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.