New York Times Recycles a Ben-Gurion Myth
As press criticism goes, it rarely gets better than the two-stage demolition by Martin Kramer of a recent frontpage New York Times column by Max Fisher.
Kramer, the founding president of Shalem College in Israel and a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, took issue with the opening seven paragraphs of the Fisher column, which appeared in the July 23 print editions of the Times. Fisher described a supposed warning from “Israel’s founding prime minister, David Ben-Gurion” in July 1967, in which he allegedly urged “that Israel give up the territories it had conquered. If it did not, he said, occupation would distort the young state, which had been founded to protect not just the Jewish people but their ideals of democracy and pluralism.” Fisher wrote of “Ben-Gurion’s prophesied path: from occupation to endless conflict that would corrode democracy from within, endangering a national character thought to come from ideals as well as demographics.”
The print New York Times column carried no attribution of the Ben-Gurion warning, but the online version of the Fisher column from the get-go carried a hyperlink to a 1987 article by Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg in The New York Review of Books in which Hertzberg offered a first-person account of Ben-Gurion’s insistence that, as Hertzberg recalled it, “all of the territories that had been captured had to be given back, very quickly, for holding on to them would distort, and might ultimately destroy, the Jewish state. He made only one exception of consequence: the Israelis should not relinquish control of the whole of Jerusalem. Ben-Gurion’s most striking assertion that night was that he did not expect immediate peace with the Arabs; for its own inner health, he said, Israel needed only to give back the territories very soon in return for a workable set of armistice arrangements.”
Kramer, who debunked the Ben-Gurion myth in April of 2018 for the online Jewish journal Mosaic, revisited the issue in a July 27 blog post. “Ben-Gurion never uttered the words Hertzberg attributed to him,” Kramer writes. “Hertzberg’s Ben-Gurion — advocate of an immediate, unilateral, and almost total Israeli withdrawal — was a figment of the rabbi’s imagination.”
Fisher, for his part, took to Twitter to defend himself. On August 2, the New York Times columnist unleashed a series of seven tweets. “We’ve looked into this very carefully and, after speaking with the Ben-Gurion Archives and reviewing the historical record, stand by the story,” Fisher wrote. “We feel this constitutes accepted, established history and stand by the story. Apologies for the delay in responding but we wanted to be as complete as possible in looking into this.”
On August 6, Kramer took another pass at the issue. “We have three contemporary sources for this event, and not even one corroborates Hertzberg’s belated account of it,” Kramer writes. “The article in the Times simply recycles a myth.” If the Times was going to use it, Kramer argues, it should have explicitly attributed it to Hertzberg, so readers might recognize it for what it is: “an uncorroborated story told twenty years after the fact by an activist American rabbi with an agenda.”
I don’t have much to add beyond what Kramer did, though I recommend his two articles in full for anyone interested in the topic. I do, however, have two additional observations.
The first has to do with technology. Journalists (and their editors) who grew up writing for the Internet sometimes use a hyperlink but forget that when the article appears in print the hyperlink disappears. Fisher, a 2008 graduate of William and Mary, is young enough that most of his career has been for Internet-first, or Internet-only publications, such as Vox. I’m not making excuses for him, but the information contained in the Times online in the hyperlink to the New York Review of Books article — that the source of the Ben-Gurion anecdote was Arthur Hertzberg — vanishes when that article is converted to print. As Kramer points out, all Fisher had to do was what Anthony Lewis did in a 1987 Times column, and attribute the tale in print with words like “Arthur Hertzberg, writing recently in The New York Review of Books.” Lewis did not have the hyperlink option, because in 1987 the Times website and the worldwide web did not exist.
The second has to do with the stakes here. As a historian myself, I’m mindful that the past often has useful lessons for the present. But as enjoyable as it may be to debate or research Ben-Gurion’s view of the matter, the prime minister whose view really matters is Benjamin Netanyahu. He’s the one who has been elected by the Israelis, who today have to deal with the consequences of his decisions, whether that means “arson kites” or rockets raining down from Gaza or years of military service devoted to patrolling Israel’s borders.
In the 50 years since Ben-Gurion said whatever he said about the territory captured in 1967, Israel’s government has had the opportunity to experiment. Begin gave up the Sinai Peninsula to Egypt in the 1978 Camp David Accord. Rabin pulled back from Palestinian population centers in the West Bank under the Oslo Accords and follow-up agreements in the 1990s. Sharon withdrew from Gaza unilaterally in 2005. Today’s Israeli voters and politicians — representing an Israel that is significantly wealthier than it was in 1967 and with a significantly larger Jewish population — can assess for themselves how those moves have worked out and adjust future policy accordingly. They don’t have to speculate about the effects of “occupation” or of territorial compromise; they have the evidence of a half-century of accumulated experience. That puts them in a different spot from Ben-Gurion.
Ira Stoll is the author of JFK, Conservative. He was managing editor of The Forward and North American editor of The Jerusalem Post. More of his media critiques, a regular Algemeiner feature, can be found here.