The New York Times and COVID-19 Vaccines
In November, when The New York Times announced its appointment of a new Jerusalem Bureau Chief, I had hopes — and doubts. With that position having been held for so long — as far back as the 1920s — by critics of Zionism and the Jewish state, it finally seemed that “All the News That’s Fit to Print” about Israel might actually reflect objective reporting rather than subjective bias.
The list that began with Joseph Levy’s sharp pre-state criticism of Zionism continued with Thomas Friedman, who had criticized Israel as early as his undergraduate years at Brandeis and continued doing so at the Times; Joel Brinkley, who discovered Israelis who were fearful that their country would become another Iran; Deborah Sontag, who found little to distinguish Palestinian terrorists from Israeli victims; and Jodi Rudoren, who focused on Israeli occupation (of its ancient homeland) and Palestinian suffering.
David Halbfinger, whose term as Bureau Chief ended in January, cited the “seemingly endless list of political giveaways” bestowed upon Israel by Ambassador David Friedman — as if relocation of the American Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and recognition of Israeli sovereignty over settlements in the Golan Heights were impermissible favors to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Along came Patrick Kingsley, previously a young journalist for the Guardian whose writing from Cairo and Istanbul stirred hope (mine, at least) that a measure of objective Times reporting about Israel might actually follow. Indeed, his early coverage was straightforward, without any indication of the blame-Israel-first inclination of his predecessors.
Then, in what I initially assumed to be an innocuous article (on February 24) about Israel’s distribution of coronavirus vaccines, the Times headline caught my attention: “Israel Vaccines Go to Far-Off Allies Before Palestinians.” Since Palestinians are not normally considered to be Israel’s “allies,” I wondered whether Kingsley, who wrote the article, was averse to drawing the distinction.
He began by citing a “debate” (leaving unsaid who the debaters were) over Israel’s “responsibilities” to Palestinians. They are, he noted, a “people closer to home” than favored recipients of its vaccine — the Czech Republic and Honduras already, with Hungary and Guatemala to follow. Such “vaccine diplomacy,” according to Kingsley, demonstrates Israeli “soft power” as countries “rich in vaccines seek to reward or sway those that have little access to them.”
The distribution of Israeli vaccine gifts, Kingsley suggests, “tacitly reward recent gestures from the recipient countries that implicitly recognize Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem,” which “both Israelis and Palestinians consider their capital.” But Israel is not alone in its selective generosity. Other countries named by Kingsley — China, India, and the United Arab Emirates — have done likewise. For undisclosed reasons only Israel’s selective generosity is deemed worthy of Times scrutiny.
Kingsley seems fixated on Israel’s “occupied territories” (otherwise known as Judea and Samaria, the Biblical homeland of the Jewish people). He refers to “people living in Jewish settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories;” limited Palestinian autonomy under the Oslo Accords “in parts of the occupied territories;” the need for Israel “to organize a systematic vaccine program in the occupied territories;” and its obligation under the Fourth Geneva Convention as “an occupying power” to maintain health “within an occupied territory.”
Buried in his article, Kingsley notes that Israel has already given 2,000 vaccine doses to the Palestinian Authority and promised 3,000 more. For Kingsley, however, these are merely “token figures, given the size of the Palestinian population.” He quotes an Israeli adviser to Prime Minister Netanyahu who indicated that with previous doubts about the availability of the vaccine to its own citizens easing, “we can be more forthcoming with our [Palestinian] neighbors.” So what is the problem?
In the end it is much New York Times ado about nothing — other than the enduring fixation of the newspaper on the imagined deficiencies of the State of Israel. It will be interesting to see whether Patrick Kingsley can elude the embedded bias of his newspaper. So far, not so good.
Jerold S. Auerbach is the author of twelve books, including ‘Print to Fit: The New York Times, Zionism and Israel 1896-2016,’ selected for Mosaic by Ruth Wisse and Martin Kramer as a Best Book for 2019