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.