The opinion pages of more than 85 national newspapers have been fertile ground for syndicated columnist Charley Reese’s decade-old war of words against Israel. Ironically, Reese was once a defender of Israel, faulting politicians and the mass media for precisely the same reporting transgressions he now commitssubstituting myths for fact and espousing baseless propaganda.
A September 24, 1998 column entitled, “Israel: Technologically modern but politically medieval state,” is characteristic of Reese’s rhetoric, falsely claiming that Israel practices racial and ethnic discrimination. Reese’s evidence for the charge? “A long conversation” he had with Azmi Bashara, an Israeli Arab Member of Knesset.
Reese lists Bashara’s claims without even a pretense of independent corroboration, charging that Israel is not a true democracy. He quotes Bashara’s assertion that, “It is a state of the Jews, not a state of its citizens,” and cites examples to illustrate that Arabs in Israel are “subject to racial and ethnic discrimination.” First, Reese charges that:
The Israeli government spends exactly half as much money educating its Arab citizens as it does its Jewish citizens.
In fact, proportionally more money is spent on Arab students than on their Jewish counterparts. While Israeli Arab students comprise approximately 20% of the total student body in Israel, their share in education development budgets exceeds 30% (Office of the Prime Minister’s Advisor for Arab Affairs, Summary Report of the Government Ministries’ Activities in 1997 in the non-Jewish sector). In addition, in 1997 Israel cut its budget by NIS 7.5 billion. Despite this drastic reduction, the government ensured that the budgets allocated for the Arab population remained intact while those for all other local authorities declined.
Then Reese alleges:
But even Arab citizens who get college degrees cannot find jobs. He [Bashara] said that the Israeli Electric Company employs 25,000 people but that only six are Arab.
Again, Reese accepted and repeated Bashara’s statistics without verifying them. The Israel Electric Company (IEC) employs a total of approximately 13,500 individuals, not 25,000. Fifty-six of those employees are non-Jews, including Arabs and Druze. Several hundred additional non-Jewish individuals are employed by subcontractors working for the IEC.
Moreover, beyond citing erroneous statistics, Reese was also misleading in singling out a company that, unlike many other enterprises, employs relatively few people in the non-Jewish sector. He failed to explain that employees of the IEC are subject to security clearances as the nature of their work exposes them to sensitive issues and information. Because Israeli-Arabs are not required to serve in the Israel Defense Force along with their fellow citizens, and overwhelmingly do not serve, they cannot pass the required security clearance. The IEC excludes all citizens who do not receive appropriate security clearance, whether they are Jews, Muslims or Christians. Druze, for example, who are members of a Muslim sect, serve in the Israeli army and are employed by the IEC. It should also be noted that Arabs are employed in every sector of Israeli society, by universities, hospitals, social organizations and all branches of Government. An Israeli Arab has been appointed to the Supreme Court and an Israeli Arab woman has been chosen to represent the country as “Miss Israel” in an international beauty pageant.
As additional evidence of Israel’s “undemocratic” character, Reese writes:
Bashara said the current prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, even ran on a racist slogan: “Netanyahu is good for the Jews.”
Wrong again. Neither Netanyahu nor the Likud party introduced, repeated or even supported the above slogan. Rather, the phrase was created by the Lubavitch chasidim several weeks before the Israeli election in an effort to urge adherents to support Netanyahu. In the fall of 1998, dissatisfied with Prime Minister Netanyahu's performance in office, members of the Lubavitch movement began campaigning to oust the prime minister from office with the slogan, "Netanyahu is bad for the Jews."
While denouncing Israel for its supposed shortcomings as a democracy, Reese is silent about the non-democratic regime emerging in Palestinian-controlled territory. Since the signing of the peace accords, more than 67 Palestinians have been killed for suspected "collaboration" with Israel, tens of journalists have been arrested for publishing articles critical of the PA, at least 14 Palestinians have died in PA custody and human rights organizations have documented systematic torture and instances of extrajudicial killings.
Reese is silent on another matter: Although Reese's article is based exclusively on allegations uttered by Azmi Bashara, the columnist fails to inform readers of Bashara's advocacy of Israel's annihilation. On May 29, 1998, during an interview with Israeli journalist Ari Shavit, Bashara shocked many Israelis when he explained Palestinians would never accept Israel's existence. He stressed that Israel had no moral right to exist, not even within the 1949 armistice lines.
Bashara insisted that there is no Jewish people or Jewish nation, only, at best, a Jewish religion. He also stated that even the establishment of a Palestinian state and the return of all Palestinian refugees would not solve the present conflict, as Israel must compromise not just with the Palestinians, but with the Arabs. Months before this interview with Reese, Bashara laid a wreath on the grave of Fathi Shkaki, a leader of the terrorist organization Islamic Jihad. (Finally, while Bashara accuses Jewish Israelis of racial discrimination, he chooses to live among them: Bashara recently purchased a $250,000 home in the heart of Natzrat Ilit, a Jewish city in the Galilee.)
Moreover, that Bashara can advocate Israel's destruction and remain a member of the Knesset suggests the strength, not the weakness, of democratic freedoms in Israel.
Reese has a long history of using false information and distorted statistics as evidence for his claims. His animus toward Israel is apparent in almost everything he writes. He has labeled the U.S. Congress "Zionist-occupied territory" and has responded to criticism of his biased reporting on Israel by claiming that the "Israeli lobby is to the First Amendment what the Ku Klux Klan is to civil rights." Reese also defends his disregard for journalistic standards and history of mustering false information against Israel with the flippant retort that his columns are worth what people pay for them, "50 cents and a buck and half on Sunday." The American Society of Newspaper Editors disagrees, holding that opinion writing should be as accurate as news reports.