NPR Ombudsman’s Response to CAMERA Falls Short

As detailed earlier by CAMERA, errors and omissions marred Sheera Frenkel’s Nov. 18, 2011 NPR broadcast about vandalism of Arab sites in Israel and allegations of an Israeli plan to engage in ethnic cleansing. The outpouring of objections prompted NPR ombudsman Edward Schumacher-Matos to address the concerns in a December 14 blog post “Attacks on Israeli Arab Sites: Good Story, Flawed Parts.” Schuchmacher-Matos agrees with CAMERA’s criticism on some points, noting: “With its several lapses, Frenkel’s story unnecessarily confused listeners on an important topic deserving clarity.”

However, the ombudsman’s own analysis lacks clarity on a number of issues, repeatedly mischaracterizing CAMERA’s initial critique and demonstrating a lack of understanding of critical issues surrounding the Arab-Israeli conflict, such as the so-called Palestinian “right of return.” The ombudsman’s convoluted efforts to evade responsibility regarding substantive factual errors is reminiscent of NPR’s disregard for public concerns a decade ago, when the network routinely refused to deal with significant factual problems.

Regarding the central thesis of the broadcast, CAMERA had earlier noted:

Sheera Frenkel’s Nov. 18 NPR news report charges Israel with a purported agenda “to have a purely Jewish state and to get rid of all Palestinians, the ones in the West Bank and in Israel,” as one of her main interviewees put it. Frenkel bases her alarmist story on three cases of vandalism and the distortion of terminology, among other misrepresentations. (Emphasis added).

Responding to CAMERA’s criticism, Schumacher-Matos writes:

After summarizing the situation [with respect to recent vandalisms], Frenkel then interviewed a Jewish protestor who was sympathetic to local Arabs, This woman said that these acts demonstrate a larger effort to establish a “purely Jewish state.”

NPR and Frenkel did not make that statement, as CAMERA charges. The protestor did, But while the interview captured some of the frustration among many Israeli Arabs and their supporters, Frenkel should have addressed the facts of the charge in some way, if just to note that this is an extreme view, and certainly not one shared widely by Israeli Jews.

As Sara Miller of Forest Hill, NY, wrote: “A few cases of vandalism by a fringe group hardly prove such a charge.” (Emphasis added.)

Contrary to Schumacher-Matos claim, CAMERA did not charge either NPR or Frenkel herself with making the statement about an Israeli plan to “have a purely Jewish state.” Rather, in our introduction, reproduced above, we explicitly attributed it to “one of [Frenkel’s] main interviewees.” And, further along, we reproduce an excerpt of the transcript, clearly attributing that statement to “Avia,” the Israeli demonstrator. Thus, the ombudsman is engaged in some confused projections; while he accuses CAMERA of charging NPR with saying something it never said, it’s actually NPR that’s doing precisly this to CAMERA.

But by raising the false argument, Schumacher-Matos fails to draw the correct conclusions about the real point. As he himself points out, “Frenkel should have addressed the facts of the charge.” Indeed, if Frenkel wanted to include such a blatantly false charge that Israel has a plan for a “purely Jewish state,” she should also have included a response or rebuttal, which she didn’t. However, contrary to the ombudsman’s assessment, the value of the rebuttal would not be “to note that this is an extreme view. . . not one shared widely by Israeli Jews,” but to note that it is a false, unfounded smear.

By not challenging the false charge, by reinforcing Avia’s charge with similar sentiments voiced by Jaffa resident Fatima Helewa, and by bolstering it with distortions about the B’Emuna construction firm and a misrepresentation of the term “Israeli Arab,” both NPR and Frenkel allow Avia’s statement about a Zionist plan for a “purely Jewish state” to stand as true. While neither the network nor the reporter actually said it themselves, they also did absolutely zero to contradict it. To the contrary, they bolstered it, as described above. And herein lies CAMERA’s charge that “Sheera Frenkel’s November 18 NPR news story charges Israel with a purported agenda to have a purely Jewish state and to get rid of all Palestinians, the ones in the West Bank and the ones in Israel,’ as one of her main interviewees put it.”

Schuchmacher-Matos goes on to argue:

Still, the frustrations of Arab Israelis are very real. Many of them feel like second-class citizens in a land where their families have lived for centuries. The Israeli government, moreover, is adamant in restricting any right of return for Palestinians who fled during the 1948 war that led to establishment of Israel as a Jewish state.

We do not doubt that Arab Israelis harbor frustrations, for legitimate and less legitimate reasons. But these frustrations in no way substantiate the scurrilous allegation regarding a so-called Zionist plot for a “purely Jewish state.” Furthermore, Shuchmacher-Matos’ reference to Israel’s refusal to be flooded with hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees and their millions of descendants as an example of alleged discrimination against Israeli Arabs underscores his failure to grasp the basic issues surrounding the conflict. It’s not only the Israeli government which adamantly rejects a Palestinian “right of return.” For good reason, the U.S. government reportedly also backs this policy, recognizing that implementing the “right of return” would spell the end of the Jewish state.

Uncorrected Error: “Israeli Arabs” as Pejorative

CAMERA had urged NPR to correct a falsehood concerning the term “Israeli Arab.” Referring to right-wing Israelis, the Israeli activist Avia said,

They don’t call them [Israeli Arabs] Palestinians. They call them Israeli Arabs. That’s their way to erase their Palestinian identity, okay, and kind of contain them within Israel. But the agenda is to have a purely Jewish state. . . .

CAMERA noted that Frenkel does not challenge Avia’s absurd assertion according to which the term “Israeli Arab” is pejorative language used by “right-wing Israelis.” We argued that the term is in wide use, by a large swath of Israelis, and non-Israelis, including, for example, NPR itself.

While Schumacher-Matos agreed with us that Avia’s assertion was false, saying the “statement should have been cut from the re port,” his recommendation ends there. He does not call for a much-needed correction.

And, again laying bare his lack of understanding about the conflict, the NPR official goes on to argue that, nevertheless, Avia

is getting at what is a genuine issue surrounding the use of terminology to refer to Palestine and Palestinians. . . . .It is true that there is no generally recognized state of Palestine under international law yet — its borders are still up for negotiation, if negotiations ever resume — but there is clearly a Palestine by almost every other measure. Even my father, who was a Jew born in Tel Aviv far before the creation of the state of Israel, always referred to having been born in Palestine.

The suggestion that the existence of a pre-1948 British Mandate Palestine amounts to evidence of a state of “Palestine by almost every other measure” is a sorry indication that Schumacher-Matos is woefully ill-equipped to handle complaints about the network’s coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And, far from being a state “by almost every other measure,” the would-be state of Palestine is missing more than just borders. There’s also the small problem that the Palestinian Authority does not have complete control over a permanent population, and that it cannot enter into genuine relations with other states, both criteria for statehood under the Montevideo Convention. For more on this topic, see here.

Uncorrected Error: B’Emuna Specializing in Settlements

Schumacher-Matos also fails to properly read and comprehend CAMERA’s objection to the false depiction of the B’Emuna construction firm, which is building housing for religious Zionists in Jaffa. Frenkel incorrectly called B’Emuna “a construction company that specializes in building subsidized homes for religious Jewish families in West Bank settlements.” But, as CAMERA earlier noted, “B’Emuna does not specialize ‘in building subsidized homes for religious Jewish families in the West Bank.” According to its Web site, the construction firm specializes ‘in the establishment of housing neighborhoods for the national religious public (Dati), all over the country.” Thus, by misrepresenting B’Emuna as specializing in settlement building, Frenkel injects the hot-button settlement building issue, even though it has zero relevance to the report on attacks on Muslim sites within Israel’s pre-1967 boundaries.

And yet, here’s how Schumacher-Matos characterized our concern with the false depiction of B’Emuna:

Another question CAMERA raised was about the B’Emuna housing construction firm and whether it is contributing to the ethnic polarization happening in Jaffa. That is a complicated truth to find. There appears to be little doubt that, at least historically speaking, B’Emuna does primarily build housing specifically for Jews. But B’Emuna’s website does not specifically say that, and as CAMERA points out, it was recently reported that they plan to build units specifically for Arab residents.

Schumacher-Matos’ misreading of CAMERA’s objection is so extensive, it’s hard to know where to begin. Again, our criticism is that Frenkel said that B’Emuna specializes in building housing for religious Jews in West Bank settlements, and it does not. It specializes in building housing for religious Zionists around the country. Period. This is a factual error which requires correction.

Contrary to Schumacher-Matos’ claim, CAMERA never said B’Emuna plans to build units specifically for Arab residents, because it has no such plans. Indeed, the hyperlink that the ombudsman provides to the Ha’aretz story (which we had earlier sent to NPR) states that the municipality of Tel Aviv-Jaffa intends to build Arab-only housing. Not B’Emuna.

Ignoring Attack on Jaffa Synagogue

Shuchmacher-Matos’ ignores CAMERA’s focused concern that a broadcast dealing specifically with Arab-Jewish tension in Jaffa ignored a molotov cocktail attack on a Jaffa synagogue during the exact time period in question. Rather than dealing with this particular, specific oversight regarding an attack on a Jewish holy place in Jaffa, Schumacher-Matos raises yet another red herring. He said:

Some listeners would have liked mention of the Arab attacks against Israelis as balance. Palestinian bombings and other attacks over the years have killed hundreds of Israeli Jews. By contrast, these arson attacks against Arab sites have, so far at least, not killed anyone. It would not have been wrong to give this context, but I don’t think it was necessary.

We also don’t think it was necessary to mention years of Palestinian bombings and other attacks in a broadcast focused on vandalism of Arab sites, particularly in Jaffa. But, we do believe it was an essential failure that the broadcast ignored the attack on the Jaffa synagogue which took place one day after the desecration of an Arab cemetery in Jaffa. These two incidents are closely related in space, time and nature. And yet Schumacher-Matos, like Frenkel, evades dealing with the attack on the Jaffa synagogue. He does not mention it at all, even though we identified that particular attack, not years of Arab bombings, as the critical element missing from the Frenkel story.

Smearing CAMERA to Deflect Attention From NPR’s Misconduct

Finally, in an attempt to diminish CAMERA’s credibility and the impact of our analysis, Schumacher-Matos falsely, and unfairly, labels CAMERA “a media-monitoring organization that advocates for Israel from a strongly conservative viewpoint.” CAMERA’s membership and staff are a politically diverse lot, united in the firm belief that Israel has the right to exist as a Jewish state. Some vote Democrat. Some vote Republican. CAMERA does not take positions on policy matters. For instance, we do not advocate for the withdrawal of or the strengthening of settlements. We did not take a stand on the withdrawal from Gaza or the Shalit prisoner exchange, nor does the organization take a position on controversial recent bills in the Knesset regarding NGOs. The Ombudsman’s name-calling is evidently one more instance of an inability simply to address the facts.
The bottom line: NPR still needs to correct the damaging information broadcast. Failure to do so would suggest a negative trend backwards in the network’s handling of legitimate public concerns.

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