Few topics arouse the ire of Time Magazine’s political columnist Joe Klein more than Israeli or American Jewish conservatives or traditionalists. When he writes about them, historicity and facts become secondary to his own personal animus.
Such is the case with the journalist’s book review of Lawrence Wright’s “Thirteen Days in September,” published in the Sept. 14, 2014 New York Times Sunday Book Review supplement. Mr. Klein uses his review of a book about the 1978 Camp David negotiations as an opportunity to vent his own hostility against former Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin, who was a major player in the negotiations and resulting accords, as well as a traditionalist and a conservative.
It is informative to contrast Klein’s review of the book in the New York Times with one in the Wall Street Journal two days earlier by Elliot Abrams, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and former senior director for Near East Affairs at the National Security Council. According to Abrams:
In Mr. Wright’s version, Mr. Carter and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat come across far better than Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin, who is presented mostly as an obstacle to peace….Begin’s life story is told far less sympathetically than are those of Mr. Carter and Sadat… [He] is presented as “the man who embodied the most wounded and aggressive qualities in the Israeli psyche. Obstruction, not leadership, was his nature. (Wall Street Journal, Sept. 12, 2014)
Klein, on the other hand, sees the author’s somewhat negative characterization of Begin as sympathetic. He writes:
It is a measure of Wright’s fairness and subtlety that Begin comes across as an almost-sympathetic character.
Klein himself characterizes Begin as a clearly unsympathetic character. “He isn’t dashing; he isn’t eloquent; he doesn’t smile,” writes Klein, who brands him a “sourpuss extremist.”
As to Begin’s approach to his religion, Klein is similarly denigrating:
His Judaism was litigious, drawn from the Talmudic tradition of worrying the law to distraction, fighting over every codicil.
The book reviewer is certainly entitled to his own negative opinion of Begin, and even to his misinformed characterization of Talmudic tradition. But it is his double standards in categorizing terrorism and terrorists that are most disturbing.
As leader of the Irgun (Etzel), an armed underground organization in Mandate Palestine that encouraged illegal immigration and carried out attacks against the British, Menachem Begin was labeled a terrorist by the British and competing Zionist groups. That designation, as well as the manner and type of attacks that Etzel carried out, has been and continues to be debated.
There is far less debate about the infamous 1978 PLO-perpetrated slaughter that came to be known as the “Coastal Road Massacre.” That attack killed 38 Israeli civilians, including 13 children, and wounded 71 others. Time Magazine called it “the worst terrorist attack in Israel’s history.”
But while Klein categorically labels Begin “a former terrorist,” he refrains from using that term to characterize the Palestinian perpetrators of the 1978 massacre. He blandly calls them “militants.”
Their intention, as two surviving terrorists confessed, was to seize hostages at a luxury hotel, as well as to take UN representatives and international ambassadors hostages to be exchanged for Palestinian prisoners in Israel, but that plan was aborted after the boats carrying the terrorists landed 40 miles away from their destination. Instead, the terrorists hijacked a bus, shot and threw grenades at passing cars, and eventually tried to kill the passengers on the bus and others who crossed their path. The timing of the attack was meant to destroy the Israeli-Egyptian peace negotiation and to damage tourism, according to a Fatah planner.
None of these motives, however, serve to blame Israel, and so Klein insidiously attributes a different intention to the terrorists– one that turns the story away from Palestinian terrorism and into an indictment of Israel under Menachem Begin’s leadership. He writes:
The massacre was intended as a provocation; a disproportionate Israeli response was assumed. And three days later, Israel invaded southern Lebanon, which was then controlled by the Palestine Liberation Organization led by Yasir Arafat. “Those who killed Jews in our times cannot enjoy impunity,” the Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin said. More than a thousand Palestinian civilians were killed; more than 100,000 were left homeless. The world, including President Jimmy Carter, was horrified. Following another invasion in 1982, Israel would occupy parts of southern Lebanon until May 2000.
It is hard to trust a book review about historical characters that is so imbued with personal hostility that the “facts” are shaped to support the reviewer’s feelings. It is not surprising, however, that the New York Times entrusted such a review to Joe Klein, who could reliably be depended upon to bash Israel.