Latest update: January 27th, 2012
If you’ve read a letter to the editor correcting a false or misleading article about Israel in the newspaper, you might have seen CAMERA at work.
If you’ve attended a program featuring a panel of high-powered Middle East experts; or viewed a video detailing global attempts to delegitimize Israel; if your college student has turned to a more knowledgeable student on campus to counter anti-Israel bias there, you’ve undoubtedly come into the lens of CAMERA.
And if you live in the Chicago area and have seen CAMERA at work, you’ve seen Fern Baker at work — even if you didn’t know it.
Baker is the energetic Midwest regional director of CAMERA, the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting. The 30-year-old national organization, with headquarters in Boston and regional offices in several other cities, monitors media of all types for biased or false reporting about Israel and seeks to educate the public about Middle East issues.
Baker explains the mission in a few succinct sentences. “We have a thread,” she says. “We deal in media, in journalism that is false or omits important facts – anything that has bias against Israel and the Middle East. We try to enlighten people.”
Actually CAMERA does much more on its way to promoting such enlightenment. On a given day, Baker, who has been on the job for 14 months, might be on the phone to Jerusalem to entice an expert to come to Chicago to speak, or planning an event in tandem with another Jewish organization, or working with a local university in hopes of placing a CAMERA “fellow” on campus – or, of course, raising funds for the organization’s work to continue.
For Baker, the job is new but the passion for Israel isn’t.
Originally from Montreal, she earned an undergraduate degree in Jewish studies and a graduate degree in Jewish education from McGill University. She also studied theater, worked for a while in Toronto, then came to Chicago to work in that business. Soon she was finding success as a professional model and appearing in commercials – “running around the country doing shoots,” as she describes it.
“I learned my best salesmanship and performance skills in the business,” she says, skills she draws on in her work with CAMERA. Eventually she went into fashion and opened her own small business. (She’s currently studying for a master’s degree in professional Jewish Studies at Spertus Institute.)
At the same time, she kept up the involvement in the Jewish world that she had begun in Canada – where, she says, more than 70 percent of the country’s Jews have visited Israel, a figure that puts the American Jewish community to shame.
She’s a longtime member of Anshe Emet Synagogue in Chicago, where her children attended day school (Baker has been married for 26 years – her husband is a general contractor – and has two sons, one in college and one who has recently graduated). She became friendly with Anshe Emet’s Rabbi Michael Siegel, a tireless booster and defender of Israel. She was involved with the Hartman Institute, a Jerusalem-based research and education institute, and served as a volunteer with AIPAC and the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago and eventually with CAMERA.
“I was pretty caught up in their conferences, the level of their speakers,” Baker says during a recent interview, where she arrives not only flawlessly and stylishly dressed and coiffed, but armed with some of the plentiful material – books, pamphlets, videos – that the organization puts out. “That was of particular interest to me – they brought in stars. If you look at other organizations, there aren’t too many any more that bring in really cutting-edge speakers, and the funding is part of it,” she says.
For CAMERA, she says, bringing in high-level speakers is not meant to raise money but rather to educate the public.
When the position at CAMERA, where Baker was a member, became available, “I jumped at the opportunity to apply for the job,” she says. “Many people knew of my passion for Israel and my desire to get involved, to connect. They jumped on the horn and I was hired.”
Among the strengths she brings to the position, she says: “I cross a lot of different areas. I’m a good networker and I know a lot of people. I cross over many places, I know a lot of clergy in the city and have good relationships with them, and that helps.”
After getting the job, “I rolled my sleeves up,” she says. “I have really tried this past year to do an enormous amount of events and programming – sometimes three or four a month. It’s about getting the word out there, making it an interesting social and educational experience, crossing streams. I would bring (Israeli radio and TV broadcaster) Yishai Fleisher into a Reform synagogue, trying to open up doors.”
She says her challenge is “to bring the unexpected into the room. It isn’t just a job for me,” she reiterates. “CAMERA offered the opportunity to combine the development aspect with the intellectual and educational component. It was my dream job. I couldn’t have described what I wanted to do any better than what CAMERA offered.”
Andrea Levin, CAMERA’s Boston-based executive director, says of Baker that “in the time she’s been with us, she’s really made a mark. She has great instincts for organizing, for getting outstanding speakers, for recruiting people. She has a wonderful way with people, and those are attributes that are really important for the kind of thing she’s doing. She has made CAMERA’s presence known in Chicago.”
The city is important to the organization’s mission, Levin says, because of its large Jewish community and location in the center of the country. “It’s a community that is very steadfast for Israel and receptive to our focus on the battle of ideas. An active community, a committed community is very important to us,” she says.
Baker has been instrumental in solidifying this base, Levin says. “She really understands the issues and is a very thoughtful person, very astute. In addition to her work in programming and development, she brings a lot of intelligence and knowledge. Just in a period of a year, she has really strengthened our base. It has been a vibrant community for us but she has really galvanized it. She has a tremendously infectious personality and is having a really positive, strong impact.”
As Baker often says of herself, Levin reiterates: “She cares.”
One of CAMERA’s slogans is “Public perception shapes public policy,” and Baker says that in the Chicago area the organization tries to fulfill its mission in a number of ways.
For an example of CAMERA’s work, Baker gives this one: “Rashid Khalidi (Palestinian-American historian and author) wrote an op ed in the (Chicago) Tribune. It created a large blowback from the community. People were very disturbed. We commented and wrote an analysis of his op ed. In our archives we followed him in many of his op eds that have appeared and you can see the thread – where he has repeated himself, where he is different. We were very careful and thorough and everything we do is backed up.”
Media-monitoring and corrections can be found on the organization’s detailed, ever-changing website (www.camera.org).
The Tribune, long a target of pro-Israel activists, now seldom draws their ire, Baker says. “They’ll have an occasional op ed that our letter writers draw attention to, but in the years since I’ve been involved, it really hasn’t been bad. It used to be more so.”
She is not so sanguine about other media outlets, including National Public Radio, The New York Times on occasion, Los Angeles Times, the BBC, the left-leaning Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz and many others.
“Israel is bashed terribly,” she says. “There’s so much bad press, illegitimate press, wrongful press. You can be critical of Israel but you have to wade through the lies, the myths and falsehoods that are out there first.”
Another example: “National Geographic has consistently shown photos of poor Arabs shlepping water on their backs while Israelis languish at their pools,” she says. “But Israel has offered the technology for water desalination and they don’t want it. (National Geographic) has been called on the carpet for that” but has not changed its anti-Israel focus, she says.
Most people, including some within the Jewish community, know little about Israel and its achievements, Baker says. “It’s not just the wrongful reporting, it’s the omissions, the bad PR, the news that isn’t reported. Israel isn’t great at PR and they’re not getting better at it, so we have to assume that role.”
CAMERA’s highly focused mission is not always well understood, she says, and adds that that’s also the case with other organizations whose goals are tightly targeted.
“AIPAC might be criticized because they didn’t support this or that. But that’s not their mission. Their mission is to benefit the relationship between the United States and Israel. It’s a singular mission and they do it well,” she says.
Similarly, “we have a mission as well. Our job is to read the newspapers, listen to major radio stations, significant films, books, speeches that have been made that make statements that are false. Our job is to look at those and correct them so they don’t become part of a narrative that’s not true. Our mission is to correct false information.”
To critics who contend that organizations like AIPAC and CAMERA only want to offer positive news of Israel and perhaps even stifle legitimate criticism, Baker comes back to the idea of the mission.
“With the three or four (major) speakers I bring in per season, I’m not going to bring in a critic of Israel,” she says. “I haven’t brought them in to tell me what Israel is doing wrong, but it might come up in the Q&A (session). Nobody is going to put a muzzle on anybody for asking a question. We want to pinpoint a certain issue, but that doesn’t mean people won’t bring up other issues in panel discussions or questions.”
CAMERA “does its homework,” Baker stresses, when seeking corrections or clarifications in press coverage. “We have a good staff of research analysts and we focus on some very major issues. It’s amazing the corrections we’ve gotten if we call these people out on the carpet, no matter if they’re (New York Times columnist) Tom Friedman or anybody else. Right now the Arab narrative is digging into our basic historical heritage. It’s a battle, such a battle.”
In tandem with correcting inaccurate reporting, Baker says she and CAMERA also strive to bring to light positive aspects of Israel.
“I like to get programs out on Israel’s achievements because people don’t know about them. They have nowhere to read this,” she says. One recent speaker, Daryl Temkin, director of the Israel Education Institute, talked about Israel’s contributions in the solar energy field, noting that South Carolina has some 20 joint projects with Israel in the works.
“I passed that on to someone in Illinois’ environmental agency, and I might bring (Temkin) in to speak to a group of businessmen,” Baker says in demonstrating how she works her cross-connections in various communities to the benefit of the Jewish state. “Most people don’t have a clue what benefit to humanity Israel brings,” she says.
CAMERA is known for its members’ letter-writing prowess, and top letter-writers are honored each year at a national event. But Baker says that writing letters isn’t enough – the organization’s mission must go forward on a more up close and personal level. That’s why she concentrates so heavily on programming and emphasizes the organization’s ties to other non-profits.
“One of my goals is for CAMERA to supply talking points for a lot of organizations. When organizations need validation on a point, they will come to CAMERA and check it out,” she says. She has reached out to organizations such as the American Jewish Committee and Jewish National Fund and has joined with StandWithUs, a pro-Israel education and advocacy organization with a message closely related to CAMERA’s, to co-sponsor events. She maintains close ties to AIPAC and the two organizations sometimes suggest speakers for each other.
Other Jewish organizations are not as tuned in to CAMERA as one might expect, Baker says. “As I go along, I’m finding there are certain groups you would think very likely candidates (to join with) CAMERA, but they don’t really know what CAMERA is, what we do,” she says.
Two programs that Baker is hoping to bring to Chicago eventually both involve college students. The CAMERA College Activist Program offers stipends to students who help to combat anti-Israel sentiment on campus.
“They engage in programming where they feel they can address anti-Israel bias or educate people about Israel in a positive way,” she says. That might involve anything from showing an Israeli film at the campus film society to bringing in a speaker to providing pro-Israel campus groups with the materials they need. The national office directs the program and supports the students’ efforts.
A separate program, CAMERA fellows, Baker calls “more literary oriented. We’ll designate a ‘fellow’ on campus who will write and report on Jewish activity, anti-Israel, anti-Jewish activity on campus,” monitoring campus newspapers as well as local media.
The program includes a mission to Israel where students tour the country, meet journalists, politicians and government officials and, Baker says, “hone their literary skills.” They too receive a stipend for their work on campus.
There are roughly 25 students in each program nationwide. Neither exists in Chicago yet but Baker hopes to institute one or both in the future and has been talking with DePaul University about it. “We’re expanding and hoping to put another 25 on” throughout the country, she says, noting that attempts to delegitimize Israel and to spread the BDS (boycotts, divestments and sanctions) movement against Israel are strong on many campuses.
A big part of Baker’s job, and one she is especially enthusiastic about, involves programming and educational events. She has organized a program of speakers from the Hartman Institute at Anshe Emet Synagogue for the last eight years and last year was responsible for CAMERA co-sponsoring a film, “Unmasked: Judeophobia, the Threat to Civilization,” at the synagogue.
“There were about 500 people there. It was a great success, with a dinner beforehand. People love that. You always have to make sure there’s food,” she says with a chuckle, but then adds, more seriously, that it’s important to make each event “a fun experience. There’s a lot of competition out there.”
The Chicago events are geared to many different types of audiences, she says. “I’m pretty much on my own to create what I feel speaks well here and resounds in a strong way in Chicago. I might do a lunch for 20 people at the East Bank Club and bring in a speaker – that’s a different demographic than I would have at a synagogue gathering. I work speakers hard – they do at least two events a day.”
A conference aimed at the Christian community “brought in a whole different membership,” she says.
And when she scheduled a speaker from an Iraqi Christian relief council to appear at a synagogue on Shabbat morning, “we couldn’t pack the people in enough,” she reports. “There was such compassion and empathy for her story, it was an amazing thing. People really responded to the Christian story in the Middle East. We really started that – the churches in America didn’t really know what was going on with the churches in the Middle East. We wanted to help them, to expose the issue and educate people here.”
Education, she says, is a key word. “We get into the issues. A lot of people digress into feel-good touchy-feely lectures or Torah-based, intellectual lectures. When I bring in a speaker it’s for a reason, addressing a situation that needs to be addressed. We want to expose a particular situation.”
With Ettinger, the speaker at the Feb. 16 program, “he’ll speak on the demographic myth: Will Arabs outnumber Jews? It’s a myth that’s been going on since the beginning of modern-day Zionism, that Jews will be overrun if we don’t give up this land or that land.”
CAMERA’s newest confirmed speaker, on March 21 at Anshe Emet, is Yoram Hazony, Israeli scholar and author and co-founder of the Shalem Center, a Jerusalem think tank.
Of her efforts, Baker says there is “one thing I want to get across: We are a great purveyor of Israel education. We take very seriously the media attitudes toward Israel. Our job is to rectify the stories that are untrue.”
One she cites: “In many places, Arab and Jewish communities get along very well. You read the press and you’d never know it. It’s not true that Arabs and Jews don’t get along. Many do and have always gotten along until the outside world tells them they don’t.”
Not all of the programming she does, she says, takes place in synagogues. “I’m going to hit the golf clubs, the country clubs, bring in people who would never think of hearing these speakers, to expose people to as wide a range of folks as possible. Most people aren’t really into Israel. They support it, they’ll write their check but they’re not into it. I would like to make it exciting, so they go home and say, that’s amazing!”
Going into her second year on the job, Baker is bursting with ideas and plans.
“We’re a powerful organization but we have a very tight budget, so we try and do as much as we can with what we have,” she says. “It’s a big job and I’ve just started. I hope to reach out to new members, to really make a difference in the next year. I’m so happy to be associated with and work for an organization like this. Everyone takes my call. People like CAMERA.”
Reprinted with permission from The Chicago Jewish News.
About the Author: Pauline Dubkin Yearwood is Managing Editor of the Chicago Jewish News. She is a former entertainment writer and theater critic for the Phoenix New Times and the Scottsdale (Arizona) Progress-Tribune.
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