A view from Israel: Media misses as Congress tinkers

Now that Israelis are cable TV surfers, I was able to watch American news broadcasts and compare them to Israeli reports while spending March there. This exercise permitted some startling insights into American politicians' manipulation in the media of the terrorism issue, which is so personal and proximate to Israelis.

In broadcasts from the United States, hate-filled gatherings of Israeli religious right-wingers were shown to worldwide audiences as they besieged Prime Minister Shimon Peres during his visits to the sites of the terrorist attacks in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.

Where was the coverage of the sizable peace demonstrations that occurred in Israel and the Palestinian territories following the bombings? Does the American public know the disgust most Israelis felt at the murderous rampage of Baruch Goldstein in Hebron, the disgrace of Yigal Amir's assassination of Yitzhak Rabin or the serious economic hardship the country faces this year as thousands of tourists from around the world cancel planned vacations?

Do Americans understand that the majority in Israel is determined to resist the temptation to scuttle the Oslo peace accords even after the horrors of February and March?

Not from the U.S. media, they don't.

Shivering in Jerusalem's belated winter, I watched CNN broadcast Rep. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) selling the House anti-terrorism bill as the means by which the federal government could finally choke off the pipeline from American coffers to the radical Hamas group. His remarks — an unabashed pitch for support from the Jewish community — suggested that Israel's security depended on passage of the bill.

Ignore for a moment that Peres identified Iran, not funds from the United States, as the economic "spearhead" of terrorism. Suspend consideration of whether it is wise to loosen further the limited restraints on the federal government's police powers just so politicians can enact a law in time to commemorate the April 19 anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing.

Not mentioned in this news broadcast was the fact that the pending legislation contains a wholly unrelated provision that, in the bargain, will deny all Americans — not just accused terrorists — the right to have federal courts overturn wrongful criminal convictions.

As I watched Schumer's press conference, I longed to see beside him a poster-sized photograph of Leo Frank hanging from a tree surrounded by smug-faced men with arms folded across their chests.

Neither Schumer nor the reporter mentioned Frank, a Jewish factory owner who, in 1915, was convicted in Atlanta of killing a Christian woman. Frank's trial was a sham attended by bigoted, jeering crowds and presided over by a judge who aided and abetted the prosecutors in full view of the jury.

Three months after the U.S. Supreme Court turned down Frank's habeas corpus petition, he was dragged from his prison cell and lynched.

Although the high court denied habeas relief to Frank, it ruled that he was, in fact, entitled to have his state conviction reviewed in the federal judicial system. The decision confirmed the importance of "the Great Writ," making clear that federal courts have the power to ensure that the Bill of Rights is applied to defendants in state courts.

Not about to give a Democratic president a clear political "victory" (i.e., an anti-terrorism bill to sign), congressional Republicans selected habeas corpus as the price the president would have to pay to look tough on terrorism. By deceiving the media and public into believing that habeas is the obstacle to speedier executions, Republicans are convinced they will gain crime-fighting points.

Habeas, a right secured to us by the Founders, has become this year's Willie Horton. Never mind that 1 percent of all habeas petitions are filed by death row inmates. The loss of this historic right to appeal to a federal court will apply equally to anti-abortion demonstrators, marijuana-smoking cancer and AIDS patients, tax protesters, home schoolers, business people convicted of white collar violations — everyone who might be convicted of a crime in a state court.

I was outraged that American Jews were being urged to support a bill that promises the destruction of a bedrock civil liberty.

I was saddened that the news arrived at a time when the Knesset is considering codifying values rooted in the Jewish tradition by enacting laws guaranteeing basic human rights.

At this Passover season, I thought about how, in the United States, today's Leo Frank is much more likely to be black and poor than Jewish. I wondered, how far off is the day when Israelis, South Africans, and Russians will all be protected by the very liberties we in America are about to surrender?