Now The New York Times Wants to Cancel the Word ‘Aliyah’
A New York Times review of David Nasaw’s book about displaced persons after World War II includes a tangent defending Britain’s refusal to allow Jewish immigration to the land of Israel during the Holocaust.
The review also complains about the author’s use of the word “aliyah” to describe immigration to Israel.
The review of the book The Last Million: Europe’s Displaced Persons from World War to Cold War was published in the print Sunday book review on November 8. After six paragraphs about the book, the reviewer, Adina Hoffman, heads off into a long contention that Nasaw’s book is flawed by somehow being too pro-Zionist.
The author’s account of the facts on the ground in Palestine/Israel produces the book’s only slight wobble — an uncharacteristic loss of perspective. It’s perhaps inevitable that if one views the violent history of the region so tightly through the lens of the desperate D.P.s, one will perceive the British Mandatory authorities’ strict post-1939 immigration quotas and refusal to simply “open the gates” as nothing but cruel and unusual. The quotas may indeed have been punishing, as Nasaw suggests, but they also derived from Britain’s (admittedly ruinous) attempts to referee an already 50-year-old struggle between two competing national movements whose origins had nothing whatsoever to do with Hitler.
Nasaw acknowledges, if very much in passing, the bitter irony of the fact that many of the Jewish D.P.s who stumbled at last onto Israel’s shores wound up occupying houses, villages and neighborhoods that had recently belonged to Palestinian Arabs, who themselves became refugees in 1948, denied the right to return to their homes. He tries hard to be “evenhanded.” But it’s perplexing that a writer as alert to political and rhetorical nuance as he is would use stock, boosterish terms like “nothing less than miraculous” to refer to the rapid resettlement of Jewish D.P.s in Israel, or employ the word “aliyah,” as though it were perfectly neutral. (It means “ascent” in Hebrew, and colors the notion of Jewish immigration to Israel with a definite ideological tint.)
There’s so much tendentiousness here it’s hard to know where to start. A fine place to begin is the glaring lack of self-awareness. In falsely accusing Nasaw of displaying “a definite ideological tint,” the Times and its reviewer are exposing their own ideological tint. To use the Times’ own formulation, it’s perplexing.
It’s hugely hypocritical of the Times, which itself has used the word aliyah in its own news columns repeatedly, to fault Nasaw for doing so. “For Jews, moving to Israel is known as making Aliyah,” a 2016 Times news article said. “Some foreigners buy when making aliyah, a migration to Israel,” said a 2018 Times real estate article. A Times Jerusalem bureau chief, Jodi Rudoren, used the term matter-of-factly in a 2015 question and answer session with Times readers, noting that Prime Minister Netanyahu “called for mass aliyah, or immigration to Israel.” What is the Times going to do, go back over all these references and dozens, possibly hundreds more in its own archives and append editor’s notes apologizing for the “definite ideological tint” or “stock, boosterish terms”? What’s next, is the Times going to apologize for having used the word aliyah to describe a blessing said over the Torah, because it’s too ideologically tinted to use a word with a faintly positive connotation to describe anything involving the Five Books of Moses? Where were the book review editors when it comes to sparing Times readers from this sort of nonsense? What ever did Nasaw do to deserve this treatment?
“Miraculous”? Scorning that description as far as Israel is concerned is a shift from where the Times Book Review has been on the point. In the Book Review in 1999, Ethan Bronner, a veteran Timesman who did a stint as the paper’s Jerusalem bureau chief, reviewing a Benny Morris book, wrote: “the story of Israel’s monumental success is still beyond simple explanation. Morris makes this clear when he writes, ‘Each victory can be explained in the light of specific concrete factors, but, viewed as a whole, the success of the Zionist enterprise has been nothing short of miraculous.’ Traditional Zionist historians (and Zionists) will be pleased to learn that even in the new history there remains a sense of wonder.” Alas, that sense appears to have been eradicated at the Times in the ensuing 20 years. Would Adina Hoffman have the Times go back and append an editor’s note apologizing for the use of “stock, boosterish terms” by Benny Morris and Ethan Bronner? Why hold Nasaw to a different, tougher standard than the one the Times itself has followed? There is no good answer.
Ira Stoll was managing editor of The Forward and North American editor of The Jerusalem Post. His media critique, a regular Algemeiner feature, can be found here.