The Culture of Cowardice
By Nancy Lees
Chalk up another victory for the Canadian Jewish Congress. The powerful lobby group that recently won a battle against the North Shore News' Doug Collins has been duking it out with yet another community newspaper. Only this time they barely had to throw a punch. Greg Felton, a writer for The Vancouver Courier, had the freedom to write about anything he wanted to in his column. That is, until he decided to write about the conflict between the Jewish nation of Israel and the plight of Palestinians who live there. He argued in several columns that Israel was not holding up its end of the peace process, and had consistently managed to persuade other nations, and most of the media to ignore that fact.
Felton's articles set off a flare in an already volatile issue. The threat of a reader and advertiser boycott forced the paper to choose between a highly influential lobby group and the right of a columnist to voice an opinion.
In a May 10, 1998 editorial, Felton attacked Israel, comparing its policies to apartheid in South Africa.
"There is no fundamental difference between the two apartheids," Felton wrote, "yet Zionists have successfully disguised Jewish apartheid as a national liberation movement.
"As I compare Israel today and 50 years ago, I have to marvel at how successfully the Jewish lobby has used its financial and political clout to buy, bribe and bully the U.S. into bankrolling Israel's existence."
After this first article, Felton didn't touch the issue again until November, when he wrote a piece criticizing a National Post editorial on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Felton felt the Post's take on the issue was one-sided, and countered several of its statements with his own piece entitled, "National Post impaled on its own hubris."
"Editorials are by their nature argumentative," Felton wrote, "but their writers should have at least a nodding acquaintance with facts and logical argument."
But the breaking point came with one line. "If Arafat sides with the more militant Hamas, occupied Palestinians will never know peace. The tragedy for Arafat is that Hamas's position is morally and legally correct."
Felton's columns raised the ire of The Canadian Jewish Congress, which flexed its powerful lobbying muscle and effectively shut Felton down.
The CJC issued a press release stating that Felton was attacking the very foundation of Israel. The congress called Felton's reporting biased and were outraged that he seemed to be supporting terrorism.
But Felton feels they missed the point of his article. He said he wasn't supporting terrorism, he was simply stating that the Hamas's position with respect to the Palestinian ownership of the West Bank of the Gaza strip is correct.
"The statement essentially sent people into orbit," Felton said. "They don't like me mentioning these things."
But Nisson Goldman, vice-chair of the CJC, doesn't buy that argument.
"The Hamas are a terrorist organization," Goldman said. "How do you say that terrorism is morally correct? I don't care what interpretation you put on them, those are the words. And you have to take them at face value."
In a press release, the CJC urged people to "vote with their feet" and called upon the community to boycott The Vancouver Courier. The tactic worked. In November 1998, the order came down from the publishers that Felton was not to touch the subject again in any future columns.
The decision sparked debate through letters and columns in many other publications including The Vancouver Sun, The Western Jewish Bulletin and The Georgia Straight.
"I've had a lot of support on this," Felton said. "I have more support than I have criticism now. Unfortunately my critics are better organized, have more money and can put more influence on the paper."
Soon after the directive came down, another press release was issued, this time from the Arab Community Association of B.C., the Canadian Palestinian Organization and the Canadian Friends of the Middle East. Rafeh Hulays, director of external affairs for the Arab Community Association, claimed that the Congress was blatantly attacking freedom of the press, and that since they had been unable to refute Felton's claims in public debate, they were determined to silence and vilify him.
"We are interested in a frank and a balanced debate about the Middle East and the Palestine conflict, but cannot tolerate vilification of those who raise the issue of justice and human rights for the Palestinian people," Hulays said. "This objective is being made impossible by those determined to see only the Israeli side in print."
But Goldman argued that it was in the interest of fair and balanced debate that they initiated this boycott. He said Felton is the only one at The Vancouver Courier who ever writes on this topic, and claims that opposing letters are seldom published, nor are they as attention grabbing as Felton's columns are.
"Nobody wants to stop somebody from exercising a fair journalistic right," Goldman said. "The Canadian Jewish Congress doesn't want to see that at all. What they want to see is fair reporting, balanced reporting, and knowledgeable reporting. But we don't think Mr. Felton was coming up with that at all."
Goldman said that most people in the Middle East are trying to find a middle ground, to make peace, and that Felton is quoting people who are radicals.
"I felt that was destructive," Goldman said. "I didn't think it was in anyone's best interest, including the Palestinians."
He accuses Felton of taking facts out of context and only using those which suited his agenda. This, to Goldman, is not journalism, but simple propaganda.
"If you want propaganda then no, he's not wrong," Goldman said. "But I don't think editorials should be propaganda."
Felton defends his articles by saying the mainstream media have always ignored the Palestinian side of politics in Israel.
"I believed myself to be filling an unfortunate void in the commentary about Middle Eastern politics," Felton said. "If I'm not allowed to be writing about that, then somebody else bloody well better."
Felton claims he always argues from a position of historical fact, and that the CJC just doesn't want people hearing about it. He feels it is his job as an editorialist to foster debate on issues like this one.
"An editorial writer that is afraid to challenge, to provoke and to stir up controversy isn't worth his salt."
As for the claims of bias, Felton said that's a sham.
"If you don't like what I write, I don't care," Felton said. "Write a letter to the editor, I'll run it, and I'll write the headline myself. But argue the information."
The experience has angered and frustrated Felton, but he refuses to let it affect his writing.
"I will not allow myself to feel that I have to walk on eggshells because this or that interest group has got it's nose out of joint," Felton said. "There is such a culture of cowardice in this country that pervades journalism. The culture that tells us we have to be nurturing and happy and not offend people. Well for crying out loud, the purpose of a newspaper is to sometimes be offensive. If you don't challenge people, you become little more than a vanity mirror in which they can see their own conceited egos reflected back at them."
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The worst human rights law in history
An aesthete's guide to the National Post
Jocks and Jills
6 o'clock nuisance
Abuse of position
The culture of cowardice
An interview with Carlos Fernando Chamorro
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