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A French court last week found three writers for Le Monde, as well as the newspaper's publisher, guilty of "racist defamation" against Israel and the Jewish people. In a groundbreaking decision, the Versailles court of appeal ruled that a comment piece published in Le Monde in 2002, "Israel-Palestine: The Cancer," had whipped up anti-Semitic opinion.
The writers of the article, Edgar Morin (a well-known sociologist), Danièle Sallenave (a senior lecturer at Nanterre University) and Sami Nair (a member of the European parliament), as well as Le Monde's publisher, Jean-Marie Colombani, were ordered to pay symbolic damages of one euro to a human-rights group and to the Franco-Israeli association. Le Monde was also ordered to publish a condemnation of the article, which it has yet to do.
It is encouraging to see a French court rule that anti-Semitism should have no place in the media -- even when it is masked as an analysis of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The ruling also makes it clear that the law in this respect applies to extremist Jews (Mr. Morin is Jewish) as much as to non-Jews.
Press freedom is a value to be cherished, but not exploited and abused. In general, European countries have strict laws against such abuse and Europe's mainstream media are in any case usually good at exercising self-censorship. Responsible journalists strenuously avoid libelous characterizations of entire ethnic, national or religious groups. They go out of their way, for example, to avoid suggesting that the massacres in Darfur, which are being carried out by Arab militias, in any way represent an Arab trait.
The exception to this seems to be the coverage of Jews, particularly Israeli ones. This is particularly ironic given the fact that Europe's relatively strict freedom of speech laws (compared to those in the U.S.) were to a large extent drafted as a reaction to the Continent's Nazi occupation. And yet, from Oslo to Athens, from London to Madrid, it has been virtually open season on them in the last few years, especially in supposedly liberal media.
"Israel-Palestine: The Cancer" was a nasty piece of work, replete with lies, slanders and myths about "the chosen people," "the Jenin massacre," describing the Jews as "a contemptuous people taking satisfaction in humiliating others," "imposing their unmerciful rule," and so on.
Yet it was no worse than thousands of other news reports, editorials, commentaries, letters, cartoons and headlines published throughout Europe in recent years, in the guise of legitimate and reasoned discussion of Israeli policies.
The libels and distortions about Israel in some British media are by now fairly well known: the Guardian's equation of Israel and al Qaeda; the Evening Standard's equation of Israel and the Taliban; the report by the BBC's Middle East correspondent, Orla Guerin, on how "the Israelis stole Christmas." Most notorious of all is the Independent's Middle East correspondent, Robert Fisk, who specializes in such observations as his comment that, "If ever a sword was thrust into a military alliance of East and West, the Israelis wielded that dagger," and who implies that the White House has fallen into the hands of the Jews: "The Perles and the Wolfowitzes and the Cohens...[the] very sinister people hovering around Bush."
The invective against Israel elsewhere in Europe is less well known. In Spain, for example, on June 4, 2001 (three days after a Palestinian suicide bomber killed 21 young Israelis at a disco, and wounded over 100 others, all in the midst of a unilateral Israeli ceasefire), the liberal daily Cambio 16 published a cartoon of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (with a hook nose he does not have), wearing a skull cap (which he does not usually wear), sporting a swastika inside a star of David on his chest, and proclaiming: "At least Hitler taught me how to invade a country and destroy every living insect."
The week before, on May 23, El Pais (the "New York Times of Spain") published a cartoon of an allegorical figure carrying a small rectangular-shaped black moustache, flying through the air toward Mr. Sharon's upper lip. The caption read: "Clio, the muse of history, puts Hitler's moustache on Ariel Sharon."
Two days later, on May 25, the Catalan daily La Vanguardia published a cartoon showing an imposing building, with a sign outside reading "Museo del Holocausto Judio" (Museum of the Jewish Holocaust), and next to it another building under construction, with a large sign reading "Futuro Museo del Holocausto Palestino" (Future Museum of the Palestinian Holocaust).
Greece's largest newspaper, the leftist daily Eleftherotypia, has run several such cartoons. In April 2002, on its front cover, under the title "Holocaust II," an Israeli soldier was depicted as a Nazi officer and a Palestinian civilian as a Jewish death camp inmate. In September 2002, another cartoon in Eleftherotypia showed an Israeli soldier with a Jewish star telling a Nazi officer next to him "Arafat is not a person the Reich can talk to anymore." The Nazi officer responds "Why? Is he a Jew?"
In October 2001, the Web site of one of Italy's most respected newspapers, La Repubblica, published the notorious anti-Semitic forgery, "The Protocols of the Elders of Zion," in its entirety, without providing any historical explanation. It did suggest, however, that the work would help readers understand why the U.S. had taken military action in Afghanistan.
In April 2002, the Italian liberal daily La Stampa ran a front-page cartoon showing an Israeli tank, emblazoned with a Jewish star, pointing a large gun at the baby Jesus in a manger, while the baby pleads, "Surely they don't want to kill me again, do they?"
In Corriere Della Sera, another cartoon showed Jesus trapped in his tomb, unable to rise, because Ariel Sharon, rifle in hand, is sitting on the sepulcher. Sweden's largest morning paper, Dagens Nyheter, ran a caricature of a Hassidic Jew accusing anyone who criticized Israel of anti-Semitism. Another leading Swedish paper, Aftonbladet, used the headline "The Crucifixion of Arafat."
If the misreporting and bias were limited to one or two newspapers or television programs in each country, it might be possible to shrug them off. But they are not. Bashing Israel even extends to local papers that don't usually cover foreign affairs, such as the double-page spread titled "Jews in jackboots" in "Luton on Sunday." (Luton is an industrial town in southern England.) Or the article in Norway's leading regional paper, Stavanger Aftenblad, equating Israel's actions against terrorists in Ramallah with the attacks on the World Trade Center.
Grotesque and utterly false comparisons such as these should have no place in reporting or commenting on the Middle East. Yet although the French court ruling -- the first of its kind in Europe -- is a major landmark, no one in France seems to care. The country's most distinguished newspaper, the paper of record, has been found guilty of anti-Semitism. One would have thought that such a verdict would prompt wide-ranging coverage and lead to extensive soul-searching and public debate. Instead, there has been almost complete silence, and virtually no coverage in the French press.
And few elsewhere will have heard about it. Reuters and Agence France Presse (agencies that have demonstrated particularly marked bias against Israel) ran short stories about the judgment in their French-language wires last week, but chose not to run them on their English news services. The Associated Press didn't run it at all. Instead of triggering the long overdue reassessment of Europe's attitude toward Israel, the media have chosen to ignore it.
This article appeared in the
Wall Street Journal Online, June 2, 2005. It is archived at
Tom Gross is a former Jerusalem correspondent of the Sunday Telegraph and the New York Daily News.
This article appeared in the Wall Street Journal Online, June 2, 2005. It is archived at http://online.wsj.com/public/article/0,,SB111766420704048626 -6z8PnnbJmw_a2TIyQttsLnChkZs_20050705,00.html?mod=blogs
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