Israel criticism in Chronicle spelling bee raises eyebrows

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A kids’ lesson on the word “disproportionate” in the San Francisco Chronicle went awry when pro-Israel readers felt the sample sentence was disproportionately negative to the Jewish state.

The newspaper agreed, and issued an apology.

In a weekly feature aimed at young readers, the Chronicle features 10 words that could potentially appear on the national spelling bee, gleaned from sentences in recent Chronicle articles.

But, in a children’s section illustrated with a friendly, anthropomorphic bee, some readers were jolted by the following sentence Dec. 7:

“Israel came under heavy criticism for the Gaza offensive. U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan and others questioned whether it had been a disproportionate response to the use of crude Qassam rockets by Palestinian militants.”

Jonathan Bernstein, regional director of the Anti-Defamation League, was puzzled, and he made several calls to Chronicle editors.

“I think it’s an odd sentence to choose for kids to learn how to be better spellers,” he said. “A lot of people see this and think it looks like they’re trying to put in a subtle political message.”

Elizabeth Coleman, the San Francisco Chronicle in Education staff member who oversees the section, issued a quick apology the day after the offending spelling bee section ran.

Sonoma County librarian Jim Silverman, who culled the newspaper sentences for the spelling bee section, said the use of the passage regarding Israel was not a political message but an inadvertent mistake.

“I clearly made a gigantic error in judgment here, no question. All of us are horrified by what’s resulted from the presentation of this sentence,” he said.

Silverman uses the Chronicle Web page’s search function to discover recent articles that use words on the spelling bee’s list. He eschews “namby-pamby” sentences in favor of “sentences that provide some educational opportunity for talking about language,” and the Israeli passage struck him as a meaty one. Its controversial nature simply didn’t occur to him.

“I’m Jewish and it didn’t jump out at me,” said Silverman, who said he’s fielded more than 200 calls or e-mails, “not all of them attractive.”

“It was reviewed by a number of other people. There was no discussion of it. It just didn’t hit a speed bump.”

The Dec.14 edition of the Chronicle spelling bee section carried an apology. That, combined with Coleman and Silverman’s openness, is adequate, according to Bernstein. “People make mistakes.”

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.