Linda Gradstein, pic from her website
Last October, Pat Carmeli, an upstate N.Y. activist, attended a lecture by Linda Gradstein, a freelance writer who has covered the conflict for public radio and Slate. Gradstein served as a correspondent from Israel for National Public Radio for several years. Her work appeared there as recently as last fall. This talk was several months ago, but it seemed important to publish Carmeli’s report. –Ed.
Recently, I heard Linda Gradstein at Congregation Beth Sholom – Chevra Shas in Syracuse, New York. Her talk was titled, “What’s a nice Jewish girl doing in a place like this?” I was not expecting to be blown away by her compassion towards suffering Palestinians, but I certainly was expecting a more professional presentation by this prominent journalist.
Ms. Gradstein’s opening remarks set the tone for the entire evening. She began with a joke involving God, Ahmadinejad, Bin Laden, and Netanyahu in which Bin Laden took the brunt for having caused most of the problems in the Middle East. Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli Prime Minister, was characterized as having the best relationship with God.
Following her opening attempt at humor, Gradstein gave a news update. Over the weekend, she reported, there had been an upsurge in fighting across the border with Gaza, with dozens of Kassam rockets fired into Israel. One Israeli was killed. Israel “retaliated” by killing ten Palestinians. The rockets, Ms. Gradstein pointed out, were not coming from Hamas, but rather from the Islamic Jihad signifying “internal fighting” between the two factions. (The choking stranglehold Israel continues to have on Gaza was not mentioned.)
Gradstein spoke anecdotally about her experience as a correspondent during the first Gulf War before she was a mother and how she had to be fitted for a gas mask. When the first reports of rockets landing in Tel Aviv broke, she was called upon to report on the developments. She said she was more afraid of reporting live than of the rockets. Ms. Gradstein mentioned that her now 18-year-old daughter is about to begin her service in the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) (how time flies). Then she related that to a trip she took to Baghdad with New York Times reporter Ethan Bronner who also had a child serving in the IDF. (Small world isn’t it?)
The correspondent mentioned how many of the middle-aged and older Palestinians had once been faithful employees of Israelis. “They were good workers and had become fluent in Hebrew and wanted to practice the language with me. Their children didn’t know Hebrew except those who had spent time in Israeli prisons. The better the Hebrew, the longer they’d been in prison.” That got some laughs. One particularly “funny” episode that Gradstein related was when she traveled to Gaza to interview one of the Palestinians responsible for holding Gilad Shalit, the captured Israeli soldier. During the interview, the interviewee excused himself briefly to pray. Then an Israeli drone flew overhead and Gradstein thought, “Oh my God, I hope they know I’m here!” After surviving the drone attack, she feared the border might be closed and she would be stuck in Gaza during the Sabbath. Luckily that was not the case. Ms. Gradstein commented, “In Israel you can cover the war and still be home for dinner.” (more laughter)
The talk continued with a story about a judicial proceeding which occurred the day before Gilad Shalit was released. Some Jewish families of terrorist attack victims petitioned the Israeli Supreme Court in an attempt to stop a prisoner exchange fearing that the release of 550 Palestinians would unleash a wave of new attacks. Since it was the Sukkot holiday and there was no school the next day, Ms. Gradstein brought her six-year-old son to the proceedings so he could witness the “Israeli legal system in action.” She interviewed a protester whose 16-year-old daughter had been killed 10 years earlier. The father of Gilad Shalit was also there in solidarity, with their pain if not their cause. When Gradstein awoke the next morning, she was surprised to see her son with a baseball bat in hand. He had been “up all night ready to defend … [his] … family against an attack by one of those terrorists”–referring to the released Palestinian prisoners.
Linda Gradstein spoke about the negative psychological effects of the conflict with the Palestinians upon Jewish Israeli children. “Would their fears cause ‘stranger anxiety?’” She described the social solidarity Israelis share. For instance, “one would think nothing of a six-year-old getting on a bus alone.” It is not unusual for a woman with a baby to “hand off her child to a stranger in order to collapse a stroller.” When her own son’s bicycle broke, a stranger put the bike in the back of his car and drove her child home. “In a caring society like this, every Israeli mother considers Gilad [Shalit] to be her own son. That is why the country was willing to pay such a high price for his return.”
On a flight to Abu Dhabi, traveling to attend a conference on U.S. policy and Israel, Gradstein sat next to a handlebar-mustached gentleman. The man, who was also participating in the same conference, was reading, The Israel Lobby by John Meirsheimer and Stephen Walt. Suddenly he turned to Gradstein to ask her if she was a cousin of the authors, meaning, “are you Jewish?” When she answered in the affirmative, the man said, “I have something for you” and reached into his carry-on bag. Alarmed, the NPR reporter panicked and thought, “They don’t let them have guns in here, right?” Then her seat mate, to her great relief, gave Gradstein a gift of a bar of olive oil soap made from trees in Palestine.
During the question and answer segment of her presentation, Linda Gradstein was asked why she decided to take the job as a Middle East reporter. Gradstein answered that she “had kind of fallen into it” and that being a foreign correspondent in Israel “was a cool job. Journalists are the first draft of history.” Then she emphatically declared, “I’m not an Israeli citizen, but that being said, I’m part of Israel.”
When I rose to make a comment, I advised Gradstein that I have been a supporter of NPR since returning to the United States from Israel in 2004, and that I was disheartened by the bias expressed in the presentation and in much of her reporting. I noted that while she was not supposed to give her opinions, they were very evident throughout her presentation that evening. She spoke of Gilad Shalit but nothing of the 7,000 Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli prisons, many without being charged with any crime, many of them children. She spoke about a piece of a Kassam rocket which she attempted to bring back to the U.S. as a souvenir, but did not attempt to bring back a piece of a white phosphorous shell bearing the “Made in the USA” stamp which burned babies to death in Gaza. She mentioned Jewish victims of terrorist and suicide attacks, but spoke nothing of the far more numerous Palestinian victims of the Israeli Defense Forces and settler attacks. She also, too frequently, used the term “terrorist” when referring to Palestinians. She gave an update of rockets being fired from Gaza, but not of the closure and imprisonment of the Gazan populace. She had the audacity to speak of the “stranger anxiety” afflicting Jewish Israeli children but nothing of the daily terrorizing, killing, maiming, and imprisonment of Palestinian children.
Ironically in response to my query, Gradstein said that when I had used the term “biased” she assumed I was going to complain about her pro-Palestinian bias! (The mere fact that NPR has been, at times, so-charged just demonstrates that any questioning of Israeli policy in the U.S. media is considered slanderous.) Linda Gradstein then claimed that she “really tries to cover both sides fairly.”
Despite speaking before a large Jewish audience, my comments did not appear to be too harshly received. I think that even the mainstream Jewish community is looking for a more substantive conversation.
Based on what I heard from Gradstein, I decided to cease my support of NPR until they hire a Palestinian reporter or one capable of reporting fairly.
And on a humorous note, I noticed a police officer assigned to guard the guests as they emerged from the synagogue to head to their cars in the brightly lit parking lot. (The synagogue is located on a little side street in a pleasant residential suburb.) I asked the officer if he provides security for churches or mosques and he replied that he might direct traffic after a “big football game at a Catholic school.” This officer, it turned out, frequently works events at area synagogues. I just wonder if the police presence at these events, serves as a constant reminder to the attendees of “Jews as victims,” and if in some small and indirect way it hinders the pursuit of a real peace based on fairness and justice for all.