Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, May 2016, pp. 66-69
PANEL 4: Israel’s Influence On Mainstream Media
Delinda Hanley: Philip Weiss is an American journalist who is the founder and co-editor with Adam Horowitz of Mondoweiss, the widely read news website devoted to covering American foreign policy in the Middle East, chiefly from a progressive Jewish perspective. Phil began his career in mainstream journalism, writing for The New York Times Magazine, Harper’s, Esquire and the New York Observer. In 2006, while at the Observer, he began writing a daily blog called Mondoweiss.
As he began to explore more deeply the relationship between American Jews and Israel, however, the Observer became increasingly uncomfortable. So in 2007 Phil established Mondoweiss as an independent blog, and today it is a valuable source of news and opinion from a variety of authors. We are so very glad to have Phil here with us today to share his observations on The New York Times in the coverage of Israel over the years. Please join me in welcoming Philip Weiss.
Philip Weiss: Thank you very much. Thanks, Delinda. I just have to say that Rula’s invocation of the Vietnam War and what journalists did around the Vietnam War was very important to me, too, as a young journalist. I remember that I was at the Philadelphia Daily News 30 years, 35 years ago, and the guy at the next desk had read Harrison Salisbury’s book about the Pentagon Papers, and that was when The New York Times took on the government. The government tried to shut down The New York Times’ publication of this vital document that explained the history of the Vietnam War, and The Times stood up to the government and it helped to bring—it took a while, but it was very important in bringing an end to the American participation in that disaster.
My friend at the next desk said, let’s write to Harrison Salisbury, you know, we’re never going to get a story like that. So we wrote this letter and we said, “Dear Mr. Salisbury: How do you plan your career”—we were just young ambitious journalists—“how do you plan your career so that you can get ready to take on the government and have a big story like that?” And what I remember about his letter is that he said—just hang in there, learn to be a good journalist, work hard and someday you will get your big story.
The thing I find really moving about that now is that, in fact, we did get that big story. We got it in the shape of the Iraq war and just what American foreign policy has been in the last 10 years, and The New York Times has been AWOL on that one. I think I may have said this the last time—that gives tremendous power to our community, if you think about how much information the people in this community are developing in the way that journalists are supposed to develop, traditionally have developed, information that’s vital.
Even this fact that both Rula and Colonel Wilkerson said earlier, about the extent to which the aid package to Egypt is essentially a bribe to keep them or to hold them—this is a central fact of our foreign policy that just you won’t find stated, and that is on par with anything that was in the Pentagon Papers in terms of a vital understanding.
So I’m here to talk about The New York Times chiefly because The Times sort of sets the parameters and the tone for the mainstream discussion. I did once do some work at The Times, I worked as a staffer at The Times Magazine, and I thought I would just anatomize The Times a little and then move on to the whys of it—why is The Times sort of in the tank for Israel?
So the newspaper’s been a reliable Israel supporter for a long time now, and we keep looking for signs of a thaw. I’m going to be hopeful, but let me first describe the character of that support. As I go through my remarks, I’ll be using the term Zionism. I think that Zionism is embedded; it’s a very important force at The New York Times. What I mean by that is some degree of commitment to the idea of the need for a Jewish state and the need to preserve a Jewish state in Israel.
So The Times has at least three columnists who are openly Zionist. Those are David Brooks, who has said that he gets gooey eyed about Israel when he thinks about Israel, and he has been there a dozen times. That was a couple of years ago, I think he’s been there more since. Roger Cohen, who says that Israel is justified by the Holocaust, but he can also be somewhat critical of the occupation. He is openly a Zionist, which I think is a very good thing, in as much as he’s frank about his adherence to the ideology. And then there’s Paul Krugman, who is a liberal Zionist who says he’s critical of Israel but never expresses it. He says it as little as possible. You would think that winning a Nobel Prize and having a Times column would give you freedom, but Krugman surely demonstrates Tolstoy’s principle that the higher you get, the less freedom you have.
I’m leaving that other stratosphere of columnist, Tom Friedman, out of this list because, while Friedman began his career as an Israel supporter back in the suburbs of Minneapolis doing chalk-talks on the Six-Day War at his high school, I think that one of the principles of this conference is that people can change. I sense that Friedman has fallen away from the ideology in as much as he has said, for instance, that Congress is bought and paid for by the Israel lobby—which is a statement that, if a non-Jew made it, would brand them as an anti-Semite. I think the standard is not being nice enough about Israel.
He has also said recently that the two-state solution is a failure and that that failure was produced by, among others, Netanyahu and Sheldon Adelson and the right-wing Jewish influence, openly speaking of right-wing Jewish influence. That was a very important column and I will return to it, because I think it’s the heart of what I always understood journalism to be. Not quite the heart, because I always understood journalism to be what’s new, true and important. And it’s true and it’s important, it’s just not new what Friedman was telling us.
So I think you may know that David Brooks’ son served in the Israeli military and he’s one of four Times reporters who have had children who served in the Israeli military. The most celebrated example of this was Ethan Bronner, who was the previous Jerusalem bureau chief. His son entered while he was writing for The Times and it was shortly after Cast Lead, when Israel slaughtered 1,400 Palestinians in Gaza. It caused Palestinian activists in a truly masterful act of branding to paint The New York Times logo on the apartheid wall. I don’t know if you saw images of this, but it was just kind of wonderful.
Bronner introduced a guessing game into journalism about unspoken ideological agendas. This was, is he or is he not a Zionist? I think that I participated in this guessing game. A lot of journalists in the blogosphere did. When he left the newspaper ultimately in the last year or so, he left less and less doubt about this question, and resolved it entirely when he hosted right-wing Israeli military figures at the 92nd Street Y in New York on a program that was about the “incredible courage of Israeli soldiers.”
It’s kind of White Citizens Council journalism that you see in The NY Times a lot.
So we started the same guessing game when Ethan Bronner’s successor, Jodi Rudoren, took over after him in Jerusalem. I remember that I was a little bit more credulous than others—I’m not proud of this—and I sort of thought, oh, she’s going to be fair. But what we found was that she wrote totally out of the Israeli Jewish experience. That was really the community that she’s openly admitted that she related to more, but she made little effort to get outside that comfort zone. So there were long pieces about young Israelis getting tattoos when their grandparents had had Auschwitz tattoos.
There was an episode where she went to Gaza in 2012 and on Facebook said that Palestinians were ho-hum about the death of family members. She went to a funeral in Gaza and observed that Palestinians were, quote, ho-hum about the death of family members. It was a shocking incident and it was something she had to apologize for, but it wasn’t a prejudice that she seemed to want to shed or to get out of. Recently she gave some podcasts where she said that she spoke one word of Arabic. Actually, I’m sure she speaks more Arabic, in that there are a lot of Arabic words in our language—alcohol and algebra to begin with [laughter]—but it’s a reflection of her deepening incuriosity about the Palestinian experience. It’s kind of White Citizens Council journalism that you see in The Times a lot, and that she exhibited.
So I remember, because she was more adept at this guessing game about her commitment to Israel as a Jewish state, she said, the only ist I am is a journalist, when she was asked about this question. I’m not a Zionist. The only ist I am is a journalist. I remember that I once wrote that she comes out of a Zionist background. She was upset about even that, being identified even in that fashion, and said, well, why would you say that? I said, well, you’ve said to Jewish groups when you’ve spoken to them that you are familiar with the American Jewish experience, and the American Jewish concern for Israel, and you came to Israel when you were in high school with United Synagogue Youth. You know, that’s a Zionist background. And she said, you know, I went to Lake Winnipesaukee too. [Laughter]
So it was one of the most disingenuous deflections I’ve ever experienced, because those trips by United Synagogue Youth and other Jewish organizations were highly ideological in character. They weren’t like vacations in the White Mountains. It was a measure of how obtuse she could be that she would make that kind of statement.
In my one meeting with Rudoren, I told her that her great challenge was to tell Americans that—this was four years ago—that the two-state solution is over. And that if you just go to the West Bank, you’d see that it’s over. They won’t be able to make a viable Palestinian state there. Those people don’t want to leave.
Just a little bit of an ad, some of the journalism I’ve done myself lately about the West Bank, which we have out in the adjoining room.
I said that she had to explain this in a lead [to an article]. This was a vital function of a journalist, to bring this news, and she never did that. It’s not just that I made this challenge. You’ll notice recently that John Kerry and Dan Shapiro from the State Department, they both said we’re approaching this one-state reality. Well, they’ve gotten no support from the leading American newspaper to explain what that one-state reality is.
So The Times has sort of abandoned this kind of vital journalistic function of telling people what’s going on in this kind of most important American relationship that exists. I think that that, again, is one of the great things about this Tom Friedman column, was he said the Israelis don’t want to leave. They’ve been supported in the West Bank. They’ve been supported by right-wing American Jews. It’s going to be an unending civil war, with greater and greater isolation of Israel on the world stage. All true—and this has been true for the last five, eight years, I think, at least, and yet now a Times columnist and secretary of state are the people who are bringing this information.
So in the time I have left—and, by the way, I think that there’s something very cruel about maintaining the illusion about the two-state solution, because it’s saying that, oh, these horrible conditions, they’re just temporary. These people, five million people under some form of apartheid or ghettoization in Gaza, in a prison, we’re going to take care of that soon. So it’s prevaricating about tremendous human rights atrocities all the time. It’s White Citizens Council journalism.
If you think about the great Jewish seer Rabbi Hillel, who said if not now, when—this is a situation which demands if not now, when? And the position of The Times is kind of, whenever. The position of these people who preserve the illusion of the two-state solution is kind of whenever with respect to a tremendous amount of suffering, as Susie so beautifully showed us.
So I brought in the Jewish piece, the parochial Jewish piece. I’m one of the American Jews who is in the conference today, and in my parochial capacity I would just have to acknowledge that Zionism comes out of the Jewish community. It was an answer to Jewish persecution in Europe and was embraced by the world—or the Western world, the colonial world—as a solution of the Jewish question of Europe. It won Jews to its side through the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s. And now, what we’re seeing because of the unending 50-year occupation, we’re seeing even inside the Jewish communities some questioning of this ideology.
I think that if Bernie Sanders says there is a war for the soul of Islam and America has to help Islam in that respect, there’s also a war for the soul of Judaism right now. Whether this is a religious conflict or not, I’m not getting into that. But to the degree that the American Jewish community, including large parts of The New York Times itself, where Jews of my generation are working in great number—to the extent that the American Jewish community embraced this ideology and married this ideology and saw it as a deliverance ideology, that’s something that is now beginning to come undone among younger Jews.
So I would remind you, if you don’t know it, that there was a time when The New York Times was anti-Zionist, when it did not see Zionism as the answer. It said, our homeland is here, we don’t want our patriotism undermined by the creation of a Jewish state, and we’re going to oppose it. We’re not going to send Jewish reporters over to Jerusalem because of their loyalty. We don’t want to place them in a position where there’s any question about where our loyalty lies.
So that era passed in the 1960s. The Times ultimately became an organization where many Zionist Jews work. I think that there are no anti-Zionists openly at The Times, but that will come. It’s bound to because of the changes, not just in the Jewish community, but throughout the American community, which is I think what we’ve witnessed at this conference. I think the great thing about this conference is that it has brought together so many diverse perspectives—American interest, Israelis, left-wing, Palestinian solidarity people, and anti-Zionist Jews as well. I think that, again, just to return to what I said at the beginning, this gives our community tremendous power from the storytelling journalistic perspective. We are the ones who are developing this information, who are working through these extremely difficult questions of anti-Semitism, anti-Zionism, separating those. We’re developing experience about talking about these things and that will also make us information leaders. Thank you very much.
Delinda Hanley: Thank you. I really recommend everyone starting off their day with reading all the columns on Mondoweiss. Thank you very much for your work. ◙