Muhammad Shehada helps lead an organization that is chaired by Richard Falk, who published an anti-Semitic cartoon was condened by the British government for endorsing a tract compared Jews to Nazis.
By Karen Bekker, JNS
CAMERA, the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting and Analysis, recently prompted three corrections from The Forward. All involved one of the publication’s contributing columnists, Muhammad Shehada.
In one case, he had falsely claimed that, in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis, officials in the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip “have a shortage of the chemicals necessary to make disinfectants, including hydrogen peroxide and chlorine,” because “Israel bans both from entering Gaza under the pretext of ‘dual-use’ items—items they say can also be used for building weapons.”
The correction noted that “an earlier version of this piece stated that Israel bans hydrogen peroxide and chlorine. Israel does not ban either; it restricts hydrogen peroxide. We sincerely regret the error.”
Two other corrections that were made just this month pertained to factual misstatements made nearly a year ago in an August 28, 2019 opinion column. In those cases, notably, the publication did not even indicate that they had made any changes.
But these were just a few of the many false claims that Shehada has made over time in The Forward, a national Jewish media outlet that began publication at the end of the 19th century as a Yiddish-language socialist newspaper. And, as described below, some of those that remain uncorrected were of far greater magnitude.
Shehada is on the leadership team at the NGO EuroMediterranean Human Rights Monitor, an organization whose board of trustees is chaired by Richard Falk. Falk was condemned in 2011 by then-British Prime Minister David Cameron for publishing an anti-Semitic cartoon, and in 2012 by the U.K. Foreign Office “for providing a cover endorsement for an anti-Semitic tract called ‘The Wandering Who’ that compared Jews to Nazis.”
Falk has also embraced 9/11 conspiracy theories.
In addition to writing for The Forward, which he has been doing regularly since January 2018, Shehada has written for The New Arab, Al Jazeera, Vice and others
As noted above, Shehada’s writing in The Forward is rife with factual inaccuracies. On March 31 of this year, for example, Shehada claimed that in 2006 Israel “bombed Gaza’s only power plant to the ground.”
In fact, Israel had strategically knocked out only the plant’s transformers, to allow for faster repairs. (Of course, Shehada ignored the reason for this attack–to “make it more difficult for militants holding [Corporal Gilad] Shalit to move around.”)
When pressed on this point, instead of correcting it, an editor at The Forward disagreed that a reasonable reader would understand “bombed … to the ground” to mean that the plant had been completely destroyed.
In the same March 31 piece, Shehada goes on to link an unspecified failure of Gaza’s water treatment facilities to the bombing of the power plant. Yet, the originally cited source regarding the water treatment issue was a 2013 New York Times article by then-New York Times Jerusalem Bureau Chief Jodi Rudoren, who is now the editor-in-chief of The Forward.
In the article, Rudoren wrote that “raw sewage has flooded streets in a southern Gaza City neighborhood in recent days … after a shortage of electricity and cheap diesel fuel from Egypt led the Hamas government to shut down Gaza’s lone power plant, causing a pump station to flood. … Hamas has refused to import Israeli diesel because of taxes imposed by the Palestinian Authority.” [Emphasis added.]
In correspondence, a Forward editor admitted that the 2013 failure of the sewage plant was caused by the tax dispute between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority, but curiously denied that Shehada had blamed Israel for it.
Using Passover Holiday to Bash Israel
Shehada, however, blames the sewage problems on the lack of power, and squarely blames Israel for the lack of power. In the piece as a whole, only Israel is named as causing Palestinian calamities; in the immediately preceding paragraph, he wrote, “God sent the plagues to force the Egyptians to set the Hebrews free; in our case, we’re held in confinement by those same people.” In a piece whose main purpose was to use the occasion of Passover to bash Israel, it’s hard to read this any other way. But instead of correcting this falsehood, The Forward simply removed the link to the 2013 article.
In the same August 2019 piece discussed above, which now includes the two “stealth corrections,” Shehada told a highly emotional story about the death of his father. He wrote, “In his last days, my dying father longed for figs and other fruit, but thyme and duqqa were the only foods available in abundance under siege. One day I went door to door searching for fruit. After four hours, I had found nothing.”
CAMERA called out this claim, as not only does Gaza in fact grow and export several types of fruit, but at one point imports of fruit were blocked, not by Israel, but by Hamas.
After being exposed by CAMERA, Shehada changed the story in a subsequent piece. On April 27, 2020, he specifically stated only that he was unable to find figs, not that he was unable to find any fruit at all, for his dying father. This was essentially an admission that his earlier story wasn’t true. (NB: figs also grow in Gaza.)
Yet, the false claim that there was no fruit at all remains uncorrected in the earlier, August 2019 piece. As with the story about sewage, an editor claimed that Shehada did not directly blame Israel for the supposed lack of fruit. But again, the entire piece, titled, “Israel Is Now Trolling Us Palestinians On Social Media,” is about supposed hardships caused by the Israel Defense Force’s COGAT (Coordination of Government Activities in the Territories) unit. If Shehada is not saying that Israel is responsible for the lack of fruit, who does he claim is? (The truth is that COGAT facilitates the transfer of thousands of tons of goods into Gaza every week, including hundreds of tons of agricultural products.)
None of this is to say that The Forward shouldn’t publish Palestinian points of view, or that op-eds must be evenhanded. But they must be based in reality.
Meanwhile, other authors at The Forward have called for housing discrimination against Jews, promoted the false claim that “Jewish settlements are Jewish-only settlements,” and gaslighted readers by claiming that the phrase “From the River to the Sea” means something other than what we all know it to be–a call for the destruction of Israel as a Jewish state.
It’s true that at times The Forward has been an invaluable voice exposing anti-Semitism that is unrelated to Israel. But what does it say about editors at the publication, if they oppose anti-Semitism only when it’s directed at American Jews, while they promote slanders directed towards Israel? Supporting–or at least refraining from actively opposing–Jewish self-determination in Israel is just as important as defending American Jews from anti-Semitism.
Slander Unopposed and Disseminated
Anti-Semites throughout history have fabricated charges against Jews: Jews use the blood of Christian children to bake matzah; they spread the bubonic plague; they are engaged in a global conspiracy to control the world.
Shehada’s fabricated charges against Israel are not very different: Israel restricts food, so that children and old people will die; Israel restricts disinfectants, so viruses will spread; Israel floods the streets of Gaza with sewage.
Why would a Jewish newspaper that is fighting anti-Semitism not only allow this slander to stand unopposed, but actually disseminate it?
The Code of Ethics of the Society for Professional Journalists states that “journalists should remember that neither speed nor format excuses inaccuracy.” [emphasis added].
Now more than ever, we need ethical Jewish journalism. This historic Jewish publication has a particular obligation in this regard, not least because it gives the imprimatur of a Jewish publication to these falsehoods. As The Forward attempts to expand its reach, branding itself as a national voice for the Jewish community, it needs to commit itself to fact-checking the claims made by all of its opinion contributors, and refrain from spreading slander under the guise of “Jewish journalism.”
Karen Bekker is the assistant director of the Media Response Team at CAMERA, the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America, a media-monitoring, research and membership organization devoted to promoting accurate and balanced coverage of Israel and the Middle East.