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December 2, 2016 4:09 am

A Heart-Tugging Report From a Jerusalem Refugee Camp Falls Flat With New York Times Readers

avatar by Ira Stoll

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Shuafat, east Jerusalem. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

Shuafat, east Jerusalem. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

Sunday’s New York Times magazine will carry a long and heart-rending account, by a writer named Rachel Kushner, of the miserable lives of some residents of the Shuafat refugee camp in Jerusalem.

One of the fine things about the Internet is that even before the story was delivered to print subscribers of the Times, readers have had the chance to rebut it. The Times online commenters (at least the ones not likening Israel to the Nazis) have done a pretty good job already.

“I will look forward to Ms. Kushner’s next story from Aleppo. If she can write these many words about the ‘suffering’ Palestinians, I am sure her story on Aleppo will take up 1,000 times more column space….and will get this same top billing from the NY Times,” wrote “Ralph” from Chicago, sarcastically.

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“Working Mama” from New York City wrote, “If you want to be taken seriously about the Middle East, you need to have the same standards for all players. Where are your accounts of the plight of Palestinian Arabs kept in camps in Arab nations? Where is the mention of the 800,000 or so Jews forced from their homes in Arab countries contemporaneously with the creation of Israel? Why no coherent discussion of why refugees from 1948 have failed to resettle or assimilate to new homes over nearly 70 years?”

There also are a few points I didn’t see addressed by the Times commenters that are worth adding.

First, Ms. Kushner writes, “I was invited on an extensive tour of the occupied West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and was asked to choose a subject to write about, for a book to be published next year. With no previous experience in the region, and little knowledge…” This is just weird. “Was invited” uses the passive voice, almost always a giveaway that a writer is trying to hide something. Who, exactly, “invited” her or “asked” her? Did the person or organization doing the inviting and asking pay for her expenses or pay for her writing, or offer to do so? How does someone with zero experience in the region and “little” knowledge wind up writing about it for the New York Times?

I sent Ms. Kushner a message over Facebook asking some of those questions, and haven’t yet gotten a response.

Another point worth mentioning relates to this paragraph:

Adel kept making reference to his 9-year-old daughter, who is physically disabled and cannot attend school. I asked to meet her or Adel asked if I wanted to meet her. Either way we ended up in Adel’s large apartment, and his daughter Mira was wheeled out to the living room. Mira was burned over most of her body and is missing part of one arm and a kneecap. Her face and scalp are disfigured. A school bus filled with children from the Shuafat camp were on a trip to Ramallah when their bus collided with a truck on wet roads. The bus overturned and burst into flames. Five children and a teacher burned to death. Dozens were injured. Emergency services were delayed by confusion over who had jurisdiction. As a result, Mira and other children had to be taken in the cars of bystanders to the closest hospital. The accident took place between the Adam settlement and Qalandiya checkpoints, in what is called Area C of the West Bank, which is entirely under Israeli control. The likelihood of something like this occurring was well known. Later, a report from Ir Amim, an Israeli human rights group, established that the tragedy resulted from the multiple challenges of living beyond the separation barrier. Roads were substandard. There were too many children on the bus, the children had no access to education in their own communities and there was no oversight.

This is all sad, but it ignores the fact that people are horribly injured in bus accidents in other places, too. Ir Amim, which the Times describes as an “Israeli human rights group,” in fact got 62.6% of its funding from 2012-2014 from European governments, according to NGO Monitor.

The Times piece refers to “Moriel Rothman-Zecher, a writer and organizer who had walked me into the camp in order to make introductions between me and Baha and to serve as my Arabic interpreter.” How Ms. Kushner picked up Mr. Rothman-Zecher as a guide is unexplained by the Times, though a search of the Times archives does turn up a piece from 2015 by Mr. Rothman-Zecher talking about his serving a month in jail for refusing to serve in the Israeli military, before eventually being released with a mental-health exemption.

The saddest part of all, to me, at least, in this very sad Times article was not anything about the Palestinian Arabs, sad as their plight is. It was, rather, this passage about an exchange between Ms. Kushner and an Israeli soldier at a checkpoint:

“You’re a Jew, right?” he blurted into the microphone. For the context in which he asked, for its reasoning, I said no. But in fact, I’m ethnically half-Jewish, on my father’s side, although I was not raised with any religious or even a cultural connection to Judaism. My mother is a white Protestant from Tennessee. I might have said, “Yes, partly,” but I found the question unanswerable, on account of its conflation of Zionism and Jewish identity. My Yiddish-speaking Odessan great-grandfather was a clothing merchant on Orchard Street. My grandfather worked in his shop as a boy. That is classically Jewish, but my sense of self, of what it might mean to inherit some trace of that lineage, was not the kind of patrimony the soldier was asking after. I was eventually waved along.

When a grandchild of a Jew is raised with no religious or cultural connection to Judaism, to the point where the notion of a Jewish state — Zionism — renders her speechless as an adult, it puts a whole new spin on the title of Ms. Kushner’s article, “We Are Orphans Here.”

More of Ira Stoll’s media critique, a regular Algemeiner feature, can be found here. 

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  • B Goldstein

    This is a ridiculous remark to make. There are many good, observant Jews by that name like the president-elect’s son-in-law and his family. It’s a shame this woman bears a good Jewish name.

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