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November 2, 2020 2:08 pm

Will Anything Change at 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.

The New York Times has a new Jerusalem bureau chief, with Patrick Kingsley replacing David Halbfinger, its most Israel-friendly Jerusalem reporter. London-born, Kingsley was Middle East correspondent for The Guardian before joining the Times in 2017 as Istanbul bureau chief. He subsequently became a Times international correspondent based in Berlin.

Kingsley’s online autobiography is impressive. Reporting from more than forty countries, he generously describes himself as “a specialist in migration, democratic backsliding, Europe, and the Middle East.” As Egypt correspondent for The Guardian, he won awards for his reporting on a state-led massacre in Cairo; a secret jail in Ismailia; and the gassing of 37 prisoners in a police truck. His investigations into the European refugee crisis and people-smuggling in Libya, Egypt, Turkey and Niger led to his selection as “foreign journalist of the year” by the British Journalism Awards. He clearly is a talented young journalist on the rise.

But with little evident familiarity with Israel, Kingsley may seem imperfectly suited — or perhaps by Times standards perfectly suited — for his posting in Jerusalem. The history of its Jerusalem-based reporters reveals that the Jews among them have ranked high among the most relentless critics of the nation they are covering. Based on past performance, there is a more than likely possibility that Kingsley will be among them.

Jewish Jerusalem reporters at the Times span nearly a century, from Joseph Levy in the late 1920s to Halbfinger. In between were Thomas Friedman, Clyde Haberman, Ethan Bronner, Joel Greenberg and Jodi Rudoren. The shadow of hostile coverage — even before there was a Jewish state to criticize — was cast by Levy, who (in 1928) became the first Times reporter from Palestine.

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Fascinated by archeology and history, Levy enthusiastically embraced the Zionist narrative — until Arab riots erupted in 1929. Aware of the murderous toll exacted from scores of Jews, he nonetheless participated in covert discussions with Rabbi Judah Magnes, chancellor of the new Hebrew University, who advocated a binational state in Palestine; former British civil servant H. St. John Philby, who denounced the Balfour Declaration as “an act of betrayal” paralleled by the garden of Gethsemane where Jesus was arrested before his crucifixion; and the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, convicted of inciting the murderous 1921 riots. Levy guided statements of their anti-Zionist hostility into the Times.

The selection of Thomas Friedman as Jerusalem bureau chief in 1984 implanted criticism of Israel as a Times mantra. A sharp critic of Israel since his college days at Brandeis, Friedman made his Times appearance as its Lebanon reporter in time to lacerate it for the massacre of Palestinians in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps by Christian Philangists. Relocated to Jerusalem as Times bureau chief, he relied upon a trio of left-wing Israelis to guide his relentless criticism of the Jewish state for ignoring the plight of Palestinians. Occupation of “Palestinian” land (biblical Judea and Samaria), Friedman believed, led to Israel’s moral decline. His repetitive critique would eventually become the staple of his musings on the Times Opinion page.

Joel Brinkley, Friedman’s Jewish successor, characterized Israel’s choice between becoming “a conciliatory nation of the left, an assertively hardline nation of the right- or a people . . . incapable of defining itself.” Brinkley cited Israelis’ concern that “Israel could become another religious fundamentalist nation, a Jewish version of Iran.” Covering the Palestinian intifada his narrative was framed by beleaguered (but heroic) Palestinians resisting oppressive Israelis.

Deborah Sontag, the first female Jerusalem bureau chief, quickly embraced the Times refrain of moral equivalence between Palestinian terrorists and Israeli victims. Visiting the Mahane Yehuda market site of a Palestinian terrorist attack, she emphasized that Israelis and Palestinians alike had “vehemently accused the other of intransigence.”

Then there was Joel Greenberg, who favorably reported on IDF reservists who had signed a statement of refusal to serve in the West Bank or Gaza. But Greenberg was hardly disinterested. A decade earlier, as a conscientious objector during the First Lebanon War, he had received a jail sentence for refusing to serve with his IDF unit.

To his credit Ethan Bronner, bureau chief between 2008-12, wrestled with the problem of impartial coverage when “no place, date or event in this conflicted land is spoken of in a common language” that “both sides can accept as fair.” He described a “narrative disconnect” in which Jews emphasized their return to “their rightful home” after millennia of oppression while Palestinians described “European colonists” who “stole and pillaged” Palestine. No other bureau chief had sensitively confronted that dilemma.

Bronner was succeeded by Jodi Rudoren, the daughter in an Orthodox family, who quickly displayed her inclination to focus on Palestinian suffering and Israeli transgressions. She interviewed “the left’s leading lawyer in Israel,” who challenged Israeli “occupation of the Palestinian territories” and represented soldiers who refused to serve there. She did not interview the right’s leading lawyer, Elyakim Haetzni of Kiryat Arba, one of the founding fathers of the return of Jews to Hebron after the Six-Day War.

Given the blatant imbalance in nearly a century of Times reporting from Jerusalem, it will be interesting to see how Kingsley aligns along the spectrum from impartial coverage (rare) to palpable bias (commonplace). There is a lot of Times history to surmount, and an enduring party line to overcome, to reach the level of responsible journalism in its coverage of Israel.

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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