The New York Times Magazine Unleashes a Bitter Attack on Israel’s Culture Minister
What happens to a New York Times journalist who gets caught blatantly violating the newspaper’s policies restricting the use of anonymous sources?
If the journalist happens to be New York-based writer Ruth Margalit, she gets rewarded with a plum assignment for the Times magazine.
The Times has a lavishly staffed Jerusalem bureau, led by Peter Baker and including regular Times contributors such as Isabel Kershner and Diaa Hadid. But when it came time for the Sunday Times magazine to profile Israel’s minister of culture and sports, Miri Regev, the Times, for some mysterious reason, chose to give the assignment to a reporter not on its regular payroll.
The nearly 6,000-word piece that resulted is, to put it kindly, an embarrassment, an error-filled, tendentious, anti-Zionist screed.
Let’s take it from the top, if you have the stomach for it. The Times reports that “Regev has become known for her provocations no less than for her nationalist fervor,” listing as examples: “She sometimes unfurls an Israeli flag during speeches… In 2013, she introduced a bill to annex the Jordan Valley, a move that would all but foreclose the prospect of a two-state solution.”
What’s provocative about displaying an Israeli flag? The Times doesn’t explain why it considers this mundane, mildly patriotic act to amount to a “provocation.” As for Israeli control of the Jordan Valley, this is hardly provocative; it’s been a consensus Israeli position dating back as far as the Allon Plan of 1967 put forth by Labor Party minister Yigal Allon. Nor does it “foreclose the prospect of a two-state solution”; no less a proponent of that solution than Yitzhak Rabin said, in a speech to the Knesset in 1995, “The security border for defending the State of Israel will be in the Jordan Valley, in the widest sense of that concept.”
The Times article proceeds to rewrite Israeli history. It says:
That other culture is Mizrahi, or “Eastern.” It’s a catchall term that includes Jewish communities from Muslim countries in the Middle East and North Africa, as well as the Sephardic Jews, whose origins can be traced to Spain and Portugal, who settled there. These communities immigrated to Israel in mass waves after its founding in 1948 and into the early 1950s, upending its demographic makeup: The Jewish population, almost exclusively Ashkenazi, became more than 40 percent Mizrahi. But it wasn’t just the country’s ethnic composition that changed. The Jewish population that predated the founding of the state was primarily young, secular and idealistic; it was also heavily male. By contrast, the new Mizrahi arrivals tended to be large families from traditional societies. In their ethnic garb, often with no knowledge of Hebrew, they struck the native-born Israeli sabras and the European Ashkenazim as provincial and uneducated.
The weasel words “almost” and “primarily” do an awful lot of work in that paragraph. The supposedly “secular” population of pre-1948 Israel included plenty of rabbis — Shmuel Salant, Yehoshua and Yitzhak Diskin, Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld, Abraham Isaac Kook. Likewise, Sephardic Jews came to Israel long before 1948, from Nahmanides, or the Ramban, who was born in Spain but moved to Jerusalem in 1267, to Joseph Caro, who was expelled from Spain in 1492 and arrived in Safed in about 1535. These aren’t just trivial details; they undercut the whole narrative the Times account is trying to construct, which is that Israel was built by secular “European” immigrants — effectively, colonizers — rather than by native Jews who have a deep religious connection to the land that goes back many centuries.
Then there’s this: “It is a testament to the hopelessness of peace efforts today that the most-talked-about politician in Israel is its culture minister.” How the Times measures who is “the most-talked-about politician in Israel” is left totally opaque; but, however one measures it, the culture minister almost certainly ranks behind Benjamin Netanyahu, and probably, during the period around Shimon Peres’s funeral, also behind Peres.
And then the Times article says this:
Netanyahu has tried to distance himself from many of the more flagrant displays of such McCarthyism. And yet similar measures are routinely promulgated on the Knesset floor. One recent bill calls for enshrining Israel’s legal status as “the national home of the Jewish people.” A newly passed law requires nongovernmental organizations that receive more than half their funding from foreign governments to disclose this in all their official communications; an earlier version went so far as to demand that representatives of these organizations wear a special badge while in the Knesset.
How does it constitute “flagrant McCarthyism” to declare that Israel is the national home of the Jewish people? It’s a statement of the obvious. The idea is included in Israel’s declaration of independence, which speaks of “the right of the Jewish people to national rebirth in its own country.” It’s included in the Bible; if the New York Times magazine and Ruth Margalit were around for the revelation, they’d doubtless be breathlessly denouncing much of Genesis, Exodus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, and Ezekiel as “flagrant McCarthyism.”
As for the business about disclosing foreign funding, it might be useful context if the Times pointed out that America has a similar law, the Foreign Agents Registration Act, and that registered lobbyists in the US Capitol wear special identifying badges, too.
It’s a classic Times double standard. When Russia supposedly meddles in American presidential politics, the Times goes into full outrage mode, calling Russia’s alleged behavior “unconscionable” and a “threat.” Yet when European governments — including some with large and restive Muslim populations, and some that less than a century ago participated in murdering millions of Jews — try to meddle in Israeli politics, the Times vehemently objects, not to the foreign interference itself, but to the mere requirement that the funding be made transparent.
Then there is this from the Times:
Arab Israelis want to “raise their children in peace,” she says, while members of the Palestinian leadership “sanctify death.” (Arab municipalities are used to such double speak from government ministers but often decide to swallow the insult in order to maintain working relations.)
Double speak is a phrase George Orwell coined for lies. If anything is double speak here, it isn’t Ms. Regev’s words, but the Times’ own casual dismissal of them as lies — without the context that Palestinian leaders indeed do praise and honor suicidal terrorists as “martyrs.”
As she did in her previous piece for the Times, Ms. Margalit violates the paper’s anonymous source policy. She writes:
When I asked heads of cultural institutions what they made of this notion, they all noted that the funding in question isn’t Regev’s to distribute but comes from taxpayer money. “There’s no such thing as ‘freedom of funding,’ ” one added. “Citizens have freedoms; states have duties. In a fascist state, the state has freedoms and the citizens have duties. Without funding, cultural production can’t take place.”
Why allow some cultural leader to denounce Ms. Regev as a “fascist” from behind a veil of Times-proffered anonymity? The comment doesn’t add anything beyond what’s in on-the-record quotes from a theater executive a few paragraphs later in the story. There’s no reason to have included the slur without a name attached.
The article concludes with an Israeli-Arab politician asking, “Who is this higher being who demands loyalty from us?” Ms. Margalit writes, “Regev’s answer to that question would most likely be: the new right, the military, the ruling majority.”
In a piece this long, where the Times reporter obviously had firsthand interview access to Ms. Regev, why does the reporter need to resort to speculating about what the answer “would most likely be”? Why not just ask her the question directly and let her answer it?
Ms. Margalit’s answer to that question would most likely be: she wasn’t really so interested in finding out the truth.
More of Ira Stoll’s media critique, a regular Algemeiner feature, can be found here.