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.