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What happens when the shoe’s on the other foot?

What happens when the shoe’s on the other foot?

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Published by Victoria Schonfeld
by David A. Harris, Executive Director of the American Jewish Committee
by David A. Harris, Executive Director of the American Jewish Committee

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Published by: Victoria Schonfeld on Apr 07, 2008
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial

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What happens when the shoe’s on the other foot?David A. HarrisExecutive DirectorAmerican Jewish CommitteeApril 6, 2008A small but influential chorus of American voices has made a mantra out of thenotion that criticism of Israel is stifled by the pro-Israel community.Indeed, when NYU professor Tony Judt’s lecture at the Polish Consulate in New Yorkwas canceled in 2006 by the consul general, because Poland did not subscribe toJudt’s view of a one-state solution for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a groupof intellectuals rushed to his defense.In a widely-publicized petition, they asserted that "We are united in believingthat a climate of intimidation is inconsistent with fundamental principles ofdebate in a democracy. The Polish Consulate is not obliged to promote free speech.But the rules of the game in America oblige citizens to encourage rather thanstifle debate.”Let’s set aside the absurdity of the entire effort. After all, Judt had givencountless lectures before that October date, not to mention his articles on thesubject in the New York Review of Books and elsewhere. None of his defenders couldcite a second instance of ”intimidation,” nor, for that matter, would they be ableto cite an instance since then, either. In fact, Judt’s meeting was moved to adifferent venue in New York and that was that.But there’s another side to the coin. While Judt and his erstwhile supporters,joined by Jimmy Carter, Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer, have been making theircase about their inability to be heard – ironically, in think tanks, universitiesand media outlets only too happy to have them speak out about how they cannotspeak out – some are trying to silence a very different viewpoint.On behalf of AJC, I do a weekly national 60-second radio spot. The time ispurchased as any advertisement would be. For the past nearly seven years, it hasbeen broadcast across the United States on the CBS radio network, on hundreds ofstations, without incident.Earlier this year, we expanded the reach by adding in the New York area WQXR, apopular classical music station owned by the New York Times.For the week of March 31, here was the text to be aired:Fifteen seconds. Imagine you had fifteen seconds to find shelter from an incomingmissile. Fifteen seconds to locate your children, help an elderly relative, assista disabled person to find shelter.That's all the residents of Sderot and neighboring Israeli towns have.Day or night, the sirens go on. Fifteen seconds later, the missiles, fired fromHamas-controlled Gaza, hit. They could hit a home, a school, a hospital. Their aimis to kill and wound and demoralize.Imagine yourself in that situation.The sirens blast. 15, 14, 13, 12, 11, 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1. The time toseek shelter has ended. The missiles hit.This is what Israelis experience daily. But, amazingly, they refuse to be cowed.Help us help those Israelis. Visit ajc.org.The spot was broadcast several times, as is customary, on the CBS radio network,but WQXR refused to do so.Here’s the written explanation from Tom Bartunek, president of New York TimesRadio and general manager of WQXR:”In my judgement several elements of this spot are outside our bounds ofacceptability. First, the opening line— `Imagine you had fifteen seconds to findshelter from an oncoming missile’—does not make clear that the potential target ofthe missile is not our listening area, and as a consequence, runs the risk ofraising anxiety in a misleading way. Second, the description of the missiles asarriving `day or night’ and `daily’ is also subject to challenge as beingmisleading, at least to the degree that reasonable people might be troubled by the
 
absence of any acknowledgement of reciprocal Israeli military actions. Finally, inmy judgement the `countdown’ device and the general tone of the message do notmeet our guidelines for decorum.”Stunning, above all, is the reference to "the absence of any acknowledgement ofreciprocal Israeli military actions.”In other words, according to Bartunek’s logic, the only way to broadcast theplight of Sderot’s residents over the airwaves is to equate Israel’s right ofself-defense with Hamas’s and Islamic Jihad’s right to strike Israel at will.Notice I didn’t say ”day or night” or ”daily” this time, because that might beconstrued as ”misleading.” Next time I’m in Sderot, I’ll be sure to let itsresidents know they have less to worry about than they thought because, accordingto some in the United States, their attackers keep banker’s hours. Meanwhile,Bartunek ought to read about the situation in Sderot in the April 5 front-pagearticle in the paper that owns his station.In a subsequent phone conversation with one of my AJC colleagues, Bartunek wentfurther. He explained that the radio station does not run ads with sirens or gunshots, neither of which was included in our spots, nor does it carry spots about”hemorrhoid cream or sexual potency pills.”Well, that certainly helps clarify matters about rejecting a spot that sought todraw attention to innocent people under rocket attack who might need understandingand support.I can only imagine what would have been the response had we done a spot during theLondon blitz. Would it have been turned down as well, perhaps on the grounds thatwe failed to refer to reciprocal British military actions against Nazi Germany?Lest anyone think this was an isolated incident, a similar incident occurred withthe same station in 2001, leading us to cancel our contract. We had resumed yearslater in the mistaken belief that things would be different.Here’s the 2001 text:No one is born hating, but too many are taught to hate.One thing we've learned since September 11th is that in some unexpected places,children are taught to hate us.Recently, The New York Times (October 19, 2001) reported that in Saudi Arabia,tenth graders are warned of "the dangers of having Christian and Jewish friends,"and in Pakistan, a million children attending religious schools are taught to"distrust and even hate the United States." (October 14, 2001)Our planet is increasingly crowded – six billion people practicing hundreds offaiths and identifying with countless ethnic backgrounds.Either we all learn to respect one another, or else we'll be doomed to more deadlyacts inspired by blind hatred.Our government needs to begin addressing this pressing challenge abroad, startingwith those nations ostensibly close to our own.Meanwhile, here at home, let's continue to show the world what mutual respect andunderstanding are really all about.At the time, two months after the September 11th attacks, the WQXR station managercited the third paragraph as particularly objectionable. When we noted that thequotes were taken from the New York Times—again, the newspaper which owns theradio station—we were told that the language did not meet the station’s standards.And, yes, we were lumped in then, too, with hemorrhoids.The suppressing of our message doesn’t end with the New York Times-owned station.A week before the most recent incident with WQXR, I recorded another spot. It ranwithout any problem on CBS nationwide and, interestingly, WQXR broadcast it aswell. But this time Bloomberg radio, a financial news station in New York,refused. AJC began airing the weekly spots on Bloomberg in January. (By the way,though the station carries his name, I am certain that Mayor Michael Bloomberg wasunaware of the decision made by station officials.)Here’s the full message:No one is born hating. Children are taught to hate.AJC has sponsored studies of textbooks in Egypt, Iran, and Saudi Arabia. In Saudi

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