Becky O'Malley (courtsey New York Times)
Becky O’Malley (courtsey New York Times)

The New York Times today takes a look at the controversy surrounding The Berkeley Daily Planet and its attitude toward Jews and Israel.

In a lengthy article that ran in the national section, San Francisco bureau chief Jesse McKinley discusses the controversy and points out the irony that free speech is in the center of this debate – in a city long known for its devotion to free speech.

In the last few years, the Daily Planet has been criticized for printing letters from contributors who have attacked some of Israel’s positions. Critics point out that these letters seem anti-Semitic. One 2006 letter from an Iranian student living in India particularly angered the Jewish community. In it, the student suggested that Jews had brought Nazi persecution on themselves.

Becky O’Malley, the editor of the Planet, defends her paper’s right to post submissions from readers. It promotes a free exchange of ideas, which is important in a town like Berkeley, she said. O’Malley points out that the letters are thoughts of readers, not editorials endorsed by the newspaper.

Her critics disagree and point out what they consider a disturbing tendency to criticize Israel in both letters to the paper and articles. John Gertz, who created the website, dpwatchdog.com, to examine the Planet’s positions, says that no other ethnic group or issue has been as vilified in the paper’s pages as Israel. He even suggests on the site that O’Malley might be anti-Semitic.

Jim Sinkinson, another critic of the paper, has been encouraging advertisers to boycott the Planet. Ad revenue has declined 60% in the past year and the Planet has sharply reduced staff, but whether that has to do with the boycott or the economy is difficult to determine.

Their critics call them “militant Zionists.”

In a town like Berkeley, this is an argument that may never end.

Frances Dinkelspiel

Frances Dinkelspiel (co-founder) is a journalist and author. Her first book, Towers of Gold: How One Jewish Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman Created California,...

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3 Comments

  1. I don’t know Mr. Gertz, and judging by his website, he has a tendency to go over the top, in particular his wild speculation about the editor’s purported anti-Semitic family history. But that still doesn’t excuse the Times for its failure to actually articulate properly the claims of Gertz and his comrades, or to accept unquestioningly the DP’s line that it doesn’t have an anti-Israel editorial policy, just a free speech policy.

  2. David,

    I think you may do the Time author a bit of a discredit. The dpwatchdog site is not merely rambling and incoherent, it’s not exactly a shining example of truthful, accurate reporting.

    For example, here is Gertz arguing for BDP’s alleged editorial bias:

    http://dpwatchdog.com/sofewjews.html

    “The May 28, 2009 issue of the Daily Planet ran an article by Joanna Graham that claimed Jews represent only 4% of Berkeley’s population at the very most, [….]”

    Well, first of all, the Daily Planet published no such article. On May 28th, the Daily Planet published a *letter to the editor* by Joanna Graham:

    http://berkeleydailyplanet.com/issue/2009-05-28/article/32983?headline=Letters-to-the-Editor

    Note that the times article said the controversy was mainly over too many letters to the editor and opinion pieces.

    Next, Gertz describes that letter this way:

    “The May 28, 2009 issue of the Daily Planet ran an article by Joanna Graham that claimed Jews represent only 4% of Berkeley’s population at the very most, and therefore such local Jewish concerns as anti-Semitism in Berkeley’s local paper, the Daily Planet, can be safely ignored.”

    Well, have a look at the letter. It says nothing of the kind. It mentions the 4% figure to call into question Mr. Gertz’s accuracy, for he had claimed a much higher figure. It goes on to argue that, regardless of its size, it’s quite apparent that only a small fraction of the Bay Area Jewish community actually agrees with Gertz’s political stances – that Gertz speaks for neither a large group or, most likely, for the majority of Jews in the region.

    Gertz later goes on to defend his alleged facts:

    “Any Berkeley resident should instantly know Graham’s 4% figure to be false. Graham even lays out her erroneous logic, namely that Jews represent only 2% of the American population, and therefore even if you double this, that gives 4% at most. In fact, Jews are estimated at 3% of the U.S. population, but, much moe [sic] importantly, Jews don’t live everywhere with remotely similar frequency. They are represented in much higher relative numbers in the Bay Area than in, for example, Kansas. Then in the Bay Area there are vastly more in some areas than in others; for example, there are many more in Berkeley than in Richmond or Antioch. The leading authority of American Jewish demography is the recently deceased, Gary Tobin. He put Berkeley’s Jewish population at about five times Graham’s claim. ”

    A few moments of research reveals that Ms. Graham is citing widely accepted figures and that Mr. Tobin’s numbers are not taken seriously by many and are regarded as a political statement advocating for a more liberal definition of who is or is not a Jew.

    Even if we accept (as Ms. Graham points out herself) Mr. Tobin’s numbers via Mr. Gertz, the result does nothing but undermine Mr. Gertz’s claim to represent “Jewish Concerns”.

    Mr. Gertz says, of the 4% figure:

    “Moreover, when the Daily Planet receives patently false information does it not make its editor wonder what would be the motive? ”

    Let’s note that the invective here is predicated upon the declaration that the 4% estimation is “patently false”. Far from being false, the 4% estimation is in-line with a very broad consensus that seems to exclude *only* the devotees of Mr. Tobin.

    Do you begin to get the picture of how Mr. Gertz has conducted himself in this debate? Much of his conduct seems to me to have been along the lines of the examples cited above.

    Meanwhile, facts on the ground, it is *mostly* a number of letters to the editor and (reader-contributed) opinion pieces that appear to have set Mr. Gertz into action. In that sense, the Times piece is fully accurate.

    Oh, just for fun, some more Gertz (and replies):

    “Four percent at the very most? Then who are all those people standing in the long lines of Berkeley’s annual Jewish Film Festival,”

    Does watching a movie make one Jewish?

    “and who are those people that attend Berkeley’s annual Jewish Music Festival in droves?”

    With feature acts like Oakland Interfaith Gospel Choir, we can only guess.

    “Why are there at least twelve Berkeley venues for High Holiday services?”

    To put this in scale, with a bit over an average of 400 Berkeley resident observers present at a service, that would amount 4% of the population. Of course, not every Jew attends. Not every attendant is of Berkeley (or necessarily a Jew). Not every venue hosts so many or so few as 400. We can not infer population size that easily but there is nothing in “twelve venues” that makes the 4% estimate ridiculous.

    “How can the local Jewish bookstore, Afiqomin, stay in business when Cody’s, Black Oak, and B&N have closed?”

    Surely it’s highly specialized business and hence *regional* appeal has something to do with it. Note that the “Contacts” page of Afikomon’s web site provides directions to the store from Walnut Creek, San Francisco, and Marin.

    “How can there be over 1000 attendees at the annual local AIPAC dinner?”

    Surely, all from Berkeley and collectively representing 1/20th of the population that Gertz claims to exist?

    “Why does Hillel estimate that there are over 4,000 students at UCB (that would be 4% of Berkeley’s population right there)?”

    Because they are likely mistaken. An overwhelming majority of that purported 4,000 students would appear on racial demographic surveys as “white”. The claim of 4,000 amounts to a claim that roughly 1/4 to 1/5 of white students on campus identify as Jewish. Additionally, even if the number is as high as an unlikely 4,000, only a smaller number register to vote here or stay more than transiently, and only a very small number sympathize with Mr. Gertz’s concerns about the Daily Planet.

    In short, Mr. Gertz appears to be prepared to keep up his line of argumentation all day and one can knock down *nearly* all of his points as I’ve been doing above but doing so brings the argument no closer to resolution. No doubt, when he gets wind of my comments here he’ll either dismiss me as well intentioned but naive or else decide I’m Yet Another Antisemite.

    I will grant him this: the one thing upon which I agree with him.

    The fellow from India whose letter was published as a letter to the editor and which really seemed to spark this whole controversy really had some “issues”. The letter was, I agree, anti-semitic and highly offensive. When I first read it I was glad that BDP had published it and took it as an example of “Can you believe the kinds of letters we get? And from so far away?” In retrospect, a better course would have been to not publish it but perhaps the best course would have been to publish it with a disclaimer saying “We find this position highly offensive but want to pass the letter on in keeping with our general policy of publishing nearly any letter to the editor we get and to illustrate that our paper is being read by at least a few, around the globe.”

    -t

  3. I’ve never heard of the Daily Planet, much less the relevant controversy, but the Times’ piece seemed so one-sidedly favorable to the Planet and its editor that it prompted me to look at Gertz’s dpwatchdog.com to see what the fuss was about. The site is somewhat rambling and unprofessional, and unfortunately does not generally link to the full text of the op-eds, editorials, and letters it quotes from.

    Nevertheless, if the Times is going to cover the controversy, you would think its reporter could at least be bothered to figure out what the controversy actually revolves around. Below are some of the allegations I learned from the site that I didn’t learn from the Times, allegations that show, specifically, that the controversy is not, as the Times has is, about the Planet publishing uncensored letters to the editor that “do not necessarily reflect the views of the Daily Planet.”

    “Becky O’Malley used to claim that, being a free speech absolutist, she publishes everything she receives. The lack of pro-Israel pieces merely reflected the fact that she received very few. This was a flatly false statement at the time she was making it, since we have seen quite a number of pro-Israel pieces, which were sent to O’Malley but which she declined to publish.
    Then she changed her story. She called some pro-Israel pieces “Islamophobic,” and she refused to run them for that reason. She also claimed that pro-Israel articles would “bore” her readers…. When she does publish pro-Israel letters, she has been known to edit their most important sections out. All of this is thoroughly documented elsewhere on this website.”

    “The Berkeley Daily Planet’s own employees share an obsession with Israel, starting with O’Malley herself. Contrary to O’Malley’s assertion that she does not write about Israel, to date (September 2009) the Berkeley Daily Planet has published 24 editorials written with Becky O’Malley’s own hand and which concern the topic of Israel or the Jews. She has written on virtually no other part of the world, except, very occasionally on Iraq.”

    “Conn Hallinan writes a regularly appearing foreign affairs analysis column for the Berkeley Daily Planet, under the byline, “Dispatches From the Edge.” Hallinan is in fact from the very edge of the American body politic, being a lifelong Communist. He is a contributor to various anti-Israel websites, such as PalestineThinkTank.com. At least 15 of his columns to date entirely or mostly concern Israel, while many more bring Israel into articles written chiefly on other topics.”

    Managing editor, Justin DeFreitas has published at least 13 cartoons concerning Israel or the Jews, but only a small handful about all the other situations in the world. Additionally, there have been numerous “news” articles concerning Israel…. By admission and implication, the Berkeley Daily Planet, while obsessed with Israel, is only interested in one side of the story.

    “O’Malley placed an anti-Israel article by well-know anti-Israel activist Henry Norr in the news section instead of in the commentary section where it belonged (August 30, 2005).”

    “Both Becky O’Malley and Conn Hallinan (we will consider Hallinan in depth elsewhere) equate Israel and its supporters with the Nazis. This in itself is a very strong indication of anti-Semitism, while Daily Planet cartoonist, Justin DeFreitas, has used imagery in depicting Israel that is indistinguishable from Nazi and neo-Nazi propaganda.”

    Gertz also claims that despite its claimed commitment to freedom of speech, the paper has special rules that apply to Jews and Israel only, such that pro-Israel Jews (but no other ethnic groups) may be slurred on ethnic grounds in the paper. (The Times notes that Gertz was attacked in a letter to the paper for wearing the “funniest looking yarmulke,” but fails to note that Gertz points out that he doesn’t wear a yarmulke, making the remark not just a juvenile insult, but a juvenile insult of the sort someone who hates Jews would make, like saying “Obama wears the funniest looking dashiki I have ever seen”). Gertz also suggests that the paper has a special letters to the editors policy re Israel, so that anti-Israel and even blatantly anti-Semitic letters from readers outside the Bay Area (one of which is noted in the Times) are published, but pro-Israel letters from local residents are “censored.”

    In short, Gertz alleges not that the Planet is too indulgent in publishing crankish letters to the editor, but that it has an official editorial policy, adhered to by its editors, columnists, and reporters, that is obsessive about and extremely hostile to Israel, to the extent that it sometimes crosses the line into overt anti-Semitism.

    Again, I had never heard of the Planet, or O’Malley, or Gertz. But it does strike me that if the Times thinks that the controversy over the Planet’s coverage of Israel and Jews is worth reporting, it should report both the allegations and O’Malley’s defense, not take the line that O’Malley is under seemingly unfair attack for adhering to free speech principles.