Speaking in Princeton, author Michael Curtis described a spectrum of threats facing Israel, but none as dangerous as a tide of media and world opinion that consistently demonizes the Jewish state.
“Virtually nothing good is ever said about Israel,” said Curtis, professor emeritus of political science at Rutgers University. “So much of the information that appears on the Middle East is misguided, incorrect, and malicious.”
Curtis celebrated his 90th birthday Sept. 11 with a talk at the Princeton Public Library on his latest book, Jews, Antisemitism, and the Middle East (Transaction). Curtis moved to Princeton in 1963 when he was appointed to a teaching position at Rutgers.
In his talk, his targets included the general media, the United Nations, and the movement to boycott Israel.
As an example of media misperceptions of Israel, he noted a recent headline in The New York Times, “1967 Border Is a Source of Strain in the Israeli-Palestinian Talks.”
“What’s wrong with that?” he asked. “There are no ‘borders’; there are simply armistice lines stemming back to 1949 and agreements that call for determining boundaries in final-status talks.”
In addition, he said, the general media ignore the security dangers Israel faces “all the time.”
He noted, as an example, a bombing inside Lebanon in August that wounded four Israeli soldiers, adding that no notice is taken of such events in the American press. (Hizbullah took credit for the bombing, according to the Associated Press.)
Curtis, who founded American Professors for Peace in the Middle East in 1967, said the United Nations was “pernicious in the bias that it has shown.” He saved his severest criticism for the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva, saying, “It spends about two-thirds of its time in condemnations of Israel, and this comes from peace-loving countries like Cuba, Sudan, Libya, Syria, and Mauritania, which still has slaves.”
“It is this double standard that has been applied throughout its existence to Israel’s affairs,” he said.
Acknowledging that there are problems that have to be resolved regarding security, Jerusalem, and boundaries, he said, nonetheless, that “criticism and condemnation is incessant and not applicable to any other country.”
“Criticism is appropriate,” he said, “but relentless wholesale criticism is unjustifiable.”
One example he gave were claims that the Israel Defense Forces mobile hospital unit in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake was involved in stealing organs. (According to the Anti-Defamation League, the false charges were reported as fact by a state-funded Iranian TV news channel, a website belonging to Hamas, and various anti-Israel sites.)
Another false and persistent charge, he said, is that Israel promotes its tolerance of gays and lesbians in order to deflect world attention from the Palestinian problem.
Such condemnation of Israel persists “despite its extraordinary economic progress and its social behavior and concern for its populace, including the integration of Ethiopian and Indian Jews and efforts to open up the possibility of citizenship to the 55,000 Africans who work in the country.”
Curtis decried the movement for boycotts, divestments, and sanctions against Israel, singling out novelist Alice Walker. “When a Jerusalem publisher asked for permission to publish her book in Hebrew, she refused on the grounds that Israel was an apartheid state — not like South Africa but a state that was worse than South Africa and worse than the American South of her youth.”
Asked to explain why Israel is being singled out, Curtis said, “The specious reason is that they disagree with Israel’s policies toward Palestinians, but one wonders whether there is something deeper and more suspect.”
He called anti-Semitism a “unique phenomenon in its universality and historic continuity.” Claiming that it has increased in intensity in recent years, he said it doesn’t make sense that people differ over all kinds of things but seem to share the obsession of anti-Semitism. “Why about Jews is there universality?” he asked. “It crosses party, national, and sex lines.”
Curtis also spoke on the danger of Islamism and efforts to implement Sharia law, and criticized the Palestinian narrative of “victimhood.”
The reactions of participants varied, although some declined to share their opinions because of their friendship with Curtis.
“I thought he made a strong case in defense of Israel and condemnation of the widespread growth of anti-Semitism,” said Jack Hochman, a member of Anshe Emeth Memorial Temple in New Brunswick. Hochman, who has an apartment in London, added that he has been appalled by the English Left and particularly the late Harold Pinter, a London neighbor and a Jew, who was vitriolic in his criticism of Israel.
Ray Schumacher of Hamilton came to the talk because Curtis had been his professor at Rutgers. He said he would have liked to have seen a more balanced presentation. “What points may the other side have that are credible or valid? That shows that at least you’re opening your mind to the other point of view,” he said.
Peter Lindenfeld, an emeritus physics professor at Rutgers University and supporter of the left-leaning J Street, has known Curtis for 50 years. “Michael says things that are undoubtedly correct and true but they are all one-sided, and he doesn’t countenance any criticism of Israel,” he said.
Rysia de Ravel, a member of the executive committee of Jewish Federation of Princeton Mercer Bucks, described herself as “a great admirer of Michael.”
“I was born in Warsaw, and my family was wiped out during the Holocaust,” said de Ravel. “We were refugees and lived in the slums of Paris — so what Michael has to say resonates.”