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October 20, 2020 11:44 am

The Case Against The New York Times

avatar by Jerold Auerbach


A taxi passes by in front of The New York Times head office, Feb. 7, 2013. Photo: Reuters / Carlo Allegri / File.

In familiar laceration mode, the Editorial Board of The New York Times Sunday Review recently (October 18) offered “The Case Against Donald Trump.” Page one (of nine) presented the editors’ indictment litany, familiar to any Times reader: “Lies Anger Corruption Incompetence Chaos Decay.” Columnists cited Trump’s “Unapologetic Corruption,” “Demagogy” and “Fake Populism,” while the editors mourned “A Nation Adrift” amid “An Economy in Tatters,” “A Planet in Peril” and “Women’s Rights Under Attack.” So what else is new at the Times?

One journalist who contributed to the tirade caught my attention: Serge Schmemann, who had become the Times Jerusalem Bureau Chief shortly before the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in November 1995. Among President Trump’s claimed successes, “dubious at best and illusory at worst,” he wrote, was its Middle East peace plan. For Schmemann it was nothing more than “a bag of gifts for the Israeli right, effectively undermining America’s potential as a mediator with the Palestinians.”

His familiar expression of the Times party line about Israel prompted a review of Schmemann’s coverage of Israel in the mid-1990s. He preposterously blamed Rabin’s assassination on “the bellicose settlers of Hebron” — a favorite Times trope — who “spew the violent religious ideology that fired Yigal Amir,” Rabin’s assassin. But Amir, who grew up in the town of Herzliya, north of Tel Aviv, was not a settler nor did he live in Hebron.

Schmemann was most detached and moderate when reporting Palestinian terrorist attacks. Following the massacre by a suicide bomber that killed 26 Israeli passengers on a Jerusalem bus, he mentioned “Israeli rage and grief” but focused on Prime Minister Shimon Peres’ “tough tone” in a Knesset speech.

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“In the fury of the moment,” Schmemann wrote, Israelis “reverted to their basic instinct: that war against terrorism must be constant and total” — rather, presumably, than occasional and minimal.

Although hundreds of Israelis had been murdered in recent Hamas terrorist attacks, Schmemann concluded that “armed struggle was only a small fraction of its activity,” which included “social work, politics, indoctrination.” He wondered whether Hamas was “an irreconcilable enemy of peace that has to be destroyed,” as Israelis insisted, or merely “a political and social movement that … may be enticed to reject its radical fringe?”

The answer came the following day when terrorist attacks on a Jerusalem bus killed 19 passengers. One day later, 13 more Israelis were murdered outside the largest Tel Aviv shopping mall. After a Palestinian terrorist exploded himself at a Passover Seder in a Netanya hotel, murdering 30 Israelis, Schmemann had nothing to say about terrorism or its victims. Even a Times editorial, if belatedly, finally realized that “some Palestinian terrorists are not interested in two states living side by side.” It was hardly a profound insight.

Proof came when Palestinian “gunmen” — not terrorists — killed an Israeli woman (eight months pregnant with her first son) and her four young daughters. Schmemann concluded: “Each side thinks, We are the victims; they are the terrorists.” His preference for moral equivalence between Palestinian terrorists and Israeli victims was a favorite Times trope. Guided by writer and peace activist Amos Oz, who advocated “an end to the occupation,” Schmemann offered “a statement of the obvious: stop the killing, give the Palestinians a state.”

Presenting a bevy of articles raging at President Trump, the Editorial Board predictably concluded that “Donald Trump can’t solve the nation’s most pressing problems because he is the nation’s most pressing problem.” It is also true, however, that The New York Times has long been incapable of understanding Israel as it is: the only democratic state in the Middle East. For decades, as Schmemman’s reporting indicates — and before Schmemman there was Thomas Friedman — The New York Times has had an Israel problem that shows no signs of abating.

Jerold S. Auerbach is the author of Print to Fit: The New York Times, Zionism and Israel 1896-2016, chosen for Mosaic by Ruth Wisse and Martin Kramer as a Best Book for 2019.

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