We have a long history of defending The New York Times in the face of criticism from many in our community that the paper of record has an anti-Israel bias. We have decried boycotts against the Times as foolhardy and ineffective, and in public panels and lectures we have sought to point out the distinctions between reporting that doesn’t conform to Jerusalem’s version of events and outright bias.
But in recent months it has become difficult to ignore a disturbing pattern on the Times’ editorial and op-ed pages, one that blames Israel consistently, and sometimes exclusively, for the Mideast impasse.
Editorials on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict often call out Benjamin Netanyahu as the leader at fault. In doing so, the Times seems to dismiss the fact that the Israeli prime minister has repeatedly called for a two-state solution and the immediate resumption of peace talks, neither of which Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has agreed to.
The long-simmering concern about the Times’ tilt came to a head publicly last week when a letter surfaced that was written by Ron Dermer, a senior adviser to Netanyahu, to a New York Times op-ed page editor. In it Dermer declined a Times offer to publish an essay in the paper by the prime minister.
Dermer said the Times “failed to heed the late Senator Moynihan’s admonition that everyone is entitled to their own opinion but that no one is entitled to their own facts.”
He cited historical inaccuracies published in a Times op-ed last May by Abbas, pointing out that the Palestinian Authority president failed to note that it was the Arabs who rejected the 1947 United Nations partition plan and launched the war against the new Jewish state in 1948.
Further, Dermer charged that 19 of the 20 op-eds about Israel in the Times and International Herald Tribune in the last three months were negative, with the one exception an essay by Richard Goldstone, author of the controversial Goldstone Report for the UN, defending Israel against the charge of apartheid. (Dermer adds that the Times earlier turned down a Goldstone essay backing off of allegations that Israel committed war crimes during the fighting with Hamas in Gaza. It was published in The Washington Post.)
Perhaps most upsetting was a charge made by Times columnist Tom Friedman in his Dec. 13 column that the standing ovation Netanyahu received in Congress this year “was bought and paid for by the Israel lobby.”
Reflecting the anger of many Jewish leaders, David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee, wrote in his blog that Friedman “crossed a line” with the Israel lobby statement, which he called “inaccurate and shockingly insidious,” conjuring up “the ugliest anti-Semitic stereotypes.”
In an interview with The Jewish Week on Tuesday, Friedman said: “In retrospect I probably should have used a more precise term like ‘engineered’ by the Israel lobby — a term that does not suggest grand conspiracy theories that I don’t subscribe to,” he said. “It would have helped people focus on my argument, which I stand by 100 percent.”
That argument was about the need to distinguish between American and Israeli interests at times, and to note that many American Jews “are deeply worried about where Israel is going today.” He cited a number of examples of acts and statements that suggest disturbing political and cultural shifts in Israeli society.
Friedman has often written of his support for the State of Israel, despite his sometimes sharp criticism of Jerusalem’s policies. His was a lonely voice of support for Israel in the mainstream press during the Israeli army’s military campaigns against Hamas and Hezbollah.
Many of us share at least some of the concerns Friedman and others express. But we worry that too often criticisms of Israel are leveled without an appreciation for its struggles to survive and thrive as a vibrant democracy in a sea of hostility, amid a world obsessed with the Jewish state’s every flaw and perceived flaw.
We expect no more from the Arab states and the UN; we do expect more from The New York Times.