The New York Times ‘Editor’s Note’ on Jaffa Is Nonsense
The corrections columns of both the Saturday and Sunday print New York Times carried an unusual “editor’s note” about the history of Jaffa.
An article in Travel this weekend describes several new hotels and other high-end developments in Jaffa, the ancient port adjacent to Tel Aviv. In focusing exclusively on those new additions, the article fails to touch on important aspects of Jaffa’s makeup and its history — in particular, the history and continuing presence of its Arab population and the expulsion of many residents in 1948. Because of this lapse, the article also did not acknowledge the continuing controversy about new development and its effect on Jaffa. After readers pointed out the problem, editors added some of that background information to the online version, which is available at nytimes.com/travel.
It was unusual, because not every brief Times travel piece about new hotels needs to revisit 70-year-old history or politics about the place the hotels are opening. My view of it was that the original Times article was perfectly adequate as it was, and that the “fail” or “lapse” the Times describes wasn’t a “fail” or “lapse” at all.
But given that the Times took the trouble to publish an editor’s note and add “background information to the online version,” you’d hope that the newspaper would at least take the trouble to get that background information correct.
Instead the newspaper added this: “Jaffa for centuries has been a stronghold of Arab and Muslim life. In 1948, when the State of Israel was founded, most of Jaffa’s Arab residents were forcibly removed from their homes.”
That’s just nonsense.
To begin with, if one is going to mention “history” and “background information,” how about mentioning that there was an anti-Jewish riot in 1921 in Jaffa? The New York Times reported on it at the time under the headline “27 Jews Killed In Jaffa.” But the editor’s note omits that story entirely.
If the Times is going to make the claim that “most of Jaffa’s Arab residents were forcibly removed from their homes,” it should cite some source, or evidence, for this claim. It gives no such source or evidence.
The language “most … were forcibly removed” uses the passive voice to dodge the question of who did the forcible removal. The Times clearly implies that it was Israeli Jews who did that, but is too shy to formally accuse them of doing it, perhaps because there is no evidence of it. Instead there’s a kind of innuendo of ethnic cleansing, in the form of a phrase within a travel article rather than an actual full-length investigation.
The events of 1948 in Jaffa have been the subject of lengthy recent investigation, and the results are worth examining.
In a 2011 article in the Journal of Israeli History, Itamar Radai reports “in 1947, Jews constituted the overwhelming majority in the Jaffa sub-district, about 264,000 out of a total population of 373,000.” He reports, “Some 71,000 Arabs lived in this urban space, 54,000 of them Muslims and the rest Christians.” Many of the Arabs, he says, were relatively recent migrants from as far away as Syria.
As Radai tells it, beginning in November 1947, both Arabs and Jews fled Jaffa. “In some cases people left at the encouragement of the Arab Youth Organization, headed by the lawyer Muhammad Nimr al-Hawari. Immediately after the troubles began, Hawari sent armed squads to the border areas in order to evacuate the inhabitants of the row of houses along the confrontation line,” he writes. The article goes on, “The uprooting of the civilian population, Arab and Jewish alike, was due to the escalation of hostilities.”
And while the State of Israel wasn’t declared until May 1948, the Radai article, headlined “Jaffa, 1948: The Fall of a City,” states, “According to one report, 15,000 Arab residents had left Jaffa by the middle of January, about a fifth of the population. Many sailed from the port, bound for Gaza or Acre, or for Egypt or Lebanon.”
Radai reports that from February to May of 1948, Jaffa was under the command not of Palestinians who had been there for centuries, as the Times misleadingly claims, but rather “foreign officers, among them Iraqis, Syrians, Yugoslavs, and even a small group of Germans.”
Another useful article, by Arnon Golan, was published in 2012 in the journal Middle Eastern Studies, under the headline “The Battle For Jaffa, 1948.” It also emphasizes the presence of foreign fighters of the Arab Liberation Army in Jaffa in early 1948: “Jaffa was also reinforced by several hundred ALA soldiers, some of whom were Bosnian Muslims, veterans of the Waffen SS Handschar Division, while others were Syrians, Egyptians and Iraqis. These so-called foreigners were undisciplined and behaved toward the local population as occupiers rather than allies. They looted, molested women and spent much of their time in coffee shops and brothels rather than in combat. … The inability of the military command and brutality of the foreigners had a devastating effect on the morale of Jaffa’s civil population. … The wealthy preferred to find shelter in neighbouring Arab countries.”
Golan reports, “By mid-April 1948 the situation in Jaffa had reached its nadir. … Military and civil authorities could do little to help the demoralized population, and the number of residents who preferred to leave Jaffa swelled. Civil order in Jaffa was on the brink of total collapse; about half its residents had already gone.”
Golan also reports the presence of British troops fighting on the Arab side in Jaffa in April 1948: “On the morning of 25 April, A and C Companies of the 2nd Battalion of the Royal Irish Fusiliers were deployed in Jaffa … on 28 … the British reinforced Jaffa with B Company of the 1st Battalion of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders and two more Cromwell tanks. … Concerned by the renewal of the Jewish attack on the 29th, the British further reinforced Jaffa with the Scottish battalion’s HQ and D Company, which were also deployed along the line facing the IZL. A battery of 25-pounder guns of the 41st Field Regiment of the Royal Field Artillery was assigned to the British force in the city.”
The blogger Elder of Ziyon also has an extensive post about the Jaffa New York Times issue that is worth a look.
To be clear, I can’t rule out the possibility that there wasn’t a single Palestinian Arab who was forced to leave Jaffa. There was a war going on. But there were Jews who were living there who also cleared out of the front-line neighborhoods. Some of the Arabs left fleeing not from Israeli Jews but rather other Arabs (or Bosnians, or Germans). And tens of thousands of Arabs who left did so before the declaration of Israel, hoping to return quickly once the state was militarily defeated by the surrounding Arab states.
Two other recent New York Times articles come to mind in this context. The first was another Times correction: “An article on Monday about the influence of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee in Washington referred imprecisely to Israel’s activities on the West Bank and a letter from Representative Jan Schakowsky. Israel had proposed demolishing Palestinian homes, not entire communities and had not conducted the demolition. Ms. Schakowsky was objecting to the demolition proposal.”
The Times news columns can’t even get current Israeli policy toward the Palestinians correct, instead falsely accusing Israel of demolishing entire Palestinian communities. No wonder the Times travel section also can’t get the story of what happened in Jaffa in 1948 correct.
And the second story was a Times article that ran under the headline “Ruth Bader Ginsburg Is Target of Anti-Semitic Graffiti in New York” and reported, “The vandalism was the latest in a string of high-profile, anti-Jewish hate crimes in New York City in the last month.”
The Times seems to understand that it’s antisemitic to write “Die, Jew” on a poster of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. What is it, though, to repeatedly accuse Israeli Jews of ethnic cleansing on the basis of evidence that is not given or is nonexistent? Whatever it is, it sure isn’t good journalism.
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.