Editor’s note: The fighting in Gaza has, predictably, reinvigorated the perennial debate over the US media’s coverage of the Israel-Palestinian conflict. As the country’s most-influential news outlet, The New York Times has always been at the center of that debate—a fact that was reiterated in today’s New York Observer, beneath the headline: “Two Weeks of Shallow, Facile Moral Equivalency in The New York Times.” In the January/February 2012 issue, CJR published the following piece by Neil A. Lewis, a former longtime reporter at the Times, in which he explores the paper’s coverage of Israel through the lens of its at times contentious relationship to Jews in America.
During the winter of 1974, Seymour Topping, the assistant managing editor of The New York Times, and his wife, Audrey, visited Jordan as part of a tour of the Middle East.
On their stops in Egypt, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, and Syria, Topping often had to confront criticism that the Times’ coverage was too favorable to Israel. It was a familiar enough situation for him; to be the editor of the Times in charge of international coverage meant you were a magnet for complaints. They were usually about the paper, but sometimes about US policy, which foreigners often believed was refracted through the Times’ coverage.
In Jordan, King Hussein took a different approach: He arranged for the Toppings to visit a nearby Palestinian refugee camp. The visit affected Topping markedly—he saw both the squalor of the camp and the festering hatred of Israel—and he recounted afterwards that he realized he had not understood the role of the Palestinians in the region’s future until then.
Topping had also regularly discussed the region’s problems with some good friends in New York, Najeeb and Doris Halaby. Topping was fond of Halaby, the chairman of Pan American World Airways and a man of Syrian and Lebanese ancestry who stayed engaged in the politics of the Arab world.
Once, when their families were together at a conference, the Halabys’ teenage daughter, Lisa, babysat for the Toppings.
A few years after his visit to Jordan, Topping, now the managing editor, was having lunch with Doris Halaby and again the subject was the Times’ coverage of the region. By that time, the grown-up Lisa Halaby was Queen Noor of Jordan. She had become Hussein’s fourth wife, after his third wife was killed in a helicopter accident.
Mrs. Halaby, likely reflecting as well the views of Jordan’s royal household, said the Times’ coverage of the Middle East was often biased in favor of Israel. She cited as a reason that the correspondent in the region, David K. Shipler, was a Jew.
The coverage by the Times was straightforward and fair, Topping asserted politely. And, after checking (for he actually did not know), he was later able to offer a winning rejoinder to Mrs. Halaby: Shipler was not Jewish.
Topping’s response made the issue seem irrelevant to the way in which the newspaper covered the region. But the issue was no simple matter at the Times, either for Shipler or for those who followed him.
Topping did not, for example, mention that when Abe Rosenthal, the paper’s executive editor, chose Shipler to be the Jerusalem bureau chief, it was with the explicit but mistaken belief that the man he was assigning to Israel was Jewish. Rosenthal believed he was breaking an invidious pattern at the Times of declining to send Jewish reporters to cover Israel. It was a practice predicated on the speculative notion that a Jewish correspondent would have an inherent conflict of interest that would leave the coverage open to criticism.
After making his choice, Rosenthal remarked proudly to a small group on his decision to end the practice. Joseph Lelyveld, then the deputy foreign editor, told Rosenthal he was puzzled because he thought the paper was sending Shipler. We are, Rosenthal said. Lelyveld then told an amazed—and somewhat embarrassed—Rosenthal that their new correspondent was, in fact, Protestant.
Rosenthal wasn’t the last to make that mistake. During Shipler’s tenure in Jerusalem, several of his readers who held Israel dear apparently also assumed he was Jewish—he regularly received mail from them denouncing his coverage in vitriolic terms. One reader, in a series of letters, wished many kinds of ill fortune upon him. Then, in a piece for the paper’s travel section, Shipler described himself in an aside as a fallen Protestant.
After that, the reader who had criticized him repeatedly, often in a vile manner, wrote Shipler again. The man was deeply embarrassed and contrite. He never would have written those starkly critical letters, he said, if he had known that Shipler was not Jewish. His fury evidently had been fueled by a belief that Shipler’s coverage was not just wrong or slanted. In writing articles that could be construed as critical or at least not sufficiently supportive of Israel’s position, Shipler’s crime was a more serious matter of betraying the family.
He was, in this man’s eyes, a self-hating Jew, an especially odious imprecation that several New York Times correspondents and columnists were obliged to endure over the years from some of Israel’s most vehement supporters. (Most but not all of the correspondents who succeeded Shipler, beginning with Tom Friedman, were, in fact, Jewish, or as is increasingly common in America, half-Jewish.)
For years, a small but determined segment of American Jews have believed that the Times has been regularly unfair to Israel, even harming its standing and security.
This has produced a tension between the paper and a portion of its readers that is as intense today as ever and hovers over the paper’s coverage of the region.
It is, however, largely an ill-founded—as well as toxic—notion based on misunderstandings of journalism, some lamentable history of the Times’ coverage of the Holocaust, and perceptions about the relationship of the paper and some of its forebears to their own Jewish heritage. It also ignores the changing political realities in the region.
There are, of course, those who, like Doris Halaby, believe just as strongly—whether because of its journalism, its Americanness, or its many Jewish employees—that the Times has a pro-Israel bias.
Even so, the enduring criticism from this segment of American Jews, who have historic and geographic connections to the Times, is especially poignant. That is particularly so in light of the fact that, given the inherent imperfections of close-quarters journalism—as opposed to history—the paper’s coverage has been overwhelmingly fair and appropriate.
It is undeniable that the tone of the coverage of Israel in the Times has changed markedly. The paper’s narrative of Israel has remained largely in the journalistic “middle” throughout the decades. But that middle shifted because of many factors, including Israel’s changed status and a growing awareness of the situation of the Palestinians who were themselves just developing a national consciousness. “Mainstream” papers earn the label: They operate in the middle and, in doing so, help define the mainstream.
A survey of nearly 3,000 articles in the Times about Israel over the decades from the 1960s to recent years shows it to be a narrative with, in the broadest sense, two phases.
In the first phase, the early decades, Israel was often depicted in the newspaper as a struggling nation trying to thrive while surrounded by implacably hostile Arab neighbors. This reflected a picture of Israel that was probably prevalent in America, one that could be called the Exodus view, after the novel by Leon Uris and film starring Paul Newman in which the post-Holocaust Jews of the nascent state were heroes and the Arabs were treacherous, dangerous characters.
In those early decades, the bulk of the news about and from Israel was distinctly favorable, sometimes even admiring. Israel was depicted as a nation created justifiably as a Jewish state in the aftermath of World War II in which Hitler had almost succeeded in wiping out Europe’s Jews. And many articles celebrated the impressive ways in which the society, a hybrid of European refugees and Jews native to the British mandate territory of Palestine, had created a modern, flourishing state. During this period, several Times executives developed friendly relationships with Israeli leaders.
But, beginning in the late 1960s, the narrative began to change to a second, more equivocal phase. The template of the small nation battling a Goliath no longer fit after Israel prevailed handily in the Six-Day War in 1967. And over time, the situation of the Palestinian refugees began to emerge.
Early articles about that issue typically treated displaced Palestinians as a generic refugee problem—a result of the decisions of the international community and generally divorced from Israel’s concerns. Gradually, that shifted to a recognition in news stories that the Palestinians’ situation was directly tied to Israel’s creation and was in some way inseparable from discussions about Israel’s hopes for a peaceful future.
The New York Times has long played a singular role for its Jewish readers. It is no exaggeration to say that for a century it has served, in effect, as the hometown paper of American Jewry.
First, it is published in the city and region with the nation’s greatest collection and concentration of Jews. And the paper itself has a Jewish pedigree, albeit one that is complicated and decidedly ambiguous. The modern New York Times—in its conception, ideals, and current suzerainty—began when Adolph Ochs, the son of German-Jewish immigrants who settled in Tennessee, became publisher in August 1896.
In purchasing and revitalizing the Times, which had been struggling financially, Ochs was himself transformed from an obscure printer-publisher in Chattanooga to a figure of great stature in New York and the nation. He understood however, that at the levels of society which he now inhabited, his Jewishness presented an unwelcome otherness to some.
He responded with a determination “not to have The Times ever appear to be a ‘Jewish newspaper,’” according to Susan E. Tifft and Alex S. Jones in their 1999 book, The Trust.
Adolph Ochs eventually relinquished the paper to the man to whom he had reluctantly given his daughter, Iphigene—Arthur Hays Sulzberger.
Sulzberger, who also had German-Jewish ancestors, took effective control in 1933 when Ochs was ailing and became the paper’s formal head in 1935 upon Ochs’ death. Iphigene and Arthur became the parents and grandparents of two of the next three publishers, Arthur O. Sulzberger and his son, Arthur O. Sulzberger Jr., the current publisher.
Arthur Hays Sulzberger was regarded as a great success, overseeing the newspaper’s growth and strengthening its reputation. But his tenure also spanned the 20th century’s two seminal events for world Jewry, the Holocaust and the efforts that resulted in the founding of modern-day Israel. To many Jews, his behavior in both instances was deplorable.
Although the scope of the Holocaust would not be appreciated fully until after the war, there was considerable information available contemporaneously. Critics then and later said that the Times underplayed such news deliberately as part of its determination to avoid seeming either a Jewish newspaper or a special pleader for Jewish causes.
In 1944, for example, the Nazi regime, in its death throes, set about deporting to the concentration camps the Jews of Hungary, the last large group of European Jews who had remained mostly untouched by Hitler’s extermination campaign. In July 1944, the Times published an article of only four column inches citing “authoritative information” that 400,000 Hungarian Jews had already been forcibly transported to their deaths and an additional 350,000 were to be killed in the next few weeks. It ran on page 12.
From a journalistic standpoint, it is perplexing, if not stupefying, years later to see how the Times covered the attempted annihilation of European Jewry. The paper published many articles, several of which recounted precisely the horror of what was happening, while at the same time egregiously underplaying them—even given the context that much else was occurring because most of the world was at war. Thus, the historic horror was never meaningfully conveyed because it was reported only in unrelated bits and pieces, and relegated to inside pages.
Laurel Leff, in her superb book on how the paper underreported the Holocaust, Buried by The Times, wrote that the newspaper, suffused with the publisher’s sensitivities, was ever frightened of being seen as an organ of special pleading for Jews. For Arthur Hays Sulzberger, Judaism was solely a religion, not a race or ethnic grouping. He admired Iphigene’s grandfather, Isaac Mayer Wise, a pioneering Reform rabbi who first enunciated his belief in the 19th century that Zionism was based on a wrong-headed notion that Jews were a people, not a grouping by religion.
Arthur also fully subscribed to Adolph Ochs’ belief that the paper’s identification with elements of its Jewish character should be muted whenever possible. In practice, this included the makeup of its staff. That would prove difficult in a city and business that teemed with bright and ambitious Jewish men. It resulted in ludicrous efforts by managers, eager to interpret the publisher’s preferences, to leach the Jewish character out of some bylines; the bylines of A. M. Rosenthal and A. H. Raskin hid their shared first name, Abe.
The issue of how American Jews of all classes view their Jewish identity and what it means for their place in society is a complex and layered psychological matrix, as it surely was for the Sulzbergers.
But there is no doubt they understood themselves to be Jewish, never denied their heritage, and could hardly think otherwise as they were to experience regular anti-Semitic affronts. They were closely knit into the Jewish philanthropic world as befitted their social and economic standing.
Whatever complicated personal themes may have floated in Arthur Hays Sulzberger’s private seas can only be guessed at. (The most common—and plausible—speculation is that he, like many established and wealthy American Jews of German heritage, was uncomfortable, or simply snobbish, about the more recent waves of less-cultured Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe.)
So, while downplaying in the Times to a ludicrous degree the Jewish identity of the victims of some Nazi horrors (an editorial about the Warsaw ghetto uprising somehow managed to omit that it was a ghetto of Jews), Arthur and Iphigene worked diligently to help distant relatives still in Germany emigrate to the United States. They surely understood these people were in danger from Hitler because of something more than their “choice” to subscribe to the Jewish, rather than, say, the Lutheran religion.
Several factors explain how the Times’ Israel narrative changed. They include the appeal that underdogs have to outsiders, especially journalists, which shifted sympathy to the Palestinians; the election of Menachem Begin; and the growth of Israeli groups critical of their government’s actions, notably the country’s settlement policies and the 1982 invasion of Lebanon.
Journalism is, in the end, storytelling, and it’s a basic tenet of the craft that those on the bottom are more sympathetic characters than the powerful. Their stories can serve as a natural stage for depictions of pathos and suffering, both winning narrative elements.
After Israel vanquished its foes in the 1967 war, it could no longer play that role convincingly. History had recast it in the role of the powerful. And many Western correspondents in those years saw the Israelis as becoming filled not with justifiable pride, but hubris.
The Palestinians, many of whom lived in miserable refugee camps like the one Topping visited, were, however, camera-ready for the role of the downtrodden and disfavored. The Israelis often reinforced this new casting by playing their new part well. Frustrated by terrorists among the Palestinian population, the Israeli government at times employed a tactic of destroying the homes of people in the occupied territories after a family member was involved in terrorism. No matter the wisdom or justification behind such tactics, it is difficult to overstate the negative public relations impact of pictures showing wailing older women and children bereft at the sight of Israeli bulldozers flattening their modest homes as a form of retaliation for something of which they themselves were not guilty.
For some, one of the turning points in the coverage in the Times and elsewhere was the unexpected election of Menachem Begin as prime minister in 1977.
Before the Begin election, Times executives—and those of some other major newspapers—had familiar relationships with the old Israeli guard.
H. D. S. Greenway, then a Washington Post Middle East correspondent, recalled how Katharine Graham, the dowager-publisher of that paper, had a warm, first-name relationship with the Israeli general and war hero, Moshe Dayan. “All of a sudden there were these Likudniks,” he said. “She didn’t know them at all.”
At the Times, a favorite was the urbane and Cambridge-educated (with notably polished accent and diction) Abba Eban, who was Israel’s foreign minister and ambassador to the United Nations. In contrast, Begin and some of his associates could seem crude or coarse.
David Shipler said that after Begin won his surprise victory, Eban and others would continue to lunch with their friends at the Times in New York, where they regularly predicted the imminent collapse of the Begin government.
Zev Chafets, born in Pontiac, MI, moved to Israel and eventually became the director of the Begin government’s press office. “Before 1977, the Israeli diplomatic establishment were Abba [Eban] and Golda [Meir],” he said. “And they were very close to the American Jewish establishment and to the American media establishment.”
He said that people like Eban spoke frequently to their friends in the media, telling them that the new crowd was a disaster, “that Begin was an extreme nationalist, a war-monger.”
Greenway, who later became The Boston Globe’s foreign editor, said the proliferation of Israeli civil rights groups devoted to the Palestinians’ situation contributed to more critical coverage. These groups provided not only a quotable source, but additional evidence that Israeli society itself was engaged in a robust debate about the nation’s policies.
The greatest factor in shifting the narrative surely has to be the events of the conflict itself, including some decisions undertaken by Israel that diminished its standing in the world. Many of these actions may have been the natural if not inevitable result of years of frustration, of worn-down patience and the inability to envision any lasting peace for the region.
All nations behave badly—that is they abandon some of their essential values—in times of stress and threat. And that syndrome is always more noticeable in democracies with high standards and expectations. Tom Hundley, who was a foreign correspondent with the Chicago Tribune for 19 years and worked in Israel from 1990 to 1994, said the country faced its first wave of highly negative coverage in 1982 after its ill-considered invasion of Lebanon, “and suddenly everyone realized that Israel could be criticized and the world went on.”
There may be no single issue that has alienated more American supporters of Israel, Jewish and otherwise, than Israel’s policy of establishing settlements in places like the West Bank of the Jordan River. It became and remains the focus of much media coverage.
Israel’s policy of settling hundreds of thousands of Jews inside the West Bank and East Jerusalem has hampered peace efforts and been more than an irritant in relations with the United States, including during the Obama administration.
J Street, an organization based in Washington that aims to provide an alternative to traditional American Jewish groups that support Israel, conducted a poll in 2009 that demonstrated the growing split among American Jews over Israeli policies. When asked about their view of Israel’s settlements, 60 percent of American Jews were uncomfortable with the policy.
But within the segment of respondents who said they were Orthodox, the results pointed in the opposite direction; 80 percent supported the settlement policy.
These Orthodox Jews who said they supported Israel’s approach typically travel regularly to Israel, might have relatives who have emigrated there, and occasionally send their children to Israel for a break year before college.
And it is from those ranks that the critics of the Times are likely to come.
The Israelis have always had a strong appreciation of the importance of shaping their story for the world. They even have a word for it in Hebrew, hasbara, which translates roughly as “explanation” but encompasses a wider conception of public diplomacy. There was, for many years, no equivalent effort on the part of the Palestinians. “People began to appreciate that the Israeli government had the smooth machine for propaganda and the other side had nothing in that regard,” said Hundley.
But by the time of Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982, Western news reporters and outlets began regularly citing dispatches from Wafa, the Palestinian state news agency, as to what was occurring in Lebanon.
In March, 1988, during the first Intifada, Israel closed down Wafa’s operations inside the country. A Reuters dispatch on the shutdown described Wafa “as the main source of information for the foreign press on the 16-week-old Palestinian uprising in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip.”
The emergence of something like the Palestinian news service paralleled a larger development, the growth of a distinct Palestinian national consciousness.
Separate from all of these factors, there is another element, which cannot be ignored. Palestinian militant organizations, no match for the Israelis in conventional warfare, embarked on a campaign of terrorism, executing acts designed to be and which were, in fact, stunning.
What should and did shock the conscience—kidnapping and murder of Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics, blowing up buses filled with civilians, murder of a wheelchair-bound cruise-ship passenger—could also, perversely, stimulate the conscience about the underlying issue. Terrorism may be effective to some degree because those who are repelled by an act might simultaneously be made curious as to what could drive people to commit such horrifying deeds.
When Hundley was stationed in Israel, he never had any doubt that no matter how good a correspondent he might prove, his stature in Israel would never come close to that of the Times’ correspondent. “The Times correspondent lives in a house that is, in effect, like an embassy,” he said. “And the correspondent is, in some ways, treated better than a diplomat, sometimes like royalty.”
Allan M. Siegal, a former assistant managing editor at the Times, said that Teddy Kollek, who was mayor of Jerusalem from 1965 to 1993, “knew every executive at the Times by first name.” And Times editors who visited Israel, Siegal said, were generally “treated like visiting royalty.”
The experiences of three different correspondents demonstrate some of the special issues that may arise in being the paper’s Jerusalem bureau chief.
David Shipler served from 1979 to 1984 and used his experience to write a book, Arab and Jew: Wounded Spirits in a Promised Land. It won 1987’s Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction and was praised in the Los Angeles Times as “deep and powerful,” the equivalent of an immersion course in the emotional language of the conflict between the two groups.
Shipler said that there were two occasions in which he believed his writing from Israel was mishandled because of editors’ politics. The more notable one involved an assignment for the book review section on Jacobo Timerman, the Argentine writer and human rights figure who had emigrated to Israel.
In an interview, Timerman told Shipler that he had “buried” his Judaism as an Argentine dissident, reasoning that he was already reviled by the government and didn’t want to have his stance mingled with any potential anti-Semitism.
He said that in Israel he was able to “dig beneath the tombstones” and found he was proud of being Jewish.
But he was stark in another of his observations: While he was suddenly proud of his Jewishness, he was, he said, ashamed of being an Israeli because of how the nation treated the Palestinians.
The book review editor, Shipler said, told him that the piece was unsuitable; the Times could not and should not run a piece with Timerman castigating Israel.
Shipler had his piece sent over to the foreign desk where he hoped it would be salvaged, but it lingered there. He was questioned by an editor as to whether he had accurately represented Timerman’s views. The question was offensive to a seasoned reporter. The interview also had been tape-recorded.
Sometime later, Timerman visited the Times in New York and expressed the same views of Israel to editors who earlier had been skeptical that he could think that way. Shipler said Timerman, who died in 1999, was surprised at what he said was the censorship of his views at the hands of the Times.
Deborah Sontag, who was in Jerusalem for the Times for almost three years starting in August 1998, remains the only woman to have served in the post. Her time there was, by all accounts, an unhappy one for her. She was the only one of several editors and former correspondents at the paper who declined outright to be interviewed about her experience. “I just can’t imagine that anything I have to say about the period would be illuminating,” she wrote, “and it may be troubling to me.”
Sontag had been well regarded at the Times for what Bill Keller, a former executive editor, described as “her vivid writing” which was often deployed to emphasize the human aspect of a story. But numerous people at the Times say that she did not feel fondly about Israel during her tour there and was stressed by the immediacy of the story and the intensity of the scrutiny of her coverage.
Jeffrey Goldberg, who has covered Israel and the Middle East for The New Yorker and The Atlantic, said her work, more than any other Times reporter’s, seemed to reflect that very liberal segment of America that has grown impatient with Israel, and skeptical of Israelis. “It represented an approach to Israel that is best seen these days on American universities,” he said.
Goldberg, who identifies as an American Jew, served in the Israeli army as a young man. He is regarded by many as openly pro-Israel, but his view of Sontag’s coverage resembles that of many others and is noteworthy because of a different reason: Lelyveld, then executive editor, said the Times thought seriously about hiring him to succeed her as Jerusalem bureau chief.
Lelyveld, who praised Sontag’s coverage, said he met with Goldberg over breakfast during Sontag’s time in Jerusalem as part of this process. Goldberg remembers a breakfast, but says he was not approached about the job at that time. In 2004, Bill Keller, then executive editor, says he and Jill Abramson, then managing editor, met with Goldberg in Washington to pursue him for the position.
In seriously considering Goldberg for the job, the editors of the Times must have known they would be getting something decidedly different from Sontag’s tenure, when criticism of the Times by Israel’s supporters had swelled.
Sontag’s most controversial piece was an unusually long (nearly 5,000 words) analysis of why the July 2000 Camp David peace talks between Yasser Arafat and Ehud Barak, midwifed by President Bill Clinton, did not yield a settlement. Published on the one-year anniversary of the talks’ failure, the article testily disputed the conventional wisdom that the Palestinian side was mostly at fault, that Arafat could not bring himself to cut a deal—perhaps because he was not made for negotiating peace after all his years of running a war operation or because he thought he would be discredited by hardliners.
Sontag’s article shifted a significant portion of the blame onto the Israelis and the Americans, and was a surprising departure from what most people believed at the time. It paralleled a minority view espoused in The New York Review of Books by Robert Malley, an adviser to President Clinton.
She wrote that, “A potent, simplistic narrative has taken hold in Israel and to some extent in the United States. It says: Mr. Barak offered Mr. Arafat the moon at Camp David last summer. Mr. Arafat turned it down.” While that was a caricature of the general view, and thus a bit of a straw man, she went on to argue that the Israelis and the Americans bore far more of the blame than had generally been believed.
In an editorial on July 28, the Times noted Sontag’s report but failed to express any support for her approach, pointedly saying that the Israeli prime minister, Ehud Barak, had brought “a daring offer” to Camp David. Arafat, the editorial noted, did not offer any proposals of his own.
Since then, there has been further discussion and debate over the issue with new assessments of some miscalculations made by Israeli and American officials. But for the most part, correspondents and experts—even senior editors at the Times in private assessments—do not accept the view suggested in Sontag’s piece.
Ethan Bronner, the current Times bureau chief in Jerusalem, was well prepared: He had worked there previously for Reuters and The Boston Globe. After joining the Times he was a member of the paper’s editorial board, where he was largely responsible for the paper’s Middle East editorials, before becoming deputy foreign editor.
Bronner knew that in writing about the politics of the region, a reporter might find himself simultaneously attacked as a Zionist lackey and an anti-Semite or self-hating Jew—sometimes for the same article. Bronner, in fact, has been assailed furiously by camera, a pro-Israel group based in Boston that monitors the media for what it perceives as flawed and biased media coverage; and he has been treated just as harshly by Mondoweiss, a website that advertises itself as a voice of progressive Jews and sympathetically tracks Palestinian interest groups and causes.
For Bronner, the argument about his coverage, always at a slow boil, erupted in early 2010 over his 20-year-old son. Like many young men, he was at ends about what to do with his life and decided to enlist in the Israeli Defense Forces for a stint of 14 months.
The younger Bronner’s enlistment in the IDF was first reported by a Palestinian website called The Electronic Intifada and picked up by others like Mondoweiss and the BBC. On February 6, 2010 the Times’ public editor, Clark Hoyt, weighed whether the situation posed an unacceptable conflict of interest. He said that Bronner’s coverage was, in the most difficult of situations, “solid and fair.”
Nonetheless, Hoyt thought it best that the Times reassign Bronner, a conclusion hotly rejected by Bill Keller, then the executive editor, and other editors on the foreign desk.
The ensuing debate was a turbulent discussion of ethics and loyalties. Some people at the Times were troubled that the criticism of Bronner was reminiscent of the days when it was thought unwise for the paper to have a Jewish reporter cover Israel.
For Bronner, the incident was painful, because it linked the private sphere of his family with what is decidedly public but sensitive in itself—the need for a journalist to be fair and, just as important, be perceived as fair. “I knew that if word of this got out it could cause a problem,” he said in an interview. “But I felt that I had no right to tell my adult son what to do. He had to make his own life decisions and I knew it wouldn’t affect how I would cover the Israeli army.”
He was also dismayed to find that some people on all sides of the issue began with a wholly false premise—that his son’s enlistment was somehow a considered decision on Bronner’s part to invest his family in the Zionist cause.
After completing his enlistment, his son decided that Israeli military life was not for him. He is back in the United States, enrolled in college.
At the time of the controversy, it was generally not known that despite the strong support for Bronner at the Times, one dissenting voice was Taghreed el-Khodary, who had been the paper’s Palestinian stringer in Gaza. Already on leave from the region, she told the foreign desk she thought Bronner’s son’s enlistment would create insurmountable problems, for both her safety and for her credibility with sources.
Times editors believed that, stressed by the years of the assignment, she was already contemplating leaving the paper and the issue of Bronner’s son reinforced her decision. She said in an interview, however, that without the enlistment, she would have resumed her assignment. She left the Times and has stayed away from Gaza until recently.
Her successor, Fares Akram, said in an interview that he believed Bronner’s son’s military service had never been an impediment to or affected his coverage of Gaza. Akram said nobody from Gaza had ever expressed concern about it; the only people who asked him about it were visiting foreign journalists.
As to Jewish critics of the Times, the most intriguing group might be the Orthodox community centered in New York City, whose views on the paper’s coverage of Israel are usually spread by word of mouth in synagogues.
In 2001, Rabbi Haskel Lookstein issued the first of his several calls for a temporary boycott of the paper to protest what he said was its biased coverage against Israel. In a July 2001 letter in New York’s The Jewish Week, the leader of Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, and the principal of the Ramaz School—both important centers for New York’s Modern Orthodox community—called for his congregants and other like-minded people to suspend their subscriptions from Rosh Hashana to Yom Kippur.
“Starting with the second intifada and during the editorship of Joe Lelyveld, I found that the Times, through its headlines and its lede paragraphs frequently, if not consistently, presented the Palestinian version of the conflict without reflecting the Israeli version,” he said in a recent interview.
After his letter appeared, he received a call asking for a meeting from Lelyveld, who grew up as the son of a prominent Reform rabbi and was then the paper’s foreign editor.
Though they came from different branches of Judaism, Rabbi Lookstein’s father, Rabbi Joseph H. Lookstein, had been friends with Lelyveld’s father, Rabbi Arthur J. Lelyveld. Lelyveld said he remembered that the elder Lookstein had attended his bar mitzvah reception. (His Orthodoxy made attending the Reform service itself out of the question.) “I thought I could use my credentials,” Lelyveld said. “I could say: ‘Listen, I’m a rabbi’s son. What are you talking about’” when you assert that the Times is slanted against Israel? While Lelyveld seemed to hope he could serve as a kind of ambassador for the paper to those elements of the Jewish community who were infuriated by the Times’ coverage of Israel, in the end, it appears he found it a more difficult task than he had first thought.
“Joe Lelyveld reached out to me,” Lookstein recalled, giving his version of events. He said he was invited to meet with Lelyveld, then the executive editor, and Serge Schmemann, then an editor on the foreign desk and a former correspondent in Israel.
“We had a discussion. He agreed with me that some of the headlines and stories were slanted and that some of my complaints were legitimate,” he said. But Lelyveld, he said, also rejected several of his criticisms. The rabbi said that after the meeting, the coverage, in his view, improved for a while but then returned to an unacceptably hostile perspective on Israel.
Lookstein’s last call for a temporary suspension of subscriptions was in 2006. Asked if he still avoided the paper, he said that his wife found it difficult to get by without the Times and its delivery was quickly restored then and, presumably, forever “to keep peace in the family.”
Critics like Rabbi Lookstein can easily find what seem to them errors in emphasis or tone on any individual article. A newspaper is, to many, a stunning achievement: Each day, (or now with the Web, almost each moment) a rendering of tens of thousands of words produced under great time pressures. That means that errors or misplaced emphases are inevitable. These will be smoothed over in time and, for any fair analysis, coverage should be viewed as part of a larger thematic narrative.
The unwillingness or inability to do so might be seen in Rabbi Lookstein’s complaint during his last burst of anger at the Times in 2006. He wrote, among other complaints, that a brief piece inside the paper noted the number of rockets that fell on the Israeli village of Sderot the day before. The article recorded the fact that no one was injured.
The rabbi was angered that while the dispatch noted the lack of injury from the latest rocket salvo, it did not mention the many times previous rocket attacks on Sderot had injured, killed and maimed people.
But those attacks, at least many of them, had already been covered in the Times. The article to which Lookstein objected was a simple exercise in basic news—recording the events of the day and, in a limited space. It was a piece of spot news and was not intended—nor could it—carry the burden of a full exegesis of the history of rocket assaults against Sderot.
Another common theme of American Jewish supporters of Israel who criticize the Times is that the paper, and indeed most Western media, generally do not cover fully the range of anti-Semitic and anti-Israel invective that is depressingly common in parts of the Arab media and clergy.
The critics are frustrated by this and have a point. Newspapers generally have a difficult time in dealing with any repeated phenomena, like hateful speech. An individual article may cover the subject once, to lay out the general phenomenon. But it is generally impractical to write an article about each subsequent instance. Editors are then inclined to say that the initial article already covered the subject.
As a result, such outrageous comments recede into something akin to background noise. They may be deplorable but are not always deplored.
Much of this kind of criticism is rolled into an all-purpose complaint that Israel is subjected to a double standard relative to its Arab adversaries.
Perhaps it is, but might that be understandable or even acceptable? Is there not an argument that there should be a higher standard for an ally, a fellow democracy, and a recipient of enormous US aid? Doesn’t the US media fittingly and unreservedly use a double standard, for example, when it comes to reporting abuses committed by American forces as compared to, say, Zimbabwean soldiers?
But a problem in applying a double standard, even if appropriate, is that the criticisms can be used to make a false political comparison, as in those who would hold Israel to a high standard and then, judging its lapses by that standard, say the criticism proves it is the equivalent of apartheid South Africa.
Many of Israel’s American Jewish supporters say that the Times and other media overdramatize and feature Palestinian death and suffering relative to the death and suffering of Israelis. The people who make this argument acknowledge that Palestinian casualties are usually greater but say that the Israelis killed are targeted as civilians while Palestinian civilians are not intended targets and are more properly characterized as unintended victims.
So what is to be made of such statistical comparisons and efforts to compare the relative balance sheets of suffering? Any individual death, be it a Palestinian or Israeli, evokes by itself somewhere an infinity of grief.
Perhaps we might begin with the idea that measuring with precision how one kind of suffering compares with another may be beyond the capacity of mortals.
Neil A. Lewis researched this article as a 2010 fellow at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center, which published a longer version on its website.Neil Lewis was a New York Times correspondent for 24 years. After retiring in 2010, he taught at Duke Law School and was a fellow at the Kennedy School.