Forward Thinking

On the Abunimah Story: It's Called Journalism

By Jane Eisner

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Jonathan Tobin, senior online editor of Commentary magazine, writes. A lot. At least a lot of short, sharp blog posts on his magazine’s website in the unabashedly conservative style that has defined Commentary for decades. It’s an ideological publication, which holds to a point of view that certainly has its place in the firmament of Jewish media and ideas.

But it’s commentary, like its name. It’s not straight journalism.

I fear that the distinction may sometimes be lost on Tobin.

That’s the only explanation I can offer for his diatribe against my colleague J.J. Goldberg over his latest column, and his criticism of our profile of Ali Abunimah, published in the same issue of the Forward.

J.J. is a brilliant, seasoned journalist, who knows more about the history and dynamics of the American Jewish community than probably anyone in our profession, and I feel no need to dignify Tobin’s unfair criticisms with a response. But Tobin pointedly denigrates the Forward’s decision to profile Abunimah, and since that was my decision, I have to respond.

He calls the story a “puff piece” which is not only insulting, it’s wrong. Sharp criticism of Abunimah, the leading proponent of the “one-state solution” to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, was voiced early and often in that story, by credible leaders familiar with his work. It was a balanced and fine piece of story-telling.

But I don’t think that’s what really bothered Tobin. What bothered him was that we published the story at all and in doing so, paid attention to Abunimah and the boycott, sanction and divestment movement that he advocates.

As the kids would say — well, hello! For week we heard a sometimes-hysterical chorus of Jewish leaders who fussed and fussed before Abunimah’s speech at a conference in February at the University of Pennsylvania (which turned out to be a dud), and who have exaggerated the scope and importance of the BDS movement on college campuses around the country. We didn’t make this guy news.

You can’t have it both ways: If the BDS movement is so dangerous that it’s worth lots of time and money to combat, then journalists have a responsibility to cover it, critically but fairly. That’s what the Forward did, on our news pages. Our editorials, which I write, are unstintingly critical of BDS (contrary to Tobin’s characterization.) But we try mightily to present news stories in as fair and balanced a way as possible.

And the other way we are journalists is to seek out and publish opinion of differing points of view. In lambasting the Forward’s latest issue, Tobin picks on the Abunimah story and J.J.’s column. He neglects to mention an opinion piece published in that same issue by Alan Dershowitz (no BDS supporter he) that presented a view at odds with J.J.’s.

Perhaps he hadn’t yet turned the page.


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