A steady diet of anti-Israel rhetoric

The idea that Marwan Barghouti is a political prisoner is no less a fantasy than the idea that Abbas accepts Israel’s Jewishness.

The headquarters of the New York Times is pictured on 8th Avenue in New York (photo credit: REUTERS)
The headquarters of the New York Times is pictured on 8th Avenue in New York
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The New York Times' decision to publish an article by a convicted killer hasn’t been particularly well received. The author of the op-ed, Marwan Barghouti, is serving multiple life sentences in Israel for his involvement in terrorist attacks targeting Jews. But readers were given no indication that Barghouti has the blood of five innocent people on his hands. Instead, Times opinion editors characterized him merely as “a Palestinian leader and parliamentarian.”
This sanitized description, which fit rather too neatly with Barghouti’s attempt to cast himself as a political prisoner, prompted waves of criticism. Even the Times’ own public editor faulted the newspaper for withholding “details that help people make judgments about the opinions they’re reading.” (One such judgment readers might have made, if only they had been properly informed, is whether a man willing to murder Israelis might also be willing to lie about them in a newspaper column.)
Eventually, opinion editors were persuaded to append an editor’s note to the article, which explained that the piece had “neglected to provide sufficient context” about the offenses for which Barghouti was convicted. “They were five counts of murder and membership in a terrorist organization.” The clarification is welcome. But it brings into focus another question: Why would the Times offer its coveted platform to a convicted murderer in the first place?
A proponent of freewheeling debate might respond that editors should publish the broadest possible spectrum of views, exploring every angle from the center to the extremes. And yet a closer look at the Times opinion pages reveals that this is far from the newspaper’s style. Instead, opinion pieces about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have tended to fall within a narrow range, with Barghouti’s anti-Israel op-ed being just more of the same.
Since the start of 2017, readers of the Times opinion pages have been fed a steady diet of anti-Israel rhetoric. The latest was Barghouti’s piece, which whitewashed the terrorist’s crimes but indicted the Jewish state for a seemingly endless list: “arbitrary arrests and ill-treatment,” “abuses,” “inhumane system,” “inflicting suffering,” “humiliating measures,” “grave breaches,” “arrogance,” “torture,” “degrading treatment,” “collective punishment,” “apartheid,” “mass arbitrary arrests, torture, punitive measures and severe restrictions,” “show trials,” “colonialism,” “moral and political failure,” and on and on.
A few weeks earlier, an op-ed by Larry Derfner sought to convince readers that, in any future war with Hezbollah or Hamas, it is Israel, and not either of the terrorist organizations, that should be held responsible. And what if Hezbollah yet again starts a war by firing a barrage of rockets at an Israeli towns? What if Hamas again bombs buses and cafés across Tel Aviv? Blame Israel nonetheless, the piece indicated.
Another Times op-ed, by Ayelet Waldman and Michael Chabon, who frequently disparage Israel, similarly suggested the country should be viewed as responsible for future Palestinian terrorist attacks.
Then there was a piece entitled “How Israel Bulldozes Democracy” by Israeli-Arab politician Ayman Odeh, whose headline speaks for itself. That article’s extreme condemnation of Israel included blunt factual errors, such as Odeh’s claim that, “since the founding of the state [of Israel], more than 700 new towns and cities have been built for Jews, while no new cities have been built for Arabs.” Proof that this claim is false has appeared in the Times itself, whose news pages recently referred to “Rahat, a largely Bedouin city in the Negev Desert.” Israel built Rahat, along with a number of other towns, for its Arab citizens. Opinion editors refused to correct the error.
And another headline on the opinion pages promised to expose “The Frightening Truth About Israeli Society.” The article delivered, alarming readers with allegations that Israel is sliding away from its democratic values.
Even seemingly sympathetic commentary reinforced the broader message that, uniquely among the rest of the world, any mention of Israel must be accompanied by an affirmation of the country’s imperfections. In a piece entitled “Why Israel is nothing like apartheid,” author Benjamin Pogrund announced, “I am acutely aware of Israel’s problems and faults, but it is nothing like South Africa before 1994.” He goes on to rebut various extremist accusations against Israel, all the while detailing what he sees as Israel’s actual problems and faults.
In 2017, spring has just begun in New York City, but the debate over whether Israel is insufferably oppressive or merely quite flawed is well underway in the pages of The New York Times.
The newspaper this year did publish an article by Yishai Fleisher, a prominent advocate of settlements. But that did little to broaden the debate. How better to underscore all those accusations that Israel is a land-hungry entity, after all, then by publishing an Israeli who approvingly supports annexation of much of the West Bank?
Besides, Fleisher, not unlike his fellow op-ed contributors, takes the opportunity to slam Israel’s government, though this time from a pro-settlement perspective. He argued that Israel “mouths the old party line, yet takes no steps toward making a Palestinian state a reality,” while insisting that the country is guilty of “obvious obfuscation” in its attempts to rebut critics. The politics may be different, but the message is largely the same.
Clearly, the Times does not embrace the full range of views on the conflict. While there are no shortage of reputable, moderate voices who would point out that Palestinians have flaws, warts and, most importantly, a great share of responsibility for the ongoing conflict, those voices are largely missing from the newspaper of record. As a result, while the anti-Israel invective flows, little pressure is placed on Palestinians to crack down on rampant hate speech, to accept the Jewish state’s right to exist, and to end the system in which anti-Israel violence is in effect rewarded by payments to the family of attackers, for example.
In fact, the opinion pages have served to take pressure off Palestinian leaders by obfuscating their uncompromising positions. An op-ed published this March insisted that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas “accepts Israel’s Jewishness” – and that Israel is manipulatively concealing Abbas’s “true position” by claiming otherwise. To substantiate this claim, the author cites a 1994 interview in which Abbas mentions that the Jews “have managed to establish a Jewish state.”
It’s remarkable that fact-checkers allowed the claim to be published. Abbas may have said such a thing a quarter-century ago, but in recent years, he has repeatedly, explicitly and emphatically rejected Israel’s Jewishness. In 2011, for example, he said, “I will never recognize the Jewishness of the state.” In 2014: “We won’t recognize or accept the Jewishness of Israel.” In 2015: “We won’t accept a Jewish state.” And in 2016: “Palestinian leadership categorically rejects the idea of a Jewish Israel.”
The Palestinian president couldn’t be more clear than that. But the false claim that he accepts a Jewish state has not been corrected.
Which brings us back to the convicted killer published in the Times. The idea that Marwan Barghouti is a political prisoner is no less a fantasy than the idea that Abbas accepts Israel’s Jewishness. But Times editors appear to be drawn to such fantasies. Unless that changes, it is only a matter of time until the next op-ed outrage is published.
The author is a senior research analyst at CAMERA, the Committee for Accuracy I’m Middle East Reporting in America.