CNN’s Jerusalem Storytelling Tainted by Partisanship, Bigotry

[This is the 4th in a series of articles critiquing CNN’s six-part series, “Jerusalem: City of Faith and Fury.” The first three can be found, in order, here, here, and here.]

As CAMERA has detailed several times already, CNN’s series on “Jerusalem” has seriously struggled with accuracy. The material errors and bizarre narratives have slanted toward a telling of the story of Jerusalem in which Arabs are solely victims and Jews are repeatedly erased. This absurd storyline becomes less surprising, however, when examining which “experts” and commentators CNN chose to include in the series.

Many are vituperative partisans with long histories of anti-Israel and antisemitic statements and beliefs. While providing a range of viewpoints would be perfectly acceptable, CNN never adequately identifies these individuals as partisans, nor does CNN enable Jewish or pro-Israel voices to truly counter these partisan individuals when they cross into outright falsehoods and slander. Below are some of the more notable partisans CNN featured.

Huda Imam

Among the most questionable decisions by CNN is the inclusion of Huda Imam, described by CNN as “Founder, Centre for Jerusalem Studies, Al Quds University.” Imam is allowed to make, unchallenged, multiple incendiary assertions. Most shockingly, CNN even gives her a platform to spew outright antisemitism:

The whole of Palestine continues to be eaten up like a cancerous disease. Deleting, erasing, arresting, demolishing, and the world is silent again.”

This kind of invective has an obvious, implied meaning, in which the Jewish State is equated to a “cancerous disease.” What does one do with a cancer? Iranian Ayatollah Khamenei put it bluntly when he infamously tweeted: “Israel is a malignant cancerous tumor in the West Asian region that has to be removed and eradicated.” This kind of language – associating Jews with diseases – has a long history. Even before the Nazis compared Jews to lice, typhus, syphilis, and cancer, medieval Europeans were blaming Jews for the Black Death, such that between 1348 and 1351, “more than 200 Jewish communities were wiped out, their inhabitants accused of spreading contagion or poisoning wells.”

A Nazi propaganda poster comparing Jews to tuberculosis, syphilis, and cancer.

Referring to the Jewish State as a “cancerous disease” is not excusable because it is directed at Israel. As former Deputy Prime Minister of Sweden Per Ahlmark once said, “This new anti-Semitism is often less directed against individual Jews. It attacks primarily the collective Jews, the state of Israel…”

Imam’s statement crosses the line well into antisemitism.

The International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s widely-accepted definition of antisemitism includes:

“Making mendacious, dehumanizing, demonizing, or stereotypical allegations about Jews as such or the power of Jews as collective…

Using the symbols and images associated with classic antisemitism (e.g., claims of Jews killing Jesus or blood libel) to characterize Israel or Israelis.”

Imam’s statement, associating the “collective Jew” – the State of Israel – with “cancerous disease” inarguably falls within the definition. The statement warrants an immediate retraction and apology from CNN for broadcasting such blatant hatred without condemnation.

Imam is also allowed to label the Jewish State as a “western, colonialist project,” claiming:

This western, colonialist project of Israel taking over Palestine continues to demolish our heritage, our being, our presence.”

Of course, CNN doesn’t allow a corrective voice to Imam’s revisionism of Jewish history as one of “colonialism,” instead of Jews returning to their homeland. Nor does CNN allow anyone to step in and point out that many of those who make up this “western, colonialist project” have zero connections to the West – they were Jews living in the Middle East and North Africa who were driven out by the Arabs. In fact, as CAMERA earlier pointed out, Jews from the MENA region are entirely absent from CNN’s narrative.

Imam’s incendiary rhetoric has no place on any respectable network. And her crude bigotry had been evident in other comments. She’d previously written, “What is [Palestine’s] capital worth when the Old City is full of Jewish settlers?” Her name also appears as a signatory on a statement that accuses Israel of using yoga culture to “omwash” and “weaponize yoga for the purpose of advancing a Zionist agenda at the expense of Palestinians having a right to return.” The statement signatories pledge to support the BDS movement, as well as refuse to participate in yoga events in “Israel (occupied Palestine)” – apparently suggesting they, including Huda Imam, believe all of Israel is “occupied.”

The decision to amplify Imam’s hateful invective calls CNN’s judgment into serious question.

Thomas Abowd

Thomas Abowd is another featured “expert” on the series. Referred to simply as a “Tufts University senior lecturer,” Abowd has a long history of belittling Judaism and spreading objectively false claims against Israel – none of which a viewer would be aware of based on CNN’s presentation of him as simply a “senior lecturer.”

Prior to the series, Abowd has suggested that the Jewish connection to Jerusalem is a “weaponization of myth,” and that the Western Wall, one of Judaism’s holiest sites, is an “invention of relatively recent construction.” He has deridingly referred to the Jewish Bible (the Torah) as a “celestial real estate guide.” In reality, the vast archeological evidence and the testimony of historians, ancient and modern, connecting Jews and Jerusalem are unassailable. Abowd has also previously been caught using the debunked “Shrinking Palestine” map during a presentation, and claimed erroneously in a course description that Israel “illegally occupies Palestine.” CAMERA has elicited corrections on this specific issue, underscoring that while Israel might be an occupying power – primarily because of Palestinian refusal to negotiate an independent state – that occupation is not “illegal.”

Abowd’s commentary during the series is itself problematic, too. While addressing the UN partition plan during the series, Abowd claims that “Palestinians who fall in what would become the Jewish state would be suddenly aliens in their own land.” Such an incendiary claim is left unchallenged. Yet, Jewish leaders in Mandate Palestine repeatedly made clear that all citizens of a future Jewish State would be equal citizens. An October 1938 report of the British “Woodhead Commission,” established to examine the possibility of partition, noted they had been given “the most emphatic assurances from the Jews that they…will spare no effort to ensure the well-being and happiness of the Arab minority within the Jewish State.” The UN report recommending partition itself supports this, referencing that the Jewish Agency (the main Jewish interlocutor at the UN) repeated those assurances, writing: “In the Jewish Home and State the Arab population…will be fully protected in all its rights on an equal basis with the Jewish citizenry.” To this day, those Israeli Arabs have equal rights. The unchallenged inclusion of the quote from Abowd misrepresents the history and dramatically deceives viewers.

There’s simply no plausible rationale for including a commentator who espouses absurd, unfounded claims, and particularly when they’re cast as the unchallenged views of an academic expert.

Suleiman Mourad

One of the most frequent commentators throughout the series is Suleiman Mourad, identified as a “Smith College religion professor.” Mourad, too, has a history of making highly partisan claims about Israel, including directly on the topic of Jerusalem. For example, in an August 30, 2019 article, Mourad accused “Israeli governments and Zionist organizations” of a “worldwide crusade” to secure control of Jerusalem “by specific Jewish groups.” Mourad went on to accuse Israel of “apartheid” and claimed “Israel is playing the role of Babylon and Rome, and the Palestinians, like the ancient Israelites in 587 BCE and the Jews in 70 CE, are the victims.”

Mourad’s bias comes through in the series, too. At one point, he claims the British prevented “any possible creation of political leadership among the Palestinians” during the British Mandate, notwithstanding the British themselves helped elevate[1] the Nazi-collaborator and Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Hajj Amin al-Husseini, into becoming – alongside the Husseini-dominated Arab Higher Committee – the leader of the Palestinian Arabs during that period. Mourad also falsely claimed, during Part 6, that the U.S. gave Israel “tremendous powers both in terms of financial support, but more importantly through weapons.”

During the same episode, he plays a part in slandering Israel as massacring Egyptian prisoners. Mourad’s contribution is to provide a speculative – and unchallenged – statement that “[t]he casualties was extremely disheartening and this could have fueled lots of acts of vengeance on the part of Israeli soldiers.” Neither Mourad nor the series provides any additional context or evidence.

James Zogby

Another prominent character featured is James Zogby, a well-known activist with anti-Israel views going back decades. For example, during the early 1980s, he was a prominent activist trying to stop the U.S. from extraditing Ziad Abu Eain to Israel to face justice for his role in a terrorist bombing that killed two young boys in the city of Tiberias in 1979.

Today, Zogby is questioning “dark money” from “pro-Israel political groups” in American elections, focusing on the notoriously anti-Israel candidate Nina Turner’s loss to Shontel Brown earlier this year. The Anti-Defamation League itself has already expressed its concern over these “dark money” – or as Nina Turner herself put it, “evil money” – claims and their echoing of antisemitic tropes. In truth, Nina Turner’s campaign actually outraised Shontel Brown’s campaign ($5.6 mil to $2.4 mil) and, as pointed out by the target of Zogby’s complaints, even taking independent expenditures into account, Turner outspent Brown. Yet, Zogby only questions the financial contributions of a pro-Israel group. Similarly, Zogby writes about the 1970s that “Congress was haunted by the well-cultivated fear that pro-Israel PACs would gang up to oppose them if they stepped out of line.” Here, Zogby is pressing the tired old rhetoric (which often creeps into the antisemitic canard of Jewish control) that while anyone can lobby, it’s somehow only notable and suspect when pro-Israel groups advocate for their cause. Such a double standard is hard to square with any real, innocent justification.

A Jordanian soldier posing on the ruins of the Hurva Synagogue in the Jewish Quarter (John Roy Carlson, Cairo to Damascus, 1951)

Zogby is obviously a highly partisan figure, and that partisanship is allowed to affect the series’ narrative in an unchallenged fashion. As will be detailed in the next CAMERA article on the CNN “Jerusalem” series, Zogby inverts history by accusing the Jewish State of committing “ethnic cleansing” of the Jewish Quarter in Jerusalem, notwithstanding (and leaving unmentioned) that the Jews themselves had been ethnically cleansed from the Jewish Quarter just 19 years earlier, as their holy sites and cemeteries were desecrated and destroyed.

Neil Faulkner

Then there is the case of Neil Faulkner. During Part 4, CNN bizarrely spends much of the episode – in a series on Jerusalem – on the story of Lawrence of Arabia. Much like an earlier episode in which the destruction of the Temple takes a backseat to Cleopatra, the network has a tough time focusing on the actual subject of the series, instead choosing to focus on popular historical figures that have only tangential relevance. Faulkner is brought in as one of the main commentators on the story of Lawrence of Arabia. While his contributions are largely uninteresting in terms of examining biased storytelling, the mere inclusion of Faulkner raises eyebrows.

Faulkner is a member of radical groups like “Anti-Capitalist Resistance” and has many thoughts on Jews. For one, he believes: “The vast majority of European Jews were descended from converts to Judaism in medieval times. Their only real ‘homeland’ was Europe.” Such false and repeatedly debunked claims – often in the form of the “Khazar Jews” conspiracy theory – try to erase the connection between Jews and the Land of Israel. Playing on another antisemitic canard, Faulkner has also engaged in Holocaust inversion, accusing Israel of turning Gaza into “a vast concentration camp.” He wrote an entire article claiming that there wasn’t widespread evidence of antisemitism infesting then-Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn’s party, and has also accused Israel of “apartheid.”

Faulkner’s wild theories extend elsewhere, too. In addition to labeling 9/11 as an “attack on US imperialism” and a “gift to the US ruling class,” he believes that NATO attacked Serbia during the wars in Bosnia and Kosovo simply to “control the transition from state-managed to neoliberal capitalism.”

That CNN stretched the story of Jerusalem to focus so much on Lawrence of Arabia as much as it did is questionable enough. That of all the “experts” in the world it could bring in to talk about Lawrence of Arabia it picked one with such extremist views is beyond shocking.

Lack of Challenging Voices

Promotion of these false and even incendiary statements by CNN is concerning enough. But CNN’s failure to provide any real challenge to them is entirely irresponsible.

While CNN includes some Israeli and Jewish commentators, what opinion and commentary the network provides beyond simple recollections or facts tends to fit the harshly one-sided treatment of the Jewish state.

For example, one of the Israelis included – Daniel Seidemann – is an activist against Israeli policies. Seidemann is known for his relentless, one-sided advocacy of Arab positions and hostility toward Israel’s reunification of Jerusalem. He has, for instance, denounced the historic accords between Israel and the UAE in an article in a far-left publication.

Others even make false statements that only accentuate the CNN narrative of downplaying Jewish history. For example, at least two downplay the significance of the Temple Mount to Judaism. Simon Sebag Montefiore falsely stated that Jews are no longer connected to the Temple, while Uri Bar-Joseph erroneously stated that the Western Wall is the holiest site to Jews, while, in fact, the Temple Mount itself is the holiest. Whether their statements were clipped out of context or otherwise, the responsibility is CNN’s.

When Jewish and Israeli commentators are included, their contributions are limited to strict storytelling, with little if any opinion, speculation, or commentary allowed from other commentators throughout the series. For example, the series includes an Israeli Air Force pilot, Eelan Hight, recollecting his participation in the 1967 War, as well as Israeli Eta Blatman’s memories of fear turned to elation as the nation went from facing a massive Arab invasion force to hearing the news of the destruction of Egypt’s Air Force. When one compares this type of basic commentary to Huda Imam’s “cancerous disease,” Mourad’s speculation of Israeli vengeance, or Abowd’s excusing of Palestinian Arab rejectionism leading up to 1948, the imbalance is obvious.

There is, of course, no inherent problem in including the commentary of partisans or activists. They can provide viewers with context, giving them competing viewpoints on contentious issues. However, CNN’s failure to properly identify activists or to provide counterbalancing voices goes well beyond the line of objective storytelling.

 

Footnotes:

[1] Efraim Karsh, Palestine Betrayed (Yale University Press 2011), p.17. It was, in fact, the British who appointed Hajj Amin al-Husseini as the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem.