In Roll Call’s Shallow Waters, Good Journalism Drowns

A 2,907-word article by Roll Call, the Washington D.C.-based newspaper that covers political and legislative news on Capitol Hill, was littered with omissions that distort the nature of U.S.-Israel relations (“Divide Over Israel Widens in Democratic Party,” July 27, 2018). The report, ostensibly about changing attitudes towards Israel on the American left, relied exclusively on questionable sources and heralded legislation and a movement that both have links to U.S.-designated terrorist groups.

Roll Call’s dispatch argued that the Democratic Party is increasingly disenchanted with Israel—and implied that the Jewish state itself is to blame for this shift. Given Roll Call correspondent Rachel Oswald’s complete reliance on sources that are at best, hypercritical of Israel, and at worst, antisemitic, the paper’s conclusion is as unsurprising as it is wrong and superficial.

A more complicated history

Oswald begins with a false assertion: that there has “traditionally been unquestioned U.S. support for Israel.” But this is an overstatement, as Dennis Ross, a former U.S. State Department official who was intimately involved in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, documented in his 2015 book Doomed to Succeed: The U.S Israel Relationship From Truman to Obama.

Ross, who worked in both Republican and Democratic administrations, noted that U.S. support for Israel has never been “unquestioned” and examples abound. Several top government officials, including the U.S. Secretary of State and U.S. Secretary of Defense, opposed President Harry Truman’s decision to support the establishment of a Jewish state. Indeed, the U.S. blocked arms sales to the fledgling Jewish state for its first several years. The U.S. forced Israel to return land won in the 1956 Suez War. The U.S. refused to come to Israel’s aid in the run-up to the 1967 War, despite previous promises that it would so. The U.S. severely criticized Israel’s decision to strike an Iraqi nuclear reactor in 1981, even blocking a sale of much-needed fighter planes—criticism that the U.S. later backtracked on after U.S. forces deployed in Iraq during Operation Desert Storm didn’t have to worry about Saddam Hussein’s forces deploying nuclear weapons.

Relations between the governments of the United States and Israel were also famously strained during the Carter administration, the George H.W. Bush administration, and between U.S. President Bill Clinton and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The newspaper claimed that Democratic “disillusionment” with Israel “gained traction when Netanyahu spoke to a join session of Congress urging lawmakers to oppose the Iran nuclear deal championed by the Obama administration.” In fact, as Michael Oren, Israel’s then-Ambassador to the U.S. has noted, the Obama administration, by its own admission, entered office seeking to create “daylight” in relations between the two countries—a full six years before Netanyahu’s 2015 speech (“Ex-Ambassador Michael Oren: Obama Abandoned Israel,” Politico Magazine, June 16, 2015).

Inconvenient facts

With language more befitting an opinion piece than unbiased reporting, Roll Call claimed that Israel’s “treatment of the Palestinians” is responsible for a decrease in Democratic Party support for the Jewish state. In nearly 3,000 words, the newspaper failed to once mention that Palestinian leaders are responsible for the lack of a Palestinian state, having rejected U.S. and Israeli offers for statehood on a number of occasions, including 2000 at Camp David, 2001 at Taba and 2008 after the Annapolis Conference. In every single instance, Palestinian leadership neglected to submit so much as a counteroffer. Instead, Hamas, which rules the Gaza Strip, and Fatah, which dominates the West Bank-ruling Palestinian Authority (PA), have supported terrorist attacks against Israel and Israeli civilians.

But the PA and Hamas received scant mention in Roll Call’s article. Typical of many editorials that tend to single out Israel for opprobrium, Palestinians and their leaders are infantilized and deprived of independent agency. The focus—and the blame—is exclusively on Israel.

Indeed, the article claimed that the Trump administration’s decision to cut “off aid to the Palestinians,” an “ongoing humanitarian disaster in Gaza” and the “’horrific slaughter’ of more than 50 Palestinians protesting just inside the border fence of the Gaza Strip,” has made “the political division” between Republicans and Democrats over Israel more apparent. Yet, Roll Call omitted key facts.

The U.S. administration decided to withhold aid to the PA after it refused to quit paying salaries to terrorists—a violation of the Oslo Accords that created the PA and remains the basis for U.S. support and funding. Other US cuts, as CAMERA has noted, are aimed at agencies like the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), which has a history of promoting anti-Jewish violence and aims that are, by their very nature, antithetical to a realistic solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (“Foreign Policy Magazine Does PR for UNRWA,” Aug. 16, 2018).

As for the “humanitarian disaster” in Gaza, it is the result of decisions by Hamas—whose charter calls for the destruction of Israel—to use aid money for building its terror network and capabilities. The group has constructed “terror tunnels” to attack Israel, devoting precious resources not to state building, but to destroying Israel (“Gaza’s Miseries Have Palestinian Authors,” The New York Times, May 16, 2018). Roll Call obfuscated on this fact, preferring to blame “Israel’s land, sea and air blockade of Gaza, along with mismanagement by Hamas.” This Orwellian turn of phrase omitted that Egypt also has a blockade against Gaza, and that Israel’s blockade occurred only after Hamas began launching rockets at Jewish civilians.

Further, many of the Palestinians “protesting” at the Gaza border were armed. All were there under the direction of Hamas, which had promised to break through the fence and murder Israelis. The majority of those killed, by Hamas’s own admission, were not “protesters” but operatives of the terror group (“Here’s Why the Media Got the Gaza Violence Wrong,” Algemeiner, May 29, 2018).

Oswald cited a January 2018 Pew poll which found “the widest partisan gap between how Republicans and Democrats view the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” for proof of a drop in Democratic support for Israel. But the truth is more complex.

Tamara Coffman Wittes and Daniel Shapiro, both former U.S. State Department officials who served in Democratic administrations, analyzed that same poll. In a Jan. 26, 2018 Atlantic Op-Ed entitled “How Not to Measure Americans’ Support for Israel,” Wittes and Shapiro concede that Democratic attitudes towards the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are shifting, but argue that the poll Oswald cited is a “terrible foundation” for measuring attitudes towards Israel. The poll, they argue, has “faulty” questions, which conflated Democratic attitudes towards Palestinians with support for Israel, providing a “misleading framing.”

Roll Call also claimed, “growing fissures exist between Israeli Jews and American Jews,” largely due to “Netanyahu’s policies.” But as Elliot Abrams, a Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, has noted, the argument that Israel itself is responsible for the “drop in support” is as conventional as it is wrong.

In a lengthy April 4, 2016 essay for Mosaic Magazine, Abrams agreed that the Jewish-American community is less supportive of Israel than in earlier years. But he disagreed that Israel’s policies are to blame. Instead, he noted that, in contrast to older Jewish-Americans, younger Jewish-Americans are more likely to be less supportive of Israel and, not incidentally, less involved in both the Jewish faith and the Jewish community. Abrams contrasted this with attitudes among the Jewish Diaspora elsewhere, concluding that an “erosion of solidarity among American Jews” is responsible for the difference. American Jews, he argued, are more secure and more assimilated than their brethren in the Diaspora. Not coincidentally, they tend to be less understanding of the need for a Jewish state—and the challenges that Israel faces.

As the historian Daniel Gordis noted in his 2016 book Israel: A Concise History of a Nation Reborn, in the early years of Israel’s existence, when the Jewish-American community was also less secure and less assimilated, it was also more skeptical of the Jewish state and Zionism. Organizations like the American Jewish Committee (AJC) and others were routinely in conflict and disagreement with Israeli leaders. Other groups, such as the American Council for Judaism, “existed primarily to argue against the creation of” a Jewish state. “Most Jewish groups,” Gordis writes, “did not go that far, even if they shared some ambivalence about what statehood would do to Judaism and to the position of American Jews.” It was only after the 1967 Six-Day War, when Israel’s permanence was clearly established, that “American Jewish attitudes to Israel did warm considerably.”

Go-to anti-Israel sources

The article uncritically quoted the “left-of-center” J Street, an organization that has lied about its funding and has had board members say that Israel shouldn’t exist (“J Street’s Half-Truths and Non-Truths About Its Funding,” The Atlantic, Sept. 24, 2010). Roll Call also quoted the columnist Peter Beinart and Rabbi Jill Jacobs of the organization T’ruah. As CAMERA has noted, both Beinart and Jacobs have routinely authored error-laden commentaries (some of which can be found here and here).

Worse still, Roll Call refers to Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) as merely a “liberal grass roots organization.” Yet, the Anti-Defamation League has described JVP as “the most influential anti-Zionist group in the United States.” As NGO Monitor has documented, JVP has “embraced and advocated on behalf of Palestinian terrorists such as Ahmed Sa’adat and Rasmea Odeh” and “regularly justifies and excuses Palestinian violence.” Further, “JVP statements and campaigns have employed antisemitic imagery.”

Other questionable groups, such as the U.S. Campaign for Palestinian Rights and the Friends Committee on National Legislation, are quoted extensively and uncritically by Roll Call. Both groups support the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement (BDS), the founders of which oppose the existence of Israel and advocate for a one-state solution, though Roll Call ignores this. BDS seeks to delegitimize Israel and, per sworn U.S. Congressional testimony, is supported by, and sometimes tied to, U.S.-designated terrorist groups (“Ties Exist Between Hamas-Linked Charities and BDS,” CAMERA, April 22, 2016).

Indeed, as Tablet magazine noted in a June 1, 2018 report—that is, weeks before Oswald’s report was filed—the U.S. Campaign for Palestinian Rights “has financial ties to terror groups (“BDS Umbrella Group Linked to Palestinian Terrorist Organizations”).”

Instead of noting the links and purposes of the BDS movement, Roll Call merely described it as an “economic pressure campaign” that has “divided congressional Democrats.”

Roll Call also asserted that “many Palestinian rights activists are most excited about…legislation from Rep. Betty McCollum, a nine-term Democrat from Minnesota, that would prohibit Israel from using any of the billions of dollars in annual aid from Congress for ‘military detention, interrogation, abuse or ill treatment of Palestinian children.” The magazine neglected to mention that this legislative push comes from the lobbying efforts of Defense for Children International-Palestine (DCI-P). As CAMERA has noted, DCI-P has ties to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine—a U.S.-designated terror group. The board’s secretary Fatima Daana is the widow of the commander of PFLP’s Abu Ali Mustafa Brigades and one DCI-P employee, Hashem Abu Maria, was celebrated by the PFLP as a “commander” of the terror group after his 2014 death.

Roll Call’s carelessness is further evidence by the article initially implying that the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) is a political PAC that makes donations at the organizational level—a mistake that even those with a basic understanding of the subject wouldn’t make.

Roll Call’s July 27th report is notable not only for its length, but for its shallowness and omissions. It was long on superficiality and short on truth. Perhaps Roll Call is taking too literally the advice of another close observer of American politics, the American humorist and writer Mark Twain, who allegedly jested that “truth is the most valuable thing that we have, let us economize it.”