Last April 19 the Reader published a Critic's Choice by Ted Shen praising a new documentary, Gaza Strip, that was about to be shown at the Chicago Palestine Film Festival. "The constant barrage of artillery shells, the civilians' complaints, and the images of children convulsing from exposure to nerve gas offer a ringing indictment of the Sharon government," wrote Shen, who soon had reason to wish he'd chosen his words more carefully.
James Longley, the producer-director of Gaza Strip, promptly wrote Shen and the Reader to put some distance between himself and Shen's complimentary review. "Never in my film is a definite statement made as to the nature of the gas used by the IDF," he noted. "The assumption that the gas was 'nerve gas' is yours, and yours alone....There were no fatalities in the event I filmed. The accusation of nerve gas use by the Israeli Defense Forces is an extremely serious one and I do not want it to be associated with my film."
Other letters were far less temperate. Published with Longley's on April 26 was one from Gadi Fishman of Chicago, who wondered "what maniacal demon of blind hatred possessed the Chicago Reader, against the very basics of journalistic etiquette and responsibility, into giving voice to such a vile and deceitful fantasy." On May 24 David Roet, Israel's deputy consul general to the midwest, wrote that Shen "has perhaps unintentionally stumbled on one of the most terrible blood libels...perpetuated by the Palestinians and their supporters....Based on this narrative, the Israelis are accused of deliberately poisoning Arab women and children. This propaganda echoes the centuries-old anti-Semitic canard that Jews poison Christian children."
This canard--the "blood libel" that Jews drain the blood of murdered Christians for their rituals--has haunted Jews for centuries and has been traced back at least as far as the cult of William of Norwich, a 12-year-old supposedly murdered before Passover on March 22, 1144. Not a century since has been free of similar accusations.
"Nerve gas is a loaded term, and I shouldn't have used it," Shen replied in print to Longley and Fishman. Answering the deputy consul a month later, Shen was more assertive: "Despite the objections of Mr. Roet and the many others who've weighed in, [Longley] has well-documented evidence that hundreds of Palestinians were the victims of something that was clearly worse than tear gas."
Among the letters the Reader did not print was a series from Isaac Levendel of Chicago. The "nerve gassing" never happened, Levendel declared, the shots of children in a hospital proved nothing ("We know of several cases of staging for journalists"), and Sharon hadn't even taken power at the time of the "imaginary incident" in early February 2001 (he'd been elected a few days earlier).
Levendel wanted satisfaction on a scale the Reader didn't intend to provide. Shen altered his capsule review of Gaza Strip so that anyone who saw it again in the Reader or looked it up in the movies section of this paper's Web site would read "unidentified gas" instead of "nerve gas." But the reference to the Sharon government wasn't changed. And as Levendel was aware--though Reader editor Alison True wasn't--the original capsule remained in the Reader on-line archive (a separate electronic file). This week True learned that the original had survived there and changed it.
Another dissatisfied reader was Ora Hoshen of Naperville, who told us that because Shen's Critic's Choice had also been carried in the suburban edition of this paper, the Reader's Guide to Arts and Entertainment, the letters criticizing it and Shen's responses must also appear there. The Reader's Guide doesn't normally carry letters, and True didn't think Shen's capsule warranted an exception.
Levendel and Hoshen are highly willful people. He's the author of Not the Germans Alone: A Son's Search for the Truth of Vichy, which describes his search for the killers of his mother, who died in southern France in 1944 and his discovery that French collaborators were heavily involved. Hoshen, a cancer survivor and distance runner, led a 1992 campaign to persuade the first Bush administration to allow the abortion drug RU-486 into the country to be used to fight cancer. The highlight of that ultimately successful campaign was the time she and a couple dozen other demonstrators trapped their archenemy, Congressman Henry Hyde, in his limousine and wouldn't let him go until he agreed to a meeting.
The Shen capsule was no small thing to either Levendel or Hoshen. When the Reader failed to set the record straight to their satisfaction they took their case to Honest Reporting, a grassroots Jewish organization linked by the Internet that floods straying media with protesting E-mail. (Honest Reporting was launched two years ago in London by students belonging to Aish HaTorah, a youthful organization founded in 1974 to revitalize Judaism.) On Monday, August 12, a "communique" headlined "Blood Libel Strikes Back" was posted on the Web site honestreporting.com.
The first target of this communique was the BBC, accused of credulously reporting as true a 19th-century variation on the blood libel that had Jews in Damascus murdering a French priest and his servant and using their blood and bones to cook matzo. The second target was the Reader. Honest Reporting republished most of Shen's original capsule, putting the word "images of children convulsing from exposure to nerve gas" in bold caps, and commented: "Despite great efforts by HonestReporting member Ora H. and others, the Chicago Reader has never retracted or apologized for this 'blood libel.'" A link to the Reader's E-mail address followed.
That evening Levendel E-mailed us again. "I was one of those who initially tried to help you become more objective, to no avail," he said. "This is why we asked Honest Reporting to help us help you write more truthfully....In YOUR frenzy to indict Sharon, you manufactured a story that took place BEFORE he even took office, distorted the facts to better fit your goals and contributed to an unfair campaign of character assassination using half-lies. Am I writing in clear English?"
After this letter came the deluge. For the next two days our E-mail service brought us letters by the dozens, eventually by the hundreds, from all over the country. Some tried to argue or explain: "By demonizing Israel, and protecting Arafat, you do not help the Palestinians. As long as your audience, and western audiences in general, believe your version of the Mideast story, Arafat will maintain his tacit approval, or at least acceptance by the West, and there will be no peace in the Mideast."
Many more damned the Reader: "This is a blatant lie and a libel on the Israeli government." "You are not far away from the ultimate goal of accusing the Jews of using the blood of Christians or Muslims to make Matza." "This is nothing but a form of 'blood libel.'" "I hope you die from nerve gas." "The nerve gas you need to examine is what travels from those adults (Hamas, et al) via poisonous minds and deposited directly into the skulls of impressionable Arab children." "Never has Israel used anything close to nerve gas." "The height of irresponsible journalism." "A blatant blood libel." "This is a Lie, Malicious, Devious and Dangerous. Israel has morals and standards beyond your comprehension." "The late Joseph Goebbels would be proud of your achievement." "Ted Shen is a pig."
This barrage was impressive up to a point, but that point was soon reached. The Internet has made mass protest quick and easy, and when so many letters so similarly shrill arrive at once they lose their force. A woman who in her day used to write for both the Sun-Times and Tribune as much as admitted she was responding on cue: "Why didn't you write about how the Israelis also kill Arab children to use their blood in making matzos? I'll never read your stupid, second class paper again. You were cited as being one of the papers that printed libel and didn't retract. You are obnoxious and if your children find out the anti-semitic lies you print, they'll be ashamed of you--assuming, or course, that you have children."
"We're not 'anti-Semites printing vicious lies,'" Alison True told me, quoting one of the letters. "But if we were, I can't imagine that getting hammered with E-mails would do much to change our minds." She was sorry that the honestreporting.com call to arms hadn't thought to mention that letters denouncing the Reader had already appeared in the Reader, that Shen had retracted his language in the Reader, and that the capsule had been altered. I called Levendel and told him the ultimate effect of the letters was to make Reader editors angry and numb. "Yeah, that's correct, but listen," he said. "I'll tell you another viewpoint, which is mine." Like a lot of other Jews in Chicago, he hadn't been happy with the Tribune's coverage of the Middle East and he'd said so. "I'm sure the Chicago Tribune is both numb and angry." But, he went on, it's also become much more careful about what it prints. "I'll tell you candidly," he said, "if people want to hear, we talk to them. If they don't want to hear, we put pressure. Some newspapers become self-institutionalized, they consider themselves as monuments. Well, fine."
He took my point about "blood libel" losing force from repetition, and he wasn't sure Shen's capsule had deserved to be called that in the first place. But, he said, Arab papers print the charge that Jews consume Arab blood, surely a blood libel. "So to me the insinuation that the Israelis are reckless with the lives of children to the point of going after them with nerve gas--to me that's not far from the blood libel."
Yes, he said, a vehicle such as Honest Reporting "can trigger people who didn't read the piece and know nothing of Shen. I agree with you profoundly. But don't you think a sentence in the Reader has the same effect in the other direction?" He went on, "If I had not been a perceptive guy who's going to pursue this with my friends, if I had not been Jewish and sensitive, I would have said, 'Hey, Israelis gas children.' You know the written word is very powerful. I appreciate the fact that the blind following is numbing to you. I appreciate that. But the blind distribution of half-truths and lies is numbing to me."
"For me it's very, very simple," says Hoshen. "What the Reader needs to do is apologize. Do you know what Henry Hyde did at the end? He admitted he made a mistake, and he wrote the [pharmaceutical] company and asked them to release the drug. Even Henry Hyde could admit a mistake. But not the Reader."
What Was It?
Unlike almost everyone else the Reader heard from, Isaac Levendel has actually seen Gaza Strip. I asked him what he made of the scene that Shen originally described as "children convulsing from exposure to nerve gas." Did he honestly think that sequence a sham?
"I do not truly believe that the children's illness was fabricated," he E-mailed me back. "However, I have no strong evidence that the children's problem was actually caused by nerve gas or any other unidentified gas. Here are the possibilities (not in any particular order and not necessarily an exhaustive list):
"A. The children were exposed to tear gas and had a physical and/or psychological response to it.
"B. The children had an existing condition (like a form of epilepsy), were exposed to tear gas, and they had a physical and/or psychological reaction.
"C. The children had an existing condition, were exposed to some form of explosions with fumes and had a physical and/or psychological reaction to them.
"D. The children had an existing condition but were not exposed to any gas, and the link was unconsciously fabricated by crowd hysteria.
"E. The children had an existing condition but were not exposed to any gas, and the link was consciously fabricated by interested parties.
"None of the above would surprise me."
I passed these conjectures along to Longley.
He responded: "1. The people hospitalized from exposure to the gas were not only children--I have print-out lists of the patients who were admitted to Nasser and Amal hospitals with the symptoms in question, and the age range is from only a few years to 60+ years. I realize that the discourse here is exclusively about children because that is what Mr. Shen wrote in his review...
"2. I spent many days with the patients in Nasser and Amal hospitals who were suffering from the symptoms I filmed--particularly Amal hospital--and spent nearly two months afterwards tracking down former patients and their families and other witnesses all through the Khan Younis refugee camp, which contains in excess of 60,000 people. In the end, I interviewed more than 40 people on camera--including small children, teens, women, men, doctors, ambulance drivers, international aid workers, etc. Not once did I encounter an interview subject whose account was at all inconsistent with what I had seen myself or heard from other witnesses/patients. None of the many native Arabic speakers who helped me with translations of these interviews in New York City found anything inconsistent or that would put the content of these interviews under suspicion of fabrication. Further, Dr. Helen Bruzau, whose interview is included in my documentary, spent a lot of time with the patients in the Khan Younis hospitals and did not find any evidence to suggest that the symptoms were faked or imagined. The most serious case I saw, Mohammed Sultan--age 18--is included in the documentary. He was completely incoherent for the first week he was hospitalized, and he remained hospitalized for nearly one month. Many of the patients remained hospitalized for a week or more.
"3. I don't understand why the discussion continues to revolve around 'nerve gas.' Nerve gas is almost always lethal, and there were no fatalities recorded among the 100+ people admitted to hospital in this incident. Simply because a gas affects the nervous system does not make it 'nerve gas.' If I had to attach a category to the gas used, I would perhaps call it 'neurotoxic gas'--though I would prefer to leave that to medical professionals. The purpose of the gas used was clearly to thoroughly incapacitate, but not to kill.
"4. The tear gas argument does not hold up--for the very simple reason that none of the symptoms exhibited were consistent with tear gas. The first dead give-away is that the gas used was consistently described as 'a black smoke with a sweet smell, not at all unpleasant'--anyone who has encountered tear gas knows that this is something different. The Palestinians in Khan Younis refugee camp and the doctors in the Nasser, European and Amal hospitals know exactly what tear gas is like, and they were particularly surprised and frightened by the 'black gas' because they quickly realized it was something entirely different, with which they had no experience and that they didn't know how to treat. Also, some patients developed dark blotches on their skin--particularly on their chests and backs--which represent a physical manifestation wholly inconsistent with the tear gas theory. Furthermore, the gas canisters that were used in this attack are quite unlike tear gas canisters that I or anyone else I know has had experience with. The IDF uses U.S. manufactured tear gas, which is clearly labeled as such and is easy to identify. The canisters that were used in this attack look very different and have Hebrew characters in the serial numbers--as you can see from the images I included in the PDF file [which can be found on his Web site, www.littleredbutton.com].
"5. The idea of crowd hysteria does not hold up, as the patients were admitted from different sections of the camp, to different hospitals, over the course of several days. Many patients were sent home after one or two days only to return to the hospital later with recurrent symptoms.
"6. The notion of pre-existing medical conditions does not hold water, since it is extremely unlikely that the large number of patients of diverse ages could all have been suffering from some existing condition which caused them to have exactly the same adverse reaction to what was (we would have to assume) an ordinary tear gas.
"I suspect that your correspondent would prefer to believe absolutely any explanation of this incident that does not involve the pre-meditated use of neurotoxic gas by the IDF on a Palestinian refugee camp. He probably also believes that IDF soldiers do not target civilians with deadly force, that the IDF does not demolish the homes of perfectly innocent people en masse in the middle of the night, and that the IDF is the most moral fighting force in the world, as they like to call themselves."
Longley recognized the name of Levendel from his book and said the "best advice" he could give him, "if he is also searching for the truth in this extremely troubling conflict, is to go to the Occupied Territories and see for himself what is taking place there. My own father, who is 70 and classically Jewish in appearance, visited me for two weeks in the Gaza Strip while I was filming and experienced no ill-effects. Nothing is quite the same as first-hand experience."
Levendel didn't want Longley telling him what he believes. He read Longley's response and told me, "This is one more example of a guy who attacks me by lending me a set of beliefs that are totally imaginary, and then attacks these beliefs as if they were real.
"Tell Mr. Longley," Levendel went on, "that Holocaust survivors have the moral right to have independent opinions, and I am sure that there are many things that we could learn from each other (not just me from him). You can also tell Mr. Longley that I do not carry my survival on my face like his father carries his Jewish appearance. Finally, I will ask again: what does Mr. Longley know about what I believe the truth to be about the Israeli behavior? Since we are in the phase of giving advice to each other, I would suggest to Mr. Longley to examine all of the aspects of this 'extremely troubling conflict.' It may do a lot of good to all of us."
Though the identity of the gas that might have been used in the Gaza Strip a year and a half ago won't be established in Chicago, there was no reason not to bring some informed speculation to the subject. I spoke with Tareg Bey, a clinical professor at the University of California-Irvine with expertise in chemical warfare, and read him characteristics of the mysterious agent as described in Longley's E-mail and on his Web site. "Nerve gas," as Longley and the critics at Honest Reporting have chosen to use the term, refers to something lethal--sarin being the best-known example. But to Bey, a nerve gas is a gas that attacks the nervous system. And he said the convulsions, secretions, and respiratory problems, not to mention the headaches and cramps Longley also reported, "all fit really well to nerve gas." The blotches on the skin and the sweet smell of the black gas did not. So he was puzzled.
Levendel said he was "not convinced" by Longley's explanations, but he allowed that the filmmaker's account of the gassing was "troubling." And he didn't pretend to know the truth. "I just brought up the various possibilities to balance the unilateral eagerness to seek only certain types of causes." Besides, his fight was not with Longley but with the Reader--"for stretching the truth about the nerve gas and on the Sharon government, and not retracting it properly."
Hoshen also read Longley's response. Like Levendel, she couldn't say what had afflicted the children in Gaza Strip. But she couldn't believe it was some secret gas, for that was a secret the Israelis could never keep. If Longley wondered what weapons the IDF was using, she told me, he only had to ask. "The Israelis like to blabber," she said. "You know me--Israelis talk too much. Just go ask these stupid young soldiers. They never shut up."
Lead story in the August 20 Sun-Times: "Boom shared by all races in Chicago."
Lead story in that day's Tribune: "Rich '90s failed to lift all."
Each paper provided statistics to make its case.
Headline on page 19A of last Sunday's Sun-Times: "Video poker brings mob buckets of profit."
Headline across pages 6D and 7D of the same paper: "A Majestic view of area's best quarter video poker machines."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/J.B. Spector.