Washington - A CNN documentary about religious extremists has prompted an unprecedented outcry from the organized Jewish community, including a call to advertisers to pressure the network.
The three-episode special, “God’s Warriors,” by CNN’s chief international correspondent, Christiane Amanpour, is being characterized by Jewish groups as equating Jewish extremists in West Bank settlements with Muslim jihadists. The program is also accused of containing numerous factual errors.
The Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, which represents more than 50 national Jewish organizations, convened a special discussion with its members following the airing of the program last month, and has urged them to take up the issue with companies that have bought advertising slots during the show.
In the past, there have been widespread complaints about the media’s treatment of Israel, but this appears to be the first time that so many organizations have come together in opposition to a single media outlet.
“This was not an average show,” said Jennifer Laszlo-Mizrahi, founder of The Israel Project. “CNN bought full-page ads promoting the show and ran it on prime time. The perspective the show left the viewers with is that Israel doesn’t want peace and that Israel’s friends in the United States don’t want peace.” The Israel Project, a group focused on providing information to the press and the public about Israel, broke a five-year tradition of not reacting to media reports on Israel and put out a press release about the Amanpour show, detailing Israel’s efforts to promote peace in the region.
“The program definitely has a great damage potential because of the people who watch CNN,” Laszlo-Mizrahi added, pointing to the fact that foreign officials and decision makers tend to view CNN as an important news source.
Relations between Jewish organizations and American media outlets were rocky during the first years of the intifada when Jewish activists protested outside almost every major media outlet and threatened to embark on reader boycotts. As violence on the ground died down, though, so did the tensions over media coverage. Now, “God’s Warriors” has the potential of drawing the Jewish community into the media debate once again.
The vigorous response appears to be due, at least in part, to the coincidence of the program’s screening just before the release of “The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy,” a book by scholars John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt. The book levies serious charges against the power of the Jewish lobby which, it states, influences the United States to choose a foreign policy in favor of Israel against its own interest.
In the CNN program, among those interviewed are Mearsheimer and former president Jimmy Carter, who has been controversial in the Jewish community since the publication of his book, “Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid.”
In a letter to CNN’s vice president, the Anti-Defamation League’s national director, Abraham Foxman, wrote: “The program made a huge and unfounded leap from legitimate pro-Israel advocacy in the U.S. to nefarious support for Jewish extremists.”
The first episode of Amanpour’s trilogy, titled “God’s Jewish Warriors,” dealt mainly with extreme Jewish settlers in the West Bank who vow never to leave the land because of biblical traditions and religious beliefs.
Amanpour interviews a member of the former Jewish underground who not only planted bombs in cars of Palestinian mayors but also plotted to blow up the mosques on the Temple Mount. In addition, the show deals extensively with the relations between Jewish settlers and Palestinians in the territories, and with the support for settler groups from Jewish and Christian groups in America.
Critics of the show point to a series of inaccuracies and claim that little was done to maintain a balance in choosing interviewees. But the main issue for media watchers is the equation that the series appears to make among extremists in all three major monotheistic religions.
“The whole setup from the start is false,” said Andrea Levin, executive director of the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America — a media watchdog group that follows coverage of the Israeli-Arab conflict in American media outlets.
A CNN representative would not remark on the complaints of Jewish groups. The representative said that the network will respond directly to media-monitoring organization Camera and other groups that voiced concerns about the program.
The strongest reaction so far came from the Presidents Conference. An e-mail sent by its chair, June Walker, and Malcolm Hoenlein, its executive vice president, details steps taken by the Jewish community since the program aired. Conference members have asked CNN to avoid rerunning the show before concerns about factual errors and bias are addressed and corrected. It is also requesting that the network invest similar resources to produce a new program that would “rectify the bias and inappropriate context.”
“We are aware of some advertisers that have already distanced themselves from ‘God’s Jewish Warriors,’” the e-mail reads. “It was recommended that all advertisers be contacted to express concern at their association with this offensive program.”
Nathan Guttman, staff writer, was the Forward’s Washington bureau chief. He joined the staff in 2006 after serving for five years as Washington correspondent for the Israeli dailies Haaretz and The Jerusalem Post. In Israel, he was the features editor for Ha’aretz and chief editor of Channel 1 TV evening news. He was born in Canada and grew up in Israel. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.