The Washington Post got into a bit of a kerfuffle recently when its conservative blogger Jennifer Rubin put up a post attempting to assign blame to Islamic “jihadists” for the July 22 bombing in Oslo and then let the post stand for more than 24 hours. This despite the fact that it was widely reported during this period that the killer was, in fact, a blond-haired, blue-eyed conservative Christian.
The Post received so many complaints about Rubin that the paper’s ombudsman, Patrick Pexton, felt a need to interview her about her work habits. He came back believing that she had a “good defense”: “She is Jewish. She generally observes the Sabbath from sundown Friday until sundown Saturday; she doesn’t blog, doesn’t Tweet, doesn’t respond to reader e-mails.”
Were all of the above entirely consistent with the truth, it still would not have absolved the Post for failing to remove Rubin’s misguided musings. But as it happens, her explanation had almost as many holes in it as her journalism did. Sundown in Washington occurred July 22 at about 8:20 p.m., but a commenter on Rubin’s blog, posting at 5:53 p.m., informed her of her error. Another blogger who jumped to the same conclusion, Wired’s Spencer Ackerman, had his correction and apology up by 7:45 that evening. What’s more, Rubin put up four additional posts after her misrepresentation of the Oslo bombing, the final one punching in at 9:07 (though these could have been written earlier).
From a purely journalistic standpoint, Rubin’s actions entitle her to a stern rebuke and possibly job loss. Not only did she embarrass the paper with shoddy, ideologically motivated speculation, she then pretended she could not correct her mistake for religious reasons, which was clearly nonsense, as well. But for Jews, there are some special considerations here. As Ron Kampeas of JTA noted in his blog post on the controversy, pretending that “Jewish observance is an excuse when it clearly is not — well, it rankles. There’s way too long a history of Jews having to take risks to observe Shabbat for it to be used as a bad faith out.”
But the exploitation of the excuse of Jewish observance has historical roots, as well, inconvenient as it may be to admit. Recall the almost comically hysterical reaction to Philip Roth on the occasion of the publication of his small masterpiece, “Defender of the Faith.” in The New Yorker in 1959. (The story, which was reprinted in “Goodbye, Columbus,” published the same year, concerns a group of Jewish enlisted men who pretend to be let off duty to go to a Passover Seder and instead go out for Chinese food.) One reader responded to Roth, “With your one story, ‘Defender of the Faith,’ you have done as much harm as all the organized anti-Semitic organizations have done to make people believe that all Jews are cheats, liars, connivers.” A rabbi wrote to the Anti-Defamation League, asking: “What is being done to silence this man? Medieval Jews would have known what to do with him.”
I will leave Rubin’s relationship to the Sabbath to her own conscience. But I think we need to take note of this incident as an example of how profoundly skewed our media discourse is on behalf of right-wing supporters of Israel, however biased they may be. Think about it: Rubin is a neoconservative hired by the Post from Commentary because of, rather than despite, her unceasing defense of every action taken by Israeli’s conservative Likud government. She has even reported for the Post while accepting a free trip to Israel from the Emergency Committee for Israel.
Is it even possible to imagine a mainstream newspaper in America hiring a Muslim — even a moderate Muslim — to give vent to his or her ill-informed opinions and prejudices about Jews and Israel? Can you imagine a writer simply assuming, without evidence, that the perpetrator of some heinous crime must be a Jew and then pleading that the false information could not be corrected because he or she had to observe Ramadan? To ask the question is to answer it. Let’s keep playing this game. Now try to imagine an influential liberal magazine whose longtime owner/editor-in-chief regularly referred to Jews as “violent, fratricidal, unreliable, primitive and crazed” and “barbarian,” as well as “cruel, belligerent, intolerant” people who “behave like lemmings” and only “feign outrage” over the mass murder of their people? Well that’s the kind of thing Martin Peretz, owner and editor-in-chief of The New Republic, has routinely written about Arabs for decades. And what if a respected commentator in the Arab-American community called our temples and synagogues ”breeding grounds for militants”?
What if he were invited to speak to a convention of a central Arab-American organization and announced, ”I worry very much, [about] the presence, and increased stature, and affluence, and enfranchisement of American Jews”? Well, that’s what Daniel Pipes said to the American Jewish Committee in 2002, though, of course, he was speaking about Arabs, not Jews.
Personally, I think all American Jews ought to be shamed by comments like those and shamed, as well, by the generalized silence in the organized Jewish community toward those who purposely generate hatred toward Muslims and Arabs of all stripes. But I also think it’s long past time that everyone recognize what a profound disadvantage these people are in when it comes to America’s media debate. There is literally no one on the other side of this issue in a respected news source who comes close to matching the bile of a Rubin, a Peretz, a Pipes and many, many others. Almost no mainstream pundits sympathize with the Palestinian position at all. Of course, to point this out — while at the same time noticing that a great many pundits in the media happen to be Jewish and darn few are Muslim — is to invite charges of anti-Semitism and/or Jewish self-hatred. If you ask me, allowing the haters to rant and rave as they do without allowing any dissident voices into our debate does far more damage to both the cause of Israel and the honor of American Jews.
Eric Alterman is a CUNY Distinguished Professor of English and Journalism at Brooklyn College and also writes a column for The Nation.