New York Times Editor Defends ‘Vigorous’ Debate Over Zionism, Israel, BDS
The editorial page editor of The New York Times, James Bennet, is defending his newspaper’s decision to provide a platform for columnists advocating boycotts, divestment, and sanctions against Israel.
On Martin Luther King Jr. Day weekend, the Times published a column by Michelle Alexander likening Israel to apartheid-era South Africa and praising the “moral clarity” of a church’s boycott of the five largest Israeli banks. Another regular Times columnist, Michelle Goldberg, has insisted, “Anti-Zionism Isn’t the Same as Anti-Semitism.” Goldberg defended the BDS movement — “a movement of nonviolent resistance,” she called it, ignoring that it operates in parallel and alongside violent terrorism — in a Times podcast.
On Tuesday, February 26, Bennet appeared at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government for an event of the school’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy. During the question and answer portion of the event, he was asked by a member of the audience from Jerusalem for advice on how to frame “loving criticism” of Israel that doesn’t veer into antisemitism.
Bennet responded by citing the newspaper’s own coverage. “We’ve had rather vigorous debate in our pages recently about whether anti-Zionism is antisemitism, and we’ve had a couple of our columnists taking a position that it’s not, others that it is. … I think it’s just really important to engage that directly. It’s one of the things we struggle with, what’s in bounds, what’s out of bounds. Pretending that debate isn’t happening doesn’t serve our readers, is my view in the end.”
Bennet compared it to the immediate aftermath of the 2016 presidential election, following which, he said, “I felt some personal sense of failure,” because it would have been possible to have read the Times op-ed page during the campaign without having understood why anyone would have voted for Donald Trump. “We probably weren’t doing our job properly,” he added.
He said a newspaper’s role, and an editor’s, is not to shield readers from views that may make them uncomfortable or that they may disagree with.
“We need to engage it forthrightly. … So, that’s what we’re doing, and we’re going to continue to do. … That’s why we debate these things, right, because there are no easy answers, and we don’t necessarily know what the solutions are, and sometimes it’s even scary to imagine,” Bennet stated. “But I do think it’s just core to our job to not look away, and to forthrightly take this stuff on.”
Bennet, a former Jerusalem bureau chief of the Times who was editor of The Atlantic magazine before taking the Times editorial page job, had earlier described the editorial page’s role as “not to tell people what to think, but to help people think for themselves.”
“The way we test propositions is open debate,” he said.
Bennet praised Times columnist Bret Stephens. Stephens is a former editor of the Jerusalem Post who has fought back in the Times’ pages and on a Times podcast on the Israel issue against Alexander and Goldberg. “I think he’s a great columnist and he’s done amazing work for The New York Times,” Bennet said, speaking generally and not specifically about Israel-related work by Stephens.
Bennet said he would recuse himself “from all our political coverage” and focus instead on technology and international issues if his brother, Michael Bennet, a US senator from Colorado, decides to enter the race for the Democratic presidential nomination.
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.