As one who has been harping for years on the Israel lobby's unique ability to silence critics of Israeli policies whether they work in politics, the media, academe or anywhere else, I can't say that I am surprised by the brouhaha surrounding Sunday's 60 Minutes broadcast of a Bob Simon report on the treatment of Palestinian Christians.
It was a powerful segment which revealed that the Christian population has diminished dramatically in recent years as Palestinians left for other countries. The exodus is not the result of Israeli policies that specifically target Christians and drive them from the place Christianity began.
It is rather the oppressive policies toward Palestinians in general -- policies that do not distinguish between Palestinian Muslims and Palestinian Christians -- that have caused the Christian population to drop so dramatically. (In 1967 Christians constituted 5 percent of Jerusalem's population; today Christians constitute just 1.5 percent. Bethlehem, not long ago an overwhelmingly Christian city, is now hardly Christian at all).
None of this should be a surprise, given the incessant growth of Israeli settlements and the construction of the separation wall which, between them, have caused Palestinians of all persuasions to live literally between a rock and a hard place.
Christians, many of whom have relatives abroad, leave because they have places to go. But there is hardly a Palestinian, Christian or Muslim, who hasn't considered getting out given the miserable conditions the occupation has inflicted on them, and the end of any hope that U.S. pressure on Israel will lead to it ending its illegal occupation of the West Bank.
The 60 Minutes report caused the Israeli government to go ballistic even before it aired. In fact, it tried hard to stop it from being broadcast.
That is because the Israeli government and its advocates here have portrayed the Christian exodus as the result of Muslim discrimination not the burdens of the occupation.
But 60 Minutes demonstrated how false that story line is. It does that not by interviewing Israeli government officials but by actually talking to Palestinians, none of whom mention Muslim discrimination but all of whom talk about how the occupation is making their lives a living hell.
But the Israeli government's problems with the segment go far beyond that.
Ever since the Likud party first came to power in 1977, Israeli propagandists have managed to successfully convince conservative American Christians that their counterparts in the Holy Land are Israelis, whose military power protects them from the rising tide of Islamic fundamentalism. But then along came 60 Minutes, which revealed to millions of American viewers (it was the sixth highest rated show last week) that, in fact, their counterparts are Palestinian Christians who are being squeezed out by the Israeli authorities and especially by the whole settlement enterprise, which is gobbling up their land, homes, and ability to travel from one town to another.
Suddenly Israel would have a more difficult time claiming the mantle of defender of Christians in Israel and the occupied territories.
The Israeli government perceived the threat to its propaganda line even before the show was aired and called the top brass at CBS to demand that its representative Ambassador Michael Oren be invited to participate, and offer the government's rebuttal. CBS agreed and the government was no doubt pleased that he would be able to neutralize the report.
That is not how it worked out, as can be seen in the televised segment. Oren, predictably, first attacked the report as biased against Israel and Jews. Correspondent Simon responded that the information he relied on "was endorsed by the leaders of 13 Christian denominations including Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Lutheran and Anglican."
Oren: These are denominations who have been exceedingly critical of the State of Israel. And sometimes to the point of going beyond legitimate criticism. And so --
Simon: What does that mean to go beyond....
Oren: Well, I think --
Simon: -- legitimate criticism?
Oren: Accusing us -- of crimes that would be very, I think, historically associated with anti-Semitism.
Nothing unusual about that. Israeli spokespersons invariably dismiss criticism of its government policies as anti-Israel and/or anti-Semitic.
But then came something rather different:
Oren: It seemed to me outrageous. Completely incomprehensible that at a time when these communities, Christian communities throughout the Middle East are being oppressed and massacred, when churches are being burnt, when one of the great stories in history is unfolding? I think it's-- I think it's-- I think you got me a little bit mystified.
Simon: And it was a reason to call the president of-- chairman of CBS News?
Oren: Bob, I'm the ambassador of the State of Israel. I do that very, very infrequently as ambassador. It's just-- that's an extraordinary move for me to complain about something. When I heard that you were going to do a story about Christians in the Holy Land and my assumption-- and-- and had, I believe, information about the nature of it, and it's been confirmed by this interview today.
Simon: Nothing's been confirmed by the interview, Mr. Ambassador, because you don't know what's going to be put on air.
Oren: Okay. I don't. True.
Simon: Mr. Ambassador, I've been doing this a long time. And I've received lots of reactions from just about everyone I've done stories about. But I've never gotten a reaction before from a story that hasn't been broadcast yet.
Oren: Well, there's a first time for everything, Bob.
Always a first time. In other words, the Israeli government intends to continue its efforts to intimidate the media into shelving stories it perceives as critical of Israel, even before it knows what is in the story. In legal terms, this is what is called "prior restraint."
Of course, this is far from the first time. Every journalist knows that writing or producing news pieces critical of Israel is a sure recipe for trouble. Usually the trouble does not come directly from the Israeli government (with the prime minister's support). Usually it comes from the Israel lobby, which organizes campaigns to stop a show from airing or to threaten punishment after the fact.
That happened in this case too when the largest Jewish charity in the world, the Jewish Federations of North America, sent out the following emergency email to its affiliates and members urging that the community do everything it can to stop CBS.
"We hope that CBS will be flooded with responses through their inboxes, Facebook, Twitter and mail after the program to express discontent if it is as biased as we anticipate."
That is how it works. Criticize Israel and you'll be attacked as anti-Israel, anti-Semitic, or worse.
This explains what Nobel Laureate Paul Krugman, the New York Times columnist, was alluding to the other day when he explained why he avoids writing about Israel at all.
The truth is that like many liberal American Jews -- and most American Jews are still liberal -- I basically avoid thinking about where Israel is going. It seems obvious from here that the narrow-minded policies of the current government are basically a gradual, long-run form of national suicide -- and that's bad for Jews everywhere, not to mention the world. But I have other battles to fight, and to say anything to that effect is to bring yourself under intense attack from organized groups that try to make any criticism of Israeli policies tantamount to anti-Semitism.
In other words, even a figure as distinguished, well-known and influential as Paul Krugman fears to tangle with the lobby. I don't blame him.
His issue is income inequality in America and the economics of greed that is destroying the American Dream, along with the reality. He cannot, and should not, get bogged down in a battle with modern day McCarthyists who will seek to destroy his influence on the subject that matters to him most.
But isn't it terrible that this is where we are today.
There is no other issue like this -- not abortion, unions, nuclear power, climate change, guns, equal rights, big or small government, taxes, racism -- about which people on either side are actually intimidated into silence. Not one, except Israel.
How long can this go on? One thing is certain: it won't go on forever.