Stern Warning

In June, I wrote a story for the New York Sun of which I am particularly proud. I covered a talk by Dr. Jessica Stern, a Harvard terrorism expert, at a conference of the EastWest Institute, a Manhattan think tank. The subject of the lecture was “new thinking against violent extremism and radicalization.”

During her talk, Dr. Stern said the following: “I’ve heard a lot of bashing of Muslim clerics for not stepping up to the plate and condemning extremist violence. But Catholic priests are not stepping up to condemn those who kill abortion doctors…[and] rabbis are not condemning the violent settlers’ movement.”

This statement—unlike the rest of Dr. Stern’s talk, quite frankly—struck me as potentially newsworthy. After her talk concluded, I followed up with Dr. Stern one-on-one. I said something to the effect that while I know some Israeli settlers living in the West Bank and Gaza hold views that some others consider extreme, I was not aware that as a group they perpetrated or endorsed violence. I asked for examples.

My question was not rhetorical. It seemed to me that her statement that had aroused my reporter’s instincts might have some basis in fact. After all, Dr. Stern had said this publicly, as part of her speech at a think tank conference, on a subject related to her field of expertise. I thought that as a terrorism expert she might have knowledge of some campaign of violence on the part of Israeli settlers that was not being condemned by rabbis. On the other hand, I figured if she was engaged in hyperbolic distortion about such an important and delicate subject, it might be of interest to the readers of The Sun. Either way, it was a good story.

When I asked her to define the “violent settlers’ movement” Dr. Stern floundered a bit, then cited Yigal Amir’s 1995 assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin. This crime was almost universally condemned by Jewish leadership.

In other words, when questioned about a statement she had made in her public remarks about terrorism, her field of expertise, Dr. Stern could not support the statement.

To be honest, I was shocked that an expert in the field of terrorism would engage in such unsupportable character assassination of Israeli settlers as a bloc of people, and also of Jewish leaders as a group. Only later, after Bill Donahue entered the dialogue that ensued following publication of my story did I learn that Dr. Stern’s condemnation of Christian leaders had been equally baseless.

I am writing about this for two reasons. The first is to set the record straight. In the aftermath of the story’s publication, Dr. Stern, evidently embarrassed by her own unsupportable comments, gave an interview to The Harvard Crimson. She did not dispute the accuracy of my reporting—and she could not have, given that a roomful of at least 20 people had heard her first remark. But, rather than own up to her comments, she attempted to disparage me, saying silly things such as that I was “extremely annoyed by the approach of the Institute” and that I “wanted to be able to say something nasty about including Judaism, Christianity, and Islam in the talk.”

Suffice it to say, Dr. Stern’s comments about my having some sort of personal animus towards her or the conference are as baseless as her comment about the “violent settlers’ movement.” Contrary to Dr. Stern’s speculation, I was not personally annoyed – until she attempted to avoid taking responsibility by disparaging me.

Perhaps even more disturbing was Dr. Stern’s other attempt to obfuscate the issue of her having made unsupportable public comments about entire groups of people. According to the Crimson article, she claimed these comments were not part of her speech (They were. In fact, she opened the speech with them). She also is quoted as saying, “It didn’t occur to me that I needed to be on my toes for the way that a single sentence would be taken out of context” (In fact, she opened her speech with this sentence; it was not couched in any framework that would have altered its meaning).

I attended that conference as a reporter. Dr. Stern, well aware that the conference was being covered by the press, made some public statements, on a matter of importance related to her field of expertise, that were unsupportable, and that ultimately proved inaccurate.

My report was accurate. I did not wrong Dr. Stern.

One reason I am writing about this now is it has recently come to my attention that an obscure, anonymous blogger has repeatedly published online the accusation that I fabricated Dr. Stern’s quotations – a claim Dr. Stern has never made. Normally I would not dignify an unprovoked, baseless attack by a vicious individual too cowardly to reveal her real name. But fabricating quotes would be a serious breach of professional ethics. This false and defamatory charge crosses a line both morally and legally, and I do not intend to sit back and allow myself to be maligned. So for the record, I stand by my reporting.

My second reason for writing this post is to discuss briefly why I believed, and believe, it was important to report that story, and why I feel my news judgment was spot on.

None of us is perfect. The kind of flawed thinking Dr. Stern demonstrated is something many of us, myself included, have fallen prey to. Had she simply acknowledged her error rather than attempted to unfairly shift the focus at my expense, she would have done much more credit to her reputation.

I have never been religious, but I taught at an Orthodox Jewish college at one time. When learning that some of my eighteen-year-old students would be expected to cut off their hair upon marrying, I remember thinking, “How barbaric.” We were not allowed to teach the male students, and I remember agreeing with a colleague that this was backward, “like something the Taliban would do.” Even though I did not mean it literally, it was still foolish and, on reflection, shallow of me to have compared Orthodox Jewish practices to those perpetrated by a phenomenally brutal regime like the Taliban.

My point is, to think of fundamentalist Jews and Christians as barbaric or crazy is such an easy trap for us secular folk to fall into, especially in circles where they have few defenders. And there are moderate Muslims who do not endorse terrorism. Yet we need to remember what sets apart Muslim extremism of the variety that extols jihad martyrdom: religious Jews and Christians are not decapitating people for belonging to other religions. Nor are they collectively endorsing violence, or practicing it, in order to force other people to live as they would dictate.

Ultimately, reporting this story exposed an example of potentially harmful false equivalency. To lump fundamentalist Christians and religious Jewish settlers in with jihadist Muslims – despite a lack of evidence to support such an equivalency – is, at the end of the day, anti-religious prejudice. And that is just as ignorant as believing every Muslim is a terrorist.

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4 responses to Stern Warning
  • 1.


    October 21, 2007 at 7:32 pm

    I think this column is right-on. We do live in an egalitarian society, thankfully, but one that assumes all other societies share our value system; this is not the case, nor is it the case that all societies today that are tied to fundamentalist religious precepts conduct themselves the same way. Religious Christians and Jews do not practice violence or terror to others. Thanks for pointing out what anyone with eyes should be able to see.

  • 2.


    October 20, 2007 at 10:56 am

    It's both disgraceful and illegal for

    someone to falsely accuse a journalist of

    fabricating quotation. You should take

    this matter seriously!!!

  • 3.


    October 19, 2007 at 9:59 am

    Finally someone sees a clear and compelling truth: there is, in this world, forces that are evil, and others which are not. We do live in a time of moral relativism: we are taught in this egalitarian American society that everyone is basically good and wants the same thing---life, liberty, pursuit of happiness. But these are NOT the values held in every society in the world. In some places, people are willing to kill and maim so that their values can dominate. This is not true of all fundamentalist faiths. As Ms. Robinson so acurately points out: religious Jews and Christians do not decapitate their opposite numbers. This may be true of some free-thinking Muslims as well, but these are not the Muslims in control of anything. We've all seen the videos. We heard Daniel Pearl's last words. And Nicholas Berg's, and so on and so on. Wake up and smell the blood, people.

  • 4.

    Boris Weinstein

    October 18, 2007 at 10:16 pm

    I agree with Ms. Robinson. She makes a compelling point. Religous Jews and Christians do not advocate terrorism. Indeed, as anyone aware of the world knows, these are the people who suffer at the hands of extremist Muslims. It is unfair and ignorant to group Jews and Christians with Muslims when it comes to violence. G-d help us.