The Newseum has become the latest Washington institution to step blithely into the heated and complex Middle East debate, and learned the same lesson that many before have: There's no easy way out.
The Newseum announced last week that it would honor two slain cameramen for Al-Aqsa Television, which is funded by the Palestinian militant group Hamas, by including them in its Journalists Memorial. The cameramen, Hussam Salama and Mahmoud al-Kumi, were killed in an Israeli air strike.
Monday — after initially defending the move — the Washington, DC institution took a step back, saying
it would "re-evaluate their inclusion as journalists on our memorial wall pending further investigation."
At first, Friday, the Newseum pointed out that it isn't alone in ruling the men "journalists," and argued that the "Committee to Protect Journalists, Reporters Without Borders and The World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers all consider these men journalists killed in the line duty."
Their critics, meanwhile, pointed out that the Department of Treasury has labeled Al-Aqsa Television itself a terror group, and that the channel's propaganda function includes advocating suicide bombings.
And two heavyweight Jewish groups joined the chorus of criticism Sunday.
The Anti-Defamation League released a statement expressing "shock and outrage at the decision by the Newseum to proceed with honoring two members of the Hamas terrorist propaganda television operation Al-Aqsa TV as part of its ongoing memorial to journalists."
"It is a dark day when members of a terrorist organization advancing their agenda through murderous violence are honored as part of a tribute to journalists killed in the line of duty," said Abe Foxman, the group's national director, in the emailed statement. "This decision flies in the face of the founding mission of Newseum to ˜educate the public about the value of a free press in a free society. Salama and Al-Kumi were terrorist operatives working for a network that routinely promotes anti-Semitism and incitement to violence. These men were working for a propaganda outlet, not a legitimate news organization."
The American Jewish Committee, another major New York-based Jewish group, also put out a statement Sunday calling the move "a shocking assault on the memory of journalists who have died in conflict situations."
"The Newseum board of directors should be ashamed of themselves for saluting two individuals who were integral to the propaganda machine of the Hamas terrorist organization," said AJC executive director David Harris. "We are astonished that the Newseum did not reconsider its stance after initial concerns were raised. What are they thinking, seeking to conflate authentic journalists and operatives for a murderous group banned by the U.S. and European Union?... If theNewseum opts to go forward with honoring Salama and al-Kumi, it will bring shame on itself for a shocking inability -- or unwillingness -- to distinguish between heroic journalists and brazen terrorists."
The apparently unreflective decision, slow response, and scathing statements is a pretty familiar pattern to anyone who has followed Middle East politics as they play out in Washington. It's also only the beginning: The Newseum will now face pressure on any point available, including its events business, and will find it difficult to find a compromise.
Israel's American allies are particularly adept at demanding that institutions take a clear side, and it's not entirely clear that the Newseum has thought this one through.
UPDATE: This article has been updated to reflect the Newseum's decision to postpone the honor (5/13).
Ben Smith is the editor-in-chief of BuzzFeed and is based in New York.
Contact Ben Smith at email@example.com.
Got a confidential tip? Submit it here.