Editorial: ‘Part of Being a Good Friend Is Being Honest’

By Becky O'Malley
Thursday June 04, 2009 - 07:04:00 AM

Why did the Planet devote so much space this week to chronicling the misbegotten crusade of a few unpleasant twerps to destroy this paper? Many friends and family members have counseled us just to ignore them, in the hope that they’d eventually slink off into the shadows whence they came.  

That’s the strategy we’ve been following for about three years now, ever since local religious and political officials declined our invitation to meet openly to discuss their denunciation of the paper for running a letter from an Iranian student which they characterized as anti-Semitic. It hasn’t worked. 

A tiny but vigorous minority of what can only be described as zealots has continued to attack the paper every time a reader contributing to our opinion section or one of our freelance columnists writes something that could be interpreted as critical of Israel or its current government. We’re more than happy to host vigorous civil discourse about important topics, including the Israel-Palestine conflict. We’ve published many, many column inches of opinions from the zealots profiled in this issue of the paper, and that’s fine. But when the tactics of those who disagree turn to trying to destroy the forum itself, they’ve gone too far. 

When our advertising sales staff reports that a customer, a woman who owns a struggling small business, has called in tears because she’s received threats, the zealots have gone too far. When the author of a commentary reports that menacing words have been chalked on the sidewalk outside her house, they’ve gone too far. When one of the zealots creates a website stocked with lunatic lies worthy of a Goebbels, and then copies its dishonest content onto Indymedia web sites in several cities and into the comments section of a respected Jewish weekly, they’ve gone too far. 

We’re lucky or unlucky enough to have as the paper’s lawyer a veteran of the Free Speech Movement. Every time someone tells us that “you should sue those jerks—they’ve libeled you” we call Paul to inquire, and every time he tells us to pull up our socks. “The First Amendment protects their right to lie,” he says.  

Well, yes, the publisher and I do believe, along with Justice Brandeis, that for speech that you don’t like “the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence.” So we haven’t filed a libel suit, even though we could probably win.  

The paper itself is not suffering too much from the campaign against our advertisers per se. Given the general economic climate, having a couple of terrified retailers drop out because they’ve been harassed is in the noise. But we do feel for our customers. 

Small businesses need to advertise in local papers if they’re to survive—they can’t pay the prices at the big metros and they want to direct their message to local readers. We’re proud of those who have chosen to speak out and fight back, but everyone can’t do that. It’s unconscionable that a few bullies are trying to take away their right to advertise where they choose.  

And just as important is the classic question, “Is it good for the Jews?” These individuals claim to speak for the Jewish citizens of Berkeley, whom they say constitute a sizeable percentage of the population, but they have little in common with the tolerant and thoughtful Jewish people I’ve known in the 35 years I’ve lived here. Many of our small business customers are hard-working immigrants whose contact with people they identify as Jewish is limited. It would be a real shame if they took these bullies as representing the majority of Jews in Berkeley or even in the United States, which they don’t. 

It’s a serious mistake, as I’ve said in this space before, to equate criticism of the actions of one faction in Israel with anti-Semitism, described by a writer in the latest London Review of Books as “a wholly dishonorable charge that no power on earth, it seems, is capable of preventing being brought whenever the actions of the state of Israel are criticized.” Branding criticism as anti-Semitism has fueled shut-it-down efforts like those directed at the Planet all over the world in recent years, aimed at all kinds of publications from the London Review and The Nation all the way down to the little Coastal Post in West Marin. Ironically, the Israeli press still publishes all kinds of opinions about its government, though there are shut-down proponents there too. 

A Daily Kos review describes a new book on this kind of politics by Dave Neiwert, The Eliminationists. His definition: “Eliminationism: a politics and a culture that shuns dialogue and the democratic exchange of ideas in favor of the pursuit of outright elimination of the opposing side, either through suppression, exile, and ejection, or extermination.” From the review (I haven’t read the book) it seems that Neiwert covers mostly the right wing nuts in the Rush Limbaugh orbit, so it’s interesting that one of these local bullies, while claiming to unearth anti-Semitism, has been mixed up with the lunatic Christian right fringe. He seems to have acquired some of their bad habits. 

One advertiser who saw the Islamic version of the same sort of people in his native Iran told us that he thinks there’s 1 or 2 percent of extremists like these in any population. It’s not about Judaism, it’s about fanaticism, which looks the same everywhere, he points out, and he believes that it’s crucial to stand up to the fanatics, all of them, anywhere. 

A young San Jose city councilmember, the first Vietnamese-American to be elected there, was featured on last week’s This American Life radio program. She’s been subjected to endless vituperation within her own community, including a recall battle which she survived, just because she happened to endorse the name “Saigon Business District” instead of “Little Saigon” for the local Vietnamese commercial district. She’s gotten red-baiting like that directed at the Planet’s Conn Hallinan, and worse, from the “eliminationist” minority in her own Vietnamese-American community, people who want to turn the clash of opinions into a war to the death. 

Despite all of this tsooris (a Yiddish word meaning anything from grief to aggravation), voices of reason, both Jewish and non-Jewish, are increasingly making themselves heard. It used to be rare to see anything in print critical of any action of the government of Israel, but times have changed. In the last couple of weeks, there have been pointed letters about the Gaza situation in both the San Francisco Chronicle and the Berkeley Voice, the local outlet for the Media News chain, and we haven’t heard threats of boycotts against either publication. 

Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton fell all over each other in the recent primary campaign to claim that they were friends of Israel, but now they’re both interpreting friendship in a new way. 

“Part of being a good friend is being honest,” President Obama said on Monday. “And I think there have been times where we are not as honest as we should be about the fact that the current direction, the current trajectory, in the region is profoundly negative, not only for Israeli interests but also U.S. interests. And that’s part of a new dialogue that I’d like to see encouraged in the region.” 

It’s also a dialogue that we’d like to continue to encourage in this paper. We hope that the genuine leaders of the East Bay Jewish community will have the courage to speak up against the “eliminationists” in their midst, and to point out that reasonable people can disagree, but it’s important not to destroy the forum. 

We continue to believe that our principal reason for being in business is to host free and frank public discussion of important issues (even though we sympathize with some readers who say they never want to hear another word about Israel.) It’s not just a few ultra-partisan supporters of Israel, by the way, who are mad at us for allowing free speech to continue in Berkeley.  

We learned last week that the online Daily Planet has been blocked in China, possibly because we covered the Dalai Lama’s visit to Berkeley. Now that’s an achievement we’re proud of.