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How a letter from NYT's Anthony Lewis changed my worldview

‘New York Times’ reporter and columnist Anthony Lewis died today at the age of 85. Although we never met, he changed my life. Well, that may be an exaggeration, but still…

If there’s one thing I hate, it’s a long blog post. I just have no patience for them. So, bearing that in mind, I’ll totally understand if you skip this one.

New York Times reporter and columnist Anthony Lewis died today, at the age of 85. I didn’t know his writings very well. The only few op-eds I did read were all Israel/Palestine related.

Despite this very superficial “relationship” with Lewis, I somehow feel like he affected my life, and in some way my views.

In his honor, I’m re-posting this post I wrote on my personal blog 3.5 years ago, before +972 Magazine was born. It’s a post that tells about my first “contact” with Lewis 20 years earlier, and how it put things into perspective for me back then. This time around, it even does it once again for me.

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As the debate over the Goldstone report heats up, I am reminded of a story that happened over 20 years ago, when I was just a lad of 15 years of age.

This story tells of five Palestinians killed, one op-ed written, one letter-to-the-editor sent, one pundit’s response, and what’s changed since then.

On the 14th of April, 1989, deep into the first Intifada, a unit of border policemen entered the village of Nahhalin in search of “suspects.” The unit was surprised by hundreds of Palestinian youth, who were waiting for them with stones in hand. Needless to say, the unit never got to the arrests “stage,” but it did “manage” to kill five and wound 12 more.

I was 15 back then and just came back to Israel after a year in upstate New York, on sabbatical with my parents at SUNY in Binghamton. The Intifada had just started while we were in the States, and as a young teenager I couldn’t help but be extremely overwhelmed at how bad Israel was being portrayed in the media.

The events a year later in Nahhalin triggered a lot of worldwide coverage. One person who took part was longtime New York Times pundit, Anthony Lewis. A few days after the event he wrote the following op-ed. I’m not just putting up a link for you to click on this time, because I’d really like you to read this, for two reasons. One, it gives amazing perspective on how things have changed – and haven’t changed at all. And second, it’s important for the storyline…

So, be patient and read up! And remember: this is April, 1989.

Occupation is the Cause

One day last week a spokesman for the Israeli army said it had struck a major blow against the Palestinian uprising in the occupied West Bank and Gaza. It had brought charges in a military court against four Palestinians who he said were leaders of the uprising ”at the executive level.”

The next morning, before dawn, the army sent 30 border policemen to raid the village of Nahhalin, near Bethlehem. When the raid was over, five Palestinians were dead and 25 wounded.

Those two coincidental events, the military prosecution and the raid, define Israel’s policy toward the uprising. It is to suppress the Palestinians by force: by arrest, detention, beating, shooting.

And those events make something else clear. The policy is bankrupt.

The idea that the intifada is something managed ”at the executive level” is a grotesque misunderstanding of its character. It is a popular uprising – one that started spontaneously, according to Israeli experts, and that is fed by the frustrations of life under occupation.

Nothing is more likely to feed the intifada than a brutal event like the raid on Nahhalin. The deaths naturally arouse the emotions of Palestinians right across the West Bank and Gaza.

How could such an incident happen? To relieve the pressure on the army and its reservists, Israel has recently been using border policemen for occupation duty. This paramilitary force includes many Arabic-speaking Israeli Druse. It has a reputation for harsh treatment of Arabs.

Border policemen began patrolling Nahhalin about a week before the raid, after youths threw stones at Jewish settlers using a nearby road. Villagers said the policemen had taunted them and shouted obscenities at women.

At 3:30 A.M. on April 13 the force of 30 border policemen raided the village. The army said their mission was to gather intelligence and arrest anyone suspected of stone-throwing. They went that early because it is Ramadan, the holy month when Muslims rise early to eat breakfast before the daylight fast.

The people of Nahhalin were already angry at the behavior of the border police in previous days. Youths began throwing stones. Then, somehow, the police began firing live ammunition.

The army appointed a committee of senior officers to investigate. Exactly what happened may never be certain. But the incident in Nahhalin underlines what 16 months of the intifada have shown: that trying to suppress Palestinian nationalism in the occupied territories brutalizes Israel – and does not work.

Prime Minister Shamir has said repeatedly, most recently on his visit to the United States, that the West Bank and Gaza must remain forever under Israel’s control. It is that premise that requires the policy of force – to suppress the Palestinians instead of negotiating with them.

Israel’s intelligence and military chiefs argue with increasing force that the policy will not work. ”There is no such thing as eradicating the intifada,” Gen. Dan Shomron, the Chief of Staff, said in February, ”because in its essence it expresses the struggle of nationalism.”

The policy damages one of Israel’s precious values, its reputation in the world. After Nahhalin the International Red Cross made a rare public protest against ”violation of fundamental humanitarian law,” saying its private appeals to Israel had gone unheeded. It said the border police had fired ”without discrimination and without restraint.

American friends of Israel are more and more aware of what the occupation is costing. Even the mainline leaders are speaking up. Two months ago Morris B. Abram, then chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, said: ”The status quo is not indefinitely acceptable to American Jews. . . . The occupation is the cause of the disturbances.”

Exactly. Raids and repression cannot make the Palestinian inhabitants of the West Bank and Gaza content with occupation. They want what Jews struggled so long to get for themselves: a place where they can control their own lives.

Passover, which begins this week, should be a time for reflection on the crisis of occupation. It celebrates the freedom of the Jewish people from captivity in Egypt – and the establishment of Jewish national identity. The survival of the Jewish state today requires recognition that another people is entitled to its identity, too.

I happened to come across this op-ed (I don’t know why a 15-year-old was reading the Times op-ed page, but let’s not go there just yet). As a teenager, I wasn’t really listening to Lewis’ message. I was just tuned into what I thought was another piece of Israel-bashing, and I had had enough of it. I just couldn’t take it anymore! So, what does a teenage patriot do? He types a letter to the editor on his little computer (what was that in 1989, some kind of IBM compatible?), but of course!
Here it is:

To the Editor:

(“Occupation is the Cause”, April 16), “The policy damages one of Israel’s precious values, it’s reputation in the world”. May I add – Mr. Lewis isn’t helping much either.

I am a 15 year old boy living in Haifa, Israel. I have much to say of the status quo in my “mischievous” little country, although a prestigious paper such as yours would obviously rather write “white lies” than print my insignificant letter, therefore I’ll try to make this brisk and harmless (May I add, I am a pure leftist, who would love to see the Palestinian people with a home of their own).

The article says that 30 border policemen were sent to raid the village of Nahhalin, which cost the lives of 5 Palestinians and many wounded.

The real story: A) Border policemen are patrolling as usual through numerous villages, and arrive at Nahhalin. B) From the speakers of the mosque, calls for Jihad (Holy War) are heard. C) Hundreds of Arabs attack soldiers with sticks, axes and Molotov cocktails. D) Soldiers are forced to shoot large amounts of ammunition in the air. E) After finishing supplies of plastic bullets, soldiers are forced to use live ammunition to fight them off. F) Five killed.

What I’m trying to say here is this: Mr. Lewis is exaggerating just a bit by using the word “raid” and givng the reader a first impression that the border policemen went into the village with an intention to kill, which I’ve proved is wrong.

But the real point is that this humble exaggeration can give the reader the totally wrong impression heshe should be getting – the right one. I have noticed, since the beginning of the intifidada, that this technique is used not only by Mr. Lewis, but by many other reporters covering the happaenings in the occupied territotries. All this technique does is give some more juice to the article and the reporter’s paycheck. Wonderful, we all gain from it, but someone pays for it. Who pays? Israel. What’s the cost? As mentioned before – its reputation in the world.

This incident suddenly comes to mind. 300 civilians killed in Caracas, Venezuela in one day. Cause: rise of costs for bus fares. Now isn’t that droll? Not to me nor to anyone else. So why don’t reporters chew on that for a while? (Didn’t see any nice juicy headlines for that in this “prestigous” paper, whose motto is nonetheless – “All the News that’s Fit to Print”). I’ll never know. Do you reporters have something against us? If not, get off our case, OK?

Ami Kaufman

Haifa, Israel

April 18, 1989

Now, if we put aside my bad grammar and poor writing skills, you’ll notice that this letter has a lot more flaws than you think. Turns out Mr. Lewis was a much better journalist than I was back then. First of all, I totally distorted the Caracas riots. They weren’t all killed in one day, and the bus fares weren’t the only cause.

In fact, Lewis told the story in Nahhalin quite the way it happened. And this was even before the IDF investigated the events. Later on in the month, the IDF reprimanded a top ranking colonel, and removed two other officers from the their posts. The probe also found out that the soldiers used their weapons incorrectly, beat a handcuffed Palestinian, lied to their superiors and more.

The conclusions of this report were published in early May, 1989. As far as I remember, Nahhalin was history to me, I don’t think I even knew then that the army had reached conclusions concerning its actions.

Of course, until, my mother told me one day that I had a letter from the NY Times. I’m writing these lines just after having returned from my parent’s house in Haifa, searching in vain for this letter, which I’m pretty sure I kept but seem to have lost. But I remember exactly what it looked like. It was of a cream-ish color, and the logo of the paper was embossed on the front. On the back was Anthony Lewis’ name. He wrote back.

I remember the excitement reading the letter, but also the disappointment from it. I can’t remember the exact wording of it, but I do remember it was a dry reasoning of his op-ed, that in fact it was I who had my facts wrong and so on. I think he also wrote something about editorial decision making and so forth. Darn, I wish I could find that letter! Anyway, I think I read that letter a zillion times over the next two weeks.

Looking back on this incident, I wonder if this may have had some kind of effect on me going in to journalism later on in life, and eventually working for the Israeli NY Times and Haaretz. But whatever the reason, one thing is for sure – I owe Lewis an apology. So Anthony, if you’re out there reading blogs on Israel… I’m sorry!

But back to the reason for this post. Although I got the Caracas story all wrong, the REASON I put it there was spot on. I do believe that Israel is held to higher standards in many cases, and that the media singles Israel out in an almost automatic way. I also believe that some of it is due to anti-Semitism and simple hatred.

Confused? A lefty like me saying we’re being singled out? Yup. It’s true. I do believe we’re singled out. But I also believe the occupation is one of the most horrendous crimes taking place these days, and I want it over and done with.

But even if we are singled out, that gives us no right to yell “victims!” after the Goldstone report. Instead of claiming that others around the world commit atrocities too (as if two wrongs make a right – how childish is that?), and that they should be accountable as well, this report should be a chance to ask ourselves how we acted in Operation Cast Lead, and investigate seriously any wrongdoings that might have taken place.

Twenty years have passed since Lewis’ op-ed, and I’m no longer the uber-patriot I was. I’m also no longer the “have-you-hugged-your-Palestinian-today” peacenik. I’m extremely critical and disappointed with both sides.

But if I’ve taken anything from this stroll down memory lane, it’s that both sides should be ashamed. Ashamed that nothing has changed since the first intifada. Ashamed that we actually think we’re still victims and that occupation is legitimate. Ashamed that thinking violence is the only way to go and that fundamentalism and religion will solve all problems. And most of all, ashamed that a 20-year-old op-ed can look like it was written just yesterday.

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As I finished reading this again today, my third rendezvous with Lewis gives me even more perspective – by showing me not only how still nothing has changed, but how I’ve changed in only 3.5 years. Some of the stuff I wrote then I don’t even agree with today.

So, dear Anthony, rest in peace. Shame we never met in real life. I think we could have had a nice conversation. I think you must have been a pretty special guy to take the time to answer an arrogant 15-year-old like me.

Happy Pesach.

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  • COMMENTS

    1. foresomenteneikona

      Did you ever find Lewis’ letter to you?

      Reply to Comment
      • Unfortunately, no.

        Reply to Comment
    2. Human particularism, which decries actions which harm individual dignity as applied, offers no global solution. It says “this way is no better,” forcing attempts at new approaches. It doesn’t promise success.

      The nationalism arguement IDF command and Lewis made in the first intifata is failing because of the settler’s advance. Nationalism without viable territory is vacuous. Human particularism sort of admits this, asking what do we do now, as it pinpoints an abuse and servitude. Two State was at least a “solution.” Human particularism is a harder road, confronting all sides at once.

      Reply to Comment
      • Shelly

        This is a personal and touching post about a young man’s odyssey in his thinking about the state in which he lives. And how an older man, a seasoned journalist, took the time to answer a teenager’s letter. It is a tribute and a farewell to Anthony Lewis.
        It also reveals how the writer’s views have changed while the situation has remained totally stagnant. Unfortunately, I think you missed the point here.

        Reply to Comment
        • I actually meant nothing harmful. It was meant more in approval of what is said than not, in my overly verbal way. But to take a stand on rights is a harder place than Two States and nationalism. Personal and touching is going to hurt–a lot.

          Reply to Comment
    3. Arieh

      This is a candid and sober description of Ami’s journey from the age of 15 to 39 (I think I calculated his age right?).

      It is not surprising that at the age of 15 he saw things in black and white. It is also not surprising that his subsequent reaction was the opposite black and white after he realised that not all Israelis react correctly to all provocations all the time.

      It is certainly understandable that because of his disillusion he went to the other extreme and ended up blaming Israel for everything (all one has to do is read his blogs today).

      What IS surprising though is that by the age of 39 he could not muster enough perspective and realise that the Palestinian Arabs share enough of the blame (more than enough) for the current situation.

      Speaking for myself, I am older than Ami. So I remember what went on before the occupation, before 1967. Maybe that is why I did not react the same way as Ami. Because I know how the Arabs rejected all overtures from Israel to make peace even after 1967. And so on in 2000, 2001 and 2008. And how the Palestinian Arabs responded to unilateral withdrawals by Israel (with rockets).

      So, my question to Ami is: How should Israel end it’s occupation, now? How should Israel have ended it years ago? Just withdraw unilaterally from ALL the occupied territories? Does he really believe that by doing so, peace would be the outcome?

      I certainly don’t. But then again, I am older and therefore I am more cynical, one might say. My story though is that I am not a wishful thinker. I am just realistic.

      Reply to Comment
    4. Arieh

      This is a candid and sober description of Ami’s journey from the age of 15 to 39 (I think I calculated his age right?).

      It is not surprising that at the age of 15 he saw things in black and white. It is also not surprising that his subsequent reaction was the opposite black and white after he realised that not all Israelis react correctly to all provocations all the time.

      It is certainly understandable that because of his disillusion he went to the other extreme and ended up blaming Israel for everything (all one has to do is read his blogs today).

      What IS surprising though is that by the age of 39 he could not muster enough perspective and realise that the Palestinian Arabs share enough of the blame (more than enough) for the current situation.

      Speaking for myself, I am older than Ami. So I remember what went on before the occupation, before 1967. Maybe that is why I did not react the same way as Ami. Because I know how the Arabs rejected all overtures from Israel to make peace even after 1967. And so on in 2000, 2001 and 2008. And how the Palestinian Arabs responded to unilateral withdrawals by Israel (with rockets).

      So, my question to Ami is: How should Israel end it’s occupation, now? How should Israel have ended it years ago? Just withdraw unilaterally from ALL the occupied territories? Without requiring the Palestinian Arabs to give up their “right of return” demand? Does he really believe that by doing so, peace would be the outcome?

      I certainly don’t. But then again, I am older and I am more cynical. And more importantly, I am not a wishful thinker. I am realistic, I don’t look at the Palestinian Arabs with rose coloured glasses because of the track record of the PA (they never embraced those Israeli leaders who did their best for peace – which granted, were not all Israeli leaders). And I am even less optimistic when I think about Hamas. Ami and his colleagues of course ignore Hamas or pretend that they don’t carry much weight. So instead they blame Israel and all Israeli leaders for the status quo. Sad!

      Reply to Comment
    5. Charles-Jerusalem

      To Ami K,
      Thank you, it was a great story that you told us.
      Nothing really happens but at the end, one does see the world as it was.
      You got a written answer from the old guy because he cared about what was in your mind as a 15 years old kid who bears the future of his country in his hands (perhaps)
      I wrote myself a lot of posts/comments in various blogs, I never got and feedback from the article writer.

      Reply to Comment

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