Stifling a Campus Newspaper's Criticism of Israel: A Case Study

By Amy Harmon and Caleb Southworth

Originally published in the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs , April 1989

Carrying signs demanding "Stop Jew Baiting" and chanting "Print truth, not slander," more than 200 students held a Feb. 21 protest rally in front of the Michigan Daily, the student newspaper at the University of Michigan's Ann Arbor campus. The rally, already well publicized within the Jewish community, was covered with both a story and a photo by The New York Times and elicited a series of statements by university officials.

The allegations of "Jew baiting" and "slander" by Zionist student protesters were based upon three Michigan Daily editorials focused upon Israeli anti-Arab racism. By turning a legitimate editorial attack on anti-Arab racism into allegations of anti-Semitism, the protesters and their supporters in off campus media contributed to bigotry on campus, rather than addressing it.

Citing passages from the three editorials, the protesters claimed that the newspaper was anti-Jewish and that "the Michigan Daily's editorial board has brought shame upon the entire newspaper and university community, and has contributed to an atmosphere of bigotry toward Jews at the University of Michigan."

Criticism of Israel Challenged

The first editorial the Zionists criticized was printed Nov. 1, 1988. It argued that whether Israel, an exclusive theocracy, banned a racist extremist like Rabbi Meir Kahane from holding public office made little difference as long as Israel continued to seize Palestinian land and abrogate Palestinian rights. Yitzhak Shamir still believes that the Palestinians should be crushed like grasshoppers and there is no talk of making Israel into a democracy, the editorial charged.

In the flier distributed at the rally, the Zionist students held that: "The Michigan Daily editorial page upholds the legitimacy of national self-determination for every group except one —the Jews. The Daily's position that any Jewish state is inherently racist and illegitimate must be seen for precisely what it is: anti-Jewish."

The second editorial, "Ethiopians Exploited," argued on Jan. 23, 1989, that though efforts to assuage Ethiopians' suffering are necessary, the Israeli government's relocation of Ethiopian Jews to Israel was based on other than humanitarian motives. It juxtaposed Israel's use of the "Law of Return" to increase the Jewish population and to create permanent Jewish settlements in the occupied territories with its policy of denying Palestinians living outside of Israel and the occupied territories the right to return to their homeland. The editorial stated: "The solution [to Ethiopian suffering] lies not in the transfer of a fraction of Ethiopia's population to another part of the world, but in a comprehensive plan to end the brutal civil war, and feed and shelter its victimized people." Based upon this editorial, the Zionist protesters charged that "For the Daily editorial board, while Palestinian suffering matters, Jewish suffering does not."

The third editorial the demonstrators charged with anti-Jewishness was printed Feb. 14 under the headline "Up in the Air." It concerned media coverage of the destruction of Pan Am Flight 103. It criticized CBS News for perpetuating the stereotype of an "Arab terrorist" and, by citing anonymous sources and circumstantial evidence, attributing the Pan Am disaster to a radical faction of the PLO. The Michigan Daily editorial showed that by using similar circumstantial evidence and the same investigative method speculation it would be just as easy to blame Israel for the bombing. The purpose of the editorial was to demonstrate that where the Palestinian-Israeli dispute is concerned, the US media applies a double standard. The protesters charged the paper with "an outrageous and unsupported assertion that Israel was responsible for the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103."

In response to all three of the editorials, Zionist organizations launched letter-writing campaigns, threatened advertising pressure, and sent representatives to public editorial board meetings. They also mobilized two radio stations and seven newspapers to cover their protests. From the start, local and national media framed the protest in the same context as did its organizers, equating criticism of Israel with criticism of Jews.

In an article in the Detroit Jewish News on Feb. 3, Richard Lobenthal, the Michigan director of the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith, charged the Daily with contributing to a "horrendous climate for Jews at U-M." To support his accusations of anti-Semitism, Lobenthal did not cite criticism of Jews, but instead the Daily's "deliberate, conscious policy to attack Israel."

On the day of the protest rally, The Detroit Free Press published a preview article headlined "U-M student group accuses Daily of 'anti-Jewish' editorials," which served to announce the event and attribute it to "a student group," even though the reporter later admitted the group had no name or articles of incorporation and was merely an ad hoc committee.

A third publication which worked with the Zionist groups to generate support for the protest was the Washtenaw Jewish News (WJN). With a deadline a full three weeks before the protest, WJN's March issue contained an "open forum" headlined "What's Wrong with The Michigan Daily?" The "open forum" was, however, totally closed. Participants were two organizers of the protest and one of the speakers. No one represented the Michigan Daily's point of view. All of the participants sought to link the Daily's criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism. The conclusion of the WJN forum was a call "to bring major student pressure to bear on the Daily to hold it accountable for its journalistic irresponsibility."

By turning a legitimate editorial attack on anti-Arab racism into allegations of anti-Semitism, the protesters and their supporters in off-campus media contributed to bigotry on campus, rather than addressing it.

Similarly, in a Feb. 10 Cleveland Jewish News editorial, editor Cynthia Dettelbach called for action against the Michigan Daily's "pro-Palestinian editorial stance" adding: "For those on campus, it means writing letters, attending rallies and meetings, contacting opinion makers, and speaking out."

The image the media presented of the protest was distinctly pro-Israel and hostile to the Daily. Newspapers and the local radio stations directly compared the anti-Jewishness supposedly implicit in criticizing Israel's right to exist where and how it does with racist incidents, and the pro-Zionist protest with anti-racist protests.

The media response played into the hands of the protest organizers, whose purpose was to generate enough flak so that the Daily would drop its support for Palestine under the fire of anti-Semitism. The Detroit News, after covering the entire protest, chose to print only a picture of angry students holding up signs proclaiming "Daily Editorials ARE Anti-Jewish. " Only one newspaper, the Ann Arbor News, mentioned the United Coalition Against Racism's support for the Daily's positions: "We do not view the Daily's criticisms of Israel's policies as either racist or anti-Semitic. " UCAR is the leader of the anti-racist movement at University of Michigan.

Hostility was carried well beyond exaggeration or omitting facts in the interview between a "Daily Opinion Page" editor and Detroit radio station WWJ. The talk show host began with an attempt to link criticism of Israel with racist incidents on campus. "The U of M campus over the past year or so has struggled occasionally with racial tension. Now the university finds itself embroiled in a controversy over anti-Israel editorials." Challenged again about the Daily's criticism of CBS News coverage of the Pan Am disaster, the editor explained that the editorial was about speculation. The host defended the network:

"We talked to the CBS reporter in London, as a matter of fact, when they broke that story," he said. "They based that on their investigative reports. . . " When asked what proof CBS provided, however, the host backtracked, "They [CBS] are not in the business of the FBI. . . " He concluded the broadcast by echoing the protesters' attempt to link criticism of Israeli policies with anti-Semitism. "It is apparently... that the editorials have gone too far and that it's now something more than a look at both sides of the issue. You're lending an element of anti-Semitism here."

While media coverage misled the community into believing the editorial board is anti-Semitic, there have also been attempts to restructure the editorial board. Currently, the entire newspaper is represented by an editorial system which holds regular meetings that all staff writers can attend, to voice their opinions, make proposals, and vote for the editorials. Various modifications of the editorial board have been suggested: have signed editorials for individual accountability or dissolve the editorial staff and concentrate the power to determine editorial positions in the hands of a few. This might result in pro-Israel editorials, but more likely the Middle East would simply not be discussed, an acceptable outcome for those wishing to end criticism of Zionist policies.

Seen in the context of a media smear campaign, internal pressure to restructure—including purging key advocates of Palestinian rights—and the false charges of anti-Semitism, it is clear that the attacks on the Daily are not a spontaneous response to anti-Jewish rhetoric. Rather, they are a coordinated attempt to stop criticism of the policies of the Israeli state.

Newspapers and local radio stations directly compared the anti-Jewishness supposedly implicit in criticizing Israel's right to exist where and how it does with racist incidents, and the pro-Zionist protest with anti-racist protests.

Recent statements by the administration indicate that the campaign is working to some degree. University Vice President for Student Affairs Henry Johnson was quoted in The New York Times as saying, "No good can come of these editorials, and we don't like them." An Ann Arbor Hillel leader admitted that much of the organizing for the protest had taken place at Hillel, and that "there have been discussions with the administration."

On March 7, University President James Duderstadt sent a letter to the Daily urging it to be more "sensitive" in its expression of its opinions. "The University of Michigan is proud to have a student newspaper whose masthead can proclaim a 99-year tradition of independence. With that independence, however, comes the traditional responsibility of the press in a free society to report the news accurately and thoroughly... recent incidents have made me feel it is important to state once again that racism, anti-Semitism, an all other forms of bigotry have no place at the university or anywhere else.'

Presumably, criticism of Israeli policies, questioning Israel's right to exist as it currently does, and angering Zionists do not fall under Duderstadt's definition of the "responsibility of the free press... to report the news accurately and thoroughly." Though the university administration has so far adhered to anti-censorship rhetoric, its record on stifling independent student voices belies its claims. The administration has already taken steps to control the two student-run radio stations, WCBN and WJJX, on the pretext of monitoring them for racism. The university regents also recently installed a faculty adviser with editorial control at the student paper at the University of Michigan's Dearborn campus.

Whether or not Zionists on campus and in the community are successful in their attempt to silence the Daily's criticism of Israel and its defense of the Palestinian right to self-determination, they have certainly succeeded in confusing the issues of anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism. One is an attack on a group of people; the other criticism of a state. Zionists have a right to disagree with the Daily's opinions, but their ongoing mobilization to stop the Daily from expressing its views by consciously confusing two distinctly different issues jeopardizes the paper's freedom and independence.