Anyone familiar with The New York Times coverage of Israel will recognize its repetitively critical references to the “occupied West Bank”—illegally occupied, predictably, by Jews. The underlying implication and admonition is that Jews have no right to inhabit land that does not belong to them. Its current Jerusalem Bureau Chief, Patrick Kingsley, is fixated on this label, evidenced by his endlessly repetitive references to Israel’s “occupied territories.”
Which territory is “occupied”? According to Kingsley—and, to be sure, not only to him—it comprises the land between the Jordan River and the eastern boundary of pre-1967 Israel. It was ruled by the Kingdom of Jordan, which annexed it in 1950, until it was “conquered” by Israel during the Six-Day War in 1967. Ever since, according to the conventional New York Times rendering, it has been illegally occupied by despicable Jewish settlers, now numbering nearly 575,000.
The Times chorus of condemnation of settlements gained momentum in the 1990s. Columnist Roger Cohen criticized Israel’s “self-defeating expansion of settlements,” which would lead to “the systematic oppression of another people.” Jerusalem Bureau Chief Ethan Bronner accused settlers of “obstructing a two-state solution” by holding land “widely considered Palestinian by right.” Settlement construction and expansion, according to columnist Nicholas Kristof, was a “national suicide policy.”
For Thomas Friedman, the unrelenting Times critic of settlements, “fanatical” Jewish settlers were likely to transform Israel into “an undemocratic apartheid state.” He cautioned readers: “One should never forget just how crazy some of Israel’s Jewish settlers are,” preposterously blaming them for assassinating Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. Friedman ignored the fact that Rabin’s assassin, who lived in the Israeli city of Herzliya, was not a settler. He criticized “far-right settler activists” who were “so arrogant, and so indifferent to U.S. concerns” as to announce plans for new settlements “in the heart of the West Bank.” Israel, for Friedman, must be an American clone.
Yet Friedman contradicted himself in From Beirut to Jerusalem, a recounting of his years as Times correspondent in Lebanon and Israel. He recognized that “the Old City of Jerusalem, Jericho, Hebron, Nablus, and all the other West Bank towns were the real heartland of historical Jewish consciousness. … They were the core of the land of Israel the Zionist founding fathers came to reclaim.” Yet he preposterously equated Jewish settlers with Palestinian suicide bombers.
Times editors became an echo chamber for criticism of settlers. Shocked by the report of former Israeli Supreme Court Justice Edward Levy that settlements were legal under international law, they nonetheless blamed Israel for ruling Palestinians under “an unequal system of laws and rights.” The rule of law, so often cited by the Times as the guiding principle for judging (and criticizing) Israel, suddenly became irrelevant once it protected settlements.
A succession of Jerusalem bureau chiefs reiterated editorial criticism and followed in Friedman’s footsteps. According to David Shipler, Jewish settlements “seem destined to inflame Palestinians unless an Israeli government dismantles them.” Serge Schmemann endorsed the Peace Now solution: “We need to begin putting an end to the occupation [and] begin evacuating settlements.” Jodi Rudoren blamed Israel for leaving “colonized Palestinians” to suffer from “oppression and humiliation.”
Times reporting, like its editorials and columns, has ignored the reality that Israel’s “occupation” of what had been Jordan’s “West Bank” until 1967 marked the return of Jews to their historic homeland. Hebron, according to the biblical narrative, not only was the burial site of Sarah—and other patriarchs and matriarchs—but the first land owned by Jews in their Promised Land. King David reigned from Hebron before relocating his throne to Jerusalem. Shechem (Nablus), north of Jerusalem, was the first capital of ancient Israel. The settlement of Elon Moreh is located where, according to the biblical narrative (Genesis 12:7), the patriarch Abraham entered the Promised Land.
Millennia before Jordan claimed its “West Bank” following Israel’s war of independence in 1948, biblical Judea and Samaria were deeply embedded in Jewish history. Unlike Jebusites, Hittites and other ancient tribes, “Palestinians” were not mentioned in the biblical narrative because they did not yet exist nor would they for millennia to come.
Patrick Kingsley might reconsider his obsessive repetition of the “occupied West Bank.” He fails to understand that ever since 1967, it is more accurately—and historically—identified as liberated Judea and Samaria. There is no reason why Jordanian, Palestinian and New York Times fantasies should override millennia of Jewish history.
Jerold S. Auerbach is the author of 12 books, including “Hebron Jews: Memory and Conflict in the Land of Israel” (2009).