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January 6, 2019 1:51 pm

Jew ‘Obsession’ of New York Times Undermines Its Credibility, a German Says

avatar by Ira Stoll

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The Israeli-American Council’s “Celebrate Israel” festival in Los Angeles earlier this year. Photo: Facebook.

A “news analysis” in Sunday’s New York Times by the newspaper’s deputy Washington editor, Jonathan Weisman, predicts, as the headline puts it, “American Jews and Israeli Jews Are Headed for a Messy Breakup.”

The article maunders on about “the distance between Jews in the United States and Israeli Jews” and “the divide between American Jews and Israeli Jews.”

Weisman is wrong in so many ways that it makes it a challenge to explain adequately. For starters, though, just to give a sense of just how inept he is, consider that he had managed, in the article, to misquote even the Yom Kippur sermon of his own rabbi, Daniel Zemel of Temple Micah in Washington, D.C.

A correction now posted online with the Times article indicates: “An earlier version of this article misattributed a quotation. It was the Israeli Yaniv Sagee, not Rabbi Daniel Zemel, who said: ‘For the first time in my life, I feel a genuine threat to my life in Israel. This is not an external threat. It is an internal threat from nationalists and racists.’” Weisman managed that blunder even though the text of the sermon was posted on the synagogue’s website, with the quote clearly attributed.

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If Weisman isn’t a reliable guide even to his own rabbi’s Yom Kippur sermon, why should he be believed on other matters? Actually, he shows plenty of other signs, too, of being in way over his head.

He gives far too much credit to the 1885 “Pittsburgh Platform” of Reform Judaism, which he describes as “a new theology for an American Judaism, less focused on a Messianic return to the land of Israel and more on fixing a broken world, the concept of Tikkun Olam…. For a faith that for thousands of years was insular and self-contained, its people often in mandated ghettos, praying for the Messiah to return them to the Promised Land, this was a radical notion. But for most American Jews, it is now accepted as a tenet of their religion: building a better, more equal, more tolerant world now, where they live.”

The idea that the pursuit of justice or tolerance or engagement with the non-Jewish world came to Judaism only in 1885 is ahistorical, to say the least, as even the most casual review of the Bible, the Talmud, or Jewish history readily discloses. “Insular” — defined as narrowminded or prejudiced — is one of the Times’ favorite insults to hurl at unreformed Jews, though that does not make it accurate.

As for the Pittsburgh Platform’s view of Israel, even Reform Jews revised the Pittsburgh Platform in Columbus in 1937, in San Francisco in 1976, in Miami in 1997, and in Pittsburgh in 1999. As the 1997 document makes clear, “By 1937 the CCAR had reversed its stand on Jewish peoplehood, and declared in its ‘Columbus Platform’ that ‘Judaism is the soul of which Israel [the people] is the body.’ The document further states: ‘We affirm the obligation of all Jewry to aid in its [Palestine’s] up-building as a Jewish homeland by endeavoring to make it not only a haven of refuge for the oppressed but also a center of Jewish culture and spiritual life.’” Far from guiding American Judaism as Wesiman erroneously claims, the Pittsburgh Platform hasn’t even guided Reform Jews, who realized it went too far in the direction of universalism and non-Zionism.

The Times as an institution might be more credible in its dire warnings of a split between Israel and American Jewry if the newspaper hadn’t been telling the same false tales for nearly 40 years.

“Discord Among U.S. Jews Over Israel Seems To Grow,” is the headline over a Times news article from July 1982. A front-page Times article in 1978 reported what the Times called “a degree of unease with [Israeli premier Menachem] Begin and an almost unprecedented willingness to express it.” The 1978 Times article contended, “American Jews are beginning to accept that questioning of Israel does not mean betrayal.”

However, the rift the Times has been fruitlessly predicting for decades simply isn’t borne out by credible polling data. Elliott Abrams of the Council on Foreign Relations wrote in November 2018 about the results of a recent J Street poll: “the J Street survey suggests that there is no great crisis in relations between the American Jewish community and Israel…. the results of the survey suggest that the relationship between Israel and American Jews is stronger than prophets of doom constantly suggest.”

A 2018 American Jewish Committee Poll, while accompanied by a press release stressing differences over some issues, found underlying strengths on the topic of relations between American and Israeli Jews:

The poll found, “American and Israeli Jews hold rather similar views regarding the importance of the U.S. Jewish community and the State of Israel for the future of the Jewish people. 78% of Israelis and 69% of U.S. Jews agree that a thriving Diaspora is vital for the long-term future of the Jewish people, while 15% of Israelis and 17% of American Jews disagree. 79% of U.S. Jews and 87% of Israelis agree that a thriving State of Israel is vital for the long-term future of the Jewish people, while 17% of US. Jews and 6% of Israelis say it is not vital.”

Said the American Jewish Committee, “On the basic relationship between Israel and the largest Diaspora community, 20% of American Jews and 30% of Israelis think the ties will be stronger in five years, while 15% of U.S. Jews and 19% of Israelis think they will be weaker. The view that the ties will be the same as today is held by 60% of American Jews and 40% of Israeli Jews.”

The American Jewish Committee Poll went on: “American and Israeli Jews were asked how they view one another in the context of ‘family.’ 40% of Israeli and 39% of American Jews view each other as extended family. 28% of Israeli and 12% of U.S. Jews view one another as siblings. 10% of Israeli and 15% of U.S. Jews consider each other as first cousins. And 22% of Israelis and 31% of American Jews consider the other as not part of their family.”

As the American Jewish Committee put it in a tweet, “the overwhelming majority of American and Israeli Jews disagree with Weisman’s gloomy take on the ties between them, viewing that relationship as essential to both their own Jewish identities and the future of the Jewish people.”

That doesn’t mean anyone should be complacent about the relationship; it takes work and listening, like any relationship, to sustain. One reason the relationship is as strong as it is is that far-sighted philanthropists such as Michael Steinhardt, Charles Bronfman, and Sheldon and Miriam Adelson have supported the Birthright Israel program. Millions of American Jews have made personal financial sacrifices to send their children to Jewish schools and camps that educate them about Israel. The Israeli government and people also work hard to sustain this relationship, through the work of individual diplomats and emissaries and tour guides and camp counselors and through the Israeli government’s support of Birthright.

But it all does mean that the Times’ publication of this article is enough, in combination with its long and lousy track record on Israel and Jewish topics, to make readers wonder what in the world the paper’s problem is.

One of the most recommended Times comments on the article came from a reader in Germany, who observed, “The New York Times is obsessed with Jews and Israel. This, at a time when Saudi Arabia and its Arab allies in Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Sudan, and the UAE have been waging a three-year long war in Yemen that has killed 80,000 people, starved to death 85,000 children, and leaves million on verge of starvation. This, while the Myanmar ethnically cleansed Rohingya. This, while China has created a gulag system for Uyghurs and effaced Tibetan culture. This, while the world’s 40 million Kurds have no international support for a homeland of their own. So while on a nearly daily basis, The Times runs stories of Israel’s alleged evils or something about American Jewry, millions of people in other ethnic and religious groups face death, cultural annihilation, or suffer without any consideration. The Times vocally prides itself on objectivity in its reporting, but how can anyone take that seriously when Israel and Jews are given such high-intensity coverage, while all these other ethnic groups, to cite only a few examples, combined receive only a fraction of that attention?”

It’s an excellent question.

Another good question would be why the Times seems so institutionally invested, over such a long period, in this fact-free fantasy about a breakup between Israel and American Jews. Is it because if American Jews abandon Israel, that would make the Jewish state easier to destroy? Is it because, as leftists, they are embarrassed by Jewish nationalism? Is it because they are insecure as American Jews and fear antisemitism or accusations of dual loyalty, as if antisemitism didn’t long predate the existence of the modern state of Israel? It’s a question worthy of further investigation. But one thing is clear — it’s much more about the Times and its personnel and readers than about anything going on in the reality of the relationship between American Jews and Israel.

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

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