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May 15, 2018 7:26 am

Israel’s 70th in The New York Times

avatar by Jerold Auerbach

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Even though I anticipated the answer, I still could not help wondering how The New York Times would respond to the 70th anniversary of Israel’s independence, nearly two millennia after the destruction of the ancient Jewish nation 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 over celebration. 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 the Israel beat — 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 Gaza riots, and Palestinian “frustration, impatience, and rage” over Israel’s “continuing occupation” of its biblical homeland.

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Halbfinger’s sources are revealing. Tom Segev, a left-wing journalist for Haaretz and revisionist historian, concludes that “the future is very bleak for Israel.” But Hind Koury, a former PLO official, receives the most attention. Her riff against Israel includes “its presence and dominance” exemplified by “home demolitions and expulsions and dispossession,” settler violence, “the siege of Gaza,” “racist legislation,” and “the use of ‘antisemitism’ to fight anybody who wants to support Palestinian rights.” Even author Yossi Klein Halevi, who supports the relocation of the US embassy to Jerusalem, 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 cites 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” due to 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).

But why stop with Halbfinger? 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, “There is real potential for a much bigger fight than we have seen so far, led by Israel.”

Jerusalem reporter Isabel Kershner completed the trifecta of Times criticism in, of all places, an article about Netta Barzilai, the Israeli winner of the Eurovision Song Contest. It helped “some” (unidentified) Israelis in their feeling of belonging to “a small but plucky country” with “outsize influence in the world,” she writes. 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 the boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement 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 to praise but much to criticize.

Jerold S. Auerbach is the author of Print to Fit: The New York Times, Zionism and Israel 1896-2016.

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