Anticipating the answer, I nonetheless wondered how The New York Times would respond to the 70th anniversary of Israel’s independence, nearly two millennia after its destruction by Roman conquerors. My expectation was guided by the decades of Times discomfort with the very idea, to say nothing of the reality, of Jewish statehood.
It began when Adolph Ochs purchased the flagging newspaper in 1896, only months after Viennese journalist Theodor Herzl had floated the idea of a Jewish state in the historic homeland of the Jewish people. Ochs, a Reform Jew and son-in-law of Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise, the leader of the American Reform movement, believed that Zionism posed a serious menace to the loyalty of American Jews. His emphatic anti-Zionism was inherited by his son-in-law Arthur Hays Sulzberger and the family dynasty that he secured. Whether it was evasion of the Holocaust or opposition to Jewish statehood, the Times resolutely stood on the wrong side of history.
So it came as no surprise that its front-page 70th anniversary coverage emphasized criticism of Israel over celebration of its historically unprecedented achievement. Jerusalem bureau chief David M. Halbfinger, a 20-year Times veteran who previously covered New York metropolitan affairs, Hollywood and John Kerry’s presidential campaign – arguably not the best preparation for Israel – seemed confident that he knew what Israelis think about their momentous anniversary.
Israelis, he wrote, “seem not to know what to feel” about a moment “so fraught with both pride and peril” that it is “hard to rejoice.” There are, after all, the “threats to the north, south and east,” with “an escalating shadow war with Iran,” the violent Gaza protest, and Palestinian “frustration, impatience and rage” over Israel’s “continuing occupation” (of its biblical homeland).
Halbfinger’s sources were revealing. Hind Koury, a former PLO official, received the most attention. Her riff against Israel included “its presence and dominance,” exemplified by “home demolitions and expulsions and dispossession”; settler violence; “the siege of Gaza”; “racist legislation”; and “the use of ‘anti-Semitism’ to fight anybody who wants to support Palestinian rights.” Tom Segev, left-wing journalist for Haaretz and a revisionist historian, concluded that “the future is very bleak for Israel.” Even author Yossi Klein Halevi, who supports the embassy relocation, expressed his wish that it would be accompanied by “affirmation by both Israel and the United States of the Palestinian presence” in Jerusalem: after all, “we’re not alone in Jerusalem.”
Then, predictably, Halbfinger cited the problem of Benjamin Netanyahu. Soon to become Israel’s longest serving Prime Minister, which says something about his national support, he is chided for doing “much to sour Jewish Democrats” for his opposition to the Iran deal – as though American Jewish Democrats deserve prime consideration in the making of Israeli foreign policy. “Liberal Americans’ discomfort with Israel” – and with President Trump – figure prominently in Halbfinger’s critique (perhaps understandably for a nice Jewish synagogue-goer from New Jersey).
Another front-page story the same day, about the collapse of the Iran nuclear deal, allowed reporter Ben Hubbard (writing from Beirut) to cite Israel’s “little ability to build alliances with Arab countries.” One wonders: have Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia ceased to be “Arab countries”? Iran’s determination to build its military infrastructure in Syria prompted Hubbard to quote former US Middle East ambassador Ryan C. Crocker, who believes that “There is real potential for a much bigger fight than we have seen so far,” predictably “led by Israel.”
Jerusalem reporter Isabel Kershner completed the trifecta of Times criticism – in, of all places, her article about Netta Barzilai, the Israeli winner of the Eurovision Song Contest in Lisbon. It helped “some” (unidentified) Israelis in their feeling of belonging to “a small but plucky country” with “outsize influence in the world.” To be sure, Kershner added, “that image has been tested by international grumbling” – invariably endorsed by the Times – “about the 50-year occupation of the Palestinian territories” (rarely identified as biblical Judea and Samaria). And “hundreds of actors, musicians and artists” have endorsed boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel. So they must be right.
After so much kvetching about Israel, it is past time to wonder whether there is something wrong, not with Israel, but with the Ochs-Sulzberger newspaper and the seemingly endless succession of reporters who find little in Israel but grist for their misguided and reflexive mill of criticism.
Jerold S. Auerbach is the author of Print to Fit: The New York Times, Zionism and Israel 1896-2016 to be published this summer by Academic Studies Press.