Forbes Investigative Star Explains Why His Sights Are Set on Israel (INTERVIEW)
Forbes magazine’s Contributing Editor of Investigations, Richard Behar, who this week published a scathing 15,000-word indictment of the American Studies Association’s vote to boycott Israeli universities, said he wrote the in-depth piece – it took a marathon week of reporting – after reading about the boycott in The Algemeiner’s daily email.
Writing as an investigative journalist for Forbes, a business magazine, whose editors, he said, welcomed his coverage of Israel, Behar said that it was the general media’s negative portrayal of the Jewish State that inspired him to dedicate more time to the subject.
On his Forbes page, the reporter, known for his exposés on Scientology and who has a book underway about Bernie Madoff, links to his previous 22 articles, half of which are about Israel.
“I didn’t write about Israel for 30 years as a journalist, but I just thought enough is enough,” he told The Algemeiner. “I’m just astonished how Israel is so falsely portrayed nowadays, all-too-often in an attempt to delegitimize it.
“The first piece I did was on Gilad Shalit in 2011. I watched an interview by a CNN journalist named Shahira Amin who did a Q&A with Shalit for Egyptian state TV. I thought I might faint,” recalls Behar. “I couldn’t comprehend or stomach how and why this journalist would put him through that, in a hostile country, on a layover en route to Israel, with an armed Hamas terrorist standing over him, after he’d been a prisoner for five years. He was physically ill, mentally exhausted. And she kicked off the interview by saying, ‘Gilad Shalit, you look fine!’
“But when I emailed her some questions, she wrote back admitting that he didn’t look ‘fine’ at all – that he looked ‘terribly tired and malnourished and pale’ — her words — and thinner than photos she had seen of him. She told me that his voice was weak and he seemed to have difficulty concentrating — and that she had to stop the interview several times because of his discomfort. But she didn’t halt the interview, as any decent and well-trained reporter would have. Instead, she told me she felt maternal towards him, and held his hands a few times to calm him down.”
Behar says that what he wishes he had told Amin at that moment was, “Wow, Shahira, I bet his mom really will appreciate knowing that – his mom who hasn’t seen or heard from him in five years, his mom who should have been the one doing the maternal hand-holding at that very moment that you were doing it.’
“Amin defended her decision to interview Shalit — in part because she says the interview was conducted AFTER [her caps] he’d had a medical checkup by the Red Cross. So I called the Red Cross, and it wasn’t true. I then called an expert in hostage negotiations for the FBI, as well as a respected news editor who is an expert on journalism ethics; both of them agreed that this was an odious charade. But the fact that such an interview took place is not the real shocker. The shocker was that so few voices in the global journalism community – outside of Israel, Egypt or Gaza – weighed in on it. Even though an argument could have been made that the interview had violated the Geneva Conventions, because the TV network is an arm of Egypt’s government.”
Behar said his cousins in Israel also have inspired his coverage, though it says less about his family, and more about how Israel is, where it’s so easy to be in the center of a conflict. One distant relative of Behar’s is a commander who survived after his jeep was hit by an anti-tank missile, in November, 2012 – an incident that the IDF said was the immediate catalyst for Operation Pillar of Defense. “I should really write something, I thought, this guy’s my cousin!”
“Right around that time period, I learned that a rocket had just hit near Tel Aviv – and the next thing I know a different cousin is emailing me a photo of the apartment across the street from him, where that rocket had just demolished three floors! Another cousin, who’s in her mid-80s, was going about her business, stepping off a bus in front of her home, when a bomb destroyed a different bus a five-minute walk away. People think I have so many cousins. I don’t. It’s just that Israel is such a small country. Actually it’s not a small country at all—it’s a large kibbutz.
“After that, the topic has gripped me; it’s hard to stay away from it,” says Behar. “When Egypt’s then-president Morsi called Jews apes and pigs, I wrote a scathing piece about how major Western media – especially the New York Times – was ignoring the story. Three days later, the Times put it on the front-page, prompting action by Obama and some U.S. senators. More recently, I had the opportunity to visit Israel and the West Bank to do a Forbes cover story on Israeli-Palestinian high-tech ventures, which I think is the true – perhaps the only – road to peace. I met some amazing Palestinian entrepreneurs, and I think they are the hope for the future there.
“Most people don’t know about Mideast history, and they don’t spend the time to learn it. That’s what our 24-7 internet iPhone babble-head culture has brought us, where lengthy investigative pieces are not read like they once were. When many people come to the subject of Israel, it’s like they just woke up on that day – like aliens from outer space landing on earth and crying that there shouldn’t be walls and checkpoints and that a state called Palestine should exist immediately.”
But Behar doesn’t think Jews outside of Israel should have a say in Israel’s big decisions. “I’m not Israeli, and my vote can’t count at the end of the day. I’m not living there under the rockets, not yet anyway. That is for Israelis to decide. I think people lose that perspective.”
Two years ago, Behar recalled, former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert spoke at a Jerusalem Post Conference. “This was to a very right-wing crowd in New York, and they were booing him after he stated that Israel’s government wasn’t doing enough to push a peace plan onto the Palestinian leaders. As he’s getting booed, he said, ‘I love the courage of people who live 10,000 miles away.’ Israelis are losing their lives, while Jews elsewhere ‘encourage us to be brave.’ That really resonated with me.”
“Extend that to the ASA boycott: who the hell are these people? It’s almost as if they’re treating Israelis like their sub-human, like Israelis are incapable of making decisions on what they need to do and how they need to go about it. ‘Let’s do a boycott, because we know better! We can teach the stubborn Israelis, because we’re so smart! Kumbaya!’ It’s so offensive.
“There are some Jews who are BDSers, which allows some leaders of the movement to assert that one can be against Zionism without being against Jewish people.
“But I don’t think you can separate Judaism from Zionism, that yearning as a people that’s been alive for more than 3,000 years. Zionism is a pillar of Judaism. To me it’s like the Jews for Jesus cult claiming they’re Jews, when they’re not — they’re Christians. And Jews who are anti-Zionist perhaps shouldn’t consider themselves Jews either. Harsh, I know. But I just don’t see any way around it. I didn’t create Judaism, and I didn’t write the Old Book, so you can’t blame it on me. Maybe I would have written it differently.
“One of the photos I found for the Forbes piece, but didn’t ultimately use, was of NYU professor [Nikhil Pal] Singh – a member of ASA’s national council – standing in front of a bust of Martin Luther King, Jr. BDSers often invoke King. What they don’t do, however, is tell you that in 1968, shortly before he was assassinated, there was a dinner in Cambridge, MA, where someone was attacking Israel. MLK interrupted him and said, ‘Don’t talk like that. When people criticize Zionists, they mean Jews. You’re talking anti-Semitism.’
“Like King, I have a dream, too,” Behar told The Algemeiner. “My dream is to see the 18 ASA council members agree to have a debate with 18 academics who I’ll select – perhaps half of them will be people I quoted in the piece. You know what would happen? My panel would eat them for breakfast.”
“[ASA President and NYU Professor Lisa] Duggan says she wants to debate, have an exchange of ideas, but of course they’d never do it. But they should, and it could be live-streamed by NYU, since that’s where a quarter of them [ASA national council members] are based anyway. Maybe I can get some grants for the others to fly in, or their departments can pay. I’m happy to organize it. I’m all for free exchanges and debates. Let’s do it!”
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