Does the L.A. Times get Judaism?

soldiers at wallFor some time now, the Los Angeles Times has been running a feature, Outside the Tent, in which the editorial page invites the newspaper’s critics to take their best shots at specific issues.

I think it’s one of the best examples that I have seen of a mainstream newsroom tapping into the flood of commentary and information that’s available in the blogosphere. Now all the editors have to do is figure out that they should give this feature its own dedicated URL or its own webpage, so that readers can see more than one of them at a time. You know, the same way that they treat other specialty topics and specific columnists. It would be easy to do. Did I miss the URL somewhere?

Anyway, on Sunday the Times featured a column by Rabbi Abraham Cooper of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, who basically said that, when it comes to Israel, the newspaper just doesn’t get Judaism. This was a basic media-bias column that ended with a zinger:

On Sabbath morning, July 29, a Times front-page headline trumpeted: “Israel Rejects Peace Offer.” A subhead added, “Hezbollah Signs On …” Our household wasn’t a subscriber on Aug. 2, when the For the Record correction said that “no formal offer had been presented to the Israeli government so none had been rejected.” Because when the July 30 Times editorial declared that “Israel’s license to wage war is nearing its expiration date,” my wife called the paper and canceled our subscription.

But the heart of this column is an appeal to the newspaper to consider that Jewish life, even when connected to Israel, might have a layer that transcends politics and power.

The rabbi notes that the Times has focused on political rallies and arguments between Muslims and Jews — valid stories — but has missed another crucial development, which is that liberal and Orthodox Jews had started cooperating with each other on some key projects linked to the current crisis.

Or, there is this wave of story ideas and angles from the rabbi:

Nor have you read anything about local Jews’ humanitarian outreach to frontline Israeli communities in northern Israel and adjacent to Gaza. In 72 hours, using the bully pulpit, phones and the Internet, four rabbis (I among them) from Sinai Temple and the Simon Wiesenthal Center raised $1.7 million. Then they, along with supporters, flew to Israel to seek out charities struggling to ameliorate the devastating conditions in the communities of Safed, Kiryat Shemona, Haifa and Nahariya.

As remarkable are the stories of Jews with an L.A. connection living in Israel and working to help Israelis affected by the war. We met Sara Zeltzreman, who for 24 years has volunteered at the Tel Hashomer rehab center, which is financially supported by L.A. Jewry; Cheri Drori, a Beverly Hills-born grandmother who, along with her rabbi husband, ministers to their flock in the overcrowded bomb shelters in Kiryat Shemona; and Neal Duchin, a graduate of Yeshiva University of Los Angeles who helped coordinate the absorption of about 5,000 displaced Israelis in his town of Beit Shemesh without any prodding or funding from the Israeli government.

Now, a newspaper cannot cover everything — not even one as powerful as the Los Angeles Times. But some of those stories are interesting and have strong local hooks.

bigimg36875Still, I thought of the rabbi’s column when I read the Times’ feature story about the life and death of Michael Levin, an Israeli paratrooper from the Philadelphia suburbs who fought to enter the Israeli army as a way of expressing his faith in God, in Israel, in public service or in something higher than himself.

You see, that’s the question. It’s clear that Levin was quite devout. This young man had a strong motivation to fight in Israel. Would it be possible to cover the faith element of the story? Is there a chance that he was an actual believer in the faith called Judaism and that, somehow, his motives were — in his eyes and in the eyes of his family and friends — centered on faith? Is there more to this story than studying Hebrew and hearing bedtime stories about Israel? More to Levin’s death than public relations to put a human face on a war?

The story, by reporters Stephen Braun and Laura King, hints at this but never gives us details that truly answer the question.

Mortally wounded during a firefight with Hezbollah guerrillas in southern Lebanon this month, Levin, 22, was buried on an Israeli hillside. His death so moved Israel’s armed forces that IDF sound trucks drove the streets of Jerusalem before Levin’s military funeral, urging residents to honor “a holy man.” And his passion for Israel has stirred young Zionists and Jewish congregations across the U.S., personalizing a conflict that has at times seemed remote and politically muddied.

When Levin left home for the last time in July,

He said his good-byes to his parents at Kennedy International Airport in New York, in his usual wisecracking manner. But then he grew somber. “He said: ‘Don’t worry about me, I’m doing what I want to do,’ ” his father recalled. “He said, ‘If God should decide to call me home, I’m fine with that. If something happens to me, please bury me at Mt. Herzl.’”

That’s what his parents did.

Was that a statement of faith? In what, precisely? I think Rabbi Cooper would have an opinion on that.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • http://technoyid.blogspot.com Izzy

    Trust me, no mainstream newspaper understands Judaism.

    First, there is no understanding of Judaism as a whole amongst the non-Jewish public. There is some minimal knowledge, such as no pork, Saturday rather than Sunday, etc., but much of that is misunderstood or misinterpreted.

    Second, among those members of the mainstream media who are Jewish, their knowledge of Judaism is, at best, scant. Most likely, it is a misunderstanding or a misinterpreting because they, in their drive to assimilate have become as Jewish-savvy as their non-Jewish counterparts. At worst, they can become the champions of calumny against Jews and Judaism as they attempt to ingratiate themselves with what they perceive as a Judaism-hostile environment.

  • Stephen A.

    As someone who has a foot in both the journalism world and the public relations world, I have conflicted feelings here.

    The Rabbi shouldn’t chastise the media (even the biased LA Times!) for missing stories they didn’t know about. It’s shocking the number of groups, including churches, who simply don’t tell anyone in the media about their events, then get upset when they aren’t covered. I suspect even the Times would have covered the raising of $1.7 mill. in 72 hours.

    Also, cancelling your subscription because of a bad story is a bit of cliche, and it rarely makes the point, unless I suppose if 1000 did it at one time and made a big deal out of it (again, publicity.) Though if your hometown paper is the LA Times, you shouldn’t expect friendly headlines if you’re a conservative – even a Jewish conservative (maybe ESPECIALLY if you are a Jewish conservative.)

    Not to single out the Times, however. Many papers here in the US, and definitely in Europe, trashed Israel for defending itself, and failed to see the religious nuance hidden in stories like the man who went to fight in the IDF. What’s good about the Times is that they offered this platform for criticism of its coverage. Then again, every paper has a letters page, so we can’t even get carried away in that praise.

  • Rob Moll

    Tmatt, unrelated to this post, but I was wondering if you saw a ghost in this editorial in the NYT. http://www.nytimes.com/2006/08/18/opinion/18fri3.html?th&emc=th
    I’m interested in your thoughts on Kosovo.

  • http://conservativeobserver.blogspot.com/ gaius sempronius gracchus

    Nothing could be further from your mind than John Walker Lindh, eh?

    And what does that tell us?

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