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Elliot Leven

ADL out to lunch - Time magazine not anti-Semitic

By Elliot Leven, November 29, 2010

I am always amazed by the way foolish people manage to misinterpret the written word.  For example, there are some who allege that Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn is racist because it uses the “n” word.  In fact, Twain’s brilliant novel is the opposite of racist.  The main black character is portrayed as virtuous, and those who hate him because of his skin colour are portrayed as villains.

In mid-September, Time magazine ran a human-interest article about modern Israeli life, called “The Good Life And Its Dangers”.  In general, the article is highly flattering to Israel. 

The article describes Israel as a land of pleasant weather, creative people, and entrepreneurial excellence.  “A restless culture of innovation coupled with the number of brainiacs among the 1 million immigrants who arrived from the former Soviet Union in the 1990s has made Israel a locus for high-tech research and development, its whiz kids leapfrogging the difficult geography to thrive in virtual community with Silicon Valley.”

The article also refers to Israeli public opinion. In a March poll, Israelis were asked to name the “most urgent problem” facing Israel.  Just 8% named the Palestinian conflict, putting this problem fifth behind education, crime, national security and poverty.

The article also quotes various Jewish Israelis on the subject of the Palestinian conflict and politics in general.  For example, political scientist Tamar Hermann, who has measured Israeli public opinion since 1994, observes that Israelis watch less news and read less political news than they used to.

An Israeli condominium salesman named Heli is quoted as saying that people in Israel don’t care if there’s going to be war or peace – “they live in the day.”  The cosmopolitan city of Tel Aviv is described as a “bubble”, many of whose residents try to focus their attention of daily life rather than on great issues of war and peace.

The photos that accompany the article show Israeli beach, restaurant and street scenes. There is one photo of part of the Israeli security barrier being dismantled near the village of Beit Jala.

In short, the article does not purport to be a summary of Israeli history or an analysis of the Middle Eastern conflict.  It is mostly a human-interest article about a people who have fought many battles in the past, and now generally “live in the day”. Like most human-interest articles, it is a bit arbitrary and superficial.  It is not a particularly profound article, but it does give readers some insight into the mindset of some ordinary Israelis today.

Enter the Anti Defamation League (ADL) – the American Jewish organization committed to fighting anti-Semitism.

The ADL pounced on one line in the article – a comment that Israelis are no longer preoccupied with Palestinian peace talks. “They’re otherwise engaged; they’re making money; they’re enjoying the rays of late summer…”

In a letter to Time’s managing editor, ADL chief Abraham Foxman demanded that Time issue an apology to readers.  Mr. Foxman wrote: “The insidious subtext of Israeli Jews being obsessed with money echoes the age-old anti-Semitic falsehood that Jews care about money above any other interest, in this case achieving peace with the Palestinians.”

It is hard to believe that Mr. Foxman even read the article!  In any event, no objective reader could find the article to be anti-Semitic.

It is true that there is an old anti-Semitic stereotype about Jews being too focused on money.  It is also true that the article contained one line about Israeli Jews making money and enjoying the rays of the late summer sun.

However, that tenuous connection is hardly enough to justify the ADL’s inflamed and hysterical reaction.

Firstly, readers of Time will know that the magazine generally applauds entrepreneurs.  In general, Time considers making money to be a positive, rather than a negative pursuit.

Secondly, as the article correctly points out, Israel does have a robust entrepreneurial culture, of which it should be very proud.

Thirdly, the public opinion poll quoted in the article is likely accurate.  Most Israelis (like most people everywhere) probably do spend more time thinking about mundane concerns than about long-term issues (such as the Palestinian conflict).

The article could be faulted for being superficial.  The condominium salesman quoted in the article gave good quotable quotes, but was just one man.  The article ignored those Israelis who live in poverty.  Their daily concerns are different from those of condominium salesmen.  Even the passing positive comments about the weather were not completely objective (most people would find the summer weather in Tel Aviv to be unpleasantly hot and humid).

Superficial yes, but anti-Semitic? No way!  Jewish entrepreneurs (like their non-Jewish colleagues) like to make money.  There are many Jewish entrepreneurs in Israel.  No magazine, particularly a pro-entrepreneurial magazine like Time, should be afraid to report that some Israelis focus more on mundane pursuits like making money and enjoying nice weather than on abstract issues like peace negotiations. Particularly in the context of an article that is generally flattering to Israel.

The ADL has done wonderful work in the past.  Vile and appalling anti-Semitism still exists in our world.  The ADL should focus its energy on fighting against real bigotry, rather than scouring harmless human-interest articles for non-existent anti-Semitism.

Editor's Note: I think there are some disturbing aspects to the TIME Magazine piece but  I haven't had  TIME to respond to Mr. Leven. However,  I think it may be time for the  ADL to take Mr. Leven out for lunch.  My response will follow, hopefully, sooner than later--the debate is timeless in any event.

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