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July 10, 2018 11:28 am

Israel on Fire and The New York Times

avatar by Jerold Auerbach


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

“All the News That’s Fit to Print,” the venerable motto of The New York Times ever since publisher Adolph Ochs made it his newspaper’s pledge in 1896, has become malleable over time. The most egregious violation of its pledge came during World War II when the Holocaust, in the title of Laurel Leff’s scathing indictment, was Buried by the Times. While every newspaper must be selective about what it reports, when it comes to Israel the Times occasionally bends over backward to evade a story that might otherwise challenge its liberal base — and bias.

To the Times, Israelis are now the bad guys, perpetual perpetrators of harm to innocent Palestinians. A prime example is the Times‘ omission of the damage inflicted by Hamas-inspired kite terrorism from Gaza. Last month, it provided four-column front page photo coverage of a dead Gazan baby brought to the border by a family member and reported (falsely) to have died from inhaling tear gas fired by Israel. But its reporting of the damage from Hamas rockets, and fire kites and balloons, to kibbutz farm land and nature preserves has been less than minimal.

Times Jerusalem Bureau Chief David Halbfinger, joined by reporter Isabel Kershner, made their favored story line clear early on. Israel’s security barrier, they wrote (May 15), “fences off the Gaza Strip like an open-air prison.” The “fundamental imbalance — heavily armed soldiers firing on mostly unarmed demonstrators, many of them bent on breaching the fence” drove their narrative. On the perceived apathy of Israelis to the harm their soldiers were inflicting (by defending the border), they cited Etgar Keret, one of the left-wing Israeli writers the Times delights in quoting for criticism of their county. About their own apathy toward Hamas arson inflicted on Israel, they remained silent.

Two weeks later (May 30), a Hamas rocket and mortar attack struck a kindergarten playground shortly before the youngsters arrived, pockmarking school walls with shrapnel. With dozens of incoming projectiles intercepted by Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system, local residents were advised not to stray further than a 15-second run to the nearest shelter. A Gaza political scientist explained to Kershner that Israel had tried to change the rules of the 2014 ceasefire by bombing Hamas attack tunnels. She compliantly noted Israel’s “aggressive action” to deter its enemies.

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In an article mostly comprised of his tweets (June 9), Halbfinger reported “vast stretches of scorched earth,” while dismissively noting that the fire kites “seem like child’s play.” Had he interviewed even a single resident of Kibbutz Nahal Oz, he might have learned how it felt to live surrounded by flaming kites. Instead, he described “a day of peaceful protests, or violent riots, depending on which side you support in the conflict.” For Halbfinger, there was no reality — only competing versions of truth. His tweets described “plumes of smoke billowing from [Israeli] farmland” and “vast stretches of scorched [Israeli] earth.” He reported “repeated efforts to inflict harm on the Israelis” with the qualifier “military officials said.” But “the kites seem like child’s play” — at least until their “flaming tails turn them into weapons.” Halbfinger prudently kept his distance from such “child’s play.”

Since late April, flaming kites and firebomb balloons from Gaza, some connected to explosive devices, have ignited nearly 900 fires, decimating more than 8,000 acres of Israeli forest and agricultural land. Nearly 25% of Israeli nature reserves near the Gaza border have been destroyed. The other Times — The Times of Israel — reported (July 7) that a large fire, caused by incendiary kites, was raging near Kibbutz Or Haner on the Gaza border. Nine firefighting teams, supported by firefighting aircraft, fought the blaze. Given Times reporter Isabel Kershner’s compassionate coverage of grieving Palestinians, readers might expect at least one interview with a resident of Kibbutz Or Haner or Nahal Oz, whose leaders considered evacuating the community in anticipation of cross-border Hamas raids. This reader is still waiting.

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

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