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 will publish a longer version on its website on February 1.

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Neil Lewis was a New York Times correspondent for twenty-four years. Since retiring in 2009, he has taught at Duke University's law school, and is currently executive director of The Constitution Project's nonpartisan task force on detainee treatment.