Noted author, journalist and book critic Richard Bernstein addressed the controversial topic of whether or not the growing anti-Semitic movement in Europe and the Middle East is a rumor or truth in a lecture last Tuesday.
In a talk sprinkled with insight from a 20-year career at The New York Times, Bernstein spoke about the media’s portrayal of Israel and focused first on press coverage of Israel’s attack last April on the Palestinian city of Jenin.
A ban on journalists in the city at that time, Bernstein said, “was widely interpreted as evidence that the Israelis were covering up their crimes by not allowing journalists to be there.”
“There was a frenzy of reporting in the European press of a so-called ‘massacre’,” he said, citing references in prominent British and French newspapers to war crimes, inflated figures of civilian casualties, and suggestions of Israeli academic boycotts.
He compared this negative portrayal of Israel to that of Russia in the conflict in Chechnya, but said that “the rage that the Israeli action aroused in the European press and in various other corners around the world including the United States was way in excess of anything that the Russians in Chechnya provoked.”
He spoke about the infamous “Zionism is Racism” resolution in the United Nations, which he said illustrated a “singling-out of Israel for a special kind of criticism, a kind of elevation to the level of the worst offender in the world.”
Primarily, Bernstein concentrated on the arguments for and against the resurgence of anti-Semitism. Despite many other aggressors today, he said, “I think it’s a fair statement that Israel occupies the number one slot as international evildoer.”
According to Bernstein, the question of whether of not this is anti-Semitism can be answered in three ways. As evidence that anti-Semitism does exist, Bernstein made reference to what some critics say is a “blatant double standard.”
He alluded to the “special rage” that Israel seems to induce in the media and academic world, using a rumor that the Jewish community may have know about the Sept. 11 attacks before they happened as an example. (The suspicion was aroused by a dubious rumor that 4,000 Jews failed to show up for work that day.)
“To me, this echoed the old, mainstream, anti-Semitic notion that Jews are a devious, very intelligent, dominating, devious, unscrupulous people who control things from behind the scenes,” Bernstein said.
On the opposite side, Bernstein said, “Where do you draw the line between a criticism that becomes anti-Semitism and a criticism that’s legitimate?”
“Even if you’re a die-hard Israeli supporter and you think everything that Israel does is right and justified, you still have to agree that some criticism of Israel, one, might even be justified, and two, would certainly not be anti-Semitic.”
Bernstein also presented a third option, calling for a re-defining of the word “anti-Semitism.”
“I think that if there is Jew hatred in the present or in the future, it’s going to take a somewhat different form,” he said. “Rather than use a word that is loaded precisely because it has been around for 150 years or so, and because it does reflect an unprecedented ugliness, that a different word would add precision to the debate.”
During a question-and-answer session, Bernstein addressed questions concerning anti-Jewish sentiment in the United States.
“[In the U.S.], the last 50 years have seen a de-legitimization of racism and discrimination quite remarkable progress in creating this society and living up to our values,” he said. “People really do believe in our values. They really do take the words of the founding fathers seriously.”
“I think that one of the really remarkable things about this country and why I love it and am patriotic, is that through all of our faults, we’ve really resisted the kind of organized hatred that is so common in European history.”
To questions concerning his proposition of renaming anti-Semitism, he said, “By suggesting that we have a new word, I’m not suggesting that we treat it light-heartedly, or as a less significant problem.”
Before becoming a daily book critic for the New York Times, Bernstein served as the first Beijing bureau chief for Time magazine, and as bureau chief for the Times at the United Nations and in France.
Bernstein described his experience: “Some people want to be foreign correspondents forever, and every once in a while, my pulse quickens with that thought also.”
But he feels his current field of work better suits his persona. “I like being a critic,” he said. “I like having my own voice. I like being able to express my opinions and I like not having to deal with journalistic neutrality.”
Bernstein has written a number of books, several of which integrate his comprehensive knowledge in Asian Studies into their subjects. His latest, written with the staff of the Times, is titled Out of the Blue, and incorporates the Times’ Pulitzer Prize-winning coverage of the Sept. 11 attacks.
Bernstein’s lecture was made possible by support from the Gaudino Memorial Fund, co-sponsored with the Bronfman Advisory Committee and the Jewish Religious Center.