Bibi Netanyahu proved last week beyond a doubt that he was an American Jew. How so? He boycotted the New York Times!
Some American Jews angry with the Times’ coverage of Israel have employed the boycott strategy for years. When they haven’t liked the slant of news and editorial coverage, they’ve cancelled their subscriptions to the Times. Rabbis have taken to the pulpit to urge their congregations to stop buying the paper (even as they preached sermons from its pages) and others have organized anti-Times campaigns on Facebook and petitions on the Internet.
Netanyahu’s boycott was a twist on the old strategy. He didn’t say he would stop reading the paper — just stop writing for it. In recent weeks, the Times solicited an Op-Ed piece from Netanyahu, but a senior aide “respectfully declined,” saying that the Times Op-Ed page had hosted too much anti-Israel rhetoric of late. In a scathing letter first published in the Jerusalem Post, the aide, Ron Dermer, calculated that in September through November, the Times had published 20 Op- Eds about Israel and that 19 of them were “negative.”
Dermer added: "Yet instead of trying to balance these views with a different opinion, it would seem as if the surest way to get an Op-Ed published in The New York Times these days, no matter how obscure the writer or the viewpoint, is to attack Israel," he said.
Dermer is an American Jew who made aliyah and became one of Netanyahu’s closest advisors. I found the logic of his letter quite tortured. He certainly has a right to complain about negative Israel stories – Israel has taken a lashing on the Op-Ed page of late – but the best way to counter these negative pieces is not to boycott but to engage. The Times gave Netanyahu an opportunity to refute Israel’s critics on the very page they used to criticize him. Why would he decline such an offer?
Negative news coverage of Israel in the United States is nothing new. Netanyahu rose to prominence in the 1980’s as a powerful and articulate public spokesman for Zionism as Israel’s permanent representative to the United Nations. He was a regular presence on the evening news broadcasts and later on cable TV news shows. On numerous occasions he used the Times Op-Ed page to rise to Israel’s defense. A quick search of the Times’ website revealed that Netanyahu wrote 10 Op-Eds since he took the U.N. job in 1984. His most recent one was in 2004 when he was Israel’s finance minister. The headline was “Why Israel Needs a Fence.”
Netanyahu wrote Op-Ed articles even as several prominent American rabbis urged their congregants to cancel their New York Times subscriptions. One such boycott effort came in 2002 in reaction to the Times’ coverage of the Israeli military operation into the West Bank that followed a suicide bombing at a Passover seder in Netanya.
In urging the boycott, rabbis complained that the Times – in its news and editorial comments – minimized Israel’s efforts towards peace, distorted the history of the conflict, created a false equivalence between the sides and gave disproportionate attention to Palestinian suffering.
The complaints in the Dermer letter were similar, although he focused exclusively on the editorial pages of the paper. He said that the opinion editors failed to do even the “most rudimentary fact-checking” on articles about Israel, had failed to give Israel credit for its positive record on social issues and employed columnists who “consistently distort the positions of our government and ignore the steps it has taken to advance peace.
“With all due respect to your prestigious newspaper,” Dermer concluded, “you will forgive us for declining your offer” to contribute to the Op Ed page.
Andrew Rosenthal, the editorial page editor of the Times, confirmed that he had received the Dermer letter but declined to comment on the charge that the Op Ed page was slanted against Israel. He added:
“I can tell you that I sent Netanyahu an e-mail saying that I was sorry to hear he was choosing not to write for our Op-Ed page and that if he changed his mind, he should get in touch. Got an e-mail from Dermer saying he would pass that message along.”
I sure hope Netanyahu reconsiders the offer. The best way to counter lies and distortions is with truth. In recent months, Netanyahu has taken Israel’s case to a joint session of the United States Congress (a friendly environment) and to the General Assembly of the United Nations (a hostile environment). At best, the New York Times falls somewhere in the middle. Why not take your case to the pages of America’s most influential newspaper?
Ari L. Goldman, a former New York Times reporter, is a professor at the Columbia University School of Journalism.