The Mailbag: Smiley and Guest Draw Strong Criticism

Last Updated by Michael Getler on

On Thursday evening, Feb. 2, PBS talk show host Tavis Smiley had as his guest Miko Peled, an Israeli-American, born in Jerusalem, who is a well-known and very controversial critic of not only many Israeli government policies but also what he calls “this mythical narrative” of Israel’s founding principles and history. He is also the son of an influential Israeli general and grandson of one of the signers of the Israeli Declaration of Independence, and the author of a widely reviewed and discussed book titled, “The General’s Son: Journey of an Israeli in Palestine.” So, he is an interesting guest.

Smiley’s weekly program runs for 30 minutes. About 13 minutes went to the interview with Peled. Then there was an 11-minute interview with Rabbi Steve Leder, the Senior Rabbi of the large Wilshire Boulevard Temple in Los Angeles.

The interview with Peled produced a couple dozen emails to my office, all of them sharply critical of Peled, and of Smiley for what these writers felt were Peled’s falsehood-filled assaults on Jewish history and Israeli democracy and Smiley’s failure to aggressively challenge his guest and his assertions. There was also criticism that what some saw as an apparent effort to introduce some balance by having Rabbi Leder as a second guest was also a failure.

Videos, Emails and Some Thoughts of Mine

Below are videos of the Smiley interviews, first with Peled and then with Rabbi Leder. My recommendation, if you have not seen them, is to watch them and form your own judgments about their value. And below that are some of the emails from angry viewers that reflect a representative sampling of what was said.  

Some Background and Thoughts

First, some brief background and thoughts. As noted, the Smiley program aired on Feb. 2. The first emails began arriving in my mailbox on Feb. 10. So, the critical response, indeed any response, did not happen immediately and actually took more than a week. That usually implies that someone or some organization, after the fact, called attention to the broadcast, and that appears to be what happened.

On Feb. 10, the Boston-based, pro-Israel media watch group CAMERA, which stands for Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America, sent out an “action alert” to its subscribers with a detailed critique of Peled’s and Smiley’s performances and a suggestion that they write to Smiley, to their local PBS affiliate, and to me. That has happened many times before. It does not mean that the critique is right or wrong or not useful but it does at least suggest that many of those who wrote had never actually seen the interviews until alerted by CAMERA, or may only have seen the CAMERA critique and not the actual interviews.

A slightly shortened version—without the “action items” subscribers could take—of the “action alert” did not appear on the CAMERA website until Feb. 13. But, with the help of my able new assistant, Jeremy Barr, we are able to post the original version here so readers can see the full breadth of the CAMERA critiques.

Smiley’s Role

As for Smiley, I thought he handled both interviews in a straight-forward manner. Could he have challenged Peled more? Sure. And he could have bounced some of Peled's most controversial assertions off on his follow-up guest, Rabbi Leder, which Smiley did not do. 

Peled has said some truly harsh and questionable things about Israel. But he also has a fascinating background and there are, indeed, a significant number of people who have sharply critical views of some Israeli policies. And, it is important for public television, in my view, to present controversial views, along with some context. The argument is whether there was enough challenge in a 13-minute interview.

I’m not going to try sort out the endless Israeli-Palestinian dispute here. Peled clearly was allowed plenty of airtime to make his case. But the tone here was that of an interview that had a lot of elements, rather than a confrontation; part based on his book and family history, part revisionist history, part on the one-state, two-state solution possibilities, and part on the differences between anti-Israeli policy and anti-Semitism.

Smiley did push back some, politely, when Peled said he believed there was no need for a Jewish state, and later by asking Peled, “Why are Jews not entitled to their own homeland, to their own state, to their own borders?” At another point, Smiley asked: “How do you deal with — I suspect there will be some who will do this tonight as a result of seeing you on this program. How do you handle when you are called an anti-Semite? How do you handle when a place like Princeton University cancels an appearance by you there? How do you handle when people call you a self-loathing, self-hating Jew? How do you handle that kind of critique?”

Rabbi Leder Added to the Discussion

I also thought, just as a viewer, that Rabbi Leder contributed important and, in a way, balancing views to some of the things Peled had said without really being asked about them directly.

Soon after the viewer emails started arriving, I sent some representative messages on Sunday and Monday, Feb. 12 and 13, and the CAMERA critique, to Smiley's Los Angeles staff asking for a response. So far, there has been no response, which gets demerits in the ombudsman's notebook. If I do get their response, I will add it to this posting.

Here Are Some of the Emails

The guest, Miko Peled, on the show made so many incorrect assertions that it would take a very long letter to point out all of them. Mr. Smiley, you, as an informed journalist, should have at least questioned, if not corrected, some of them. Peled's description of Israel as an apartheid state has no basis in fact.  In an apartheid state the oppressed do not have recourse to the courts nor do they have equal transit and health opportunities. Patently untrue in Israel.

Describing Israel as a “union between racism and colonialism” ignored the fact that Jews are indigenous to Israel and have been a presence in Jerusalem since 1004 BC! The assertion that Palestinians get only 12 hours a week of water may be true but their water is controlled by the Palestinian Water Authority. Israel has nothing to do with it. These, and many other, statements of Mr. Peled are not surprising in view of his past statements.  Minimal research would have shown this.  It is necessary to correct these mis-statements to maintain PBS' claim to journalistic integrity.

Lawrence H. Levine, Pleasantville NY

(Ombudsman’s Note: Peled has likened Israel treatment of Palestinians to apartheid but not on this program.)

~ ~ ~

I am writing to protest the content and tone of your [Tavis Smiley’s] interview with Miko Peled on 2/2/17. Miko Peled is well known as an anti-Israel extremist who frequently veers into anti-semitic territory. For example on your show he termed Jewish history a "myth," denied that Jews have a right to self-determination via a state of their own, and repeatedly libeled Israel's water policies towards the Palestinians.

Had you been fulfilling your role as a talk show host with some degree of objectivity and concern for the truth, you could have pointed out archeological evidence for Jewish history in Israel which is abundant, including the Western Wall of Solomon's Temple. You could have pointed out that denying Jews the right to national self-determination essentially meets the U.S. State Department's definitions of antisemitism. You could have pointed out that Israel supplies Palestinians with twice the water specified in the Oslo Accords, and that Palestinians would have even more water if they stopped refusing hookups to Israeli water infrastructure in their opposition to "normalization,” and stopped refusing to use effluent drip irrigation techniques employed by Israel to conserve water.

Instead you had another guest on, a Rabbi who weakly offered some minor corrections and whose stance seemed to reflect the typically misguided, left-of-center utopian fantasy that Israeli and Palestinian actions have been morally and politically equivalent. In fact Israel has made great concessions of land and rights to Palestinians in search of peace, and has been met with unceasing terrorism and refusals of generous peace offers. This is because the true and only goal of the Palestinians is the destruction of Israel…If your purpose was to provide your listeners with accurate information, you could have corrected or challenged Peled's falsehoods. You could have had an additional guest on 2/2/17 to forcefully and effectively respond to Peled.

Daniel H. Trigoboff, Ph.D, Williamsville, NY

~ ~ ~

I am disturbed about Tavis Smiley’s program with Miko Peled in which Peled made false statements about Israel that went unchallenged by Smiley. Several of these false statements include calling Jewish history a myth, calling Israel an illegitimate state, calling the Haganah a terrorist group even as he justified terrorism against Israelis and perpetuated the falsehoods about the water libel. When PBS knowingly invites radicals to appear on their shows, the host should do their homework and be prepared to aggressively challenge their narratives and false claims. Smiley should announce corrections of Peled's false statements on his show, particularly the implication that Israel denies water to Palestinians and that the Haganah was a terrorist organization. 

Charlestown, MA

~ ~ ~

Almost every phrase that came out of Mr. Peled's mouth had some disinformation that had a single goal: to portray Israel as an illegitimate state based on some mythical story and to portray Israelis as bunch of evil racist white Europeans oppressing indigenous population.

Here few most outrageous lies that I heard in the interview:

1) Jews suddenly showed up few decades ago and took land from the people who lived there forever. FALSE!To say something like that is to disregard well established historic and archaeological facts. Jews have always lived in Israel, despite regular massacres perpetrated against them by Arab Muslims, crusaders, Turks and numerous others. 2) There have never been a Palestinian nation. This nation was invented in 1960's in Moscow by the Soviets. Those who call themselves "Palestinians" now are in fact a conglomeration of different nationalities, most of which came to the area in the middle of 19th century as migrant workers. The rest settled there between 1948 and 1967 by the Jordanian King in violation of Forth Geneva Convention after Jordan (with the blessing of England) illegally captured West Bank in 1948. 3) Few Bedouins came to Judea from Arabia and are not indigenous people. Israel has always tried to accommodate Bedouins and their lifestyle…Most Bedouins are loyal Israeli citizens.

Valery Tsimmerman, MD

~ ~ ~

The Tavis Smiley talk show with Miko Peled is a new low in responsible broadcasting. The selection of Rabbi Steve Leder as an ineffective "balanced view" indicates, at best, a pathetically inept PBS. In light of other broadcasts with overt slants, any thinking person surmises the worst: PBS’s actions are only open-minded to accusation about Israel. PBS open-mindedness has apparently allowed the facts and their brains to fall away - neither are used.

Hillel Hammerman, New York, NY

~ ~ ~

On February 2, Tavis Smiley hosted Miko Peled, an extreme anti-Israel activist who has made outrageous statements about Israel and claimed that Jews have no history there. Peled falsely claimed that the Haganah was a terrorist group, but he does not accept the idea that Israeli Jews have any right to defend themselves from real terrorists. Mr. Peled claims he can’t be anti-Semitic because he is Jewish, but he is on record making statements against Jews, and being technically Jewish does not stop someone from hating Jews.

Forest Hills, NY

~ ~ ~

In your recent broadcast by T. Smiley, the well-known Mr. Anti-Semite and Anti-anything-Jewish Paled was invited. I know the Freedom of Speech and Right to Expression are very important. But why invite the well-known hater to the program with the moderator who is either badly prepared, or sympathetic to Mr. Paled views, or simply intellectually lazy? And even if Mr. Tavis's sympathies are with Palestinian Arabs -- he has no right to reveal it in his work as Journalist.

Dr. R. Ogulnik

~ ~ ~

When you have anti-Semites like Miko Peled on your show why don't you mention the wise and prescient words of Dr. Martin Luther King JR spoken in December 1967: "When people criticize Zionists, they mean Jews. You're talking anti-Semitism." Also why don't you mention that the Obama State Department stated that it is anti-Semitic to claim you oppose the State of Israel, but not its policies. Your silence when confronted with anti-Semitic drivel raises the issue of whether you agree with the drivel.

Richard Sherman, Margate, FL

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As ombudsman, Michael Getler serves as an independent internal critic within PBS. He reviews commentary and criticism from viewers and seeks to ensure that PBS upholds its own standards of editorial integrity. Read More >
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