Apologists for Israel, Touted in The NY Times

The New York Times this week touts Israeli-Canadian writer Matti Friedman‘s book, a war memoir and military analysis based partly on the author’s experience in southern Lebanon in 1998. The reviewer, Jennifer Senior, finds it all without blemish, calling the work “top-notch,” “persuasive” and “elegantly written.”

We learn that Friedman was stationed in a military outpost during the 22-year Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon, that it was a dangerous place for Israeli soldiers, that Hezbollah was gaining in strength and that Israeli troops struggled to avoid the mistakes commonly made in the fog of war.

There is much to question in the way Senior puts forth the context of the conflict—the conflation of Hezbollah with ISIS, for instance, and the emphasis on Israeli losses over the far more numerous Lebanese casualties—but a more fundamental issue here is the fact that the Times has chosen to highlight this particular author.

Friedman is an apologist for Israel and has made some extreme statements. At the end of the 2014 war on Gaza, for instance, he wrote that criticism of Israel revealed “a hostile obsession with Jews” and added, “Many in the West clearly prefer the old comfort of parsing the moral failings of Jews, and the familiar feeling of superiority this brings them, to confronting an unhappy and confusing reality.”

Two months later Friedman wrote in The Atlantic that a number of journalists had the Gaza war story wrong because many were cozy with humanitarian aid workers who had bought into the Palestinian narrative over the Israeli one. The reporters had been “co-opted by Hamas,” he wrote, and they were prone to “a belief that to some extent the Jews of Israel are a symbol of the world’s ills.”

In her review, Senior mentions these two articles, saying that they generated “a small tempest of controversy,” which was mitigated by Friedman’s “temperate and careful” voice. It is difficult to understand how his comments can be taken as temperate or careful, however. They seem strangely deluded. Hamas, for instance, has received almost universally bad press in the mainstream media.

With Friedman’s tendency to find virulent anti-Semitism lurking in every critique of Israel, it is also odd that Senior takes his claims that Lebanese “loathe Jews” at face value. She fails to question this conclusion even though he reports that Lebanese everywhere extended him a warm welcome.

Most egregious of all is the fact that the Times has ignored a number of excellent books by Jewish American and Jewish Israeli writers who are critical of Israel, while it has promoted Friedman’s book and others with a similar pro-Israel view, such as Ari Shavit’s My Promised Land. The aim, it seems, is to provide the facade of a united Jewish front in favor of Israel.

Here are a few of the many worthy Jewish authors writing about Israel and Palestine who have been snubbed by the Times:

  • Max Blumenthal, the author of Goliath: Fear and Loathing in Greater Israel (2013), which received the 2014 Lannan Foundation Cultural Freedom Notable Book Award. It chronicles the Israel lurch to the far right and its crackdown on dissent. He also wrote The 51-Day War: Ruin and Resistance in Gaza (2015), a devastating and heartbreaking account of the 2014 attacks on the enclave.
  • Miko Peled, author of The General’s Son: Journey of an Israeli in Palestine. The book reveals how he liberated himself from his racist upbringing and discovered the brutal reality of the Israeli occupation.
  • Nurit Peled Elhanan, the sister of Miko and a professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Her book, Palestine in Israeli School Books: Ideology and Propaganda in Education (2011), exposes the profound racism in Israeli school curricula.
  • Anna Baltzer, author of Witness in Palestine: A Jewish-American Woman in the Occupied Territories (2007, updated in 2014). Anna discovered that her past views of Israel were wrong during a visit to Palestine and became a committed activist on behalf of ending the occupation.
  • Jeff Halper, author of An Israeli in Palestine: Resisting Dispossession, Redeeming Israel (2008) and War Against the People: Israel, Palestine and Global Pacification (2015). Halper has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for his work against Israeli demolitions of Palestinian homes.
  • Ilan Pappe, historian author of numerous books on Israel and Palestine, most notably The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine (2006), which describes events during the 1947-48 war that left some 750,000 Palestinians exiled from their homes. Pappe was forced to leave Israel after frequent death threats and now teaches at Exeter University in England.

And then there is Michael Chabon, the author of numerous books on Jewish life and the recipient of as many honors. He recently announced that he is contributing a chapter to an anthology of 24 essays by leading authors writing on the occupation of Palestine. After visiting the West Bank, Chabon stated in an interview with the Jewish newspaper Forward that the situation in occupied Hebron was “the most grievous injustice that I have ever seen in my life.”

The New York Times listed Chabon’s novel Telegraph Avenue as a Notable Book of 2012, and his name has appeared often in its pages. It will be worth noting what kind of attention (if any) the coming book and its authors receive in the newspaper. It is not impossible that Chabon will soon join those Jewish writers meticulously ostracized from the pages of the Times for betraying the accepted boundaries of commentary on Israel.

Barbara Erickson

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Palestinians Are Dying, But Only Israelis are “Vulnerable” in The NY Times

Isabel Kershner in The New York Times reports that Israelis are suffering from “a sense of vulnerability” after a bus bombing in Jerusalem this week. The event, she reports, sowed fear and anxiety in a population “already on edge” after a series of attacks over the past several months.

Although there were no reported deaths from the bombing, she writes that Israelis were reminded of the second Palestinian uprising “when suicide bombers blew up buses in Jerusalem and other Israeli cities, killing scores.”

Missing from her account is any mention of Palestinian fear or vulnerability in spite of data showing that Palestinian deaths outnumber Israeli fatalities by a factor of five or more, depending on the time frame. The second intifada, for instance, which Kershner takes as her reference point, left 5,904 Palestinians dead compared with 1,163 Israelis.

She notes that “about 30” Israelis have died in the past six months in contrast to “more than 200” Palestinians, a rate of more than six to one. But this fact has not inspired her to look into Palestinian anxieties. Instead she once again attempts to place the blame on Palestinians, writing that they reportedly died in “attacks or attempted attacks or in clashes with Israeli security forces.”

Nothing is said of the frequent charges that Israeli troops have carried out “street executions” of Palestinians who pose no threat to them or others. (See TimesWarp 3-25-16.) Likewise, nothing is said about the crippling effects of the brutal Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, the crucial background for this conflict.

Kershner entirely omits the context here while focusing on every possible source of Israeli angst: the bus bombing, the recent discovery of a tunnel leading from Gaza to Israel, a belligerent statement by Hamas and the lone-wolf knife and vehicular attacks by Palestinians.

Discerning readers may ask why Palestinians are using kitchen knives and automobiles as their weapons of choice, but the Times is not about to address the question. It would underscore the fact that Palestinians are the vulnerable party, an unarmed and virtually helpless population contending with one of the most sophisticated armies in the world.

In fact, Palestinians face daily threats from Israeli weapons, ranging from bulldozers to drones to live fire. Gaza farmers tending their fields near the border with Israel and fishermen at sea are frequently targeted by Israeli bullets and shells. West Bank communities confront the threat of land confiscation, settler attacks and demolitions that destroy homes and livelihoods.

And unarmed protesters in Gaza and the West Bank have been injured and killed during non-violent demonstrations. In fact, Israeli security forces injured a shocking number of Palestinians last year, a total of 14,925. As of April 11 this year, troops had already wounded 1,627.

According to United Nations data, Israeli forces have injured an average of 109 Palestinians each week in 2016. By comparison, Palestinians are wounding an average of four Israelis weekly. Yet it is Israeli “vulnerability” that takes center stage in the Times.

Kershner writes that “the threat of the tunnels continues to sow fear in Israeli communities along the border,” but she fails to say that not a single Israeli civilian has been harmed because of the tunnels. During the 2014 attacks on Gaza, they were used solely for targeting Israeli troops.

Palestinians, on the other hand, have reason to feel vulnerable, and they have reason to build tunnels as one of the few means of defense when they are under attack from Israeli weapons, but the Times has no interest in reporting this. It is only Israeli angst that matters here.

Israelis may have to deal with their fears, but Palestinians have to face much more: the loss of land, water, mobility, security and dignity. They have concrete and verifiable casualties, and they have to contend with their own defenselessness and fears, but in spite of all the evidence, the Times has turned its back on their narrative, joining Israel in blaming the victim.

Barbara Erickson

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Israel On a Rampage of Destruction In the West Bank

Israeli bulldozers are tearing up Palestinian structures at a rapid pace this year, destroying more than 500 houses and other buildings and displacing more than 650 men, women and children in three short months. The demolition spree is outpacing last year’s rate by more than three to one, and monitoring groups are raising the alarm.

Representatives of the European Parliament have spoken out against the destruction, saying Israel is violating international law. The United Nations and the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem have issued several reports and called for a halt to the demolitions; even the U.S. state department has expressed “concern” over the campaign.

The New York Times, however, has given short shrift to this story, relegating it to wire service reports, which appear neither in print nor in the featured headlines of Middle East news on the website. Only readers who search the site for specific news about demolitions can read about the recent rampage of destruction taking place in the West Bank.

No Times reporter has found it worthwhile to visit Khirbet Tana, for instance, a herding community near Nablus. The Israeli army has carried out demolitions there four times since February of this year, most recently just this past week, when they destroyed tents, houses and animal shelters and confiscated a car, a tractor and a water tank.

Earlier, on March 2 the authorities demolished a two-room schoolhouse with its playground equipment and toilets (as well as nine homes, two tents, 16 animal shelters and one solar panel).

The Khirbet Tana school had been built in 2011 with funds donated by an Italian aid organization. According to the United Nations Office of Humanitarian Affairs, it was one of more than 100 structures “provided as humanitarian assistance to families in need,” which have been destroyed so far this year.

This has become a heated issue with many donor groups, including members of the European Parliament. After a recent EP delegation to Palestine, Irish parliamentarian Martina Anderson stated, “We are incensed by Israel’s increasing number of demolitions of humanitarian structures funded by EU taxpayers. People are losing their homes in the cold and the rain. Israeli policies violate international law and show disrespect for the EU, Israel’s biggest trade partner.”

Her words had no effect on Israeli authorities, who went on to bulldoze the school at Khirbet Tana two weeks later and then spent the next two days destroying structures in eight other communities.

Writer Amira Hass described this follow-up operation in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz: “The Israelis destroyed tents people were living in, huts, pens, herd enclosures, an access road (which makes it very hard to deliver humanitarian aid to the families), a two-kilometer pipe meant to provide water to 50 families in the area, storage facilities and a dairy. Some of the tents and the pipe were donated by international organizations. Fifty-nine people, including 28 minors, were left without a roof over their heads.”

As of April 4, according to the UN, Israel had destroyed 500 Palestinian structures and displaced 657 individuals this year, compared with 521 structures and 663 persons in all of 2015. As B’Tselem has noted, this is “an unusually massive demolition campaign.”

All this is disturbing enough, but the news that Israeli politicians are shamelessly pushing for continued destruction of the vulnerable herding communities is even more appalling. As Hass reports in Haaretz, Knesset members “have openly pressured Civil Administration officials to step up the demolitions and evict Palestinian communities from Area C.” They have also “demanded that the authorities destroy buildings that international organizations, particularly European ones, have donated.”

The Times, however, has little interest in exposing the illegal and inhumane actions of Israeli officials and the consequent suffering (and stubborn resilience) of vulnerable Palestinian families clinging to their land and livelihoods. To do so would expose the lie at the heart of the Israeli narrative—the claim that Israelis are the innocent victims of Palestinian terrorism.

The demolition campaign, however, reveals the helplessness of Palestinian communities, the cruelty of the occupation forces and the criminal actions of government officials. From the Times’ point of view it is all best left unsaid.

Barbara Erickson

The NY Times on Gaza: Israel Is Just Trying to Help

Now, at last, The New York Times has turned its sights on Gaza fishermen, a much beleaguered group, which has persevered under constant harassment and crippling restrictions. It has long been well under the radar as far as the newspaper’s reporting is concerned.

This week, however, we have an above-the-fold story on page 5 accompanied by a color photo of two fishermen with their nets. What has prompted this long overdue attention? It is the opportunity to present Israel as the benevolent caretaker of the besieged Gaza Strip.

Thus we find a headline announcing the following: “Israel Expands Palestinians’ Fishing Zone Off Gaza.” The story below reports the decision to increase the allowed zone from 6 to 9 nautical miles and the relief and excitement of Gaza fishermen and officials.

The article ends with a quote from Israeli officials, saying that the expansion was part of an effort to “improve the economy and foster stability” in the West Bank and Gaza, and so the story is framed around Israeli efforts to help struggling fishermen and Palestinians in general.

Thanks no doubt to the efforts of Times stringer Majd Al Waheidi of Gaza, readers find hints of the grim reality that fishermen there have actually faced over several years. We learn that Israeli gunboats have been firing on fishermen as they go to sea, and we hear the story of Ismail al-Shrafi, 62, who lost his boat five months ago when Israeli sailors confiscated it, injuring his son with live fire in the process.

The story, however, provides no data to place the case of al-Shrafi in context. Readers do not learn that during 2015, the Israeli navy fired on Gaza fishermen at least 139 times, wounding 24 fishermen and damaging 16 boats. Another 22 boats were confiscated, and 71 fishermen were detained.

According to the Palestinian Center for Human Rights, all these incidents took place within the legal 6-mile zone, but the Times notes that an army spokesperson denied that the navy had fired on boats within the permitted area.

The article, by Al Waheidi and Isabel Kershner, also states that over the weekend the navy “sank a suspected smuggling boat,” but it fails to inform readers that witnesses have contradicted this account. According to Palestinian news sources, the navy fired on several boats near Rafah, setting fire to one fishing vessel and causing it to sink.

The Times is denying readers the complete story here, but its most egregious paragraph is the final one in which officials claim that the expansion of the fishing zone was “part of a policy of loosening restrictions” to help the Palestinian economy.

In fact, Israeli policy appears to be aimed at impeding, rather than bolstering, economic progress in Gaza and the West Bank. Here are just a few examples of how Israeli actions and regulations impact the Palestinian economy:

Times readers, however, are told that Israel is trying to help, loosening restrictions to “improve the economy.” Thus we find the headline this week announcing a generous move to allow fishermen more access to their own Gaza Sea.

It seems that the newspaper’s editors are credulous consumers of Israeli spin, readily quoting the self-serving claims of officials and making no attempt to verify the facts. Readers—as well as the courageous fishermen of Gaza—deserve better.

Barbara Erickson

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The NY Times Joins Israel in Whitewashing (Yet Another) Scandal

A military scandal has rocked Israel, and The New York Times has been on hand to report developments: A soldier was arrested for killing a wounded and helpless Palestinian; the soldier was under investigation for murder, and some Israelis have protested, insisting that he is a hero.

These were the stories that made headlines in the Times after the murder was caught on video and spread through the Internet, provoking outrage worldwide. The newspaper, it seems, has been on this from the start.

But readers may not suspect that there is much more that the newspaper is withholding. After the early headlines, the Times has gone silent and has failed to report a number of developments connected with the story:

All of these items appeared in media outlets, some of them disseminated widely, such as the downgrade from murder to manslaughter, which made headlines in Israel, the West and the Arab world. In the Times, however, this news became nothing but a whispered conjecture buried in an article last Thursday. Far into her piece, author Isabel Kershner briefly mentioned that prosecutors were “appearing to have backed off from the idea of a murder charge.”

Since then, the Times has had nothing more to say about the scandal, leaving readers with the impression that Israeli officials were swift and firm in their effort to bring justice to bear. As authorities backed off from the murder charge and let the soldier go free, the Times fell silent.

It seems that the newspaper has endeavored to whitewash Israeli actions—spotlighting the first cries of outrage when the video emerged, the arrest of the soldier and the talk of a murder investigation and ignoring news that might expose the reality: nearly unlimited impunity for crimes against Palestinians.

The paper had nothing to say, for instance, about Netanyahu’s change of tone. When the video first emerged, the prime minister said the killing “does not represent the values of the IDF.” Later he spoke to the accused man’s father, assuring him that he personally understood the man’s distress and saying that the family should trust the army to be “professional and fair in its investigation.”

This was reported extensively in Israel, as was the Leahy letter asking Secretary of State John Kerry to investigate a “disturbing number of reports of gross violations of human rights by security forces” in Israel and Egypt. The letter mentions several specific cases of alleged extrajudicial executions by Israeli forces.

Senator Leahy’s signature is of particular importance because his name is on a law that prohibits the United States from providing military aid to security forces that violate human rights with impunity.

Nevertheless, the Times has ignored the appeal by Leahy and 10 other members of Congress, even though the event is eminently newsworthy and the letter led to a sharp exchange between Netanyahu and Leahy.

The newspaper has also overlooked the effect of the incident on Palestinians: the threats against the videographer, the harassment of his family and initial refusals to allow Palestinian participation in conducting the autopsy.

It seems that much of the news touching on this latest Israeli scandal is unfit to print in the Times. Readers are not to see evidence that the first official reaction to the disturbing video was little more than damage control, an attempt to show the world that Israel does not condone such crimes. The Times, as usual, has fallen into line, a willing partner in the official effort to exonerate Israel of its crimes.

Barbara Erickson