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There’s an old borscht-belt joke, in the genre of self-deprecating ethnic humor no longer in style, where in the punch line a grandmother deals with every family, social and political problem by posing the ultimate question: ”But is it good for the Jews?”

An old gag with new relevance as we have watched the media report on Israel’s invasion of the Palestinian towns and on Palestinian fanatics who respond by blowing themselves up and taking innocent Jews with them.

In a democratic society, the first obligation of the press is to inform the public so that the people can say yes or no to what their representatives are doing in their names. So when we pick up the morning paper or turn on the TV, Jewish and Palestinian voices would get an equal hearing.

Does this happen?

On April 10, Samah Jabr, a Palestinian doctor and peace activist, sponsored by the St. Peter’s College Peace and Justice program, stood before the biggest crowd I have seen in our auditorium, with students and faculty standing against the walls, to give voice to the Palestinian cause. Ours is the most diverse student body in New Jersey, and perhaps in the United States, and our neighborhood is Muslim, Philippine, Hispanic and black; so her audience was attuned to what she had to say.

She began with a slide show, with music accompaniment and sarcastic subtitles, depicting Israeli soldiers abusing Palestinian men, women and children. Followed by a segment that drew a parallel between the Nazi persecution of Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto and Jewish treatment of Arabs on the West Bank. A dead Jewish baby then; a dead Palestinian baby today.

The text: Just as Jews were persecuted, so are Palestinians. The subtext: World War II’s Nazis have reappeared as today’s Israelis.

During the question period, I said I agreed that Israel’s policy of driving their tanks into the Palestinians’ cities was oppressive and immoral but that I was still waiting to hear the Arab intellectual community, with one voice, condemn the immoral madness of the suicide bombings (smattering of applause).

She replied that she did not approve of the bombings, but that the bombers acted as individuals, and that the Israeli occupation was the “greenhouse” of terrorism. A neighbor in the audience said that he could understand a bomber who was ready to die and “wanted to take some of them with him.” Arab young women in the second row greeted this with wild applause and started passing out a Time magazine article called “Why We Blow Ourselves Up.”

I got the mike and asked the students if that’s what they believed. One said, no but, “an eye for an eye … ” Consternation and murmurs in the house. Next question.

My problem is this: Every human life is sacred, and the people who wage wars -- from Arafat to Sharon to Rumsfeld to Bush -- do everything they can to deny that fact. If they acknowledged this obligation, their freedom of movement, their political hands, would be tied.

To achieve their purposes they must dehumanize the enemy by labeling them “terrorists” or “oppressors,” so the corpses blown to pieces at a bar mitzvah in Tel Aviv and the Palestinian dead bodies in the rubble of Jenin -- some reported to be already buried by Israeli troops -- cannot be seen as persons.

The Israelis barred the press from Jenin for 10 days, giving themselves carte blanche to dispose of their enemies in any way they chose. The Israeli spokesman tells CNN that about 100 terrorists have been killed plus perhaps a few civilians whom the terrorists used as human shields. A French TV crew gets in and films a half-dozen civilian corpses still rotting in the rubble of their own homes. The New York Times interviews Palestinian young men who, they say, have nothing to do with the war but are labeled “terrorists,” stripped naked, photographed, brutalized, and held in detention for days. Jenin residents say they have lost 500 men, women and children.

Will the media, which have been slow to face the issue of the civilian casualties in Afghanistan, demand a full accounting of the victims of Israel’s blitzkrieg in Arab towns?

A weekend of radio and TV news and talk April 11-13 offered little hope. On NPR’s “The Connection,” an opponent of the new International Criminal Court said the United States must resist the court lest it indict Israel for its invasion of the West Bank. Some of CNN’s “Capital Gang,” such as Mark Shields, criticized Sharon for destroying the Palestinian infrastructure so it would be impossible for them to establish a viable state; then the “Gang” gave a lot of time to the Christian Coalition’s Ralph Reed, who is not really a “newsmaker of the week,” to argue that it is God’s will for Israel to have all that land.

CNN ran videos of young Palestinian women announcing they will blow themselves up. MSNBC ran a group discussion with both Jews and Palestinians; then a feature on a beautiful Israeli teenager who had hoped to be a model but whose face was disfigured by a suicide bomber.

On ABC’s “This Week,” aside from an interview with Jordan’s King Abdullah, none of the five pundits spoke for the Palestinian cause. For William Kristol, Bush’s mild caution to Sharon showed he had “lost his moral compass.” On “Meet the Press,” Condoleezza Rice talked nonstop for 30 minutes, brushing off Tim Russert’s point that Sharon had ignored Bush’s April 8 demand to withdraw his troops “right away.”

An Israeli spokesman’s claim that Palestinian terrorists were holding the priests and nuns of the Bethlehem Church of the Nativity as “hostages” went unchallenged, though all three priests interviewed by The New York Times said that was not true.

E.R. Shipp, an African-American woman columnist for the New York Daily News, (April 2), said it best: ”Pope John Paul’s Easter lament that ‘It seems that war has been declared on peace’ indicts the U.S. foreign policy that starts from a premise that Israel can do no wrong and that to say otherwise is to risk being condemned as anti-Semitic. … In any case, I don’t understand why Israel gets a free pass at trampling on the human rights of Palestinians.”

It is not anti-Semitic to notice that, especially in the Northeast, Jews, who constitute about 3 percent of the American population, dominate intellectual and political discourse.

Check the ownership, mastheads, columnists, radio and TV talk show hosts and guest lists and notice, as Robert Sheer writes in the Los Angeles Times (April 9), that the affirmative action campaign that moved other minorities -- blacks, Hispanics, women, and others into the media -- has overlooked Arab-Americans.

Jews have the greatest influence, for one clear reason: They’re better. They study. They embrace the intellectual life, fight to get the best education, and encourage free thought and expression. Where would American Catholics be today if they had done the same, rather than cower defensively in their anti-intellectual ghetto?

As a result, there is no clear Arab voice that can command media or government attention. As Michael Massing writes in the Los Angeles Times (March 10), Bush kept quiet on the Middle East until it was too late because of the disproportionate influence of two conservative, hawkish, Jewish lobbies -- the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), which, between 1997 and 2001, gave $3 million to key members of Congress. Eighty percent of American Jews want the United States to put pressure on both sides to reach a settlement, but so far hawkish voices have been louder.

Nor is there a Christian-Catholic voice that can speak prophetically about what is happening in the Holy Land. The pope is too feeble, and the American hierarchy is paralyzed by its pedophilia scandal. Moral leadership is left to the media.

We could do worse. Basically there is no pro- and anti-Israel split in the media. It’s overwhelmingly pro-Israel. Everyone prefaces his/her comments with some version of “what’s good for the Jews.”

The difference is: Whether it’s good for Israel to consider this war as Armageddon to be fought to the death, or whether it’s in Israel’s interest to respect Palestinian rights, pull out of the West Bank, close the settlements and enter an economic development partnership with its Arab neighbors.

Any signs of hope?

There are foreign correspondents, like those of The New York Times, The Washington Post, NPR, the British press, BBC and others, who have painstakingly chronicled Palestinian and Jewish suffering alike. And above all there are the Jewish journalists who love Israel enough to remind both Israeli and American Jews that they are traditionally a people of conscience, that their history of persecution should make them liberators, not oppressors, of others.

Anthony Lewis writes in The New York Review of Books (April 25) that Israeli soldiers desecrated a Lutheran church in Bethlehem, taking down its crosses and smearing its walls with graffiti. He says the Bush administration has brought disaster on itself by giving Sharon a blank check. He cites the Israeli reservists who have refused to serve in what they call the “war of the settlements.” He grants that Arafat is a corrupt disaster. A solution like King Abdullah’s, he says, with Israel withdrawing to its 1967 boundaries, might have some risks, “but it is a better gamble than a policy that has not stopped terrorism and has corrupted Israel’s values.”

Robert Sheer concludes: “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.” Both Arafat and Sharon are “killers of the innocent. Both are to be roundly condemned by all, and the failure of prominent 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.”

Jesuit Fr. Raymond A. Schroth is the Jesuit Community professor of humanities at St. Peter’s College and author of the just-published Fordham: A History and Memoir (Loyola Press).

National Catholic Reporter, May 3, 2002