The Anger Over an Online Essay

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By Deborah Howell
Sunday, February 3, 2008

A Jan. 7 essay on Jewish identity, published on washingtonpost.com's popular On Faith site, caused a furor and led to two public apologies, a lost job and much recrimination.

On Faith's moderators -- Sally Quinn, author and Post writer, and Newsweek editor Jon Meacham-- pose a thought-provoking question each week to a panel of religion experts. That week, it was: "PBS is airing a series on 'The Jewish Americans.' We know what 'Jewish identity' has meant in the past. What will it mean in the future? How does a minority religion retain its roots and embrace change?"

Panelist Arun Gandhi, a grandson of pacifist Indian leader Mahatma Gandhi, wrote a response, including: "Jewish identity in the past has been locked into the Holocaust experience. . . . It is a very good example of [how] a community can overplay a historic experience to the point that it begins to repulse friends. . . . The world did feel sorry for the episode but when an individual or a nation refuses to forgive and move on the regret turns into anger. . . . The Jewish identity in the future appears bleak. . . . We have created a culture of violence (Israel and the Jews are the biggest players) and that Culture of Violence is eventually going to destroy humanity."

Gandhi posted the comments to his On Faith page before an editor saw them. On Faith editor David Waters felt the piece was "controversial and inflammatory, but a lot of what we publish is, given the wide range of conversation on this site." Waters felt Gandhi was criticizing the Israeli government. "He condemns all government violence." Waters said the reaction surprised him. "It reminded me you have to be especially careful when editing religion."

Waters paired Gandhi's piece with an opposite view by the Rev. C. Welton Gaddy, who leads the nonpartisan Interfaith Alliance. Waters's boss, Hal Straus, interactivity and communities editor, said, "I read the piece as being a pacifist's critique of Israeli policy, not an anti-Semite's criticism of Jews -- and as both a Jew and an editor, I take anti-Semitism seriously. We should have asked Gandhi to clarify."

The pieces were promoted on the washingtonpost.com home page, and criticism erupted. Among the many who responded was Jack L. Arbiser, a professor at the Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta, who wrote: "I was astounded that you chose to run the overtly racist rant by Arun Gandhi. . . . Judaism and Jewish identity are not based upon the Holocaust. Jewish identity is based upon the Torah, a God-given document to humanity. . . . His screed would have fit in well with Nazi philosophy, except for the inconvenience that Gandhi would have not been awarded Aryan status."

On Jan. 10, Gandhi apologized: "I do not believe and should not have implied that the policies of the Israeli government are reflective of the views of all Jewish people." He resigned on Jan. 25 as president of the board of M.K. Gandhi Institute for Nonviolence, housed at the University of Rochester, and said, "My intention was to generate a healthy discussion on the proliferation of violence. . . . Instead, unintentionally, my words have resulted in pain, anger, confusion and embarrassment."

Gandhi said he is "quite devastated," especially about resigning from the institute, which he co-founded. He said the essay was written in a hurry in India while he was leading Americans on a tour through "Gandhi's India." He wished it had been "more careful, more dispassionate, diplomatic and not so harsh." He does not regret what he wrote about Israeli policies, "but I know many Jewish people who work for peace."

Meacham and Quinn apologized on Jan. 18 and published a critical letter from Judea Pearl, father of the late Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, who was murdered by Muslim extremists in Pakistan in 2002.

The apologies helped, but some readers wanted the article removed and Gandhi off the panel. Quinn and Meacham said Gandhi will stay on the panel. It is the policy of washingtonpost.com editors not to remove articles; they equate that with trying to change history.

In hindsight, everyone sees the error. Straus said the piece should not have been published. Waters said Gandhi should have been asked to rewrite it. Meacham said the article was "ill-conceived and sloppily written. I regret the whole thing. When I read it, I flinched. It should have come down." Meacham and Quinn also wished they had apologized earlier. The lessons learned, Meacham said, were: "Take it down. Always apologize when you're in the wrong and quickly."

Quinn said that Gandhi is being asked to write another piece "about what he has learned from this experience, and we will have our panel discuss the issue. We think this has been an instructive and enlightening experience. We hope people will see it as such. We made a mistake. We went over the line, and we are going to guard against that in the future. But we don't want to muzzle people. Then there would be no point in having a pluralistic dialogue."

My view: The piece should not have been published. The apologies should have come sooner. The archived piece should have links to the apologies and Pearl's letter. It's a risk to run a site on religion and faith that encourages robust dialogue among diverse panelists. But it is a risk worth taking in a world fractured by belief. Should Gandhi stay on the panel? Let's wait to read what he writes about what he has learned.

Deborah Howell can be reached at 202-334-7582 or at ombudsman@washpost.com.


© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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