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the pulpit

Zionism and Israel in ‘The New York Times’

Over years of conflict with the Palestinian Arabs, Israel was to be blamed for its failure to adhere to its “biblical-moral tradition.” Lately, some promise exists for change.

“The New York Times” building in Midtown Manhattan. Credit: Ajay Suresh via Wikimedia Commons.
“The New York Times” building in Midtown Manhattan. Credit: Ajay Suresh via Wikimedia Commons.
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 chiefs have not been renowned for their impartiality towards the idea and eventual reality of Jewish statehood. For nearly a century, Zionism and Israel have been subjected to their relentless criticism in the guise of responsible journalism.

It began in 1928, when Joseph Levy was hired as the Times “Palestine correspondent.” At first fascinated by a land “flowing with milk and honey,” he was shocked one year later when rioting Arabs in Hebron brutally murdered 67 Jews in a “wholesale slaughter” that spread throughout Palestine. But Levy soon blamed Zionist leaders for their failure to comprehend the harmful impact of their national aspirations on the local “Arab” population. “Palestinian” was not yet their self-identity.

Levy guided harsh critiques of Zionism into the Times from former British civil servant H. St. John Philby, who denounced the Balfour Declaration as “an act of betrayal for whose parallel … we have to go back to the Garden of Gethsemane”; and Judah Magnes, chancellor of the new Hebrew University, who opposed the “extravagant interpretation of the Balfour Declaration” favored by Zionist leaders.

The Times did not appoint its first designated Jerusalem bureau chief until 1979, when David Shipler was posted in Israel. Fascinated by the struggle between “Arab and Jew,” he recognized that Palestinian identity “has come not from an ancient source but largely in reaction to the creation and growth of Israel.” He perceptively described Jewish settlers as “militant idealists” and “dreamers” whose beliefs “have surged through Jewish consciousness for thousands of years.”

Shipler perceived “conflicting impulses” in Israel: “a siege mentality” that reflected “the Jewish people’s long history of aloneness and persecution,” and “an instinct for self-criticism.” Over time, Shipler’s criticism of Israel sharpened, but he remained attentive to its complexities and vulnerability in the conflict between two peoples in “the promised land.” And he confessed his puzzlement to executive editor A.M. Rosenthal that in the Times “Israel cannot be described as a Jewish state.”

In 1984, Shipler was succeeded by Thomas L. Friedman, who had become a sharp critic of Israel following its invasion of Lebanon. Infuriated by its alleged complicity in the massacre of Palestinians in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps, he “buried … every illusion I ever held about the Jewish state.” Friedman’s subsequent coverage of Israel would reflect his fury over its perceived betrayal.

Israel, for Friedman, was a seething cauldron of problems for which he blamed “ultra-Orthodox messianic Jews” and “right-wing extremists.” He lamented that a generation of Israeli political leaders had failed to resolve the conflict with Palestinians, as though PLO chief Yasser Arafat and his followers were blameless. Neither Palestinians nor Israelis, he concluded in his repetitive expression of moral equivalence, could acknowledge the legitimacy of their enemy. But Israel was to blame for its failure to adhere to its “biblical-moral tradition.”

Friedman’s reporting often reflected the bias of left-wing Israeli critics—Hebrew University professor and Peace Now advocate Yaron Ezrahi prominent among them. His own fondness for pithy analogies included the equation of Israel with stereotypical Jews, displaying “an uncanny ability to inject itself into the news.” Israel, he wrote in judgmental mode, had failed to embrace its own “biblical-moral tradition.” As he (self-revealingly) recognized, “for some people, there is something almost satisfying about catching the Jewish state behaving improperly.” Friedman was often satisfied.

Joel Brinkley, Friedman’s successor as bureau chief, quickly revealed his own political preferences. The Israeli election of 1988, he wrote, would determine “whether Israel is to be a conciliatory nation of the left” or “an assertively hardline nation of the right.” The re-election of right-wing Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, Brinkley concluded, assured “a right-wing theocracy … dominated by religious fundamentalists.” Indeed, he wrote alarmingly, Israelis and Americans alike “worry that Israel “could become another religious fundamentalist nation, a Jewish version of Iran.”

Brinkley was followed by Serge Schmemann, who quickly decided that the failure of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks was Israel’s fault. Despite a wave of Palestinian terrorist attacks, he wrote that “extremists on both sides” were responsible. Deborah Sontag, his successor, concluded after visiting the Machane Yehuda market site where Palestine suicide-bombers had recently murdered 13 Israelis, that Israelis and Palestinians alike had “vehemently accused the other of intransigence”—as though mutual accusations obliterated Palestinian terrorism.

Ethan Bronner, Jerusalem bureau chief between 2008-12, perceptively confronted the problem of impartial coverage when “no place, date or event in this conflicted land is spoken of in a common language … [that] both sides can accept as fair.” Israelis stressed the return of Jews to “their rightful home” after “thousands of years of oppression,” while Palestinians focus on “European colonialists” who “stole and pillaged” their land.

Bronner was then succeeded by Jodi Rudoren, whose preferred narrative was Palestinian suffering and Israeli culpability. Lionizing teenage Palestinian stone-throwers, she dismissed it as a “rite of passage and an honored act of defiance.” Twice within three weeks, she falsely asserted that Israel was building thousands of new settlements (prompting a Times’ correction) when, in fact, it was building new homes within existing settlements. Palestinian celebrations of terrorist attacks by family members drew more attention than the families of Israeli victims. Shortly before Rudoren completed her term as in 2017, she blamed “Messianic Zionism” for making it “impossible for Israel to be a democratic and Jewish state”—and, some might say, impossible for her to be an objective reporter.

But the times may finally be changing. David Halbfinger, Rudoren’s successor, has taken predictable swipes at Netanyahu and settlements. However, he recently demonstrated his empathy for Israeli coronavirus victims and their family members, praising a Tel Aviv hospital for its decision to permit relatives of a dying patient to have a farewell visit (April 20). “This is the moral thing. Nobody needs to die alone,” explained a hospital spokesman. Halbfinger’s coverage of Israel’s humane virtues—no less than condemnation of its moral failings—suggests that the Times may finally have a Jerusalem bureau chief whose self-defined mission is fair coverage of Israel, not reflexive criticism.

Jerold S. Auerbach is the author of “Print to Fit: The New York Times, Zionism and Israel 1896-2016,” which was recently selected for Mosaic by Ruth Wisse and Martin Kramer as a “Best Book” for 2019.

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