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September 12, 2018 3:27 pm

New York Times Stumbles in a Strange Front-Page Antisemitism Story

avatar by Ira Stoll

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The New York Times logo. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

A front-page New York Times news article appears under the headline “U.S. Revives Rutgers Bias Case In New Tack on Anti-Semitism.”

The Times article hypes what it describes as a “significant policy shift.” It claims that the federal education department and its assistant secretary, Kenneth Marcus, “put the weight of the federal government behind a definition of anti-Semitism that targets opponents of Zionism.”

It goes on to claim that the Education Department “adopted a hotly contested definition of anti-Semitism that included ‘denying the Jewish people the right to self-determination’ by, for example, ‘claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor’ and ‘applying double standards by requiring of’ Israel ‘a behavior not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation.'”

It’s extremely strange that The New York Times would all of a sudden describe this particular definition of anti-Semitism as “hotly contested.” The Times itself, as recently as this month, published two articles describing the exact same definition as “internationally accepted.”

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On September 4, the Times published a Reuters dispatch: “LONDON — Britain’s opposition Labour Party adopted an internationally accepted definition of anti-Semitism on Tuesday.” An Associated Press dispatch published by the Times the same day begins, “LONDON — Britain’s main opposition Labour Party on Tuesday adopted an internationally recognized definition of anti-Semitism.” On July 26, a Times-written article from London also referred to the same definition as “internationally accepted.”

Got that? When the British Labour Party adopts the definition, the Times describes it, accurately, as “internationally accepted.” Yet when the US government tries to enforce the definition on an American college campus, then all of a sudden the Times describes the definition as “hotly contested.” In fact, the definition is internationally accepted everywhere except in The New York Times newsroom, or at least in that portion of it responsible for the Rutgers article.

The two descriptions are mutually contradictory. It’s very difficult for something to be simultaneously “internationally accepted” and “hotly contested.” If the Times is to be logically consistent about the point, it needs to issue a correction of one of the two descriptions, because they can’t both be accurate.

Also inaccurate is the Times description of the education department’s action, at least in reference to defining antisemitism, as a “new tack” or a “shift” by the federal government. The State Department adopted a similar definition in 2010, during the Obama administration, and further refined the definition in 2016, also during the Obama administration. The definition was adopted in 2016 by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, which has 31 member countries, including the United States. The “weight of the federal government,” in other words, was already behind this definition, which is why the Times in articles other than today’s described it as “internationally accepted.”

I can understand the short-term commercial and career incentives for Times reporters and editors to depict as a “shift” or “new tack” something that isn’t either. It gets more clicks, more prominent play on the front page or the Times home page. That’s why you always read things described in news articles as “significant policy shifts,” but hardly ever see newspapers write about “insignificant policy shifts,” even though, upon examination, plenty of these so-called shifts do actually turn out to be insignificant. I can even understand why some advocacy groups or even perhaps the Trump administration itself might promote the idea as a big change. But Times readers, or at least some of them, are sophisticated enough to see through this nonsense. Maybe the education reporter or her editor has been ignoring the Times‘ Corbyn coverage from Britain, but at least some astute Times readers haven’t, and are therefore familiar with the background about this question of defining antisemitism.

As for the rest of the Times dispatch, there’s a lot of energy devoted to a kind of excited, gee-whiz posture about the Trump administration looking at antisemitism in terms of “national origin” discrimination rather than religious discrimination. This might seem like basic common sense: Judaism is a religion and also has a nation or peoplehood aspect. For whatever reason, though, the Times reporter and her editor seem to have a hard time understanding that, just as they had a hard time with the facts about the definition of antisemitism.

A Times editor, Jonathan Weisman, said on Twitter that he edited the article. “I stand by it 100%,” wrote Weisman in response to criticism of the article on social media. Weisman wrote a book about antisemitism, published earlier this year, that was criticized by many journalists and American Jewish leaders.

Ira Stoll was managing editor of The Forward and North American editor of The Jerusalem Post. His media critique, a regular Algemeiner feature, can be found here.

The opinions presented by Algemeiner bloggers are solely theirs and do not represent those of The Algemeiner, its publishers or editors. If you would like to share your views with a blog post on The Algemeiner, please be in touch through our Contact page.

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