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Why did Berkeley paper run anti-Jewish column?

by Chip John­son

The fall­out from an opin­ion piece pub­lished in Berke­ley’s twice-week­ly com­mu­ni­ty news­pa­per has mush­roomed well beyond the con­fines of the nation’s first des­ig­nat­ed Nuclear-Free Zone.

And while it is not unusu­al for the Berke­ley Dai­ly Plan­et’s exec­u­tive edi­tor and own­er Becky O’Mal­ley to pub­lish con­tro­ver­sial, far-flung opin­ion pieces and wacko read­er respons­es, the deci­sion to run a com­men­tary head­lined “Zion­ist Crimes in Lebanon” is being ques­tioned by scores of crit­ics.

The arti­cle, which appeared as com­men­tary on the opin­ion pages of the news­pa­per’s Aug. 8 edi­tion, was more an attack on Jew­ish peo­ple than a log­i­cal argu­ment against Israel’s mas­sive mil­i­tary response to the con­tin­u­ing rock­et attacks from Hezbol­lah forces in Lebanon.

After reduc­ing main­stream Amer­i­ca’s inter­ests to sto­ries about same-sex mar­riage and actor Mel Gib­son’s drunk­en dri­ving arrest, author Kurosh Ari­an­pour launched a his­tor­i­cal assault against Jews.

“Let us go back to 539 B.C., when Cyrus the Great, King of Per­sia, went to Baby­lo­nia and lib­er­at­ed Jews. One can ask why Jews were enslaved by Baby­lo­ni­ans. Also, one can ask why Jews had prob­lems with Egyp­tians, with Jesus, with Euro­peans, and in mod­ern times with Ger­mans?” wrote Ari­an­pour, a for­mer Berke­ley res­i­dent who is a stu­dent in India.

The news­pa­per’s crit­ics, and there are plen­ty of them, aren’t too inter­est­ed in Ari­an­pour’s his­tor­i­cal view.

What more than two dozen rab­bis and Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty groups and scores of Bay Area res­i­dents real­ly want to know is why in the heck would the paper print such an inflam­ma­to­ry, hate­ful piece in a news­pa­per that makes its mark with sto­ries about Berke­ley land-use and City Hall pol­i­tics? It’s a rea­son­able ques­tion.

The Anti-Defama­tion League’s North­ern Cal­i­for­nia chap­ter sent O’Mal­ley a let­ter demand­ing a pub­lic apol­o­gy for the arti­cle. It car­ries the sig­na­tures of more than a half-dozen elect­ed offi­cials from the East Bay, includ­ing the may­ors of Oak­land, Berke­ley and Emeryville.

The let­ter described the author’s words as “a racist attack on all peo­ple of Jew­ish descent when he assert­ed that Jews have been the cause of every tragedy that has befall­en them — from slav­ery in Egypt to the Holo­caust.

“We are not sur­prised when hate-mon­gers make such state­ments or when neo-Nazi pub­li­ca­tions print them. Vul­gar and hate-filled state­ments are writ­ten all the time — edi­tors choose whether or not to pub­lish them. We were, how­ev­er, sur­prised, to find them in a Berke­ley ‘com­mu­ni­ty’ news­pa­per since racism of any kind vio­lates all that our city and region stands for,” it read.

Jonathan Bern­stein, the group’s region­al direc­tor, said that while the orga­ni­za­tion over­looks such screeds pub­lished on the Inter­net and in white suprema­cist pub­li­ca­tions, this time the mes­sage was being pre­sent­ed as valid com­men­tary in a gen­er­al-inter­est com­mu­ni­ty news­pa­per.

“We have to look at who the mes­sage is reach­ing, and in this case it was reach­ing a lot of peo­ple — and because of that, it was wor­thy of a response,” Bern­stein said. “We want­ed to show that it was offen­sive to the entire com­mu­ni­ty, not just the Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty, and I think we suc­ceed­ed in doing that,” he said.

Mis­sion accom­plished.

While there has been some dis­cus­sion about a meet­ing to hash it out (O’Mal­ley said she offered; an ADL rep­re­sen­ta­tive said she refused), the 66-year-old for­mer soft­ware devel­op­er believes she need not apol­o­gize for doing her job: pre­sent­ing a diver­si­ty of ideas in a pub­lic forum to be dis­cussed, crit­i­cized, con­demned, what­ev­er moves the news­pa­pers read­ers.

That is the news­pa­per’s forte, she said, and harks back to a time when news­pa­pers were the pri­ma­ry forum for pub­lic debate.

“Putting things out in the light of day gives peo­ple who can make a coun­ter­ar­gu­ment the chance to respond in a straight­for­ward way,” O’Mal­ley said. “Those kinds of things are said behind closed doors all the time.”

As a mat­ter of pol­i­cy, the paper will not accept unsigned com­men­taries, pieces accus­ing pri­vate cit­i­zens of mis­deeds or the use of unnec­es­sar­i­ly obscene lan­guage. “Every­thing else is fair game, and we sel­dom turn any­thing away,” she told me in an inter­view this week.

Whether you agree or dis­agree with her edi­to­r­i­al pol­i­cy — and some read­ers do agree — O’Mal­ley has at least been con­sis­tent and even-hand­ed in the pub­li­ca­tion of mean-spir­it­ed, racist com­ments in the paper, which cir­cu­lates free and pub­lish­es about 22,000 copies for each edi­tion.

“All kinds of racist non­sense gets print­ed in the Plan­et — and for good rea­son — since racist think­ing per­vades Amer­i­can cul­ture,” wrote Joan­na Gra­ham, a read­er who defend­ed O’Mal­ley’s deci­sion. In the past three weeks, O’Mal­ley has pub­lished sev­er­al oth­er let­ters on the sub­ject, includ­ing one from a long list of rab­bis and Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty lead­ers.

O’Mal­ley her­self did­n’t think much of the arti­cle either, but she said she made the deci­sion to run it because it car­ried a dif­fer­ent view­point that was worth air­ing in a pub­lic forum.

“It was a piece of crap, but it was rep­re­sen­ta­tive of a lot of peo­ple around the world who make no dis­tinc­tions between the for­eign pol­i­cy of Israel and the Jew­ish peo­ple of the world,” she said. “I want to hear every­one’s voice. It makes for a more inter­est­ing paper and a more social dia­logue.”

There are ways to dis­cuss any issue in any nation in the world in the edi­to­r­i­al pages of news­pa­pers, but sur­ren­der­ing edi­to­r­i­al judg­ment for the sake of stir­ring a heat­ed pub­lic debate can back­fire, as it did in this case. Instead of argu­ing the mer­its of a laugh­able arti­cle, peo­ple are ques­tion­ing the judg­ment of an edi­tor who would pub­lish it.


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