December article 2012

Reflections – December 2012

Friends: Those who’ve followed these postings know that my legal battle with the federal government over a $16,000 fine (for traveling to Iraq to bring medicine without a U.S. license) has ended. The judge dismissed the government’s efforts to collect saying the government waited too long to sue. See Bert’s Case for a history of the legal issues.

Last month I started to write about NY Times columnist Thomas Friedman. I have spoken with Mr. Friedman twice, but I didn’t finish writing about the first time – and didn’t have space to write about the second time at all.

In writing last month about my first meeting with Tom Friedman, I said: I believe that by trying to apply nonviolence in real-life situations we can best see how it works (or fails to work). And we can see more clearly how well we really are able to practice nonviolence, especially the nonviolence – or the violence – of our inner state of mind. That’s where the rubber meets the road.

In preparation for writing about Tom Friedman again, I did a wise thing: after not being able to find my copy of his book From Beirut to Jerusalem (which I’d read years ago) I went out and bought a used copy. I’m glad I did. Otherwise I might have gotten stuck – in my mind – in my disagreements with him over his articles on the Iraq sanctions (which I wrote about last month).

By re-reading the “Prelude: From Minneapolis to Beirut” in his book, I was reminded of how much I actually share with Tom Friedman. We both were raised in rather typical middle-class Jewish families. And we both were taken by the story of a brave David (Israel) facing off against Goliath (the surrounding Arab countries). But I beat him to Israel by about a decade. In 1962, I spent six months in Israel learning Hebrew, traveling the country, volunteering at kibbutzim, watching the opening of the movie Exodus in a Tel Aviv movie theatre.

In those days I would have defended Israel uncritically, as Tom Friedman writes that he was doing during the next decade. However by 1982, Mr. Friedman was The New York Times correspondent in Beirut; he made a major impact in that paper with his reporting of two Palestinian refugee camps Sabra and Shatila in Beirut, Lebanon. They were under the control of the Israeli military which had allowed Lebanese Christian Phalangists to enter and massacre hundreds of women and children.

In his book, Tom Friedman writes that “I took Sabra and Shatila seriously as a blot on Israel and the Jewish people. Afterward, I was boiling with anger – anger which I worked out by reporting with all the skill I could muster on exactly what happened in those camps. The resulting article – an almost hour-by-hour reconstruction of the massacre – was published across four full pages of The New York Times on September 26, 1982; it eventually won me a Pulitzer Prize for international reporting.”

He continues, “Sabra and Shatila was something of a personal crisis for me. The Israel I met on the outskirts of Beirut was not the heroic Israel I had been taught to identify with. It was an Israel that talked about ‘purity of arms’ to itself, but in the real world had learned to play by Hama Rules, like everyone else in the neighborhood.” (More about what Hama Rules are in a moment.)

Interestingly, Sabra and Shatila was something of a personal crisis for me as well. I had returned to Israel in 1978 and was living in Haifa with my Israeli wife, working for a computer software company. As I went to work one morning, an Israeli co-worker said to me that something bad had happened in Lebanon – and it would no doubt give the rest of the world another excuse to hate Israel. He showed no concern over what it was that Israel might have done. Only that Israel would get blamed. His attitude troubled me a lot.

Initially none of us knew what had happened. But I remember that a big rally was called for in Tel Aviv to demand an independent investigation. I remember thinking that even if I’m the only person who shows up, I’m going to be there. My wife and her family all joined. So did a reported 400,000 Israelis from all over the country (that’s 10% of the population showing up for a protest!). This was an event I could feel proud of. The ensuing investigation found that Ariel Sharon had “personal responsibility” for what had happened, but he was not even forced to leave the government. As Friedman writes, an investigation with punishments such as this “cannot be taken seriously.”

My personal crisis led me to say to my wife that I no longer wanted to stay in Israel. In 1984 we left to take up residence in the United States. (Within ten years I was to find myself involved in the deaths of 100,000s of Iraqi children that the U.S. was causing.)

The term Hama Rules is the title of a chapter in From Beirut to Jerusalem. In the Spring of 1982, Tom Friedman visited the city of Hama in Syria. It was two months after President Hafez al-Assad (father of the current Syrian president) had sent his military into the city to “put down” an uprising by the Muslim Brotherhood. Friedman writes that Amnesty International reported estimates of the deaths in Syria’s fourth-largest city ranging from 10,000 to 25,000 dead, mostly civilians.

Tom Friedman had just arrived in Beirut to begin his tour as correspondent for The New York Times. The coverage of what happened in Hama in his book is very graphic, very brutal; that chapter describes why he came to refer to the ruthless nature of conflicts in the Middle East as playing by Hama Rules.

Knowing about Hama Rules – the deliberate killing of 10,000 to 25,000 mostly civilians in Hama – was on my mind when I went to the meeting to ask Tom Friedman about the deaths of 46,900 Iraqi children, as reported in The New England Journal of Medicine in 1992.

In the practice of nonviolence, “we need imagination, a deep ability to imagine the other, sometimes to put ourselves in the skin of the other.” (That’s from Amos Oz, the Israeli author, describing a necessary virtue for peacemaking.) I can imagine, quite easily, that Thomas Friedman had never heard of the NEJM survey of almost 50,000 dead Iraqi children in 8 months. I can imagine that he was taken aback. He couldn’t admit he’d never heard of it – what if it was true. And he couldn’t admit ignorance of an event in the Middle East which had killed twice the number of civilian deaths he’d reported at Hama.

In any case, it put him in a difficult position: this was not Syria, Lebanon, or Israel playing by Hama Rules. This was the United States playing by Hama Rules. And he was by now a respected insider.

I wish that I had an audio recording of my question to Mr. Friedman that day. It would be a chance to check out the impression I’ve reported here. However I did get to ask the same question to Dan Rather when he was interviewed on a Seattle radio station. Here is his answer about whether he knew of the UNICEF report that half a million Iraqi children had died – and why was it never reported on CBS nightly news.

I do vaguely remember it, and only vaguely remember, that such a report or something similar to that was put out – I don’t remember the source of it – I do vaguely remember it. Two, how do I explain that it did not, in your judgment, get the attention that it deserved? Frankly, sir, and I appreciate your question, and I understand I think the thrust of the question, there are plenty of times when I have to say, I don’t know, and this is one of those times. I don’t know.

(If you wish, you can read the full question and answer with Dan Rather – or listen to it – at BertOnIraq.blogspot.com. Just search for “Dan Rather” on that page in two places.)

I can easily imagine that Tom Friedman and Dan Rather had never heard of the NEJM survey or knew that UNICEF had reported on the deaths of half a million children. How could they? The New York Times coverage of the UNCEF report left out that central statistic. So did the coverage of The Washington Post, The LA Times, The Wall Street Journal and 48 of the 50 newspapers listed in the media database I searched. The national TV news programs judge what’s important news by reading the major newspapers in the country.

If I had to point to one example to illustrate how badly our media fails us, it would be this. (In a recent local interview at TheCapitolHillTalks.com I discuss the media and nonviolence related to Iraq.)

Tom Friedman showed considerable courage in 1982 in telling the story of Sabra and Shatila – a story that reflected negatively on Israel. Almost 20 years later he was an established columnist, popular author, and respected insider in Washington, DC. It’s not surprising that my question about deaths of Iraqi children might have been felt as an attack, though it was not intended that way.

One could fail to understand Tom Friedman and simply condemn him. But if I try to understand him – and remember the number of ways I’ve changed my views about Israel and about America – I will act differently. I may criticize his viewpoints but not condemn him … and so not condemn myself either. I can regret his op-eds on Iraq sanctions, but I can appreciate what I believe he’s written about the reality of climate change. And I can agree with his recent op-ed dismay about current political trends in Israel.

The interesting point with Tom Friedman is that – if I’m honest – I can easily see a part of him in me. And if I judge and condemn him, I also judge and condemn myself.

That in no way should stop me from criticizing something he has written that I consider mistaken. I believe Tom Friedman is too intelligent not to realize the problem with his 2001 op-ed blaming of Saddam Hussein for the deaths of Iraqi children. He argued that if Saddam Hussein had only complied with his UN obligations they wouldn’t have died. Of course we now know that he had complied as we found out after we invaded in 2003. But is causing children’s deaths to coerce compliance of a dictator a valid justification for their deaths? Try to tell that to any parent!

The principles of Gandhian nonviolence apply not only at the personal level; they apply to effective group activism as well. I was once going to a protest at The New York Times building near Times Square in New York. A demonstration was across the street behind police barriers and protesters were shouting angrily at NYT journalists leaving the building. For my part, I’d come with copies of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer 1999 8-page Special Report on Iraq. I walked across the street and spoke with several NYT’s journalists, talking calmly to them and giving them copies of that report from the P-I. I believe that my action was more nonviolent and more likely to have a positive effect.

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