Conscience a la Mode

New York Times’ columnist Anthony Lewis recently wrote that journalists "who live by freedom of the press must recognize that sometimes the freedom can be perverted…" Regrettably this was not an expression of self-discovery and penitence at the perversion of his own op-ed pulpit into a decades-long skein of anti-Israel distortion, falsehood and unsubstantiated allegation. Lewis continues to malign the Jewish state in a newspaper apparently indifferent to the outright errors of fact that pepper his writing.

Lewis filed several columns from Israel in March that bear the hallmarks of his commentary. Above all is his enmity toward the Jewish state, an enmity at its most ferocious when Israel is not, in his view, sufficiently assuaging Arab grievances and demands. His columns are an angry enumeration of Arab complaints. Hence, at a time when a veritable police state was emerging in the Palestinian autonomous areas of Jericho and Gaza, where 19,000 Arabs had been recruited into vying, heavily armed security organizations (the Israel-PLO Accords set a limit of 9,000), when Jews were being murdered in terror assaults at a rate unparalleled since the founding of the state, and when Yasir Arafat had as yet failed to prosecute anyone for any of the attacks while proclaiming to crowds that "We are all seekers of martyrdom," Lewis, as ever, excoriated the Jews for not satisfying the Arabs.

A March 20th column entitled "Through That Gate" blended factually erroneous accusations with a familiar brew of bias and innuendo. The piece laments Israel’s hiring foreign workers to replace Arab laborers, an action taken by the government to stem the unprecedented terror campaign against Israelis and to calm an increasingly frightened populace. Lewis deplores what he terms "collective punishment" and "economic disaster" for the Palestinians, then cites a supposedly "grotesque" example of Israeli wickedness. He claims "The Palestinian Authority is authorized to collect a tax on telephone bills in the West Bank, about $1 million a month. But the Israeli telephone company moved its West Bank billing office from Ramallah to Jerusalem and said the Authority was no longer entitled to the money."

The charges are total nonsense. The Palestinians are entitled to and receive tax monies levied on telephone bills in the West Bank. Indeed, contrary to Lewis’s claim that Israel owes the Palestinians money, the facts are precisely the opposite. According to an Associated Press article appearing not long after Lewis’s column Palestinians were $5.5 million in arrears to Israel on payment for telephone services. The crisis grew until a threatened cutoff of services led to negotiations on the issue.

Repetition of false accusations against Israel, however ludicrous, is vintage Lewis. A 1982 column, for example, denounced Israel for wholesale banning of books in the West Bank and Gaza, including George Orwell’s 1984 and Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice. The charges were untrue, a vast lie against Israel, but eagerly embellished by Lewis. Writing about the false book-banning charge Menachem Milson, head of Israel’s Civil Administration at the time, observed "…lies have long legs. How can we ever catch up with them once they start racing around the world?" Needless to say, the damage to Israel’s reputation in that episode and in the countless others for which Lewis bears responsibility is impossible to assess or repair.

Lewis’s March 27, 1995, column "A Garrison State?" reflects the same modus operandi. In it he inflates a dubious anecdote, said to have been told to him by New York Times reporter Joel Greenberg, to symbolize supposedly unbridled Israeli oppression of the Arabs. In artfully-worded language suggesting the option of deniability, Lewis puts forth the claim that Israeli soldiers prevented Arab prisoners from using bathrooms during overnight detention, forcing the men to relieve themselves in their holding cell.

A statement by an IDF spokesman casts doubt on the Greenberg/Lewis story, noting that prisoners are detained only a few hours in these cells. Apparently, Lewis did not trouble himself to check the details–so perfectly did the allegations suit his purpose of portraying Jews as brute aggressors. Wielding the anecdote like a club he pounds his incessant theme that Israel is the cause of Arab aggression against her. He argues that, in preventing eight detainees from using the bathroom, Israelis "served the cause of terrorism. It could only create more hatred, attract more recruits to the cause of violence."

In contrast to Lewis’s fulminations over bathroom rights for Arab prisoners, his occasional references to murderous attacks against Jews are glancing and uninflected, even irritable. "Of course there are reasons for Israelis to fear Palestinians," he concedes. "Terrorists shot at civilians on a bus, and blew up soldiers at a bus stop." Terrorists have done more than shoot at buses in the bloody months since the Oslo Accords were signed. Jews have been murdered by the dozen in buses and at bus stops. At Afula, Hadera, Tel Aviv, Beit Lid, Netzarim and Ramat Gan. Moreover, these killings have been widely applauded by Palestinians, with the Beit Lid massacre triggering outbursts of jubilation at the deaths of "twenty pigs and the wounding of sixty monkeys." About all this Lewis has been virtually mute. Despite his obsession with Israel, he has not devoted a single column to any of these atrocities against Jews.

The bathroom column also contains the grotesque Lewis theme that his biased and hostile attacks are meant to safeguard the rectitude of Israel’s soul. He writes, "In a conflict so brutal that one side treats the other as animals–indeed worse than it would treat animals–which suffers the worst damage? The physical suffering is worse for the victims. But the psychological damage, the hardening of the soul, may be worse for those who inflict suffering and cease to care." Thus, while Israelis stand accused of the sweeping charge of treating Arabs worse than they would animals–on the basis of a relatively minor incident of uncertain detail– unprecedented Arab terrorist murder of Jews prompts no comparable general conclusions about the Arab psyche.

Lewis’s irrational assaults on Israeli Jews resemble less the commentary of twentieth century journalists than the campaigns of sixteenth century Inquisitors. The Jews in Lewis’s dock are indicted for having failed to pass contrived and hypocritical tests, and their deaths are considered as nothing in the quest to "save their souls." One can only marvel that the New York Times permits its pages to be sullied by the error-ridden and offensive tirades of this modern Inquisitor.

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