A Murky Tale of Racism and Betrayal, Censored in The NY Times

Barely a week ago a gunman killed two Israelis in a Tel Aviv bar, setting off a manhunt and raising fears of more attacks. Yesterday the Palestinian suspect died in a hail of gunfire, and The New York Times, which reported the original story and ran a piece speculating on the man’s motives, has now become oddly reticent.

The paper devoted a scant 100 words to the print story of his killing in the World Briefings section and managed to provide only slightly more details online. This should be a sign to careful readers that something is amiss, and so it is.

The Times has not told the full story all along, and now it appears to be withholding even more. Isabel Kershner in the briefings piece writes that “many details of the case were unavailable because of a government order of silence,” but this appears to be a lame excuse: Israeli media outlets had already published much of significance that never appeared in the Times.

For starters, we have Prime Minister Benjamin Netanuyahu’s rant against Arab and Muslim Israeli citizens, which he delivered at the site of the shooting one day after the event. He accused “the Muslim sector” of “wild incitement against Israel,” and said he would “not accept two states within Israel, a state of law for most citizens and a state within a state with Islamist incitement and illegal arms.”

One Israeli newspaper called his speech a “a shameful, fear-spreading horror show.” Opposition politicians, including the mayor of Tel Aviv, accused him of stirring up hostility against the country’s Palestinian citizens.

The Times, however, had nothing to say about the prime minister’s comments. Instead, in a story about possible motives for the crime, Kershner presents him as thoughtful and measured in his reactions. “Netanyahu and police officials,” she writes, “have been careful to refer to the gunman as a ‘murderer’ rather than a ‘terrorist.’” It appears, then, that Kershner is doing damage control for Netanyahu.

Then there is the matter of the assailant’s gun. Israeli media have reported that the gunman, identified as Nashat Melhem, 31, of Arara in northern Israel, used a Falcon submachine gun stolen from his father’s safe. This kind of weapon, used by the Swiss and Italian military, is “hardly available” in Israel, The Times of Israel stated, with perhaps 10 in the entire country.

Moreover, Melhem’s father, Muhammad, had a license for the weapon, an extremely rare privilege for Palestinian citizens of Israel. It had been confiscated by the police earlier this year, after a complaint that a family member used it to threaten someone, but the police returned it to the suspect’s father.

This is a most peculiar affair, but journalist Richard Silverstein of Tikun Olam has provided an account that could explain the gag order on the story as well as the strange tale of the Palestinian with a licensed submachine gun. Muhammad Melhem, according to an Israeli source, is a collaborator working with the Israeli security service Shin Bet, and his son was aiming to kill his handler, a man known as “Shin,” but missed and killed the man’s friend instead, along with an employee of the bar.

It’s all very ugly and murky, and the Times would rather avoid tarnishing Israel with such affairs. Reporting the Netanyahu rant would expose the fact that Israeli racism is in full flower at the top and is more than the affair of extremists. To tell the strange tale of Muhammad Melhem and his submachine gun would raise suspicion and hint too clearly at the web of double-dealing and subterfuge in the state security services.

As the story developed, the Times had less and less to say. In the end it chose to hide the final chapter in a roundup of briefs and to provide readers with nothing more than a single paragraph, an evasive fragment of news.

Barbara Erickson

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Racism in Israeli Society: Winning Elections, Spewing Hate

When Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu played the race card in a final attempt to get out the vote last month, it displayed to all the world how such bigoted rhetoric has deep appeal in Israeli society: The effort was successful and swept him to yet another term as head of state.

As voters were going to the polls, he said on Israeli television that Palestinian citizens of the state (“Arabs” in Israeli terms) were “streaming in droves to the polling stations” and “right-wing rule [was] in danger.” At the time, surveys showed his rival Isaac Herzog leading, but the final tally gave Netanyahu a decisive victory.

Here we have a topic worthy of inquiry: How is it possible that the leader of a democracy can make such an openly racist appeal to voters? And what is it in Israeli society that responds to this kind of incitement?

The New York Times has reported Netanyahu’s words, adding that “opponents accused him of baldfaced racism,” but it has failed to go beyond these brief remarks. Times articles tell us, for instance, that Netanyahu’s remarks “appear racist” or were criticized as being racist, but they stop short of acknowledging that Israeli society has a problem with ethnic bigotry.

Times readers never learn, for instance, that Israeli buses are segregated by ethnicity, that nearly 50 percent of Israelis want Arab citizens of the state transferred to the Palestinian Authority, that Israeli youth recently marched through the Old City of Jerusalem chanting “death to Arabs” (just the latest example of such displays) and that more than 50 Israeli laws discriminate against non-Jews.

The Israeli newspaper Haaretz, reporting on a recent Hebrew language book on Israeli school life, notes that “ethnic hatred has become a basic element in the everyday life of Israeli youth.” The book quotes students who boast about their eagerness to kill Palestinians. “I’m ready to kill someone with my hands,” a 10th grade girl says. “I wish them death.”

After more of this kind of example, the article states: “One conclusion that arises from the text is how little the education system is able—or wants—to deal with the racism problem.”

In the Times, however, we find no talk of a “racism problem” in Israel, even though this bigotry goes beyond hatred of Palestinians to encompass other non-Jews. The state has been imprisoning and deporting asylum seekers from Africa, for instance, and Africans in Tel Aviv have faced throngs of violent protesters demanding their expulsion.

But even as the newspaper has been silent in the face of all this, it has promoted discussion of anti-Semitism. In recent weeks, the Times has run two overblown stories about complaints of anti-Semitism on American college campuses (see TimesWarp here and here), a David Brooks column on how to combat the phenomenon internationally and an editorial about soccer fans in Europe. It also made much of the anti-Semitism issue after gunmen took over a Jewish market in Paris and left four dead earlier this year.

The Brooks column ran just as the conversation about the election was at its peak, as Netanyahu was backtracking from his remarks about Arab voters and fudging on a claim that he would never allow a Palestinian state. This was a perfect time to dig more deeply into the troubling signs of racism in Israel.

Instead, readers were offered the Brooks piece, which appears to rely heavily on sources such as hyper-alarmist press releases from the Anti-Defamation League to support evidence of growing anti-Semitism.

When the Times ran an editorial about racist soccer chants in Europe last week, it had nothing to say about a notable example out of Israel—the openly racist Beitar Jerusalem team, which refuses to sign Palestinian players and is noted for its fans’ racist chants and banners. Its supporters also made news when hundreds staged a walkout after a non-Jewish team member (a Chechen Muslim) scored a goal.

Segregated bus lines, the racist chants of Israeli youth and public opinion that favors the transfer of minorities from the state are eminently newsworthy topics, but the newspaper shows little interest in informing readers of such things. The Times would have us believe that Israelis are the victims—but not the perpetrators—of ethnic violence, and it gives short shrift to news that fails to support this script.

Barbara Erickson

[For a full and close-up look at Israeli racism, see Goliath by Max Blumenthal.]