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the pulpitIsrael-Palestinian Conflict

Unsettled by settlements

New York Times bureau chiefs and columnists have been unrelenting in their criticism of settlers. Yet, ironically, it is Palestinians who occupy Jewish land in biblical Judea and Samaria.

Jerold S. Auerbach
Jerold S. Auerbach is the author of 12 books, including Print to Fit: The New York Times, Zionism and Israel (1896-2016).

New York Times Jerusalem Bureau Chief Patrick Kingsley has an Israeli “occupation” obsession. One month into his new position (February 2021) he identified the Palestinian city of Ramallah as “the hub of the occupied West Bank.” The Palestinian Authority, Kingsley has written, “oversees parts of the occupied territories.” In his opinion Jewish settlements in “occupied territories” are the major obstacle to peace with Palestinians.

In his most recent iteration (Oct. 15) Kingsley referred to Israel’s “occupied West Bank,” “the occupied territories,” “the 55-year occupation” and “Israeli occupation.” But Kingsley is not the first Times reporter to fixate on settlements as the major obstacle to peace with Palestinians, the better to blame Israel for Palestinian intransigence.

Leading the way was Thomas Friedman, Jerusalem Bureau Chief between 1984-88 and a columnist ever since. Settlements, he wrote, are “insane,” “a cancer for the Jewish people” that “threatens the entire Zionist enterprise.” Israel’s “colonial occupation” (of its biblical homeland) expressed “insatiable appetites” for “Palestinian land.” Settlement building, he insisted, was “sheer madness.” Friedman absurdly equated Jewish settlers with Palestinian suicide bombers.

Friedman, like his Times successors, is oblivious to history. It was Arabs who occupied land promised to the Jewish people by the Balfour Declaration (1917), when British Foreign Secretary Lord Arthur James Balfour conveyed British government endorsement of “a national home for the Jewish people” in Palestine.

But where was “Palestine?” Its boundaries were redefined, and sharply narrowed, after World War I when the land east of the Jordan River was gifted by Winston Churchill, Secretary of State for the Colonies, to Abdullah bin al-Hussein for his own kingdom. Then, during Israel’s war of independence, the kingdom of Jordan seized land west of the Jordan River that had comprised Biblical Judea and Samaria. Obliterating Jewish history, it became known as Jordan’s “West Bank.” Not until Israel’s stunning victory in the Six-Day War (1967) was that land restored to the Jewish people. Despised Jewish “settlers,” following in the path of their Zionist predecessors, soon began the return to their biblical homeland.

Times bureau chiefs and columnists have been unrelenting in their criticism of settlers. Serge Schmemann blamed “the fears and passions of the settlers” for the murder of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin—although his assassin lived in the Tel Aviv suburb of Herzliya. Steven Erlanger, oblivious to the prominent place of Hebron in Jewish history, described its tiny Jewish neighborhood as “occupied” by settlers.

The litany of criticism was endless. Editorial page editor Jack Rosenthal warned that “the more settlements, the more Israelis desensitize to the odious idea of dominating others.” Columnist Roger Cohen cited Israel’s “self-defeating expansion of settlements.” To columnist Anthony Lewis, “occupied territories” by settlers reveal that Israel “does not live up to minimum standards of humanity.”

Times editors, convinced that settlements undermined Israeli democracy, were stunned by a report from former Israeli Supreme Court Justice Edmond Levy concluding that settlements were legal under international law. The rule of law, often defended by the Times as its standard for criticism of Israel, was suddenly irrelevant once it protected settlements. An editorial criticized “the aggressive new push to expand settlements.”

Times laceration of settlements was relentless. Friedman criticized “scary religious nationalist zealots” who were “so arrogant, and so indifferent to U.S. concerns” as to announce the plan for new settlements—as though Israelis must not act without American approval. Otherwise, he imagined, Israel could become “an apartheid-like state.” For Roger Cohen, troubled by a “religious-nationalist push to keep all the land” (including its biblical homeland), “messianic” settlers undermined the principles of “freedom, justice and peace” embedded in Israel’s Proclamation of Independence.

Now the Times has Patrick Kingsley to castigate the return of Jews to their Biblical homeland. Yet, ironically, it is Palestinians who occupy Jewish land in biblical Judea and Samaria. Unfit to print, the Times is not likely to notice.

Jerold S. Auerbach is the author of 12 books including Hebron Jews: Memory and Conflict in the Land of Israel (2009).

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