George Pyle: Battle of demonizers solves nothing in a violent Middle East

It’s OK to attack Israel. It’s OK to defend it. But escalating war of words solves nothing.

Mourners wave flags while the body of Palestinian journalist Ahmed Abu Hussein, who died after being shot by Israeli troops while covering a border protest, is carried during his funeral in the Jebaliya refugee camp, Gaza Strip, Thursday, April 26, 2018. (AP Photo/Adel Hana)

Were I the kind of person who was likely to see worldwide cabals and conspiracies, I would have taken a sad kind of I-told-you-so pleasure in seeing my email inbox — and those of my various superiors — fill with angry messages lambasting The Tribune for publishing an opinion seen by many as a scurrilous, bigoted rant against all the Jews of the world.

In last Sunday’s print Opinion section, and on our website, we ran a commentary by a local guy by the name of Michael S. Robinson under the headline, “We are partnered with the wrong side in the Middle East.

Robinson used some particularly harsh language to attack the conduct of the government of the nation of Israel and, by extension, Jewish people generally, for their treatment of Palestinians who live in Gaza.

He also charged that the current leader of Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, egged the Trump administration into pulling the United States out of the multi-national agreement that was to stop Iran from building nuclear weapons. Robinson is among those who fear a repeat of what happened when Israel favored the disastrous U.S. invasion of Iraq.

“I hate Israel,” Robinson wrote, “ not, of course, its many innocent citizens, but its inhumane and murderous government.”

As he went along, though, Robinson’s separation of a government in power, always a fair target for criticism, from the Jewish people generally, crumbled.

He pulled no punches. Robinson compared what he sees as Israel’s clinging to the suffering of the Holocaust to excuse cruel behavior by the Jewish nation today to an overly sensitive child still crying two weeks after suffering “a nasty owie.” He blamed “the Jews” and “the U.S. Jewish lobby” for influencing U.S. policy in a direction he thinks unfair, if not downright murderous.

After a couple of days of silence, the objections started rolling in. From all over the country, angry and accusing emails labeling Robinson’s piece virulent anti-Semitism, and accusing The Tribune of, obviously, sharing those views because, otherwise, we wouldn’t have printed them. Even though that’s not how newspapers work.

Many of these good people demanded that the article be deleted from The Tribune’s website — though that’s not the way newspapers work, either — and that we issue an apology.

A little googling led to a post on the website of the pro-Israel organization called CAMERA — Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America. Wednesday it posted on its website an article headlined, “Salt Lake Tribune Op-Ed fits EU definition of anti-Semitism.”

I would quibble with that title and much of the focus of that article. Questioning the behavior of a civil government, no matter its religious leanings, is always in bounds. Robinson did not seek violence against Jews or suggest that they be stripped of their human rights. He did not deny or excuse the Holocaust.

He did not deny Jews their humanity. Rather, he accused them, with an excessively broad brush, of exhibiting that most human of traits, the double standard. Of living and governing as if things that are a crime when done by others are an inalienable right when done by your side.

Robinson did, in the eyes of many, step over the line by using phrases such as “the Jews” to suggest that all Jews everywhere share the blame when a nation founded by and for Jews does something bad.

Of course there is such a thing as the U.S. Jewish lobby, just as there is such a thing as the Cuban expat lobby and the Mexican immigrant lobby and the Iowa corn farmers lobby. There’s naught wrong with any of that. Attacking the expression as some kind of hate speech only makes such an interest group sound nefarious, when it clearly is not.

Still, Robinson’s sloppy reasoning sewed the seeds of its own defeat. In the 60 or so emails we received in the last few days, Robinson’s clumsy words criticizing all Jews for the behavior of a few, or even many, took the focus away from any reasoned analysis of the most recent rounds of violence in Gaza.

Those same events led to a The New York Times editorial calling for an investigation. They will likely be added to the critical reports filed in past years by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, which have found much fault in the actions of both Israel and Hamas.

Many of the comments I received dehumanize Palestinians, labeling them all terrorists and violent Jew-haters, in the same awful way that true anti-Semites work to de-humanize their targets.

I don’t know how to end this. So often when one person on one side tries to make peace with the other side, people on his own side will kill him — Yitzhak Rabin, Anwar Sadat, Gandhi. Sustained power, on both sides, comes from sustaining the division, focusing all the blame on the other guys, allowing no self-reflection on your own side.

It’s OK to attack Israel. It’s OK to defend it. But, at least in my small corner of all this, the argument generates a lot more heat than light.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Tribune staff. George Pyle.

George Pyle, The Tribune’s editorial page editor, would very much like to hear from someone who is happy about something. gpyle@sltrib.com