The first time I visited a synagogue was to attend the bar mitzvah of a neighbor's son. That was many years ago, and what I remember was a reverent and heartening experience.
Last week, I went to a synagogue for a second time, but not to pay respects at a religious ceremony. I had been invited by the John F. Kennedy Lodge of B'nai B'rith to discuss "The Media and the Middle East." I want to say I enjoyed the bar mitzvah more.
It wasn't surprising, and it wasn't long before speaking gave way to listening to charges against The Post for its slanted reporting and commentary on Israel. Some in the audience of about 200 addressed specific omissions and commissions in the news columns. Others registered more general objections. Absent last weekend's horrors, Lebanon was the immediate focus although some comments were aimed at earlier periods.
Familiar as much of this is, one does not come away insensitive to an obvious anguish and bitterness of a people who think that those who operate this newspaper do so with a bias against Israel; that Israel is relentlessly portrayed as the villain in the Middle East.
Between June 6, when Israel invaded Lebanon, and Sept. 17, after its forces occupied West Beirut, The Post carried at least 500 articles. In the main, the news stories were devoted to the fighting, but also to American diplomatic efforts to end it. The group's most charitable view was that the accounts were unbalanced; at worst, they were deliberately slanted, they thought.
It needs to be said, not in exculpation, that throughout the period the same criticism was heard from the smaller, but no less vocal, Arab community and its supporters. To be sure, the coverage was at times uneven and, on a given day, perhaps unfair. I have said as much about specific stories then and earlier.
The critics can be right and wrong, as in recent instances: I agree the newspaper was remiss in not reporting former secretary of state Alexander Haig's criticism of President Reagan's diplomatic proposals. That Mr. Haig's sponsor, the United Jewish Appeal, failed to notify The Post is a one-day excuse only. I disagree that reporter Caryle Murphy's article Aug. 28 was, as one complainant wrote, a "serious distortion of the Washington Jewish community toward the war in Lebanon." That is not true, and prominent members of the community have said so.
Observing to an audience that the press and government both cover foreign affairs episodically and often on the basis of incomplete information, that shooting situations preclude achieving an equally weighted scale at the end of the day, that the reporter can be as handicapped as the soldier -- seeing the battle, not always the war -- or, that the pace of events forecloses stopping the movie so that beginnings and ends get lost, earned little resonance -- no more than arguments about headlines, length and placement of stories lead to a meeting of minds. Critics are equally unswayed by the notion that a paper deliberately slanted in its news policy--particularly against Israel--would not retain a respected professional staff, many of whom at The Post are Jews. It is simply not credible that this is an anti-Semitic enterprise.
Post editors know of the anger and resentment among Jewish readers and have taken steps to keep open a line of direct contact, hoping for greater mutual understanding. Still, one wonders whether it is less the press coverage that torments readers than a deeper concern about Israel and its people who, as a Time essay said, "at the moment are stage center in the world . . . a people who adopted belief over reason."
There's an old Talmudic story about the disciple who asks a rabbi: "How does one become wise.?"
The rabbi responds: "One studies and works hard."
But many study and work hard and are not wise."
"Then, I suppose one studies, works hard and has experience."
"Yes, bu many study, work hard and have experience, and still are not wise."
But then one needs good judgement."
How does one get good judgement."
"By having a bad experience," is the rabbi's response.
That's what we're having.