The Reporter and the Land: Remembering Bob Simon ’62

NEWS NOMADS: Bob Simon (left), Michael Gavshon and Solly Granatstein (right) write interview questions onboard a Burmese fishing boat after the 2004 tsunami.
Derek Williams
NEWS NOMADS: Bob Simon (left), Michael Gavshon and Solly Granatstein (right) write interview questions onboard a Burmese fishing boat after the 2004 tsunami.

On Feb. 11, veteran CBS News reporter and “60 Minutes” correspondent Bob Simon was killed in a car accident in Manhattan. Former colleague Solly Granatstein recalls his friend’s connections to the Middle East, a beautiful, troubled part of the world he loved.

Bob Simon ’62 cut his teeth as a foreign correspondent in London and Vietnam, but he found himself in the Holy Land.

During the six exciting years I worked with him at “60 Minutes,” he was based in Tel Aviv. And, though we reported pieces all over the world, it was the stories we did in Israel, Palestine and elsewhere in the Middle East that seemed to pierce his soul.

Bob was a Jewish kid from the Bronx who moved to Great Neck, N.Y., as a teenager. He studied at Brandeis, traveled in France, married a Frenchwoman, and went to work for CBS News in London and Saigon. Just before Anwar Sadat came to Jerusalem, Bob was posted to the Tel Aviv bureau. He stayed for 25 years. Except for the fact that he didn’t speak Hebrew, he seemed a typical Tel Avivan. He had a house near the beach, played tennis, rode a motorcycle, wore cool shades. He was Jewish but didn’t make a big deal about it. I never knew him to enter a synagogue.

Like many Tel Avivans, Bob had a particularly sarcastic/ironic sense of humor. In another life, he would have been a Borscht Belt comedian. As a TV reporter, he found the Middle East to be a perfect irony incubator. Good intentions were always colliding with murderous rage, hope with despair, high technology with ancient enmity.

From time to time, Bob used to play tennis with Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, up until the night Rabin was struck down by an assassin’s bullet. When we were shooting a story about Christian Zionists in the United States — “Zion’s Christian Soldiers” — I remember seeing Bob’s face grow ashen and his mouth become slack with disgust when an evangelical minister told him Rabin’s assassination was Israel’s punishment for contemplating territorial compromise with the Holy Land.

Bob was passionate about Israel — not out of blind patriotism, but out of deep sympathy for the people caught on both sides of the endless war. Perhaps his sense of irony kept him hopeful that peace was still possible.

He loved the surprising transformation of warriors into peaceniks. One such story, called “Hell, No, We Won’t Go,” was about a group of Israeli combat officers, called refuseniks, who believed in defending their nation but refused to be part of a West Bank occupation. Bob was especially moved by an Israeli woman named Robi Damelin, whose son David had been killed by a Palestinian sniper only a week before we interviewed her. David had thought about becoming a refusenik but in the end decided to serve, to set an example for younger soldiers. For her son’s death, Robi blamed not the Palestinian sniper who shot him, but the Israeli settlers whom David was supposed to be protecting. For Bob, the ironies were always piling up.

There was plenty of killing on all sides, of course, and Bob covered it all with humanity. There was the Palestinian doctor, a friend to Israeli peaceniks, who was shot by an Israeli army sniper as he backed out of his driveway on his way to work one morning. Bob absorbed the grief of both the doctor’s widow and his Israeli friend.

For our story “Terror Behind Bars,” we went inside Israel’s top-security prison, where Bob crossed verbal swords with Palestinians convicted of killing scores of Israeli civilians (he disliked the term “terrorist”). One of the prisoners had stabbed a dozen people standing at a bus stop; four women died. The stabber called it a “party.” Bob pressed him on what was going through his mind as he murdered.

“I believe any occupied people have to defend themselves in any means,” the man replied. “If you kill my wife, I have to kill yours. This is a punishment. This is the point.”

“This may be a point,” Bob shot back. “But I don’t believe that it was these points that were going through your mind as you were stabbing these women. I want to know what was going through your mind at the time.”

The man held his hands in front of his eyes as if tracing an imaginary headline he’d seen in the air that day and said, “I just saw the black title: Revenge is the only means to stop our people’s killing.”

Bob was an equal-opportunity offender. Immediately after 9/11, we went to Saudi Arabia for a story called “The Prince,” about Prince Alwaleed, who at the time was the fifth-richest person in the world. Bob didn’t try to hide his sore feelings about the attack against America. During the interview with Alwaleed, rather than use “Your Highness” or even “Mr. Alwaleed,” Bob called him “Prince” in a Bronx accent he dragged out from his childhood and dusted off for the occasion.

After the Israeli ambassador to Washington contacted the chairman of CBS News to complain about a story Bob was doing about Palestinian Christians, Bob challenged the ambassador on camera: “Mr. Ambassador, I’ve been doing this a long time. … But I’ve never gotten a reaction before from a story that hasn’t been broadcast yet.”

The ambassador shot back, “Well, there’s a first time for everything, Bob.”

Some accused Bob of betraying a point of view in his stories, of courting controversy, even of taking his stories personally. This actually describes Bob very well. He wouldn’t have had it any other way.

Solly Granatstein ’90 was a producer at “60 Minutes” from 1998 to 2010. He’s currently creating “Divided,” a TV series on inequality for broadcast during the run-up to the 2016 election.

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