Monday, February 17th | 22 Shevat 5780

September 19, 2017 4:22 pm

For Comment on Holocaust Museum, New York Times Turns to Anti-Israel Activist

avatar by Ira Stoll


The headquarters of The New York Times. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

The New York Times finally tackled the issue of the US Holocaust Memorial Museum’s report analyzing whether America could have prevented the genocide and refugee crisis in Syria — and, unbelievably, it gives the last word in the story to a notorious anti-Israel agitator.

The Times article, by Sopan Deb and Max Fisher, is error-riddled and tendentious from the very beginning. Its first sentence is: “The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum is finding itself in an unfamiliar position: as a lightning rod for the fierce debate over the Obama administration’s role in the Syrian civil war.”

This is wrong on two counts.

First it’s not an “unfamiliar position” for the museum to be at the center of a controversy about the Middle East. In fact it’s been repeatedly in this position. There was the flap over Yasser Arafat’s visit to the museum. There was a flap in the late 1990s — I wrote about it for The Forward at the time — over the museum’s involvement with a book about war crimes that included a section about Israel’s treatment of the Palestinian Arabs.

Second, the description of what happened in Syria as a “civil war” is the sort of term that takes the side of those who argued that America shouldn’t get involved. If it was a Syrian “civil war,” then why get in the middle of it? If it was a Syrian genocide, or refugee crisis, or humanitarian crisis, then the case for American intervention might be stronger.

The Times article proceeds in exactly this one-sided, sloppy vein throughout. Here is another atrocious passage:

Leon Wieseltier, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and the former literary editor of The New Republic, is among the critics of both the study’s findings and its publication. He said the museum did the right thing by pulling it — a move that was first reported by Tablet magazine.

“The Holocaust museum, if it stands for anything, stands for the idea that we should always act against genocide and that there’s something forever wrong and unsatisfying about the idea that we can do nothing to alleviate radical evil,” Mr. Wieseltier said in an interview. “This paper basically whitewashes the Obama administration’s inaction on Syria and says that there’s nothing we can do.”

That characterization, echoed by other critics, incorrectly describes the report, according to several academics and Syria-watchers. They also said the study’s removal sets a troubling precedent for suppressing independent research.

I read the report before it was pulled and I think Wieseltier’s assessment of it is on target. The Times doesn’t say what is “incorrect” about his assessment, but it sure sounds as though the newspaper agrees with the “academics and Syria-watchers” rather than with Wieseltier. And the description of the research as “independent” is also strange. It’s not “independent” research; it was research conducted for the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, which is a quasi-governmental institution.

I thought the report was flawed in part because it ascribed greater precision than was warranted to its probability-analysis model, and also because it failed to consider policy options beyond a limited set. The Times doesn’t get into that. Nor does the Times (or for that matter, as far as I could see, the Museum-commissioned report) get into the portion of blame for American policy in Syria that should fall to congressional Republicans, who refused to act on President Obama’s request for an authorization to use military force.

The real kicker, though, comes at the conclusion of the Times story:

Sarah Leah Whitson, executive director of Human Rights Watch’s Middle East and North Africa divisions, said in an email that she was “disappointed” that the museum withdrew the research.

The study “revealed through rigorous inquiry just how difficult it is to be certain that military intervention will do more good than harm in dynamics as complex as Syria’s,” Ms. Whitson said, “especially when you factor in the disastrous U.S. record for military intervention in the region.”

Whitson’s assessment is ridiculous, both because the report looked at options other than “military intervention,” and because the report wasn’t particularly “rigorous.” Also because the American record for military intervention in the region, far from being “disastrous,” rather includes liberating Kuwait and Iraq, defeating the Nazis in North Africa during World War II as they were headed to destroy the Jewish population in the Holy Land, and providing assistance to defeat the Islamic State and rescue the Yazidis.

But as ridiculous as the substance of Whitson’s comment is the Times decision to call her at all, let alone to give her the last word, for a story involving what is, in the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, in important ways an American Jewish institution. Whitson, after all, is well known as one of the most consistent anti-Israel, verging on anti-Jewish, activists in public life. She was caught fundraising in Saudi Arabia for Human Rights Watch’s anti-Israel work. NGO Monitor has an entire dossier on her. She’s part of the reason Human Rights Watch’s founding chairman, Robert Bernstein, publicly quit HRW.

One might suggest that Whitson, like Max Fisher, might find a way to parlay her record as a critic of Israel into a New York Times staff position. But that’s not even necessary. She can get her point of view across just as easily by being quoted by Fisher.

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


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