Thursday, January 27th | 25 Shevat 5782

April 12, 2019 5:52 pm

Latest New York Times Feat: Make 200,000 Palestinians Disappear

avatar by Ira Stoll


The Palestinian city of Ramallah in the West Bank. Photo: Ralf Lotys via Wikimedia Commons.

In less than two weeks, the New York Times has mysteriously made 200,000 West Bank Palestinians disappear.

On March 29, the Times published a correction: “An article on Wednesday about Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s comments on the implications of President Trump recognizing Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights misstated the West Bank’s Palestinian population. It is 2.8 million, not 1.8 million.”

At the time, I wrote, “That correction might itself merit a correction.”

I observed:

The CIA World Factbook puts the “West Bank” population at 2.8 million but that includes about 592,200 of what the CIA calls “Israeli settlers.” A 2018 essay in Mosaic cited research indicating that “the actual Arab population in the West Bank (without eastern Jerusalem) is at about 1,800,000.” The left-wing Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported in 2018, “According to Prof. Sergio Della Pergolla, a demographer at the Institute of Contemporary Jewry at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, there were 2.4 million Palestinians living in the West Bank in 2015. Della Pergolla claims that Palestinian figures overstate the number of Palestinians by 600,000 — half because they don’t exist and half because they are East Jerusalem residents who have already been counted by Israel.” For the Times to simply assert the 2.8 million, without citing a source or indicating that it is a hotly debated question, is not so much a correction, but a new inaccuracy.

Now, without formally correcting its earlier correction, the Times has suddenly started using a different, lower, and probably more accurate number.

A front-page article in the April 8 Times, under the byline of the newspaper’s Jerusalem bureau chief, David Halbfinger, asked “Do voters want to make permanent their country’s control over the West Bank and its 2.6 million Palestinian inhabitants?”

An article in the April 10 Times about congressional testimony by the secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, reports, “Senior American officials have long and explicitly discouraged any formal attempt by Israel to extend sovereignty over some or all of the disputed territory of the West Bank and its population of 2.6 million Palestinians.”

Neither article cites a source for the “2.6 million” number or acknowledges the discrepancy with the 2.8 million number that the Times solemnly offered up, also unsourced, in its corrections column two weeks earlier.

Now, 200,000 Palestinians one way or another — the difference between the 2.8 million claimed in the March 29 correction and the 2.6 million mentioned in the April 8 and April 10 news articles — may not seem like that many. But 200,000 is larger than the entire population of Little Rock, Arkansas, or Grand Rapids, Michigan. As a percentage of 2.6 million or 2.8 million, it’s not insignificant — between 8 percent and 7 percent.

Whether West Bank Palestinians number 1.8 million, 2.6 million, or 2.8 million may not make a huge difference either way in terms of how Israel or America chooses to deal with them. But in at least one respect, the count is crucial. A Times staff editorial this week greeted Benjamin Netanyahu’s re-election with the claim, “Under Mr. Netanyahu, Israel is on a trajectory to become what critics say will be an apartheid state like the former South Africa — a country in which Palestinians will eventually be a majority, but without the rights of citizens. That’s not good for Israel, nor for the United States.” A letter to the editor published by the Times alongside the staff editorial made a similar claim — “Israel will finally have to acknowledge to the world the apartheid state that has been creeping into existence for decades.”

There are many inaccuracies with the “apartheid state” slur, which itself is a variation on the old Soviet big lie that Zionism is racism. But one of the most basic inaccuracies is that Israeli Jews, unlike South African whites, aren’t a minority ruling over a majority. The accusation that Israel either is now or is “on a trajectory to become” a state in which a Jewish minority rules over a Palestinian Arab majority depends on accurate population counts. Without accurate population counts, it’s impossible to tell who is the majority and who is in the minority. That’s not the only issue — we are all human beings and have certain rights regardless of whether our group is in a majority or a majority. But it’s a non-trivial issue. And it’s an issue on which non-transparent and rapidly shifting population numbers in the Times news columns are an impediment to reasoned, fact-based discussion.

Proponents of the creation of a Palestinian state have been using versions of this “demographic argument” for years to warn that if Israel doesn’t withdraw from the West Bank rapidly, Israel won’t be able to remain both Jewish and democratic. But after people started making this argument, several things happened that the people making it hadn’t fully anticipated. The Soviet Union collapsed, enabling a large wave of Jewish immigration from there to Israel. The Jewish population of Israel has also been growing more rapidly than most people initially predicted, thanks in part to large family sizes among the Orthodox. Israel unilaterally withdrew from the Gaza Strip. And some number of Palestinian Arabs have decided simply to leave, moving to Europe, elsewhere in the Middle East, or even America rather than enduring life under the Palestinian Authority. That’s not to recommend that Israel should annex the West Bank and its entire remaining Arab population. It’s simply to say that arguments about demographic trajectories need to be anchored in reality rather than in artificially inflated, moving-target counts featuring Palestinians that the Times claims exist in late March and then subsequently subtracts in early April without explanation.

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.

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