The Menachem Begin Heritage recently screened an important new documentary: Jenin: Massacring the Truth by filmmaker Martin Himel. The film serves to remind us of the obscene gap between what was reported by the world press about Israeli military operations in Jenin and the actual facts.
Palestinians first reported the massacre of 5,000 civilians, subsequently revised down to 500, and the world media, including the BBC, eagerly lent credence to these charges with descriptions of Israel’s wanton disregard of human life, and unprecedented death and destruction. In actual fact, 52 Palestinians died in Jenin, over half of them armed fighters; Israel lost 23 soldiers.
The emotional focus of the film is IDF officer Yonatan Van Caspel, an IDF officer who served in Jenin. Van Caspel speaks of his pain at finding himself and his fellow soldiers accused of being war criminals even as he lost 13 close friends killed in a booby-trapped terrorist redoubt. The decision not to level the terrorist hideout was taken solely to minimize civilian casualties. Van Caspel is seen visiting the widow of one of those fallen soldiers, and her two young children, one born after his father’s death.
Yet it is far from clear how compelling Van Caspel’s outrage will prove with non-Israeli viewers. Europeans conditioned to view the Palestinians as the world’s most oppressed people will likely dismiss the hurt feelings of one IDF officer as trivial.
I, for one, would have preferred to see Himel explore in greater depth how reporters from some of the world’s most respected media outlets got it so wrong. In a famous TV interview from Jenin, UN Middle East envoy Terje Larsen described the overwhelming smell of death emanating from the camp. But we now know that there could have been no such smell. I would have liked to watch Larsen squirm as he tried to explain his blatant lie.
One who refused to squirm was Times’ correspondent Janine Di Giovanni, who described the destruction in Jenin as worse than any she had seen in covering brutal wars in the Balkans and Chechnya. That too was patently false. The destroyed area in Jenin constituted an area of only a few square blocks at the center of the camp. In Grozny, the Russians leveled an entire city of 500,000.
Di Giovanni revealed her true colors, She refused to talk with Yonatan Van Caspel in the room, and at one point asked Himel, "Are you Jewish?" Called upon to justify her description of Jenin as worse than scenes of mass death like Grozny, she offered only, "Israel always gets away with it, doesn’t it?"
Dr. David Zangwein, a medical reservist who fought in Jenin, described, in a panel discussion after the screening, an interview that he had with a French reporter from La Nouvelle Observateur. The Frenchman asked about reports that Israel placed Palestinian kids over possible booby traps and then walked across them. When Zangwein denied that Israel did any such thing, the French reporter replied he had three Palestinian accounts supporting the claims.
Dr. Zangwein pointed out to him that the same Palestinian sources had earlier been claiming 5,000 Palestinian casualties. At that point, the Frenchman started shouting that Israel should end the occupation and get out of Palestine.
No doubt both anti-Semitism and fierce hatred of Israel help account for many of the media’s most egregious errors from Jenin. But I suspect that there is something else going on as well. European reporters have long been habituated to see Prime Minister Sharon and the IDF as brutal aggressors totally oblivious to the loss of Palestinian life. Once conditioned to accept this characterization, the reports of massacre perpetuated by Israelis seemed perfectly creditable to them. In other words, reporters filtered everything that they saw or were told through stereotypes of Israeli brutality.
CHAREIDI JEWS IN ISRAEL ARE frequently the victims of similar stereotyping. One of the most familiar such stereotypes is of the bloodsucking chareidi, who shows absolutely no concern with the fate of his fellow Jews, while seeking only to increase the spoils for the chareidi community from the national coffers. What is striking is the persistence of this stereotype despite the fact that it is plainly refuted by evidence known to almost every Israeli.
A columnist in a London Jewish paper recently remarked, apropos of the familiar pictures of ZAKA volunteers combing the scenes of bus bombings for body parts: Too bad they [i.e., the chareidim] don’t show a similar concern with their fellow Jews when they are still alive.
Yet chareidi Jews in Israel have founded virtually all of the largest volunteer organizations in Israel. Some of these organizations involve thousands of religious and non-religious volunteers working together and some rely primarily on chareidi staff. But they share one thing in common: the primary beneficiaries of their services are the secular public.
Yad Sarah’s 6,000 volunteers serve 350,000 Israelis a year. By supplying medical equipment for home care and monitoring the sick and elderly in their own homes, the organization, founded by Jerusalem mayor Rabbi Uri Lopoliansky, is estimated to save the country $300,000,000 in hospitalization costs a year.
Ezer MiTzion has created the largest bone marrow registry in the Jewish world –180,000 names – and maintains a list of 3,000 volunteers prepared to donate blood as needed. The organization distributes nearly 50,000 meals monthly to families of hospitalized patients, and runs summer camps and afternoon activities centers for special needs children and those with cancer. Another chareidi organization Ezra Le’Marpeh handles 50,000 medical referrals a year, and has been described by professor Ivo Janko of Harvard Medical School as providing "integrated services unparalleled in the world."
Other chareidi founded organizations, like Chayeinu and Zichron Menachem, work intensively with young cancer patients and their families. Chareidi founded soup kitchens, like Meir Panim and Chazon Yeshaya, provide several hundred thousand meals a month to poor people. Meir Panim also provides hot meals for 7,400 schoolchildren a day. Less than 5% of its beneficiaries are chareidi.
Laniado Hospital in Netanya is the fulfillment of a vow made by the Klausenberger Rebbe, zt"l, in the midst of the Holocaust, to build a Jewish hospital if he should merit to survive. It is the only hospital in the country never to suffer a strike, as each employee signs a contractual undertaking not to strike. The hospital has been a true fulfillment of the Rebbe’s goal of showing that the Torah "is a Torah of lovingkindness" and that nothing could be more natural than for a rabbi to want to establish a hospital.
EFRAT provides emotional support and financial assistance to mothers who are considering terminating preganancies. Not one of the 16,000 mothers assisted by EFRAT to carry her baby to term, reports Dr. Eli Schussheim, the organization’s director, has ever expressed regret for her decision.
The organizations mentioned are only a fraction of the chareidi organizations serving the entire Israeli population. The only thing more remarkable than the scope and variety of these organizations is how little dent they have made on the media stereotype of the uncaring chareidi.
Apparently it is not only European reporters who are the victims of their own stereotypes.