Letters to the Front (Page)

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Hand with Pen
19 Jul 2006

My love affair with letters (reading them, that is) began in 1965 with the epistolary novel Daddy-Long-Legs by Jean Webster, a charming 1912 saga about an orphan and her one-way correspondence with an anonymous benefactor. It intensified ten years later when I read 84, Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff, a slim volume chronicling a charming 20-year-long transatlantic correspondence. Then, in 1980, I picked up A Woman of Independent Means by Elizabeth Forsythe Hailey – an epistolary novel spanning 60 years – and I simply could not put it down.

My love affair with letters (writing them, that is) blossomed in 1971 when I spent my junior year in Jerusalem. No cell phones back then, just crinkly, pale green aerograms on which to scribble your news to the home front before folding and carefully sealing them on three sides. As the years flew by, letter writing – especially to my nieces and nephews, and later, to my husband and children – evolved from pastime to passion.

These days, I have a new epistolary passion. You might call it a love-hate affair with letters (writing them, that is) to the New York Times.

It all began with a 98-word World Briefing that the New York Times published on March 16, 2004:

Abu Abbas, the Palestinian militant who died last week in American custody in Iraq, is likely to be buried near Damascus, said a member of his group, the Palestine Liberation Front. The group had been seeking to bury him in the West Bank, but Israel refused permission, said the spokesman, Wasel Abu Yussef. Mr. Abbas masterminded the hijacking in 1985 of the cruise ship Achille Lauro, in which a 69-year-old American, Leon Klinghoffer, was shot and thrown into the Mediterranean. Mr. Abbas was captured by American forces in April and died of heart disease, the Pentagon said.

As a Jew and as a wheelchair user, I was incensed. After stewing for a few days, I fired off the following letter:

March 18, 2004

To the Editor:

I am concerned that in a four-sentence blurb, “ABU ABBAS TO BE BURIED NEAR DAMASCUS,” the Times exhibits four examples of reporter bias:

Notice the phrase “Abu Abbas, the Palestinian militant.” A man who murders civilians in cold blood is a terrorist, not a militant.

Notice the word, “masterminded,” a word usually denoting praise. Did anyone ever write that Hitler masterminded the Holocaust?

Notice the phrase “69-year-old American, Leon Klinghoffer” instead of “69-year-old American wheelchair user, Leon Klinghoffer.” Forget political correctness: To omit the barbaric malevolence of throwing a quadriplegic overboard is biased journalism at its worst.

Notice the phrase “was shot and thrown into the Mediterranean.” The reader could be left with the impression that Mr. Klinghoffer was not murdered. The militant mastermind merely shot and tossed him, and I guess if no one pulled him back on deck, perhaps a shark did him in.

Of course, my letter never saw the light of day. Nevertheless, whenever another Times article got my blood boiling, I’d dispatch another e-mail to letters@nytimes.com. I’m still batting zero.

Well, since the New York Times refuses to print my letters, I’ve decided to print them myself. Here is a modest example:

November 2, 2004

To the Editor:

Re “Teenage Suicide Bomber Kills 3 in a Market in Tel Aviv”

In two juxtaposed paragraphs, an Israeli and a Palestinian react to the latest suicide bombing in Israel.

The Israeli says, “I went toward them to help the people – they were without hands, without arms. But there wasn’t anything I could do. Every moment we breathe is a miracle.”

The Palestinian (the murderer’s mother) says, “It’s immoral to send someone so young. They should have sent an adult who understands the meaning of his deeds.”

Unbelievable. Are we so duped by relativism that we can’t see this moral discrepancy? Or worse, can we see the discrepancy and tolerate it nevertheless?

. . .

This one-way correspondence has limped along sporadically. Then came the brazen, unprovoked murder of two Israeli soldiers and the kidnapping of Corporal Gilad Shalit on Sunday, June 25, 2006. Since then, my letters have become more frequent – and more frantic. Here is a sampling, some written to the letters-to-the-editor staff (letters@nytimes.com), others to the Times’s public editor (public@nytimes.com), an ombudsman to whom New York Times readers can voice concerns:

June 25, 2006

To the Editor:

Your web site’s front page reports, “Palestinian militants, including those belonging to Hamas, killed two soldiers, wounded three and kidnapped a fourth at an Israeli outpost.”

The Times’s headline? “Israel Makes Gaza Strike Threat After Militant Attack.”

Since when do mere words speak louder than actions, especially despicable ones? Shouldn’t your headline have read “Palestinians Kill Two Israeli Soldiers, Kidnapping a Third”?

June 28, 2006

To the Editor:

Re “Israeli Forces Appear to Increase Pressure in Gaza” (June 28)

If anyone still needs help distinguishing between the modus vivendi of the Israelis and Palestinians, here it is.

Masked Islamic Jihad members pose for photographers in a field near the now-abandoned Israeli settlement of Netzarim. They are holding rifles, grenades and “inserts for suicide-bombing belts: thin plastic bottles made to hold antiseptics,” now filled with ball bearings.

The Israelis transformed a barren field into lush, life-sustaining vegetation. The Palestinians transform medicine bottles into murder machines.

July 12, 2006

To the Editor:

Your recently updated article, “Israeli Forces Enter Lebanon After 2 Soldiers Are Seized,” leads with this sentence: “The Lebanese militant group Hezbollah seized two Israeli soldiers and killed three more in a brazen raid this morning along Israel’s border with Lebanon.”

I commend you for moving upward the fact that Israeli soldiers were killed in this unprovoked attack (earlier today, that fact was buried several paragraphs into the report). However, the Israeli newspapers – Haaretz and Jerusalem Post – both report on their web sites that seven – not three – Israeli soldiers were killed.

I think a correction/update is in order in both your opening sentence and your headline.

July 13, 2006

To the Editor:

Your recently updated article, “Israel Attacks Beirut Airport and Sets Up Naval Blockade,” leads with this sentence: “Israel imposed a full naval blockade on Lebanon and put Beirut International Airport out of commission today as the crisis in the Middle East escalated rapidly following the capture of two Israeli soldiers and the killing of eight others by the Shia militant group Hezbollah on Wednesday.”

I commend you for moving upward the fact that eight Israeli soldiers were killed and two kidnapped in this unprovoked attack (earlier today, that fact was buried at the end of a lengthy second paragraph).

July 14, 2006

To the Editor:

Your current headline reads: “Israel Targets Hezbollah; Its Leader Calls for ‘Open War’.” This is misleading; does “its” refer to Olmert or Nasrallah? Readers should not have to read past the headline to know.

Please correct this dangerous error.


[I am pleased to report that the above missive did merit a reply:

Dear Chava,

It looks like it’s already changed.

Thanks for writing.]

July 14, 2006

Thanks. I noticed the change as soon as I posted my e-mail. But I hope you agree that our nation’s premier newspaper should not make such a blatant error in syntax, not when the potential for damaging misinformation is so high.

As of this writing, Sunday, July 16, 2006, holds the record for the most letters lobbed by yours truly, like epistolary grenades, at the New York Times headquarters. My attack began at 1:29 p.m.:

July 16, 2006

To the Editor:

Re “Rocket Kills 8 in Haifa as Israel Bombs Beirut Suburbs”

May I suggest that the front page photo now on your web site – of rubble in Lebanon – be replaced with 16haifa2 (visible in a tiny size once one clicks on the headline), showing the blood flowing at Haifa’s train station.

Because a picture is worth a thousand words, I think the photo deserves “equal time.” I hope you agree.

Then, at 2:49 p.m.:

July 16, 2006

Re “In Haifa, a Scene of Death and Destruction”

Why, as I asked earlier today regarding your lead article, does an article about death and destruction in Haifa – or, as reporter Greg Myre puts it, a “train platform, slick with blood and littered with chunks of fallen roof” – feature photos of Lebanon?

I think your readers deserve to see what Mr. Myre has described.

At 3:23 p.m.:

July 16, 2006

Re “At Crossroads, Hezbollah Goes on the Attack”

Look, I hope I’m not being a nudge, but I am becoming increasingly concerned about the disproportionate numbers and placements of Arab-centered photographs in your articles about Hezbollah’s unprovoked attack on Israel.

When I saw “At Crossroads, Hezbollah Goes on the Attack,” I theorized, “Okay, ‘In Haifa, a Scene of Death and Destruction’ and ‘Rocket Kills 8 in Haifa as Israel Bombs Beirut Suburbs’ featured (oddly enough) photos of Lebanon being attacked. These photos must be an editorial attempt at balance.” But now, as I look at “At Crossroads, Hezbollah Goes on the Attack,” what photos do I see? Four photos – all of Lebanon and its citizens, not even one of Israel and its citizens whom Hezbollah – as your headline proclaims – is attacking.

May I add that your web site’s front page has just changed its headline from “Rocket Kills 8 in Haifa as Israel Bombs Beirut Suburbs” to “Israel Strikes Back After Rockets Kill 8 in Haifa.” Fair enough. But what about the front page photo? Has it been changed, in an attempt at balance, from Lebanese rubble to Haifa’s blood-slicked train station? No – you feature a weeping Lebanese woman walking among damaged buildings. So much for my theory.

Who is your photography editor? Might journalistic bias be operating here?

I look forward to your non-boilerplate reply – and a long overdue editorial change.

The letters keep pouring out of me:

July 18, 2006

Hello. In your web site’s Multimedia feature, “Photos: Witnessing Destruction and Fleeing It,” I expected to see a balanced representation of Lebanese and Israeli citizens. Both groups have witnessed destruction and fled it, wouldn’t you agree?

Yet, of the six photos featured, guess how many show Israelis witnessing destruction and/or fleeing it. None. This on a day when over 125 Hezbollah rockets fell on Northern Israel.

Is the Times having difficulty acquiring photos from Israel? What else could account for this discrepancy?

Alas, still no reply, but since sharing my letters publicly in this venue, my heart is more tranquil. Nevertheless, I wonder:

Does it matter, after all, what the New York Times prints?

Do my letters actually make a difference?

The answer to the first question is a definite no. Let’s face it: The New York Times can print whatever it wants, but God can do whatever He wants.

The answer to the second question, I believe, is a definite yes. If we live with the unwavering conviction that this fleeting world of falsehood will yield someday to the eternal World of Truth, then we can be sure that every unacknowledged letter is read on High.

So I invite each of you to write letters to the editor when Israel’s integrity is maligned. Falsehood must be confronted even if, at present, it remains unconquered. And if, like mine, your letters go unanswered, take heart in the knowledge that as the Holy One, Blessed be He, reads His carbon copies, He smiles, bringing us one step closer to the Redemption for which we all pray.

Chava Willig Levy is a writer, editor and lecturer from Woodmere, NY. Her web site (http://www.chavawilliglevy.com) showcases her lectures, articles and editorial services; her blog, accessed via her web site’s “Talking to Myself” link, chronicles her latest adventures. Chava can be reached at chava@chavawilliglevy.com.

© 2006 Chava Willig Levy. All rights reserved.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.