Sidebar: The Arianpour Affair, and Other Controversies

By Richard Brenneman
Thursday June 04, 2009 - 07:16:00 AM

Though most reader submissions the Daily Planet has published on the Israel-Palestine conflict have been based on legal and moral arguments, the Aug. 8, 2006, reader-submitted commentary by Kurosh Arianpour crossed a critical threshold, perceived by many as extending beyond a criticism of Israel and its supporters to an attack on all Jews. 

“It was anti-Semitic, and the paper shouldn’t have run it,” said Gloria Polanski, one of the paper’s current advertisers.  

Criticism also came from inside the paper, where several members of the newsroom staff expressed their regrets that the commentary had run. 

The backlash was immediate and intense. 

Nine rabbis and 14 leaders of Jewish community groups signed a letter “to express our pain and disappointment at your use of your newspaper for promoting hatred against Jews” and calling Arianpour’s commentary “not only hurtful and hateful but dangerous.” 

A second letter , submitted by Rabbi Ferenc Raj of Berkeley’s Congregation Beth El, condemned the letter as an example of racism that “violates all that our city and region stands for” and calling on “Ms. O’Malley to apologize to the community.” 

Signatories included the then-mayors of Berkeley, Emeryville and Oakland, then-Assemblymember Loni Hanock and then-state Sen. Don Perata and four members of the Berkeley City Council.  

Other criticisms came in print, including pieces by San Francisco Chronicle columnist Chip Johnson and Will Harper of the East Bay Express.  

O’Malley wrote an editorial about the importance of free speech, and another explaining to Arianpour, who is not a native speaker of English, the serious implications of using the term “anti-Semitism” and rejecting a second submission from him. 

Calls by critics for a meeting with the editor foundered when O’Malley agreed to the meeting but called for it to occur in a public forum and, she said, none of the signers of the letters were willing to meet with her in public. 

The Arianpour commentary may have provided the Planet’s critics with its best ammunition, but the first push for an advertiser boycott came well before that controversy, after the April 16, 2004, publication of an editorial cartoon by Daily Planet editorial cartoonist and now Managing Editor Justin DeFreitas. 

His “State of Palestine” cartoon used the American, Israeli and Palestinian flags in an image protesting what the artist considered the Bush administration’s hypocrisy in posing as a mediator in the conflict while throwing its full support behind the policies of Israel’s Sharon administration.  

The paper printed letters from Jews and Gentiles of both support and condemnation, until readers complained and a moratorium on the topic was put in place. Critics cited the use of the Star of David—the central symbol from the Israeli flag—as blatant anti-Semitism. In addition to the letters to the editor, DeFreitas said he received about a dozen anonymous calls from angry readers, some threatening.  

DeFreitas followed a week later with a commentary in defense of his work, pointing out that the Star of David’s presence on the Israeli flag makes it a political symbol, indeed the national symbol. 

“If you can’t use a nation’s flag to symbolize that nation, what else is there?” DeFreitas said.