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The Evolution of the New York Times: From Burying the Holocaust to Burying the Jewish State.

by Joy Mazel, June 2 , 2013

I love reading the New York Times. The journalistic standards are genuinely high, the articles are generally very well written, and the level of discourse is usually much higher than other mainstream media outlets such as CNN or USA Today.


However, anyone who reads the New York Times regularly might be wondering recently what is going on at the paper regarding its coverage of Israel. From March 9th to March 15th, there were 4 notable pieces on Israel, 2 stories, and 2 op-eds. None of the pieces dealt with any earth shattering news item; they were not in any way time sensitive, but all were prominently featured on the front page of the internet version of the paper. Three of the 4 were, in their own way, clearly attacking the legitimacy of Israel as a nation state. The New York Times has long been known as being strongly left of centre on most issues. So it is not surprising that on the Israeli-Palestinian and Israeli-Arab conflict, they would favour a position that was critical of settlement building, critical of the Likud government, and in favour of a two-state solution. The most recent articles however, appeared to have upped the ante, and put questioning the very existence of the state out as a reasonable position worthy of prominent coverage. This is occurring at time when a recent poll put Israel’s favourability rating at close to an all time high among the American public. What gives?


Joseph Levine wrote an article on Israel in the March 9thinternet edition of the Times. Levine is a philosophy professor at the University of Massachusetts who grew up in an orthodox home, but eventually turned his back on orthodox Judaism, and came to identify with the Palestinian narrative on the conflict. He appears to have essentially no history of writing on the conflict, and appears to have very little in the way of credentials to do so, other than a doctorate in philosophy, with an area of interest in the philosophy of the mind . His argument against Israel’s legitimacy as a nation offers nothing that is new for anyone that has read even minimally about the conflict (Are the Jews a people or a religion? How can a Jewish state exist without being racist? etc…). I also, as an aside, found it pedantic and boring. That’s not to say that some of the issues raised in the piece are not worthy of discussion. I do question however the reason why it should be published so prominently in the Times. He is not a notable personality, and little of what he writes has not been said many times before. I have difficulty believing that a similar piece questioning the authenticity of the Palestinian people or their right to a state will appear on the front page of the paper any time soon.


Ben Erenreich is a journalist who had published very little on the conflict prior to his March 15th piece in the New York Times Magazine section. His credentials seem to consist of writing a piece in the Nation on Gideon Levy, a very left wing columnist who writes for Haaretz, and managing to be detained last year by the Israeli government. In the March 15th edition, he authored a very long 10 page account of his time spent with a family in the West Bank. The account is at least somewhat interesting at times. However, it often reads as a polemic. Virtually all the Palestinians are portrayed in a way that maximizes empathy with them. Children playing figure prominently in descriptions of the village, many villagers have what are portrayed as legitimate grievances against the occupation, and protest activity is portrayed as non-violent. The Israelis in contrast are portrayed as gruff military spokespeople, or unlikable settlers, cardboard characters that are very difficult to identify or sympathize with. The Palestinians in the village are said to “be aware of the corrosive effects of violence”. Yet in the same paragraph, Erenreich relates that Ahlam Tamimi, who transported the suicide bomber into Israel who blew himself up in Sbarro Pizza in Jerusalem, killing 15 people, including 8 children remains much-loved in Nabi Saleh”. Erenreich’s piece is fairly standard fare for anyone who frequents sites such as the Guardian, (Western sympathizer of Palestinian cause goes on extended trip to West Bank, reports on Palestinian suffering and Israeli brutality). It is a very biased account however, with no sense of objectivity. He clearly has strong views on the conflict, and chooses his facts to reflect them. He has every right to write such a creed; the only question is why the NY times is publishing it, and why so prominently.


There were also two op-ed pieces on Israel published together on March 12th. Typically, when 2 op-eds appear on one topic, it takes the form of a pro-con debate. In the NYT however, this debate occurred between Rhashid Khalidi, a pro-Palestinian academic, and Ari Shavit, a columnist for the left wing Israeli paper Ha’aretz. Only in the NYT could a columnist from Ha’aretz be chosen to represent the Israeli perspective! Haaretz is read by very few Israelis. It is owned by a very left wing Israeli family, and caters primarily to a foreign English speaking audience, as well as to left wing intellectuals concentrated in Tel Aviv. Based on the most recent election in Israel, its political and editorial stance is probably supported by less than 10%, (possibly less than 5%) of Jewish Israelis. Khalidi is strongly identified with the Palestinian cause, was a spokesman for the PLO in Lebanon in the 1980s, and finished his op-ed by commenting that Netanyahu was a bigger obstacle to peace than Hamas. This is what passes for balance in the NYT.


So why are so many anti-Israel stories appearing, and why are they being so prominently displayed? To begin with Israel is a sexy topic, and stories about it help drive traffic to the website. There is a large Jewish population in the New York area, and even outside of New York, there seems to be an intense interest in Israel. If one surveys the most popular articles in terms of hits, comments, or “most e-mailed”, stories about Israel regularly top the list. However, while this may explain the sheer volume of stories dealing with Israel, it fails to address the anti-Israel perspective so prominent in the paper.


The first illusion to be dispelled is that the New York Times could not possibly be anti-Israel because it has a long history of being controlled by Jews. I operated under this illusion at one time. The Times, which was founded in the mid 1850s, was acquired in 1896 by a Jew, Adolph Ochs, and controlled thereafter by his son-in-law Arthur Hayes Sulzberger, and the Sulzberger family. Arthur Hayes Sulzberger, although Jewish, was actually virulently anti-Zionist. He was the publisher of the Times from 1935 to 1961. He actively campaigned against the formation of the state of Israel in 1948. He also was active in relegating stories about Germany’s treatment of the Jews in the 30’s and 40’s, including early reports of the Holocaust, to the back pages. This has been well documented, and is the subject of an entire book by Laurel Leff entitled “Buried by the Times”. The Sulzberger family currently appears to be fairly assimilated. The paper’s present owner, although still named Sulzburger, is no longer Jewish. Although his father was Jewish, his mother was not, and having married an Episcopalian, he converted. Any commitment to Judaism appears not only to have been allowed to wither, but has been overtly rejected. Any Jewish connection the New York Times may have at one time had has long since evaporated.


In spite of shedding their own connections to Judaism, the Times owners are quite fond of recruiting Jews to write negative articles about Israel. They range from the obscure like Levine and Erenreich, to the more prominent, like Thomas Friedman and Roger Cohen. (Cohen also has the dubious distinction of embracing the regime in Iran for a while, ignoring its antisemitism and genocidal language regarding Israel; he was finally forced to distance himself from the regime following its brutal crackdown on its own citizens following the Iranian election.) The fact that these authors are Jewish (and have Jewish sounding last names) to some extent provides an immunity of sorts to criticism that the author has an anti-Israel or anti-Jewish bias. For example Freidman’s comment that Netanyahu’s ovation from the American congress was bought and paid for by AIPAC would have caused most other columnists to be seen as anti-Israel and borderline anti-semitic; yet Freidman seems to have been spared the criticism that others, such as Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer, have been subjected to for making similar statements. (Freidman’s support for Israel in the past may also have softened the criticism of his comments.)


Once one becomes attuned to the possibility of anti-Israel bias, it becomes an interesting exercise to read coverage of Israel in the New York Times. Sometimes the bias is subtle. For example, they will cover a home demolition in the West Bank by interviewing the family being displaced, while failing to mention the terrorist act committed and failing to interview the family victimized by the terrorist act. Sometimes the coverage is outright false. Perhaps the most famous example of the latter is the story and picture published about Tuvia Grossman in 2000. Grossman, a Jew, was beaten by Arabs in Jerusalem before being rescued by an Israeli policeman. The picture published prominently in the Times (and many other media outlets) falsely described him as an Arab being beaten by an Israeli policeman.


Honest Reporting recently surveyed the Times coverage on Israel. Its results can be found at Over the past year, 68% of articles and op/eds have been critical of Israel. Of the remaining 32%, the majority were neutral, with only 2 being considered pro-Israel. This is only part of the story however. Much of the bias is not overt, and makes itself felt more in terms of what is not being said. I actually am opposed to some of the policies of the current Israeli government, and feel criticism is at times justified. However, if a paper is to provide balance, it should subject the other side to the conflict to similar scrutiny. One would have to look very hard to find any coverage of PA corruption, Palestinian denial of Israel’s legitimacy, Palestinian denial of Judaism’s roots in Israel, Antisemitism in the Arab world, Palestinian failure to compromise on the right of return, and Hamas’ persecution of women and homosexuals in the Times. When these issues are covered, such as the coverage recently given the Egyptian Prime Minister Morsi’s anti-semitic statements, it is provided only after other prominent media outlets have covered the stories first,(in this case for several days) thereby making it difficult to impossible to avoid the story any longer without raising questions about journalistic bias. One suspects the Times’ journalists have no interest in covering these types of stories, possibly because of fears of Palestinian retribution, possibly due to their own bias as journalists, and possibly because they know the editors will be less likely to publish them. The result is a very one sided perspective where every Israeli action is intensively investigated and criticized, while Palestinian transgressions are largely ignored.


Opinion makers in Israel are not oblivious to the problem; Netanyahu was recently quoted as saying the two biggest enemies of Israel were Ha’aretz and the New York Times (he later claimed he was misquoted). The problem is not so much the anti-Israel bent of the coverage. Many other news outlets are worse, including the Guardian and the BBC , both of whom notoriously propagated the myth of the Jenin Massacre. The problem is that the NY Times portrays itself as objective and a concerned friend of Israel, and thereby provides a patina of respectability to many views that might otherwise be seen as anti-Israel and borderline antisemitic when coming from traditional critics of Israel.


The New York Times has a reputation as one of the best newspapers in the world. And it does maintain high journalistic standards in many areas, and is a pleasure to read. But it is difficult to argue that it is objective when it comes to covering Israel. The Times anti-Israel bias needs to be made more transparent, so that readers are at least aware of the possibility of bias, and have the choice to either avoid it entirely, (not an option for most of us internet addicts) or at least filter what they read appropriately.

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Rhonda Spivak, Editor

Publisher: Spivak's Jewish Review Ltd.

Opinions expressed in letters to the editor or articles by contributing writers are not necessarily endorsed by Winnipeg Jewish Review.