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April 28, 2021 4:50 pm

New York Times Essayist, Obama CIA Chief, Infuriates Jews by Accusing ‘Scarred’ Nation of Lacking Empathy

avatar by Ira Stoll


Former CIA director John Brennan speaks during a panel at The Center on National Security at Fordham Law School in Manhattan, New York, U.S., September 4, 2018. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton

Jewish readers are furious about a New York Times opinion writer who issued a tweet complaining that he can’t understand why Jews aren’t more “empathetic champions” of the Palestinians.

The tweet was by John O. Brennan, who was director of the Central Intelligence Agency during President Obama’s administration. It said, “I always found it difficult to fathom how a nation of people deeply scarred by a history replete with prejudice, religious persecution, & unspeakable violence perpetrated against them would not be the empathetic champions of those whose rights & freedoms are still abridged.”

Brennan linked to a New York Timesguest essay” — the paper’s new term for an op-ed piece — that he had written. The essay dredges up an unverifiable anecdote from 1975. “I was excited about visiting Jerusalem and spending Christmas Eve in Bethlehem. I joined a relatively short line, which moved at a steady and efficient pace,” Brennan writes. “A few feet away, I could see men, women and children in a much longer line fully enclosed by steel mesh fencing labeled ‘Palestinians and Arabs.’ I saw several subjected to discourtesy and aggressive searches by Israeli soldiers.”

Brennan writes that “young girls and boys who live in the West Bank and Gaza Strip …g row up traumatized by injustice, discrimination and violence. They live with the feeling that their existence is controlled by people who don’t care about their welfare, their safety or their future.”

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He writes, “the United States needs to tell Israeli leaders to cease provocative settlement construction and … oppressive security practices.”

Brennan proposes “a two-state solution,” but the Times contextualizes his article with a link to a Peter Beinart Times article headlined, “I No Longer Believe in a Jewish State.” That’s a way to make sure that no innocent or impressionable Times readers are permitted to take away from Brennan’s article the idea that Israel be allowed to continue existing as a Jewish state alongside a Palestinian one.

The Brennan article has a correction appended: “Correction: April 27, 2021 An earlier version of this article and an accompanying picture caption misspelled the surname of a filmmaker. She is Farah Nabulsi, not Nablusi.” That itself is pretty humorous, because in announcing the new “guest essay” policy, the Times declared, “Before we publish your article, it must be fact-checked. …We will work to verify the facts in your article, but as the writer, you bear the ultimate responsibility for the accuracy of your work. We cannot fix anything after publication without appending a correction — and corrections are permanently archived. Past errors are a factor when we consider whether to accept future work from a writer.”

Brennan’s tweet was met with what in social media is called a “ratio”—more derision than amplification.

“The lesson of 2000 years of persecution of the Jewish people is that Israel should live up to John Brennan’s moral standards. The level of stupidity and arrogance here is unbelievable,” wrote David Bernstein, a law professor at George Mason University.

“‘John Brennan shares his thoughts about Jews’ has become a full-blown genre,” commented the national security adviser to Senator Ted Cruz, Omri Ceren.

Noah Pollak, executive director of the Alliance Initiative, commented sarcastically, “On behalf of The Jews let me sincerely apologize for letting you down. Indeed we haven’t been living up to your ideals of giving land & power to terrorists trying to kill us. We should be more generous. We hope to earn your praise soon by dropping our objections to Hamas.”

Sara Yael Hirschhorn was succinct: “Two words: HAMAS rockets.”

An editor at Newsweek, Batya Ungar-Sargon, commented, “There’s a word for holding Jews to a higher standard than everyone else: It’s called antisemitism. But there should be a special word for holding Jews to a higher standard than everyone else due to the very persecution and genocide that was inflicted on us throughout history.”

And Michael Doran, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, commented, “John Brennan is in therapy, trying to get in touch with his inner antisemite.”

The CEO of the American Jewish Committee, David Harris, wrote, “Outrageous. Using Jewish history, incl. Holocaust, as a cudgel against Israel is obscene. Jewish history means Israel must take any threat to its existence seriously & rely on itself. Israel needs a Palestinian partner to make peace. Alas, that partner has been MIA since 1947.”

It’s hard to top what’s been said, but let me venture a longer-than-tweet-length explanation of my own take on precisely why Brennan’s tweet was such a clunker. First, one of the whole founding ideas of Zionism was that of the “new Jew” — not “scarred,” but muscular, tanned, and strong. Second, the idea that the experience of suffering translates into morality is a classically Christian idea; think of Jesus on the cross. Jews would prefer not to suffer. After we have, we prefer not to be lectured by non-Jews about how we’ve failed to properly learn our lessons. And the symmetry of Jewish victimhood and Palestinian victimhood that Brennan draws is actually asymmetrical, as the scales are vastly different. Contrary to Brennan’s suggestion, Jews are still victims in various contexts. And contrary to Brennan’s assertion, Jews are empathetic — not only to the Palestinians, but to other oppressed minorities around the world.

It’s dismaying that a person with these views was CIA director. And it’s not a good look for the Times to kick off its “guest essay” era with a contributor whose essay itself required a correction, and whose outrageous tweet makes the Times look foolish.

Ira Stoll was managing editor of The Forward and North American editor of The Jerusalem Post. His media critique, a regular Algemeiner feature, can be found here.

The opinions presented by Algemeiner bloggers are solely theirs and do not represent those of The Algemeiner, its publishers or editors. If you would like to share your views with a blog post on The Algemeiner, please be in touch through our Contact page.

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