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Media Analyses





Moyers, Like Nixon, Hunkers Down


Bill Moyers opened the most recent broadcast of his PBS program, “Bill Moyers Journal,” with a response to the criticism leveled at his January 9, 2009 broadcast in which he suggested that Israel’s attack on Hamas in the Gaza Strip was a consequence of violence being “genetically encoded” in the Jewish people. The suggestion that the Arab-Israeli conflict is “genetically encoded,” along with other distortions in Moyers’ Jan. 9, 2009 commentary, prompted responses from Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, Professor Alvin Rosenfeld from Indiana University, and Judea Pearl, father of Daniel Pearl, the Wall Street Journal  journalist murdered by Al Qaeda in Pakistan in 2001.

 

Truculent Swagger Is Gone

 

Judging from Moyers’ tone and demeanor during this follow-up commentary (transcript below), he was clearly taken aback by the criticism from these and many other commentators, but the only concrete concession he could offer his audience was an acknowledgement that his comments about Israeli violence being “genetically encoded” were “not sufficiently precise.” Moyers said he was not talking about a “specific people,” but about the entire human race. This is a pretty weak excuse from a supposed wordsmith like Moyers, who has been writing for public consumption for several decades.

 

In the original segment he made the “encoded” comment and then went on after brief mention of Islamic radicals to focus overwhelmingly on Israel. To now claim he intended to indict the whole human race is absurd.

 

Moyers has, like Nixon at the height of the Watergate scandal, hunkered down. He restated his false accusation that Israel is waging “war on an entire population” in the Gaza Strip. As reported in CAMERA’s previous analysis of Moyers’ broadcast, Israel has sought to avoid harming civilians in its efforts to bring an end to Hamas’ rocket attacks against Israel. It has dropped leaflets, made phone calls and sent text messages to hundreds of thousands of people living near military targets in the Gaza Strip, while Hamas has launched mortars in close proximity to school yards and in one instance booby-trapped a school with explosives (placing the detonator in a nearby zoo) in blatant disregard of its own potential civilian casualties.

 

While Hamas has declared war on every Jew in Israel (a fact Moyers himself acknowledged in his first commentary), Israel has gone out of its way to avoid civilian casualties. Speaking recently on the BBC, Colonel Richard Kemp from the British Army stated “I don’t think there has ever been a time in the history of warfare when any army has made more efforts to reduce civilian casualties and deaths of innocent people than the IDF is doing today in Gaza.”

 

Moyers’ efforts to evade the issue do not stop here. In response to Abraham Foxman’s letter, the long-time PBS journalist writes that to “call someone a racist for lamenting the slaughter of civilians by the Israeli military offensive in Gaza is a slur unworthy of the tragedy unfolding there. Your resort to such a tactic is reprehensible.”

 

Foxman did not call Moyers a “racist” for “lamenting the slaughter of civilians by the Israeli military offensive in Gaza” but, in fact, accused him of including anti-Semitism in his commentary by declaring that Jews are “genetically encoded” for violence. Foxman’s allegation had nothing to do with Moyers’ overheated rhetoric over Israel’s response, but with his use of the phrase genetic encoding.

 

On this score, Foxman is on much stronger ground than Moyers cares to admit. Why did Moyers restrict himself to Hebrew Scripture when talking about the Arab-Israeli conflict? The Koran and other Muslim texts are quite clear in their expressions of hostilities toward non-believers, Jews especially, and yet for some reason, Moyers says nothing about this reality.

 

Moyers, Lens Crafter

 

Attempting to deflect and rationalize his explosive statements, Moyers also includes the threadbare explanation that people view the Arab-Israeli conflict through different lenses – as though there aren’t empirical facts and data and tangible realities. He cites as if for proof a comment from a reporter who said during the Vietnam war that “Everyone sees what's happening through the lens of his own experience.”

 

Notably, this quote is from an unnamed source; it is the third such anonymous quote Moyers has offered up to his audience in the controversy. On Jan. 9, 2009, Moyers invoked a quote from an un-named “Reform Rabbi” who called the Jewish community “morally deficient” and an un-named “Jewish activist” who said “You'd never know that it is the Gazans who are doing most of the suffering.”

 

Why no names? A lot of people, Jews especially, are critical of Israeli policies, but some critics are more credible than others. Some activists, such as Marc Ellis, a professor at Baylor University and Jeff Halper, founder of the Israeli Committee Against Home Demolitions (ICAHD) have portrayed Israelis as embracing the outlook and policies of the Nazis in World War II Germany. Are these his sources?

 

Moyers’ sleight-of-hand is not limited to un-named sources who say what Moyers needs them to. He also appears to exaggerate the criticism he received from Palestinian supporters when he says “When I point out Israel's right to self-defense, and remind viewers of Hamas’ leaders who have pledged to kill every Jew in Israel, others think I'm being too soft on [Israelis].”

 

If anyone actually wrote that they think Moyers was too soft on Israelis, why didn’t it show up in any of the letters read on his show? Judging from the volumes of feedback he got on his Web site, the notion that Moyers was somehow “soft” on Israel is just not part of the discourse. Most of the people who posted responses to his commentary were either supportive of his criticism of Israel, critical of his suggestion that Israeli policies are genetically encoded or curious about what Moyers would expect Israel to do in response to Hamas’ rocket fire.

 

Bill Moyers’ credibility as an objective journalist has long been in question but worse than loss of any semblance of neutrality on the contentious Middle East topic he has stepped over a line that separates critic and bigot. The failure to issue a forthright correction and apology for his January 9th screed against Israel and the Jewish people is evidently consistent with a rooted hostility that has no place on PBS.

 


 

Transcript

January 16, 2009

BILL MOYERS: Welcome to the JOURNAL.

First, a word about my comments last week on the carnage in Gaza. What I had to say drove hundreds of you to your keyboards to tell me what you thought.

 

DON DEMBOWSKI: Your comments on the Israeli - Palestinian conflict were most welcome. Such thoughtful analysis is hardly ever heard on TV. The US has to show Israel some tough love to get the situation out of the impasse it has been in for so many years. -- Don Dembowski

 

LORNA BOSNOS: I'm a Jewish woman and am shocked once again by Israel's choice to destroy a territory and devastate a population. At first, I was swayed somewhat by the cries that Israel must have the right to defend itself, that Hamas has been firing rockets unceasingly, but this? --Lorna Bosnos

 

SAMUEL GINSBERG: I ask you, Mr. Moyers, what is a sovereign state supposed to do when its neighbors launch thousands of rockets aimed at its cities and its innocent women and children? What is an army supposed to do when its enemy uses its women and children as human shields? What is a humane, advanced civilization to do when it is confronted with a culture that embraces hatred and death as a way to sanctify life? -- Samuel Ginsberg

 

LEONARD BOASBERG: You imply a moral equivalence between Hamas and Israel, but in pointing out that Hamas is committed to eradicating every Jew in Israel, you neglected to add that Israel does not wish to eradicate the Palestinians, but only wishes to live in peace with them. --Leonard Boasberg

 

HAROLD COHEN: How utterly na´ve you are! The Hamas government, freely elected by the Arab populace of Gaza, is directly responsible for the Israeli onslaught. If you were faced with possible death to your family because of continuous rocket attacks, I don't believe you would "turn the other cheek" and wait for some vague attempt at finding a cease-fire agreement. Your first effort would be to destroy the source of these attacks, so that you and your loved ones can exist in peace. --Harold Cohen

 

BILL MOYERS: There's a lot more, all on our Web site at pbs.org, including my exchange with the National Director of the Anti-Defamation League. Your letters remind me of a time during the Vietnam War when I asked a reporter, just back from the frontlines, "Who's telling the truth out there?" "Everyone," he said. "Everyone sees what's happening through the lens of his own experience."

 

And so it is goes. When I decry the death of civilians in Gaza as Israeli troops try to stop the missiles fired by Hamas terrorists, I'm accused of being too hard on Israel. When I point out Israel's right to self-defense, and remind viewers of Hamas' leaders who have pledged to kill every Jew in Israel, others think I'm being too soft on them.

 

Some of you were offended by my comment that "god-soaked violence" has become "genetically coded." Those words were obviously not sufficiently precise, I was not talking about a specific people but of the violence in the DNA of the human race, as the Bible itself so strongly attests.

 

So here's the lens through which I see things. From my days in President Johnson's White House onward, I have defended Israel's right to defend itself, and still do. But killing innocent people is wrong, whether in Vietnam, Israel, Iraq or Gaza. Sometimes a candid critic is a country's best friend.

 

As the former Israeli soldier turned journalist, Jeffrey Goldberg, wrote in the NEW YORK TIMES this week, Hamas cannot be bombed, nor cajoled, into moderation. "Tanks cannot defeat deeply held beliefs," he wrote. No. Waging war on an entire population guarantees one thing: the radicals get what they want, and the innocents, on both sides, suffer.


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