New York Times Birthright Israel Article Echoes ‘Zionism Is Racism’ Myth
The New York Times gave a front-page platform this week to a news article about a handful of anti-Israel activist who walked off a Birthright Israel trip about a year ago because it didn’t devote enough attention to the Palestinian Arabs.
There are lots of problems with the article. For example, the Times claims it highlights a new phenomenon: “growing unease among many young American Jews over Israel’s policies… a generational divide… Many older Jewish Americans have long expressed unease about Israel’s settlements in the West Bank, but consider it anathema to openly protest the Jewish state.”
That’s both inaccurate and unclear. It’s not clear whether the Times means openly protest the existence of the Jewish state, or openly protest the policies of the Jewish state. If it means openly protest the policies of the Jewish state, the Times has been hyping that as far back as 1979: “Protests From U.S. Jews Stir Controversy in Israel.” And if means openly protest or oppose the existence of the Jewish state, that’s not a view held by “many” Jews at all, young or old.
To prop up its claim, the Times reports: “Just 6 percent of American Jews over the age of 50 believe that the United States gives Israel too much support, according to research by Dov Waxman, a professor of political science, international affairs and Israel studies at Northeastern University. But that view is held by 25 percent of Jews aged 18 to 29, the cohort that goes on Birthright trips.”
There’s no hyperlink to this “research,” so Times readers are unable to assess for themselves the sample size, the margin of sampling error, who funded the research, how and when the question was asked, whether it has been independently replicated, how the Jews in the survey were defined, and whether it’s a finding that really measures attitudes toward Israel or, rather instead captures more general feelings about foreign aid or a particular US presidential administration’s policies.
The biggest problem with the Times Birthright article, though, at least in my reading of it, is the way it reinforces the pernicious canard that Zionism is racism. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan described that falsehood as the “Big Red Lie,” “the last great horror of the Hitler-Stalin era,” as one can read in the fine book of Moynihan’s letters, a volume edited by Steven R. Weisman. Back in 1991, when the United Nations repealed its Zionism is racism resolution, The New York Times issued an editorial saying: “The United Nations hardly deserves applause for waiting 16 years to rescind a disgraceful declaration that should never have been adopted.”
The 1991 editorial continued, “Full credit goes to President Bush for mobilizing the effort to repudiate a resolution he rightly condemns as twisting history … The hurtful subtext of Resolution 3379 is that Jews are racists because they are Zionists — part of a political movement that has sought the same national rights claimed by other stateless peoples. It reeks of anti-Semitism to suggest that survivors of the Holocaust are to be condemned for establishing a haven in the only state in which Jews form the majority.”
Lately, though, the Times has been hurling the racism allegation — the one it once conceded “reeks of anti-Semitism” — against Israel itself.
The newspaper greeted Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s reelection in April 2019 with a staff editorial claiming, inaccurately, “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 claim was echoed in a front-page Times news article in April 2019, which quoted a Palestinian: “Mr. Zakout has not given up. Perhaps the other side will awaken to what annexation would bring, he said: ‘Israel and the Israeli society should defend their future from the one-state solution — from apartheid.’”
It was also echoed in a letter to the editor the Times published: “Israel will finally have to acknowledge to the world the apartheid state that has been creeping into existence for decades.”
It was repeated again in a May op-ed piece the Times published by Saeb Erekat, who wrote, “If the Trump administration doesn’t want to talk about a two-state solution on the 1967 border or about one democratic state for everyone, what it is actually talking about is the consolidation of a ‘one-state reality’: one state, Israel, controlling everything while imposing two different systems, one for Israeli Jews and another for Palestinians. This is known as apartheid.” Erekat called for immediately recognizing a Palestinian state, contending, “the alternative would be to perpetuate Israel’s occupation and apartheid.”
Even Matti Friedman, who had been a voice of sanity at the Times and before that in his writing at Tablet, wrote this month about Israel’s new interim justice minister, Amir Ohana, for the Times along these lines. Friedman said of Israel’s nation-state law, “The center-left opposition denounced it for undermining the status of minorities, downgrading the status of Arabic and displaying dangerous signs of ethnic chauvinism.” Friedman quoted one Israeli who said, “Ohana speaks in the name of liberal values but he actually promotes the politics of the most extreme religious right — annexing settlements, the nation-state law, breaking the power of the Supreme Court, aligning with open racists.”
The false “racism” accusation is the final dagger of the front-page Birthright article, too, which concludes with a quote from an activist who publicly walked off a Birthright trip. The Times reports that she “said that she, too, had been attending more Jewish religious and social events since the trip.”
From the Times:
“I’ve been to more Shabbats and Havdalahs,” she said, referring to the Jewish Sabbath and a ritual marking its end. “What’s different is that at our Shabbats and Havdalahs, we talk about racism, sexism and the occupation.”
Remember, this all comes from a newspaper that claimed recently — in a May 1 print editorial apologizing for and denouncing antisemitism, no less — “We have been and remain stalwart supporters of Israel.”
Now, maybe the Sabbath conversation she is talking about is racism and sexism in America, not Israel. But after all the recent previous Times references to apartheid and “ethnic chauvinism” and “open racists” in connection with Israel, it’s quite likely that readers will take it as a reference to racism in Israel. That’s certainly how I read it. If the racism or sexism part of it has nothing to do with the Birthright Israel part of it, the Times could have easily found a different way to end the article.
Times apologists or defenders or propagandists might also insist that quoting someone talking about Israeli racism — especially when that person is an Israeli himself — is not the same as institutionally asserting or pushing the idea that Zionism itself is essentially racist. Fair enough. There is are distinctions between quoting someone and promoting an idea, and distinctions between saying some extremist Israeli political faction is racist and saying that Zionism itself is racist. But I’ve been in the newspaper business a long time — long enough to know that these quotes don’t get chosen, and themes don’t get repeated, by accident. If Times management thought that Israeli racism or apartheid was a non-issue, it wouldn’t be harping on it. The Times is perfectly capable of ignoring concerns it finds to be groundless. It’s also perfectly capable of hyping them, which is what it has been doing in this case, with an editorial, a page-one news article, a letter to the editor, two opinion pieces, and now this latest page one Birthright Israel article, for a total of six items since the April election.
In this case, the concerns about “racism” are groundless. The nation-state law makes reference to the Jewish nation and to language, but not to race. Jews can be of any race. People complain about Prime Minister Netanyahu’s dealings with an extremist anti-Arab faction, but that faction is tiny, and some of the positions cited as evidence of “racism” — say, preferring that Jews marry other Jews rather than non-Jews — are not racism but rather longstanding and mainstream Jewish positions. The South Africa-style problem of a minority ruling over a majority doesn’t apply to Israel, either; as the Times‘ own columnist Bret Stephens has written, “the comparison of Israel to apartheid South Africa is unfair to the former and an insult to the victims of the latter.” And, as I’ve written here earlier, it also depends on demographic trajectories and counts of Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs that are contested.
Again, now, maybe it’s possible that the frequent tossing around of the terms “apartheid” and “racism” — never mind “divestment,” itself a strategy modeled on that used against South Africa — have nothing whatsoever to do with the “Zionism is racism” precedent. After all, those making the accusation nowadays aren’t Soviet diplomats but rather New York Times editors and even Israeli Labor Party figures. But too many of today’s critics of Israel share with their predecessors not just the specific accusation but the strange enthusiasm with which they pursue it — suggesting that at bottom for at least some of them the real issue isn’t racism, or even Israel’s prime minister and his policies, but rather the existence of a Jewish state — precisely, Zionism.
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.