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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Pew Study Exposes Israel Racism: The NY Times Buries It

When the Pew Research Center found that 48 percent of Israeli Jews would like to expel or transfer Palestinians from their land, the press took notice. Although this finding was one result among many in an extensive poll, media outlets everywhere devoted their headlines to this striking sign of racism in Israeli society.

“Groundbreaking Pew Survey: Almost Half of Israeli Jews Back Transfer or Expulsion of Arabs,” the Israeli newspaper Haaretz proclaimed. The British paper The Independent announced, “Nearly half of Israeli Jews believe in ethnic cleansing, survey finds.”

Similar headlines appeared elsewhere, even in Jewish papers within the United States . But there was one notable exception: The New York Times presented readers with this aberrant title: “Deep Rifts Among Israeli Jews Are Found in Religion Survey.”

Readers who dig into the text that follows find no mention of the attitude toward expulsion until they have plowed through eight paragraphs of commentary about divisions between Israeli Jewish groups.

When the author, Isabel Kershner, finally addresses the burning topic of expulsion, she immediately adds that the result should be taken with a grain of salt because the question was not specific enough. She then drops the subject for another 10 paragraphs before circling back to take it up once again.

The fact that she concludes her piece with this topic suggest that it is the data on transfer and expulsion that most concern her, in spite of the diversionary headline and story line.

Readers who stick with Kershner until the end find several paragraphs of commentary aimed at whitewashing Israel’s image: The question about expulsion was too general; other surveys have produced different results; it may be used as a “weapon” by Israel’s critics; and this single result shouldn’t be taken “in isolation.”

These are the final words in the piece, and they are aimed at denying Israel’s problem with racism. But Kershner has omitted other findings from the survey that paint a different picture. Nearly 80 percent of all Israeli Jews agreed that Jews should have “preferential treatment” in Israel, and some 80 percent of Israeli Muslims said discrimination against their group is common.

She also omits Israeli President Reuven Rivlin’s comment on the data concerning Palestinians. She provides only his vague quote that Israelis need to “address our problems at home, more than ever,” omitting the fact that he had named the “attitude towards Israel’s Arab citizens” as a singular challenge.

Kershner’s story drew the attention of James Zogby, president of the Arab-American Institute, who wrote in the Huffington Post that her article includes a “classic example of deflection.” After reporting that nearly half of Israeli Jews want to get rid of the Palestinians in their midst, he noted, she immediately adds that “Israeli pollsters found the wording of the question problematic.”

In other words, she couldn’t report the finding in a straightforward way, as she did with the data on other issues dividing various Jewish religious groups.

The entire story, from the headline to the final quote, is built around evasion, beginning with the title and a photo—not of the threatened Palestinian population, but of Jewish citizens at a market. It wanders into sidetracks before reporting the alarming result from the Pew study, then veers away again, coming back to end the piece with a series of quotes meant to deflect the blame from Israel.

Times editors know that many readers never get beyond the headlines and many others read little more than the opening paragraphs of a story. Once again it has buried the real story under piles of diversion, knowing well that few readers will take note.

Barbara Erickson

The Occupation Goes Missing from The NY Times

The occupation went missing from The New York Times this past week. Palestinians were there, as victims and attackers, but the brutal military regime that controls their lives made no appearance.

The newspaper had plenty to say about Israeli Jewish life, however: two lengthy stories about prayer space at the Western Wall and one discussing Zionism. Each of these stories ran over a thousand words.

Two shorter news articles reported that the murderers of a Palestinian teen had been sentenced to prison and that a knife attack left one Israeli police officer dead, but nothing in either of these provided the context crucial to understanding events in the occupied territories.

Meanwhile, as the Times obsesses over Israeli identity and attitudes, the occupation grinds on, producing news that appears elsewhere. At the top of the list were two major stories: A Palestinian prisoner was near death after passing his 75th day on hunger strike, and Israeli forces carried out a massive demolition of over 20 homes, rendering more than 100 Palestinians homeless in the dead of winter.

The ordeal of Mohammed al-Qeeq, a journalist held without trial since Nov. 21 of last year, drew the attention of Israeli and international media outlets, which recounted his legal appeals, protests on his behalf and an Israeli Supreme Court decision which “froze” his detention but confined him to a hospital. (Al-Qeeq refused the offer and continued his fast.)

Al-Qeeq’s hunger strike was deemed unfit to print in the Times, perhaps because it would touch on Israel’s use of administrative detention, which holds prisoners without trial. Readers are not to know that as of last December 660 Palestinians were held in this limbo, nor were they to be informed that a number of human rights groups have protested Israel’s unsavory use of the practice.

And then there is the matter of two impoverished villages in the South Hebron Hills of the West Bank, Khirbet Jenbah and Khirbet Al-Halawah, which were made even more destitute after Israeli army crews arrived last Tuesday and demolished 22 structures, displacing 110 people, including dozens of minors. The army also confiscated solar panels, which, like many of the homes, had been donated by aid organizations.

The military claimed that it destroyed Jenbah and Al-Halawah because they were located in a declared firing zone. The Israeli publication 972 Magazine, however, noted that “Jewish settlements within [the zone] have not been served with eviction orders.”

This was the largest mass demolition in a decade, and the plan to destroy villages within the firing zone has drawn international attention and a petition from world-renowned authors to spare the communities. None of this, however, was enough to draw the interest of the Times.

Instead, the Times considered it more urgent to examine the effects of a new prayer space at the Western Wall—not once, but twice—and to take a look at Zionism today. Villagers thrown out in the cold of winter and a prisoner on the brink of death took a back seat to these concerns.

The Times claims that it gives readers “the complete, unvarnished truth as best as we can learn it,” and it insists that the newspaper’s overriding goal is to “cover the news as impartially as possible.” Readers who never stray to other sources of information may actually believe this.

Barbara Erickson

The NY Times Joins Israel’s Legal Defense Team

The month-long attack on Gaza has left some 2,000 dead, hundreds of thousands of residents displaced and nearly 17,000 homes destroyed, but in The New York Times none of this takes center stage: It is the view from Israel that prevails.

Israelis think it is time to move on, reporter Isabel Kershner tells us today. “Attention has already shifted to the legal battlefield,” she writes, “as Israel gears up to defend itself against possible war crimes.” The story that follows is a full-out effort to discredit a United Nations investigation into breaches of humanitarian and international law during what Israel called Operation Protective Edge.

In her article, “Israel Braces for War Crimes Inquiries on Gaza,” Kershner tells of the Israeli reaction to a UN Human Rights Council investigation launched earlier this week. She devotes her opening paragraphs to Israeli charges that the Canadian expert heading the inquiry, Prof. William Schabas, and the rights council itself are both biased against Israel, and she gives no space at all to the Palestinian reactions to the probe.

As for the war crimes in question, these receive brief attention well into the story. Kershner comes up with a few examples of incidents that might cause problems for Israel: the damage to UN schools where residents were taking shelter, the bombing of family homes and extensive destruction in Rafah. Once these are dealt with, she devotes the rest of the article to Israeli efforts to counter the investigations to come.

Although various human rights groups have issued reports and press releases alleging war crimes, Kershner mentions only one, a recent report from the Israeli group B’Tselem on the targeting of family homes. As she tells it, the group was “calling into question the clear military nature of the targets.”

In fact, B’Tselem accused Israel in more direct terms. In its report, “A Death Foretold,” it stated, “The grave consequences lend a hollow ring to Israel’s repeated claims that it has no intention of harming civilians. The massive bombardments of civilian locations were the rule rather than the exception in the last operation, routinely killing dozens of people a day.

“Whoever authorized the strikes must have known that they would result in many civilian fatalities, yet the bombardments continued day after day and even intensified. Authorizing attacks from the air, sea and artillery fire at heavily populated civilian areas and specific homes, constitutes willfully ignoring the inevitable killing of civilians – men, women and children – who did not take part in the hostilities.”

Kershner also makes no mention of other reports, such as one by Amnesty International accusing Israel of directly targeting health workers. In a recent release, the group quoted a senior official: “‘The harrowing descriptions by ambulance drivers and other medics of the utterly impossible situation in which they have to work, with bombs and bullets killing or injuring their colleagues as they try to save lives, paint a grim reality of life in Gaza,’ said Philip Luther, Middle East and North Africa Director at Amnesty International.

“‘Even more alarming is the mounting evidence that the Israeli army has targeted health facilities or professionals. Such attacks are absolutely prohibited by international law and would amount to war crimes. They only add to the already compelling argument that the situation should be referred to the International Criminal Court.’”

There is no mention of the Amnesty release in the Times, nor is anything said about a Human Rights Watch report that stated, “Israeli air attacks in Gaza investigated by Human Rights Watch have been targeting apparent civilian structures and killing civilians in violation of the laws of war.” Nor has the newspaper reported that international law experts have charged that Israel deliberately terrorized civilians in Gaza.

Instead we have a look at how Israel will cope with this threat of legal condemnation in the international community, as if this is the major news of the day. Nothing is said about the Hamas reaction to the Human Rights Council probe. (In fact, even though Hamas will also be investigated for shooting rockets into Israel, a senior official welcomed the investigation.)

Moreover, Kershner continues to follow Israel’s wishes in downplaying civilian casualties. She writes that over 1,900 were killed “a majority of them believed to be civilians.” In her article the overwhelming majority reported by the United Nations and other observers has become just possibly a mere majority.

Although the United Nations is experienced and trusted in tallying such information, the Times prefers to go with the Israeli claim that the numbers are in doubt. In giving preference to Israel (with its obvious stake in the issue) over an independent organization, this reveals a deliberate bias.

For more detailed information, Times readers can go directly to the latest UN report. (There they will find that as of Aug. 15, 1,975 had been counted dead, including 1,417 civilians, 459 children and 239 women.) Readers may also be interested in a Guardian story that lists all the UN schools hit in Gaza with the casualty numbers for each.

Much is missing from the Times, and this is no accident. The newspaper has in effect joined the Israeli legal team. Readers will have to search elsewhere if they hope to find a serious look at what Israel has done in Gaza.

Barbara Erickson

[For those of you who would like to let the Times know what you think about their coverage of Palestine and Israel, there is a perfect opportunity right now in an ongoing effort by the US Campaign to End the Israel Occupation. Click here and find out what you can do.]

In the Service of Israel, The NY Times Opts for Incoherence

It’s mainly about Hamas in today’s New York Times story out of Gaza. Even as we hear of Palestinian resilience in the face of a prolonged assault, the subtle secondary message is straight out of Israeli propaganda: These people are suffering because of Hamas.

It’s not an easy spin to make in the face of broad support for the resistance in the beleaguered territory, but Times Jerusalem bureau chief Jodi Rudoren gives it her best. The result is an internally inconsistent story with assertions that contradict its own reporting.

High in the article she states that Gazans are angry at Israel, Arab leaders, Western officials and “even quietly at the Palestinian militants who built tunnels under their neighborhoods.” The implication here is that ordinary citizens are afraid to speak out and criticize Hamas for endangering their lives by fighting in residential areas.

This fits neatly into the Israeli claim that the civilian death toll has been high because Hamas and other militants operate in densely populated neighborhoods. It also fits into Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s charge that Hamas prevents the truth from coming out. (He recently told this to a group of international journalists, who firmly rejected his charge.)

Rudoren asserts in her story today that open dissent against Hamas “is seen as dangerous.” To bolster her claim, she quotes a woman who insults Hamas and is told off by a man who disagrees. We are expected to take his words as a warning for her to be careful, but in fact, it tells us that people are not afraid to speak their minds openly and in public.

This is underscored in Rudoren’s interview with a local resident, who says that “he and his neighbors ‘do not allow the resistance to strike from here.’” This makes one thing clear: that the residents themselves have the final say in whether militants are fighting in their neighborhoods. It flies against the claim that they live in fear and are afraid to express their thoughts.

Her story also makes a general statement about Gazan attitudes toward the resistance: “They were proud of the performance of militants led by the Islamist Hamas faction, who managed to kill 64 soldiers and repeatedly penetrated Israel underground and even briefly shutter the airport in Tel Aviv.”

Rudoren goes on to quote a woman who called the tunnels “brilliant” and a stroke of “genius.” She also tells of a former Hamas critic who wrote that Israel had created “thousands—no millions—of Hamas loyalists.” None of this jibes with her message that the tunnels endangered the people of Gaza and they resent Hamas for getting them into the war.

It is likely that Rudoren was fishing for quotes to use in her effort to present Hamas as the villain, not as the protector, asking residents if they resented the tunnels in their neighborhoods. She found some critics, of course—one said the idea “bothered him,” another said the cement should have been used for homes—but in quoting them she undermines her claim that dissent is “dangerous.” Neither man was afraid to give his name to a reporter nor to speak out in front of others.

The effects of Israeli spin are also evident in a story by Isabel Kershner and Merna Thomas on ceasefire talks. They report (far down in the article) that more than 1,900 Palestinians have died, “a majority of them probably civilians.”

This is a serious erosion of the facts. The United Nations, which is experienced and trusted in collecting such data, has put the civilian toll at “at least 1,395” out of a total of 1,960, including 458 children and 237 women. There is nothing probable about the fact that the vast majority of victims were civilians.

The Times, however, gives deference to Israeli efforts to deny the evidence of this terrible toll, even though the government has a clear agenda in doing so. The newspaper would rather stand with Israel, the party responsible for this massacre, than report information from an independent source.

In the ceasefire story, this Israeli-centric bias gives us a deliberate distortion of reality. In the story out of Gaza today, the same dynamic is at work, and here it creates an incoherent narrative, an attempt to undermine its own findings and more obfuscation in the service of Israel.

Barbara Erickson

[For those of you who would like to let the Times know what you think about their coverage of Palestine and Israel, there is a perfect opportunity right now in an ongoing effort by the US Campaign to End the Israel Occupation. Click here and find out what you can do.]

Playing to Israel’s Tune, The NY Times Turns Its Back on the Suffering in Gaza

The editorial team at The New York Times has told readers what to think about the latest ceasefire in Gaza: Hamas is to blame for the devastation, it says, and Israelis are feeling psychological and social pain in the wake of the attack.

“Making the Gaza Cease-Fire Last,” acknowledges the numbers of Palestinian dead but goes on to emphasize how awful this has been for Israelis. In a list of “important but less tangible costs,” it names not a single cost on the Palestinian side. We have nothing but Israeli concerns—the fear of rockets, strains on relations with the United States and international criticism.

Even a casual reader can see what is wrong here: This is all about Israel once again. Yes, the editors say, more than 1,800 Palestinians have died, but let’s look at how Israel is hurting.

Thus, on the list of intangibles, Israeli fears of rocket attacks (which have killed a total of three people) get mention, but there is nothing about the traumatized children of Gaza, who have seen their companions killed and have often suffered crippling injuries themselves. This is most certainly an “intangible” worth noting.

Also on the editors’ list is the fact that Israel’s assault has created “bitter strains” with its allies. This is more important in their eyes than a devastated health system in Gaza, the lack of potable water and tens of thousands of displaced persons.

The editorial also provides us with a list of conditions that should come out of negotiations between the parties. Here the editors give first place to the end of rocket attacks against Israel and a halt to the smuggling of weapons. Nothing is said about Hamas’s reasonable demand to end the blockade. Last on the list is “an international donors’ conference to rebuild Gaza.”

We should note that in proposing this conference, the Times is not saying Israel should help rebuild the structures and lives it has destroyed. This, as usual, would be up to the international community, even though Israel, as the occupying power, is obliged by law to provide for the people under its control.

The Times takes it cues from Israel, not from the international organizations working to help the people of Gaza nor, of course, from the Palestinians. Thus, we have no mention of the major issues highlighted in the latest situation report by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, an organization experienced in tallying data and assessing needs in the occupied Palestinian territories.

This office, which draws on information from a number of groups, listed these urgent concerns:

  • “Thousands of explosive remnants of war are posing a major threat to children, farmers, [internally displaced persons] returning home and humanitarian workers.
  • “Alternative housing will be needed for the approximately 65,000 people whose homes have been destroyed or damaged beyond repair.
  • “373,000 children require psychosocial support.
  • “87,000 people are still in [United Nations Relief and Works Agency] shelters.”

None of this appears in the editorial today. It is not even news within the pages of the newspaper. All the concern is for Israel, although it is responsible for immense suffering. Once again Times editors have turned their backs on the anguish in Gaza, doing their best to have us look elsewhere, playing to the tune of Israel’s leaders.

Barbara Erickson