Saturday, May 21st | 20 Iyyar 5782

January 17, 2019 4:53 pm

New York Times Retreats From Gaza Medic War Crime Investigation

avatar by Ira Stoll


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

Two and a half weeks after a front-page Sunday investigative project in which ten New York Times journalists accused Israel of “possibly a war crime,” the Times is backing away from it by endorsing the Algemeiner’s criticism of the article.

The Times investigative project jumped to three full inside broadsheet pages of the December 30, 2018 New York Times.

One of my many criticisms of the piece for the Algemeiner was this: “The Times, for example, describes Israel as ‘the far stronger party’ relative to the Palestinians. But there are somewhere between 1.5 billion and 1.8 billion Muslims in the world, and around 14 million Jews. There are about 50 Muslim-majority countries, and one small Jewish state. The Muslims also have a lot of the oil. It may be convenient for the Times to stir sympathy for the Palestinians by depicting them as the underdogs, but it’s not as clear-cut a factual matter as the Times describes it.”

I wrote that for the Algemeiner on December 30, the same day the Times article appeared.

Now, on January 17, the Times has waddled in, belatedly, with its own story acknowledging precisely this point. Times “contributing opinion writer” Matti Friedman writes for the Times op-ed page:

JERUSALEM — If you are reading this, you’ve most likely seen much about “the Israeli-Palestinian conflict” in the pages of this newspaper and of every other important newspaper in the West. That phrase contains a few important assumptions. That the conflict is between two actors, Israelis and Palestinians. That it could be resolved by those two actors, and particularly by the stronger side, Israel….

Most of Israel’s wars haven’t been fought against Palestinians. Since the invasion of five Arab armies at the declaration of the State of Israel in May 1948, the Palestinians have made up a small number of the combatants facing the country. …

Over the decades when Arab nationalism was the region’s dominant ideology, Israeli soldiers faced Egyptians, Syrians, Jordanians, Lebanese and Iraqis. Today Israel’s most potent enemy is the Shiite theocracy in Iran, which is more than 1,000 miles away and isn’t Palestinian (or Arab). The gravest threat to Israel at close range is Hezbollah on our northern border, an army of Lebanese Shiites founded and funded by the Iranians….

If you see only an “Israeli-Palestinian” conflict, then nothing that Israelis do makes sense. (That’s why Israel’s enemies prefer this framing.) In this tightly cropped frame, Israelis are stronger, more prosperous and more numerous. The fears affecting big decisions, like what to do about the military occupation in the West Bank, seem unwarranted if Israel is indeed the far more powerful party.

That’s not the way Israelis see it.

Publishing one front-page news article pushing the “far stronger party” story line and then a weeks-later corrective op-ed acknowledging “that’s not the way Israelis see it” and that in fact was a “misunderstanding” and an “illusion” may be a smart short-term business strategy for the Times. It gets the Israel-haters to click on the story accusing “far stronger” Israel of “possibly a war crime,” and it gets the Israel-lovers to click on the story about how the first story was wrong.

From a longer-term perspective, though, this approach has its risks. The New York Times, after all, is a newspaper trying to brand itself as being for “Truth.” “The truth requires taking a stand. The Truth is more important now than ever,” claims a Times brand campaign ad that the newspaper is selling for $50 as an unframed poster at its own gift shop. On this one, though, the Times isn’t so much “taking a stand,” as trying to be on both sides of the issue.

I suppose from a pro-Israel perspective it’s better that the Times published the Matti Friedman piece than if it hadn’t. But will the Times take the logical next step and append a correction to the front-page Sunday investigative piece? It hasn’t so far. And any readers with any illusions about the Times’ intentions, and those of its customer base, can just check out the reader comments on Friedman’s piece.

One of those comments, awarded a gold medal “Times Pick” and a “recommended” upvote from 138 Times readers, describes Israel as engaging in “criminal tactics,” and characterizes both Israelis and Arabs as subhuman. Okay, here’s what it says: “To see Israel espouse the same criminal tactics as other regional oppressors (Arab or not) is not only disappointing but makes one question whether there is any humanity left on either side of the wall dividing Jerusalem.”

There is no such “wall dividing Jerusalem.” There hasn’t been one since Israel unified the city in 1967. And surely anyone who is human can sense humanity among the people of Jerusalem, though some of us may sometimes be driven to wonder about the humanity of the Times editors who award gold medals to such nonsensical thoughts.

Ira Stoll was managing editor of The Forward and North American editor of The Jerusalem Post. More of 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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