalf of so-called progressive causes. This causes them to see every story from only the point of view favoring those anointed as members of the victim class of indigenous populations of people of color.

That this is a nonsensical formula that is utterly at odds with the truth about the conflict in the Middle East almost goes without saying. In response, we need to enunciate some facts and to say them very clearly so everyone hearing us can understand:

  • The Jews are the indigenous people of the Land of Israel.
  • Anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism.
  • The right of Jews to build and live in security in their ancient homeland is rooted in international law, history and faith that cannot be negated by hate or political fashion.
  • The majority of Israeli Jews are people of color.
  • And far from being an example of “white privilege,” the Jews remain the object of an international campaign of hate that is embraced by Islamists, leftist elites and far-right extremists that every decent person, including journalists, is obligated to oppose.

But to the growing number of journalists who have embraced these toxic, woke ideas about intersectionality and race that grant a permission slip to anti-Semitism, the truth simply doesn’t matter. They think Israel shouldn’t exist so those who oppose it, even if they do so with bloody terrorism and in the name of the most regressive and primitive ideologies spawned by fundamentalist Islam, anti-Semitism and Marxism, are always somehow in the right.

The notion that objectivity must be replaced by progressive subjectivity isn’t restricted to coverage of the Middle East, but it has become far more mainstream in recent years largely because of the 2016 presidential election and the mainstreaming of extremist racialism symbolized by the Black Lives Matter movement. This has largely broken the mainstream media.

How do we counter such a discouraging and dangerous trend? With the same qualities and tools that we have used all along. The truth and the courage to present it without worrying about the consequences of doing so in an era in which woke mobs have led the charge in “canceling” those who don’t conform to their ideological prejudices.

We have, after all, examples to follow in our recent history.

In the midst of World War II, as the Holocaust was unfolding, most American Jews were either ignorant of what was going on or afraid to speak up for rescue for European Jewry. With so many in the armed services and with the country as a whole afraid to depict America’s fight as a war that was in any way a Jewish cause, most Jewish leaders, including some who were active in the Zionist movement like Rabbi Stephen Wise, were similarly fearful of drawing attention to the catastrophe or of exerting any influence with President Franklin Roosevelt to do something to save those who could be rescued from Hitler’s final solution.

A largely immigrant community felt helpless to raise their voices on behalf of their fellow Jews and in a political environment where anti-Semitism was a real and present danger, the idea of mobilizing the country to do something about the murder of millions was seen as an impossible, even hopeless endeavor.

Those who embraced this task were warned by a Jewish establishment that supposedly knew better that they were doomed to failure and would do more harm than good. But a small group of courageous Jews went ahead anyway. It was led by Hillel Kook, a Jew from Palestine (when only Jews called themselves Palestinians) who had come to the United States to help organize support for a Jewish role in the war but who then decided to concentrate on the greater priority of rescue. Kook then set about doing the impossible. His greatest convert to activism was prominent writer and journalist Ben Hecht, an assimilated Jew who later wrote that his growing awareness of the challenge facing his people caused him to “accidentally bump into history.”

Armed with only their chutzpah and a talent for public relations, the pair—branded as irresponsible dissidents by people like Wise—spearheaded the creation of a movement that, to the chagrin of the Jewish establishment, did gain both a mass following and influential non-Jewish support from their fellow citizens who, when informed of what was going on, were eager to join in pressuring the administration to act.

Eventually, it helped lead to the creation of the War Refugee Board, a small and underfunded federal agency that nevertheless can be considered responsible for the saving of hundreds of thousands of Jews from the death camps. It was too little and too late for the millions of Jews who had already been swallowed up by the Nazi murder machine. But it did more than pose counterfactual questions about how many could have been saved if only more people had listened to Kook and Hecht sooner.

It showed that if equipped with smarts and courage, Jewish activists could move mountains, gain allies and overcome seemingly impossible odds in the pursuit of their cause.

Our mission is not just to rededicate ourselves to the work of spreading the truth about Israel but to comprehend that the act of informing ourselves and our children is an expression of Jewish identity that is in the long run far stronger than the myths peddled by our opponents.

It was their example that helped inspire a subsequent generation of Jewish activists in the 1960s and ’70s to speak up on behalf of Soviet Jewry.

It’s important to remember that enthusiasm for this cause when that movement began was nothing like the broad support it had by the time the Soviet Empire collapsed in 1989. In the beginning, it was—like the movement to rescue Jews during the Holocaust—similarly small and lacking in influence. Its activists were students and rabbis on the margins of the organized Jewish world.

But their persistence, their refusal to be silent or go along with mainstream thought at a time when detente with the Soviet Union was deemed more important than helping those suffering under its oppression, and, above all, their courage, helped inspire new groups of activists who came from all walks of Jewish life to speak up and to take action, both in terms of helping the refuseniks and lobbying in Washington. Ultimately, it swept nearly the entire Jewish world. But without the courage of those who spoke up when few were interested in the cause, that never would have happened.

It was this model of activist courage that also created the pro-Israel movement in the United States in all its diversity as well as its broad support.

These are but two of the most important examples of how Jewish courage has been the x-factor that allowed small groups of activists to prevail when smarter and better-connected people were sure that they were wasting their time. But they are not the only ones.

Zionism itself was a movement supported by only a small minority of Jews in the world when Theodor Herzl published his book The Jewish State in 1896. He proved as those who would follow him did, that faith in the justice of our cause and the courage to talk up when everyone is telling us to be silent and accept the world as it is, is the only path to Jewish survival.

All too many of us forget what it is that is the essence of being a Jew. No matter where you stand on the political or religious spectrum of Jewish life, refusing to bow down to the idols of popular culture has been essential to preserving the Jewish people from the time of the Maccabees to our own era.

In the past, those idols were of Hellenism, Roman culture, the dominance of Christianity and Islam, and then those of modernism, which spawned both assimilation in the false hope that Jews would be accepted if they fit in and lethal movements on the far-right and the left that demanded the destruction of Jewish civilization.

Today, the idols we must refuse to bow down to are those of woke leftist culture that not only attacks basic American and civilizational values but also involves, as their antecedents in Marxist dialectic did, the smearing of Jews as a disruptive or oppressive force and the denial of Jewish rights. And, as has happened before, there are always those elements of the Jewish people who succumb to the siren call of these toxic ideas and embrace ideas and movements that seek Jewish destruction in the name of a dubious utopian faith.

That some who pose as the defenders of the Jewish people against anti-Semitism are, at the same time, willing to bow down to these intersectional idols is not merely a disgrace but makes it all the more imperative that people of goodwill take heart and take up the fight against these dangerous lies.

Let’s not kid ourselves. We do well to ponder the strength of these forces arrayed against us, to which the existence of a Jewish state, its right to self-defense and the rights of the Jewish people are but a small part of a woke agenda that seeks to transform Western society for the worse.

But as others have done before us, we must look within ourselves as well as to the past for inspiration and the valor to not shirk this vital task or say it is too great an obstacle to be overcome.

After all, we who are privileged to live in the first quarter of the 21st century have within living memory, seen the world transformed by courageous activists and brave Jews who were not awed by steep odds whether during the Holocaust, in 1948, 1967 or at any other moment in the State of Israel’s glorious history, during which it has grown from a tiny, poor place few thought could survive into a regional economic and military power.

When we remember all that has been done in the recent past, how can we not take heart even if the task before us is difficult? We already know what courage can accomplish and how it attracts support from all manner of people, Jewish and non-Jewish.

We know that the audacity to speak truth to power is a far more potent force than most people understand.

That’s why we do well to celebrate the courageous people who are being honored tonight at this dinner for their activism and willingness to speak when others were silent. And why it is so important that we regard the 40 years of CAMERA’s achievements as merely the prelude to what will follow as this organization and its allies go forward with even greater determination to expose the lies behind the corrupt anti-Semitic and anti-Zionist spirit that has gone mainstream within a growing portion of the news media.

Our mission is not just to rededicate ourselves to the work of spreading the truth about Israel but to comprehend that the act of informing ourselves and our children is an expression of Jewish identity that is in the long run far stronger than the myths peddled by our opponents.

Doing so may put us at odds with the intellectual and cultural fashions of the day. It won’t make you a fawned-over celebrity, like the Jew-hating members of the congressional “Squad.” But contrary to their assumptions, it puts us on the right side of history.

History is, after all, the only true judge of our efforts. We must disregard the judgment of fashionable opinion and what will make us popular in our communities or on college campuses. Instead, we must think, speak, act, do anything rather than lie down and passively accept the delegitimization of Israel and that of the Jewish people.

The path before us is difficult but not impossible. There is so much about which we can be proud when we think of what this organization has done for the last 40 years. It has become an indispensable element of the foundation of a broad-based pro-Israel and pro-truth movement that involves both media monitoring and the creation of alternatives to those outlets that have become compromised by their desire to fit in with the poisonous intellectual fashions of our time. As we contemplate the future, we should do so with confidence not only in the importance of our task but in the belief that our courage, like that of our predecessors, will inspire the next generation to take up the task where we leave off. With God’s help, faith in the justice of our cause and the willingness to answer the cowards and feckless purveyors of conventional wisdom, we will prevail.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.

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