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Issue Date:  October 20, 2006

May we criticize Israel?


On Sept. 29 the Israeli army withdrew from southern Lebanon, leaving behind, according to The New York Times, “rutted and bombed-out roads … tens of thousands of homes devastated by 34 days of Israeli bombing that ended more than six weeks ago.”

But in those six weeks little has been rebuilt, except by Hezbollah, which on Sept. 22 packed hundreds of thousands of supporters into a Beirut square as proof that the ill-conceived invasion had failed.

Meanwhile, in the American media the debate on the moral rightness of the war has been overshadowed by the daily slaughter in Iraq. There was no public outcry in the United States when Israel, an American client whom we supplied with cluster bombs, killed 1,287 Lebanese, mostly civilians, and left 100,000 homeless. The main protest within Israel itself was that it didn’t win. Now the Israelis have announced that they will murder the Hezbollah leader, Hassan Nasrallah, if they can without causing a “large number” of bystander casualties.

How large a number of innocent dead is “large”?

I wrote in an Aug. 9 op-ed piece for the Newark, N.J., Star-Ledger that the Israeli tactics had violated, with our acquiescence, the just war principle of proportionality and that a significant number of op-ed pundits -- including Richard Cohen, Charles Krauthammer and Alan Dershowitz -- had pooh-poohed the whole principle of proportionality, which is that we may not respond to violence in a way where the damage we do exceeds the “good” effect. Much of my mail, some of it vulgar, expressed no sympathy for the innocent Lebanese dead. That Israel had been attacked by rockets justified the response.

On the propaganda battlefield, Israeli apologists accuse the media -- including Reuters, The Associated Press, BBC and The New York Times -- of “unbalanced,” even bigoted, coverage, exaggerating Lebanese suffering with faked and staged photographs and slanted reporting. As other see it, the mass media denies space to the Arab and Palestinian cause.

The Web site of Aish Hatorah ( dissected a Reuters photo of burning Beirut to show how the photographer had enhanced the smoke. In shots from Reuters and other agencies, the Web site suggested the photographer had placed children’s toys or a shirtless man in the rubble to evoke more pity than the scene already called for. On Sept. 22 the president of Reuters, on the PBS Charlie Rose show, replied that Reuters had fired the “Burning Beirut” photographer immediately and removed all his pictures from its archives. offered no other evidence that the other pictures had been staged.

The New York Times public editor, Byron Calame, examined the Times’ photo coverage on Sept. 10 and found it basically fair. There were more pictures of Lebanese coffins because many more Lebanese were killed, but the Times had occasionally published pictures of the Israeli military, even when they were not newsworthy, to achieve an artificial “balance.”

In mid-August, The New Republic’s Leon Wieseltier, in an extremely convoluted column, admitted that the killing of children, as in Israel’s bombing of Qana, is an “evil.” But in the end, he “accepts” these deaths because Israel’s invasion is “just.” It does not occur to him that the bombing campaign, which human rights groups have called a war crime, made the whole war unjust, that the casualties make the moral price too high. On Aug. 28, The New Republic’s editors, original cheerleaders for the invasion of Iraq, complained that Israel didn’t hit Lebanon hard enough. Its failure was a failure “of the will to use power.”

Even Hezbollah’s leader had the sense to admit that kidnapping the two Israeli soldiers July 12, which set off the month-long war, considering the “humanitarian, moral, social, security, military and political” consequences, was a mistake.

As Eric Alterman wrote in the Aug. 28-Sept. 4 issue of the Nation and Danny Schecter in, that whoever questions the priorities set by the Jewish lobby risks being tarred as anti-Semitic or a self-hating Jew. Nevertheless, though less-noticed than the mass-media pundits, Jews both in Israel and the United States have not been afraid to say Israel’s invasion of Lebanon was wrong.

Mr. Schecter concludes that one tragedy of Lebanon is “the inability of many people to transcend their own pain (or point of view) to empathically connect with the pain of others or even hear these critics.”

Ze’ev Maoz, a professor at Tel Aviv University, said in Haaretz, “This war is not a just war. Israel is using excessive force without distinguishing between civilian population and enemy, whose sole purpose is extortion. In an Aug. 11 Commonweal review of the book Scars of War, Wounds of Peace, by former Israeli Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami, Margaret Steinfels reports Ben Ami’s judgment that “peacemaking has never been an Israeli priority, only an unwelcome gesture when pressed by its powerful ally the United States.”

A reader of The Star-Ledger sent me from the Kingston, N.Y., Daily Freeman a commentary by John J. Neumaier, a Jewish holocaust survivor, philosopher and former university president. The press has left unreported, he writes, the peace-minded Israeli Jews and Arabs demonstrating against Israel’s ruthless waging of the war. Yes, Hezbollah receives aid from Syria and Iran, but the United States has given Israel over $6 billion in armaments in four years. Dr. Neumaier’s experience of Nazi persecution has sensitized him to “cherish and defend the equal worth and dignity of all human beings and the right of everyone’s child to grow up and live a healthy and happy life.”

Dr. Neumaier concludes with a theme that in recent weeks has risen from the smoke like a mantra: The only way to peace is “a negotiated comprehensive settlement based on Palestinian rights to a viable, continuous state in the West Bank and Gaza, and a guarantee of Israel’s security by its Arab neighbors.”

On Oct. 6 The New York Times reported that an estimated 1 million unexploded cluster bomblets remain in southern Lebanon -- exploding and killing or wounding three people a day.

Jesuit Fr. Raymond A. Schroth is professor of humanities at St. Peter’s College in Jersey City, N. J. His e-mail address is

National Catholic Reporter, October 20, 2006

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