Cheryl Levi

Stephen Colbert Crosses the Red Line

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The world of late-night comedy was almost ruined for me when both Trevor Noah and John Oliver came out with highly misinformed superficial analyses of the Israel-Palestinian issue. They both criticized Israel without understanding the complexities of the region and then they laughed about it. It was insulting and frankly disappointing. I had enjoyed watching both Trevor Noa and John Oliver for years. In fact, the last time I visited the United States, my son and I went to an episode of The Daily Show with Trevor Noa. It was one of the highlights of my trip. But their absurd criticisms of Israel had me questioning every commentary they later came out with, and I could no longer watch either show.

But through it all, there had been one host that I could always count upon. Stephen Colbert was smart and witty, and I usually found myself agreeing with his commentaries. He never took on the Israel-Palestinian crisis because he knew that the issues were too complex for a night-time comedy show and too divisive. In short, he was much smarter than his peers when it came to the Middle East. That all ended a few days ago when Colbert hosted CNN political commentator Fareed Zakaria.

Zakaria was known to be against Israeli policy in the Israel-Hamas war. In his March 1 column in the Washington Post, he criticized Biden for trusting the “Israeli government” which meant trusting “Netanyahu, an exceptionally clever politician who knows how to handle American presidents expertly and has done so for decades.” After painting the democratically elected prime minister of Israel as a snake who manipulated American presidents, he went on:

“But the problem goes beyond Bibi. Israel is in trauma. The Oct. 7 attack shook the country to the core. The sense of safety that Israel was supposed to confer on its people has been shattered. As a result, many Israelis are allowing policies that they will regret deeply. Biden, as a true friend of Israel, has the credibility to tell them the truth publicly and directly…”

He depicted the country of Israel as needing someone to tell her difficult truths before she made mistakes she would regret. It’s kind of like a parent sitting down to talk to his teenage daughter about the facts of life.

Zakaria continued by quoting fabricated statistics about the death rate in Gaza (given to the Western media by Hamas), explaining that Hamas is an idea, and an idea cannot be destroyed militarily and that once again, Biden would need to sit down and teach his teenage daughter the facts of life. Zakaria did not hide his views on this war. He was against every decision the democratic government of Israel has made.

That is why I was shocked when Stephen Colbert crossed the red line. He asked Zakaria about the UN Security Council’s decision on a ceasefire in Gaza that was passed due to the U.S. abstention. Colbert asked what the abstention signaled to Israel, Gaza, and the world.

Zakaria: I think it is a big deal. It is one the first times that the United States has publicly taken a position that is different from that of Israel…I think the important thing is, this is in Israel’s best interest because what’s happened is an overreaction to the terror attacks. Israel is going overboard, frankly just like we did after 9/11…

The crowd clapped enthusiastically, Colbert held up Zakaria’s book, the show went to commercial, and I sat staring stupidly at the screen.

Did I just hear him right?

Did he just say Israel is overreacting to October 7th?

In my mind, I played a conversation I would have with Zakaria if he were sitting in front of me. (come on, we all do it!)

I would say: Hypothetically speaking, Mr. Zakaria. Let’s say a terrorist group broke into your city or town, set your house on fire so that you and your children would be forced to jump out the window, and then proceeded to rape your daughters in from of you? Next, they would murder your wife in front of your children and burn your parents alive? Then they would force you into a car, and drive you into their terrorist-run city where they would torture and starve you. Then they would promise to commit these acts against everyone you know and love again and again. How would you respond? Would you declare that diplomacy was the way to solve this problem? Or would you “overreact?” What exactly is an overreaction to that scenario?

I was also stunned by the claim that America had overreacted to 9/11. But I shouldn’t have been. It had become fashionable amongst political commentators to declare that America overreacted to 9/11. But some disagreed vehemently. One of them was Senator Joe Lieberman.

The Wall Street Journal published a symposium of seven different experts on the question “9/11 – Did the U.S. overreact?” Lieberman argued, no.

“The U.S. response to the attacks, and to the broader challenge of Islamist extremism, has been necessary and justified. We were right to recognize that 9/11, made us a “nation at war” with an enemy that is real, evil, and violent, and we were right to put this conflict at the top of our national security agenda. Had we not done so, it is likely we would not have the luxury today of debating whether we overreacted.”

One of the things that made Lieberman so great was that he refused to fold to the majority if he did not believe what they were saying. He believed Bush’s reaction was right then, and he continued to believe it ten years after 9/11 when he wrote the article for the symposium. He, unlike so many others, understood the repercussions of losing your freedom.

Nobody knows what it feels like to lose your freedom until you lose it. On October 7th, the people in Southern Israel lost their freedom. They were completely vulnerable to the attacks of vicious barbarians that broke into their towns and their homes. The terrorists’ plan was to keep going, by the way. They intended to conquer more of Israel, and had it not been for the Israeli army they would have. So, when Fareed Zakaria claimed that we overreacted, I ask again:

How could you possibly overreact to a situation like that?

The truth is, as a political commentator Zakaria never hid his views regarding Israel. He looked at us as if we were infants who had never experienced acts of terror and did not know how to respond. The fact is, in its 75 years Israel experienced almost as many wars and far more Islamic terror attacks than America had in its 246 years. In addition, one of the leading experts on urban warfare, John Spencer, recently wrote an opinion piece in Newsweek entitled “Israel has Created a New Standard for Urban Warfare, Why Will No One Admit It?”. In the piece, he explained “I’ve never known an army to take such measures to attend to the enemy’s civilian population, especially while simultaneously combating the enemy in the very same buildings. In fact, by my analysis, Israel has implemented more precautions to prevent civilian harm than any military in history—above and beyond what international law requires and more than the U.S. did in its wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.” Israel is clearly doing quite well, so I am not sure why Zakaria felt the need to give us lessons in how to respond to October 7th. But I suppose that’s his job as a political pundit, and I must respect that.

And I suppose that Colbert was just doing his job when he crossed the red line by discussing the Israel-Hamas war. He brought up a complex and explosive issue that had sparked a dangerous surge of antisemitism around America and across the globe. He might even have fed the flames a bit, but I suppose that’s his job, and I must respect that as well.

Of course, the question then becomes: why can’t Zakaria and Colbert respect Israel’s job of completely eliminating Hamas and bringing the hostages home?

About the Author
Cheryl Levi is a writer and a high school English teacher who lives with her family in Bet Shemesh, Israel. She has a master's degree in medieval Jewish philosophy and has written numerous articles about faith crisis in Judaism. Her book, Reasonable Doubts, was published in 2010.
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