As usual, good Francis and bad Benedict at the BBC


The honeymoon continues for Pope Francis and the press.

Coverage of the pope’s trip to Israel and the Palestinian territories was rather good. Save for a brief flutter over what language Jesus spoke, the press coverage was sympathetic, balanced and thoughtful, and in marked contrast to the treatment afforded Benedict when he traveled to Germany or England or Mexico.

Yet the visit to Israel and the Palestinian territories also highlighted the shortcomings of the craft of journalism — shortcomings not in the form of errors or omissions, but unexamined assumptions. When should a reporter stop and ask himself if he is repeating the conventional wisdom — taking on trust that something is a fact, when it is an opinion?

A BBC story on Francis and the Middle East entitled “Pope Francis cements reputation for deft diplomacy” repeats the now rather tired conventional wisdom of the good Francis / bad Benedict. While the two popes have very different styles, I do not believe there are facts that would substantiate the good/bad claims.

Benedict has had a tough time of it from the start. While the German press lauded his election, the first German pope in 1000 years, the secular press in Europe seems to have taken against him from the start. There was no honeymoon for Benedict from The Economist in 2005, which saw him as “an unsurprising choice.” And “to many, he will inevitably be a disappointing one.”

While the BBC stated:

Critics have attacked not just his tough conservative stance – speculating that it may alienate churchgoers of the 21st Century who prefer a more flexible doctrine – but also wonder whether the 78-year-old is charismatic enough to engender much affection.

By way of contrast, Francis has been described as a breath of fresh air by the secular press. In choosing Francis as its “person of the year” for 2013, Time magazine’s editor Nancy Gibb wrote Francis had:

done something remarkable: he has not changed the words, but he’s changed the music.

The new pope was a kinder, gentler man, Time believed, who had rejected “church dogma.” He was teaching a softer, more inclusive Catholicism, noting his:

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What language did Jesus speak? The Tablet knows

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So, did the pope and Israel’s prime minister have a rancorous exchange in Jerusalem over the topic of Jesus’ mother tongue?

One thing is certain: Headline writers had a field day with the “spar”, as Reuters characterized the encounter. Was it a “spat,” as per The Chicago Tribune? Did they “publicly bicker” as per The Age of Melbourne? Did Francis “correct” Netayahu, as Time reported? Or was the National Post  correct in calling it a “quibble”?

Commentators were quick to jump. I’ve seen a fair number of anti-Semitic comments on Facebook, as well as anti-Catholic ones (I move in mixed circles), that denounce Francis or Netanyahu with vigor.

Aslan Reza tweeted his views:

Carolyn Glick of The Jerusalem Post noted the political ramification of the remarks, placing them in the context of what she saw as a failed papal visit that set back Catholic-Jewish relations.

In one of his blander pronouncements during the papal visit, Netanyahu mentioned on Monday that Jesus spoke Hebrew. There was nothing incorrect about Netanyahu’s statement. Jesus was after all, an Israeli Jew.

But Francis couldn’t take the truth. So he indelicately interrupted his host, interjecting, “Aramaic.”

Netanyahu was probably flustered. True, at the time, educated Jews spoke and wrote in Aramaic. And Jesus was educated. But the language of the people was Hebrew. And Jesus preached to the people, in Hebrew.

Netanyahu responded, “He spoke Aramaic, but he knew Hebrew.”

Reuters’ write-up of the incident tried to explain away the pope’s rudeness and historical revisionism, asserting, “Modern-day discourse about Jesus is complicated and often political.” The report went on to delicately mention, “Palestinians sometimes describe Jesus as a Palestinian. Israelis object to that.”

Israelis “object to that” because it is a lie.

Setting aside the politics of the Middle East and inter-faith realtions, when it comes to the reporting on the interchange between pontiff and prime minister Yair Rosenberg of The Tablet has the story. Offering a cross section of headlines that painted the exchange in tense or harsh tones, Rosenberg wrote:

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Haaretz and Jewish resistance to the Holocaust

Do you remember Tom Lehrer, the composer/comedian/mathematician? I have long loved his music, which I discovered as a young boy when exploring my parent’s record collection.

A recent article in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz set spinning in my head one of Lehrer’s LPs this Christmas and to the embarrassment of my children I broke into song, serenading them with the refrain from Lehrer’s satiric gem National Brotherhood Week (1965).

Oh, the Protestants hate the Catholics,
And the Catholics hate the Protestants,
And the Hindus hate the Moslems,
And everybody hates the Jews.

My fertile mind however, added an additional line — “And Haaretz does too!”

Hates the Jews that is.

How else can one explain this article, “The Myth of the Warsaw Ghetto” published last week in the leftist Israeli daily? Writing on the website of Commentary magazine, Eugene Kontorovich summarized the article’s thesis, stating that Haaretz believed that if:

the fighters had not been so uppity, if they had not made a fuss–then the Nazis, who had already murdered 500,000 Jews of Warsaw, might have let the remaining 50,000 live. Maybe! It is not a new argument. Rather, the author amazingly resurrects and endorses the arguments of the Judernat, the Jewish collaboration government of the Ghetto. With every new deportation, they urged restrain with increasing urgency–maybe they will let the rest of us live, and if you fight, all the past deportations would be a sacrifice in vain.

Haaretz’ story discusses the controversy over the number of Jews who fought and the number of Nazis killed, and also offers its view of the political and national symbolism of the Warsaw uprising for modern-day Israel. The article concludes:

The 50,000 or so Jews who remained in the Warsaw Ghetto after the transports of 1942 had survived, as in other ghettos in occupied Poland, largely because they worked in factories for Germany. Many of these factories were owned and managed by Germans, who negotiated with the German authorities and the SS to hold on to their workers.

In light of all this, the Jews’ belief grew that somehow they could survive. They had two bad options: Flee the ghetto to the hostile Polish side or continue working in the German factories. Both options meant living day to day in the hope the war would end quickly.

At the end of the war, hundreds of thousands of Jews survived in Poland and Germany. In Warsaw alone the number of survivors is estimated at about 25,000. Death in battle, as the ghetto fighters planned, did not keep with the intentions of the vast majority of Jews remaining. … Thus the question has never been raised: What right did a small group of young people have to decide the fate of the 50,000 Jews of the Warsaw Ghetto?

Commentary was scathing in its response. Haaretz had:

shown that it exists in a world entirely divorced from any Jewish consensus, and cannot claim the title of loyal opposition. It has crossed all prior bounds of decency and published a criticism of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, calling it a “myth,” and accusing its heroes of being responsible for the ultimate liquidation of the Ghetto. Despite disagreements on diplomatic, territorial, and religious issues, the memory of the Holocaust–its heroes and victims–had been the great unifying porch in post-War Jewish consciousness. Now the Holocaust is fair game too.

It concluded:

There can be no more terrible case of “blaming the victim” than laying any responsibility for the liquidation of the Ghetto at the feet of the fighters. It is true, the Jewish “communal leadership”–and the rabbis–opposed the uprising. That is what made it brave. The Judenrat had no right to decide if residents of the Ghetto died in gas chambers or fighting for their freedom.

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Another religious holiday commercialized

I remember a sermon where a pastor pointed out that if it weren’t for commercialization of religious holidays, they’d be far less celebrated. This has stuck with me so much that it has changed my negative feelings about the commercialization of Christmas. Now I just wish Pentecost and Ascension were similarly “ruined” by capitalist entrepreneurs. I try to keep the liturgical holidays and seasons in my home but other than Advent, Christmas, Ephiphany and Easter … it’s pretty slim pickings.

So I really enjoyed this story about Ramadan from Huffington Post‘s Jaweed Kaleem. “Ramadan Business A Boon In Islamic Market As Muslims Talk Of Growing Commercialization.” (And don’t miss “Ramadan Start Date 2013: Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday? Muslims Disagree” by the same reporter.) Any reporter will tell you that they struggle to cover annual events. This leads to some systemic bias against the coverage of liturgical churches or against annual religious holidays, such as Ramadan. How does one come up with an informative but fresh angle on a story that is literally over a thousand years old? Here’s how Kaleem handled it:

Growing up in a mostly Christian neighborhood in southern Virginia in the 1970s and 1980s, Raana Smith remembers feeling “lacking” around the holidays. While friends frolicked at Easter Egg hunts and got giddy over the presents under their Christmas trees each December, her Muslim family’s traditions didn’t translate well into toys or games that other kids could understand.

Now 39 and the mother of a three-year-old, Smith is trying to help fill what she sees as a commercial hole for Muslim families raising kids in the United States. Ahead of Tuesday’s first day of Ramadan, the Islamic month when Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset, her Islamic gifts and stationery business, Silver Envelope, has prepared hundreds of Ramadan wares for shipping. They range from an $8.50 Ramadan cookie decorating package to a $15 “Rockets ‘n’ Robots” Ramadan countdown kit (the concept is similar to that of an Advent Calendar) and, for the ambitious, a $69.95 “moon-sighting party” bundle (the holiday period begins and ends with the viewing of the new moon).

“To say Ramadan is busy for us is an understatement,” says Smith, who splits her time between Doha, Qatar and Richmond, Va. “We are targeting people who are looking to revive the Islamic spirit, who are looking to create their own American traditions grounded in Islam, who want to help children get excited about being Muslim through fun products and characters.”

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