(September 13, 2022 / JNS) Nearly a century ago, The New York Times hired Joseph W. Levy, who had spent his boyhood in Jerusalem, as its foreign correspondent in Palestine. Fascinated with archeological discoveries that affirmed the truth of the biblical narrative, Levy admired Zionist land development and the newly founded Hebrew University. He enthusiastically embraced the Zionist narrative of a previously barren land suddenly “flowing with milk and honey.” He admired “the new type of Jew” who was “a member of the chosen people, once again a free citizen in his ancestral homeland.”
The eruption of murderous Arab violence in 1929—when Jews were slaughtered in their ancient capital cities of Hebron and Jerusalem—shocked Levy. Nevertheless, he blamed Zionists for their failure to establish “friendly relationships and cooperation” with local Arabs. His evident anti-Zionist bias would remain the hallmark of Times coverage of Palestine, and eventually, Israel.
Jewish statehood was staunchly opposed by the Times, lest it compromise the loyalty of American Jews to their home country. Publisher Adolph Ochs, a committed Reform Jew, insisted that Judaism was a religion only, not a national identity. His Sulzberger family successors embraced his discomfort with Zionism and the idea, no less reality, of Jewish statehood.
The birth of the modern-day State of Israel has remained problematic for the Times ever since. It became evident once Thomas L. Friedman was appointed Jerusalem bureau chief in 1984. He was an unrelenting critic of Israel for its “occupation” of Jordan’s West Bank—biblical Judea and Samaria. Jewish settlers were repeatedly blamed for obstructing peace with Palestinians, who showed no sign of wanting it.
Returning to Washington in 1988, Friedman’s newly published From Beirut to Jerusalem emphasized Israel’s occupation of “Palestinian” land, leading to its moral decline. He celebrated the emergence of Palestinians as a “people,” absurdly identifying their violent intifada with the American struggle for civil rights and equating Jewish settlers with Palestinian suicide bombers.
Several Jewish Jerusalem bureau chiefs followed in Friedman’s footsteps. Serge Schmemann blamed “the bellicose settlers of Hebron” for the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin by a resident of a Tel Aviv suburb. After a Likud election victory, Joel Brinkley warned of “a right-wing theocracy.” Steven Erlanger blamed Israeli governments for failing to confront “extreme and ideological” settlers, who he equated with Hamas.
Jodi Rudoren, who grew up in an Orthodox family, focused on Israeli responsibility for Palestinian suffering. Following the murder of three rabbis in a Jerusalem synagogue, she blamed “extremists on both sides.” A Times editorial described it as “a tragedy for all Israelis and Palestinians.”
Times Jewish columnists have been incessantly critical of Israel. Roger Cohen warned that it “cannot remain a Jewish and democratic state” with its “undemocratic system of oppression in territory under its control, … inflicting on disenchanted Palestinians the very exclusion Jews lived” for centuries. Its “corrosive business of occupation” and “messianic religious Greater Israel nationalism” threatened democracy.
No columnist lacerated Israeli settlements more persistently than Anthony Lewis. Identifying himself as a “friend of Israel,” he equated Israeli “occupation” (of its biblical homeland) by “Jewish zealots” with South African apartheid. Settlement, he asserted, “mocks the tradition of Jews as a people of law.”
Echoing Lewis’s absurd analogy Friedman feared that “scary religious nationalist zealots” might lead Israel into the “dark corner” of a “South African future.”
Friedman has remained an unrelenting critic of Israel. He yearns for a “two-state” solution with Palestine occupying biblical Judea and Samaria. Otherwise, Israel will “be stuck with an apartheid-like, democracy-sapping” occupation. He believes that his repetitive castigation of Israel helps it to preserve its moral integrity. In fact, it reinforces his stature as the most unrelenting Times critic since Joseph Levy paved the way nearly a century ago.
How ironic that a newspaper with Jewish publishers for nearly a century that has employed a stream of Jewish reporters, Jerusalem bureau chiefs and columnists should engage in unrelenting criticism of the world’s only Jewish state.
Jerold S. Auerbach is the author of 12 books, including “Print to Fit: The New York Times, Zionism and Israel (1896-2016).”
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