Of all the thousands of reports done by Mike Wallace during his four decades with “60 Minutes,” few brought as much grief to the veteran journalist and those of us who worked with him as those involving Israel. And since it was difficult to write off Mike as an anti-Semite, he was frequently charged instead with being a self-hating Jew.
That accusation, of course, was utterly false — a despicable epithet, often employed by Jewish defenders of Israel to avoid recognizing the unpleasant specific issues raised by its critics. But there is no disputing that Mike, who died April 7 at 93, raised questions few others were willing to ask about some of the basic implications of Israel’s emergence.
As a producer on “60 Minutes,” I worked with Mike for more than 26 years, and researched, reported and wrote several segments about Israel in which he was the on-camera reporter. Among the first of the pieces we did together was one on the Arabs of Israel that depicted their status as second-class citizens in what was supposed to be a democratic though Jewish state. Others included a story on Israel’s arms sales and a hard-hitting piece on the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.
But the one piece involving Mike that sparked the widest outrage involved the deaths of 17 Palestinians, shot down by Israeli police on Jerusalem’s ultra-sensitive Temple Mount (called Haram al Sharif in Arabic) on October 8, 1990.
The immediate version of the bloody incident, as proclaimed by the Israeli government and accepted by almost all major media, was that the police had gunned down the Palestinians only after the Palestinians, egged on by their imams, began heaving rocks at Jews praying at the Western Wall, which lay below the confines of the Temple Mount.
An outraged Benjamin Netanyahu, then deputy minister of foreign affairs, appeared at a dramatic press conference, exhibiting a huge, lethal-looking boulder in his hands. Reportedly, several Jews had been hospitalized.
It was a version of reality that the Israelis got out early. And except for an excellent but lonely investigative piece in the Village Voice, it went virtually unchallenged by the international media until our piece. The protests by Palestinians that their countrymen had been shot down in cold blood by rampaging Israeli police and that they had never threatened any Jewish worshippers were simply deemed not credible.
Yet, as our “60 Minutes” piece showed — using footage actually shot at the time — the Palestinian charges were accurate: There were no Jews praying at the Wall when the rocks started sailing over. The young Palestinians, in fact, were targeting Israeli police who had begun firing tear gas and bullets at them without provocation. And by that time, all the Jews who had been praying at the Wall had left the area. Checking all hospitals, we could find no cases of Jews having been injured at the Wall. Instead, the hospitals still held some gravely wounded Palestinians, including one nurse who had been shot while inside a plainly marked ambulance as she was helping to evacuate the wounded.
Our report turned out to be a shocking story both about Israel and about the mores of mainstream media.
The tsunami of protest hit us immediately — one of the most violent reactions to any report that “60 Minutes” had aired. We were denounced by just about every Jewish organization in the country and faced vitriolic outbursts from leading Israeli officials. We were whitewashing a plot by the Palestine Liberation Organization. We had lied. We had misrepresented. We were doing the work of the anti-Semites. And of course, we were self-hating Jews.