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PBS Ombudsman

Moyers Reflects, Viewers React

At the close of the weekly Bill Moyers Journal last Friday evening (Jan. 9), the host of that usually stimulating and frequently provocative program reflected on the continuing violence in Gaza between the forces of Israel and Hamas. He did so in an essay, accompanied with some footage from the conflict — and also with a famous still-photograph of a Vietnamese child and her family fleeing the horror of a napalm attack some 35 years ago.

Moyers often ends his program with his own commentary about the events and issues of our time. It always, in turn, attracts commentary from his many viewers — most of whom, it seems to me, applaud them as courageous, as something that needed to be said or called attention to and that was not likely to be presented elsewhere on television. His critics, on the other hand, frequently accuse him of coming at many issues unfairly, with a liberal agenda or anti-administration bias. Whatever one thinks of Moyers' program, there is nothing quite like it — where such strong editorial opinions are presented — elsewhere on PBS.

As any reader of this column knows, I have written frequently about Moyers because his program includes a mixture of journalism, interviews and opinion, and that always provokes viewers and mail to the ombudsman. In those columns I have, at times, made the point that Moyers' opinions, whether one agrees or not, tend to be fact-based. But some of the comments he offered last Friday night on the Israeli-Hamas clash were seen by a fair number of viewers as not only inflammatory but wrong, and I'm among those who question them.

The current conflict, which was two weeks old when Moyers' program aired, is brutal; a massive Israeli air and ground assault on Hamas fighters and facilities has created horrifying realities for residents of the narrow and densely populated Gaza Strip. The images and stories coming out of there are wrenching. Yet Hamas still manages to fire rockets into nearby Israeli towns, though not nearly as many as they were firing a few weeks ago.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict always stirs deep emotions. Reporting the story of this one has been hampered by Israel's unwillingness to allow western reporters inside Gaza for a more independent effort to see what is going on. Moyers' commentary last Friday was very strong and that guaranteed that it would become very controversial. There is no doubt that the Israeli response to the Hamas rocketing has come in for criticism from many quarters as disproportionate in magnitude, ferocity and in the toll it is taking on Gaza and its residents. That is a legitimate argument. But the Moyers essay went beyond that argument over proportion in two specific claims, and that's what this column is about.

Two Key Statements

If you missed it, watching the video and reading the transcript of this segment will help you make up your mind about this difficult issue better than anything else. But the two statements by Moyers that struck me, and others, as especially powerful yet explosive and factually controversial were:

1) "But brute force can turn self-defense into state terrorism. It's what the U.S. did in Vietnam, with B-52s and napalm, and again in Iraq, with shock and awe. By killing indiscriminately — the elderly, kids, entire families by destroying schools and hospitals — Israel did exactly what terrorists do and exactly what Hamas wanted. It spilled the blood that turns the wheel of retribution."

2) "What we are seeing in Gaza is the latest battle in the oldest family quarrel on record. Open your Bible: the sons of the patriarch Abraham become Arab and Jew. Go to the Book of Deuteronomy. When the ancient Israelites entered Canaan their leaders urged violence against its inhabitants. The very Moses who had brought down the commandment 'Thou shalt not kill' now proclaimed, 'You must destroy completely all the places where the nations have served their gods. You must tear down their altars, smash their pillars, cut down their sacred poles, set fire to the carved images of their gods, and wipe out their name from that place.' So God-soaked violence became genetically coded. A radical stream of Islam now seeks to eliminate Israel from the face of the earth. Israel misses no opportunity to humiliate the Palestinians with checkpoints, concrete walls, routine insults, and the onslaught in Gaza."

These observations were within a skillfully prepared commentary and when you read or listen to the whole thing you will see that Moyers refers to rockets launched by "Hamas terrorists," says that Israel is no exception to every nation's right to defend itself, and that "a radical stream of Islam now seeks to eliminate Israel from the face of the earth." Nevertheless, the main villain of this piece is Israel, and to a lesser extent, its U.S. ally. That's okay. This is Moyers' opinion and it is his program.

'Killing Indiscriminately'

In the first citation, it is the flat statement that Israeli forces are "killing indiscriminately" that is obviously inflammatory, but also questionable. There is no evidence cited that would clearly support such a charge, which carries with it a severe moral judgment against Israel. When I messaged Moyers to ask what is his support for such a statement, the answer I got was, "The judgment of a veteran observer who has been spending hours reading and watching scores of reports from Gaza in print, on the web, and on television." That was it. So I assume, perhaps wrongly, that the source/observer was Moyers. With all due respect, I don't think that's good enough.

Moyers did refer in the program to a widely publicized attack on Jan. 6 in which, he reports, "Israeli tank fire killed and injured scores at a UN school in Gaza." That was indeed a terrible scene, killing more than 40 people. But the circumstances of what caused the attack, which apparently was mortar fire, are still uncertain and being looked into by the Israeli military while the UN has called for an independent investigation.

I'll offer another widely reported episode that seems to symbolize the problems, and moral dilemmas, inherent in carrying out and thinking about military attacks in an urban area against a guerrilla-style force that operates within such an area. On Jan. 1, an Israeli warplane dropped a 2,000-pound bomb — in case you don't know it, that is a BIG bomb — on the home of one of Hamas' top five decision-makers, according to the Associated Press that day, instantly killing him in addition to four of his wives and nine of his 12 children. The leader, Nizar Rayan, AP reported, was known for participating in clashes with Israeli forces and for sending one of his sons on a 2001 suicide mission that killed two Israelis.

Now, was dropping that bomb "killing indiscriminately"? You can argue about it. But Moyers states what is happening more broadly as fact. If the U.S. knew that Osama bin Laden or one of his top commanders was in a house with 16 family members, would dropping a big bomb on that house be labeled "killing indiscriminately"?

Among those taking issue with Moyers' commentary was Abraham H. Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League. Several days after the broadcast, Foxman, on Jan. 13, wrote a strongly worded and highly critical letter to Moyers. Moyers fired back the next day with an also strongly worded response, accusing Foxman of making several errors. This is recommended reading if you want to feel the full force of argument on these issues. I also mention this exchange at this point because, in his response to Foxman, Moyers refers to another deadly attack which took place on Jan. 5 but was not mentioned in the program.

In his letter to Foxman, Moyers writes: "Earlier this week it was widely reported that the International Red Cross 'was so outraged it broke its usual silence over an attack in which the Israeli army herded a Palestinian family into a building and then shelled it, killing 30 people and leaving the surviving children clinging to the bodies of their dead mothers. The army prevented rescuers from searching for the survivors for four days.'"

This quote is from a column in London's Observer newspaper on Jan. 11, after the Moyers program had aired, and there is no reference in the original letter to Foxman about where or when the article appeared. The quote refers to a horrific story in which 30 people died in the shelling of a family compound several days earlier, and which did receive wide coverage. In the New York Times story, for example, Red Cross officials were, indeed, sharply critical of the Israeli military, especially for the failure "to meet its obligation under international humanitarian law to care for and evacuate the wounded" for days after the attack. But a UN agency spokesman is also quoted in that story as saying her agency was reserving judgment for now about who was responsible for the deaths and Israeli officials said that the evidence had not yet been presented to the army about "these very serious allegations," adding that "we do our utmost to avoid hitting civilians."

'Genetically Coded'

In the second instance, the one about what's in the genes, Moyers is careful to include both sides, but the thrust of the overall piece is critical of Israel and the idea that "God-soaked violence" is somehow "coded" into the genes of Israelis and their enemies is something that is not only unscientific but feeds terrible stereotypes, and that also is — Bible citations not withstanding — a departure from Moyers' standards, in my view.

The issue in this column is not coverage, or taking sides in a tragic struggle that has gone on in various forms for 60 years. For Israelis, it is intolerable to have rockets rain down on nearby towns, creating terror and havoc even if the death toll is very low. For civilian residents of Gaza, their long, wretched, sealed-off existence, decades of occupation, daily humiliations and continued Israeli control of most access is also a form of terror that, to some, demands resistance at any price.

It is a legitimate question, as I said earlier, as to whether Israeli military actions in this more than two-week-old offensive are disproportionate — in their dimensions and toll — to the Hamas rocket firings. In my opinion, they are disproportionate. I felt the same way about the Israeli response to provocations from Hezbollah in Lebanon in 2006. But "killing indiscriminately" takes things further, as does "genetically coded" violence, and it is important for influential voices with a public platform to take special care in how these separate concepts are addressed.

Aside from the exchange with Foxman, the Moyers "Talk Back" blog has hundreds of letters from viewers reacting to last Friday's closing commentary and is well worth reading if you wish to pursue this issue. The majority of them are supportive of Moyers' observations, but a substantial number are also sharply critical. I received far fewer letters than did the Journal and, as is natural, most of the letters to the ombudsman on most matters are critical.

What follows is a sampling of the letters to me on the two points raised in this column. At the end of this sampling, I've also included several viewer comments on these points that appear on the Moyers Blog.

Here Are the Letters

Last Friday I could hardly believe my ears when Bill Moyers stated that Jews were genetically programmed to violence. The actual quote from the transcript is "What we are seeing in Gaza is the latest battle in the oldest family quarrel on record . . . So God-soaked violence became genetically coded." Does this not imply that I as a Jew am genetically violent? I do not think PBS should be a source of anti-Semitism. I am sure you will agree. I would like to see Bill Moyers issue an apology, or be removed from PBS.

Milton Taylor, Bloomington, IN

Sir: I have great respect for Mr. Moyers but his comments about the use of killing as a deliberate break in the commandments given to Moses are misleading and an inaccurate translation. Killing was never outlawed by the God of Moses; the commandment is the ruling against murder. I'm not happy about Gaza either but what would you have the Israelis do, Mr. Moyers? Who started this conflict? Did Hamas seek a peaceable approach? Why do you require more from Jews than from other peoples? What would we do here in the US if a terrorist group situated on the Canadian border started to bomb New York City?

Bettylene W. Franzus, Johnson City, TN

Bill Moyers Journal on Friday, January 9th, was the sanest, most balanced commentary on the Israeli incursion into Gaza yet seen on TV or in the press. The completely disproportionate response by Israel borders on terrorism itself. 600 people killed (half civilians) in three weeks! This compares to a total of 21 Israelis killed by Hamas rockets in seven YEARS! Talk about disproportion!! And not to mention the on-going humiliation of Gazans daily, the deprivation of basic goods!

John Blaney, New York City, NY

I am writing to let you know that in my opinion Bill Moyers' editorial about the Israelis and the Palestinians on PBS on Friday, Jan. 9, 2009, should not have been aired. I have been a KCET member for more than 30 years. I have been a huge fan of many of the programs and have received much pleasure from these programs. I have even put KCET in my will. I rely on KCET to be even-handed in its reporting.

When I heard Bill Moyers' slanted, arrogant, angry, judgmental and unreasoned comments against Israel that evening, I was shocked. I physically stood up from the couch and backed away from the television, almost to shield myself from the pain he was causing me. There are very few Israelis, or anyone else for that matter, who are happy to see innocent Palestinians be hurt or killed. Clearly, the Israelis would prefer not to be in a war. But what are they supposed to do? How else are they going to prevent the Hamas militants from indiscriminately lobbing missiles at their civilian population? Do you have any ideas?

Judy Krieger, Somis, CA

I know that I'm prejudiced, but when I watched the Moyers Report tonight, I wondered what he expected the Israelis to do when they are bombed from Gaza — should they just allow the bombs to kill them without responding?

Riverdale, NY

According to CNN, Hamas uses civilian infrastructure, including schools, houses, kindergarten facilities, hospitals, for storing and launching rockets and other ammunition, placing training camps inside populated areas in violation of Geneva Convention and international law.

From 2000 to 2008, Hamas launched more than 5,000 Qassam rockets and 2,500 mortar attacks against Israeli targets. Hamas was responsible for killing hundreds of Israelis and wounding more thousands, according to the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs. In 01/09/2009 Moyers Journal show, Mr. Moyers attacked Israel for war on Hamas and accused Israel in death of civilians . . . Mr. Moyers showed that he is profoundly ignorant person and has no knowledge whatsoever on the subject . . . This is absolutely unacceptable.

Mark Bernadiner, Pearland, TX

Bill Moyers on his 1-9-09 Journal program chastised Israel for its actions in the Gaza war. Both sides are at fault and both sides bear responsibility for casualties. Opinion leaders like Bill Moyers should be more even-handed in holding both Israel and Hamas to account for this war. Peace will only come when both sides own their own responsibilities for the conflict, and both sides are prepared to work toward accommodation. Peace will not come to the Middle East until world opinion and world leaders stop taking sides and insist on full faith negotiation by Israel, Hamas, and all other parties contributing to this tragedy.

Richard Bingham, South Hero, VT

From the 'Moyers Blog'

Not until I was lucky enough to leave Germany in 1939 did I hear such unvarnished racism as I did by Bill Moyers. "The God-soaked violence became genetically coded" is an abysmal, unscientific comment not worthy of a program on PBS.

Hannah Eisner

You accused Israel of "killing indiscriminately" the people of Gaza. Do you not believe that Israel is targeting Hamas militants? Do you believe Israel hitting the UN school was deliberate, any more than the friendly fire killing of their own soldiers? And do you really think Israel's mostly secular leaders are basing their strategy on the Book of Deuteronomy? You also overstate Hamas's guilt. Killing all the Jews of Israel is not their goal. It's merely a strategy towards their goal of replacing both Israel and the PA with a Shari'ah-based regime.

David Feinberg

How unfortunate that Mr. Moyers — who I respect and admire — has, quite frankly, lied. Claiming that Israel is indiscriminately killing Palestinians is simply incorrect. Like any civilized person, I am horrified by war, and by the deaths of innocents. The IDF is fighting in one of the most densely populated urban areas in the world. They are fighting against an enemy who love civilian casualites, and will hide their weapons and fighters in populated areas for the express purpose of eliciting the exact reaction that Mr. Moyers and other liberals are displaying. Israel is not at fault when a terrorist organization like Hamas purposefully uses innocent human beings as shields. I would respectfully suggest that Mr. Moyers and other breathless, outraged leftists review the differences between objective and subjective moral culpability. This is a sad day for the Journal, one of the only shows I actually make time to watch each week.

Michael Cremin

On the Other Hand

I knew you had courage to speak out on many issues and you are a breath of fresh air amidst the terrible reporting on television and radio. However, your comments on the middle east were so well stated, and, as a Jew, I knew you would be accused of anti-semitism, because so have I for holding the same views as you!! There was NOTHING anti-semitic in your comments. But, it seems, that the attitude is prevalent among most Jewish Americans that if you aren't rabidly pro-Israel (right or wrong) then one is anti-semitic. That "card" is being played too frequently and loosely and will someday backfire when a truly anti-semitic remark is made by someone.

Please keep up the excellent work you do and I salute you for your continued honesty and bravery in presenting us, the viewing public, with the high excellence of journalism that should be the standard!


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