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Alison Weir: Setting the record straight
Op-ed for CisternYard
On April 19th I spoke at the College of Charleston at an event sponsored by the Department of Sociology and Anthropology and a local organization called Charleston Peace One Day.
The title of my lecture was “Israel-Palestine: What the Media Leave Out,” and in it I documented the extremely flawed nature of US news coverage of this conflict. This material was gleaned from 12 years of researching this subject, eight statistical media studies, independent reporting trips to the region, many dozens of articles on the topic, and an upcoming book.
Sadly, the two articles on my talk by the CofC student newspaper, one before my lecture and one after, exemplify the deeply faulty reporting frequently found in articles concerning Israel. In addition to numerous inaccuracies, they violated some of the basic principles of journalism.
Sarah Sheafer, the newspaper’s editor in chief, wrote both articles. Sheafer’s first article consisted of accusations by Israel-partisans claiming that I was “anti-Semitic” and labeling my talk – in advance – “hate speech.” Sheafer repeated inaccurate claims about me without investigating their veracity, and failed to include my very public rebuttals of these falsehoods. While Sheafer included interviews defending the event in the name of academic freedom and free speech, she did not include any defense of me or response to the terrible accusations about me.
And in violation of the most basic tenet of fair reporting, she never attempted to contact me to respond to the claims. This ignored one of the most fundamental requirements of journalistic ethics: According to the Society of Newspaper Editors, “Persons publicly accused should be given the earliest opportunity to respond.”
Her piece similarly failed to quote anyone in favor of my my work, though I have been honored to receive plaudits from diverse sources and have been asked to speak at a multitude of universities and other venues both in the U.S. and abroad. Nor did her very long article contain any information about my multitude of articles describing Palestinian suffering under occupation or those on Israel’s lethal attack on a US Navy ship.
When I discovered Sheafer’s article and emailed and phoned her to discuss it, she did not return my call and did not respond to requests to print a rebuttal. (She did eventually email us back.)
The second article followed my talk. This article again focused on defamatory claims (I am called anti-Semitic in the second paragraph), misquoted me at times, and incompletely depicted what took place, though it included some information from my presentation in the second part of the article (the part least likely to be ready by readers in a hurry).
While Sheafer stated that there was “incivility” during the event, the reality is that a large group of fanatic Israel partisans (perhaps in part stirred up by Sheafer’s first article) attended the event, shouted over my attempts to answer their questions fully and respectfully, and ultimately prevented CofC students from engaging in the kind of extended question-and-answer discussion that normally follows a presentation and that students have a right to expect. Particularly troubling is the fact that apparently some CofC faculty were involved in this behavior.
Several students wrote me after the event apologizing for this group. One said, “This conduct was deeply embarrassing to me as a student. I felt you were treated rudely and disrespected.” The person went on to write, “I respect how calmly you maintained your professional demeanor and continued to be courteous and respectful to the audience.”
Following my presentation, which included a video and numerous slides, Sheafer apologized for not contacting me for her previous story and finally interviewed me. However, she included none of the information I gave her in her second article. Nor did the newspaper print a formal correction or apology.
In the piece, she quoted many of the hostile questions addressed to me by a somewhat organized group that had clearly come to the event to do battle, and then either misquoted my answer, included only a small part of it, or, in most cases, completely left it out.
Perhaps this is because the questioners and allied mob largely shouted over all my answers to their questions; it’s possible that Sheafer often couldn’t hear my full responses. I certainly had trouble hearing myself.
While Sheafer reported on my presentation and included much valuable information, she left out some of the most important points and watered down others.
She failed to report the fact that, in the current uprising, over 12 times more Palestinian children have been killed than Israeli children, and that 91 of them were killed before a single Israeli child was killed. She omitted the fact that US media consistently and erroneously term Israeli actions “retaliation,” and primetime news shows report on Israeli children’s deaths at rates up to 14 times greater than they report on Palestinian children’s deaths.
Sheafer similarly omitted the information I provided about a 2003 Capital Hill briefing in which a commission that included a four-star admiral, a rear admiral, and the highest-ranking recipient of the Congressional Medal of Honor reported that Israeli forces had tried to sink a US Navy ship, had killed 34 American servicemen and injured over 170, and that rescue flights had been recalled because the President of the United States said he “didn’t want to embarrass an ally.”
These extremely grave statements on Capitol Hill by this extraordinarily high-ranking commission can be found in the Congressional Record.
Perhaps Sheafer’s most significant violation of journalistic ethics was to assign herself to cover these events in the first place, rather than sending a neutral reporter.
The fact is, as Sheafer publicly admits, she has a strong emotional attachment to Israel, once writing: Israel is “the country I consider my second home.”
The particular article with this statement was written on Nov. 15th, 2012, the day a 10-month-old Gaza baby was killed by Israeli forces – the fourth Palestinian child killed by Israeli forces that week – though Sheafer mentions none of these deaths.
While Sheafer says that she condemns “some of [Israel’s] controversial decisions (i.e. illegal settlements),” her piece focuses on her intense anguish over Israeli difficulties, her deep empathy with Israelis (at one point she writes she wishes she were there), and, tellingly, her anger at those who criticize Israeli actions.
She wrote this column during an Israeli onslaught in which Israeli forces killed at least 169 Gazan men, women, and children, and Palestinians killed 6 Israelis, none of them children. (During the previous year, Israelis had killed 64 Palestinians in Gaza, while Gazans had killed no Israelis.)
None of these facts are in Sheafer’s column, “Israel At War.”
While Sheafer and the group who disrupted this event consider themselves pro-Israel and brevity requires me to identify them as such, in reality I feel that their actions do not benefit Israelis.
Israel was created through violence and has been maintained through violence, a reality that is not only tragic for the Muslim and Christian victims of this violence, but is also tragic for Israelis themselves.
If Israelis are to live a normal existence free of war and conflict, it is essential that they change their policies and become a nation that treats all people with equality, an approach that many Israelis desire, and that they recognize the historic injustice at the core of the conflict.
Such a policy change, however, is unlikely to occur while American politicians continue to bankroll Israel to the tune of over $8 million per day and to provide diplomatic cover no matter what the Israeli state does. This blind support gives the Israeli government such power that its leaders feel free to ignore Palestinians, other world players, and dissenting Israelis alike.
Given this seemingly blank check of American financial and diplomatic support, Israeli leaders feel no need to negotiate honestly to reach a compromise in which Jews, Muslims, and Christians can share the land that is sacred to all three groups. This won’t change until Americans become sufficiently informed on this issue to demand changes to US policy.
It is essential that Americans learn the facts on this issue. I believe strongly that we have the power to bring peace to the core issue in the Middle East – a conflict that has spawned numerous wars, caused dangerous instability to the region and the world, and has placed Americans increasingly in danger.
It is sad that an event on this urgent issue was in many ways sabotaged. I hope that additional speakers providing factual information will be invited to lecture at the College of Charleston, and that they will not receive the treatment I experienced.
Alison Weir is the president of the Council for the National Interest and executive director of If Americans Knew.
*The views in this article represent the opinion of the author, and not those of CisternYard News.