By putting the word occupation in scare quotes the New York Times demonstrated everything that is wrong with its coverage of Israel/Palestine

US Politics
on 6 Comments

The New York Times on Thursday described Israel’s military occupation in dismissive quotations (i.e “occupation”) in a story concerning Israelis and Palestinians and the Democratic National Convention. The story was about Sanders sending pro-Palestine representatives (James Zogby, Dr. Cornel West, Rep. Keith Ellison) to help write the Democrats’ 2016 platform, and how much of an inconvenience that will be for everyone. Read it for yourself here. In another breathtaking example of digital illiteracy and editorial discombobulation, the Times removed the insensitive quotation marks a few hours afterwards. In the words of Homer Simpson, the Times decided “to hide under some coats and hope everything works out.” Well it didn’t, with screenshots on social media documenting the change. Even now, there is no editorial explanation. Maybe it was all some kind of innocent misunderstanding. But there’s plenty of reason not to believe that.

Just a few months ago, they did it with a Sanders story that saw positive paragraphs removed and replaced with more negative “context.” In journalism, “context” is code for “my opinion.” The Civil War happened in the context of “ending slavery.” To some people, it also happened in the context of “federal tyranny” and “Northern Aggression.” That’s their “context.”

Anybody see how “obnoxious” these needless quotation marks are?

The Times’ “occupation” quotation marks aren’t an accidental style error. There was some kind of intentional clusterfucking up happening. I’d bet good money that these punctuation marks were an all day long discussion that consumed some editors’ afternoons.

I also believe the Times journalists want to tell the truth, but the absurd disorganization of their editorial policies makes that difficult. And it’s no one’s fault in particular, it’s a question of groupthink. Blaming people is pointless. What matters is fixing the problem. I have some advice for The New York Times: When writing news about Israel/Palestine, call or email some Palestinians and ask them how they feel about the issue.

Palestinians have the same feelings as everyone does, including Israelis. Palestinians don’t like seeing their children get shoved into vans by police. Nobody likes that. Nobody likes living under a military occupation. That’s why it’s important to identify it as such.

Here’s what one Palestinian-American activist had to say when I called him about the Times’ quotation mark flip flop.

“The New York Times handling of its coverage of Israel’s oppression of Palestinians and the Palestine question has fallen short across the board,” said Andrew Kadi, co-chair of the U.S. Campaign to End Israeli Occupation. “The Times has a history of dehumanizing Palestinians or downplaying their oppression,” added Kadi.

“Even in comparing the coverage of a Palestinian funeral held in Gaza by The New York Times to The Washington Post, one sees a Times perspective that believes Palestinians are emotionless and hollow when it comes to the death of their family members,” he said.

“Beyond that, the language choices that editors have made reflect a poor understanding of the issue, as is evident by the placing of the word occupation, a status recognized internationally by every country and the United Nations, in quotation marks,” said Kadi.

See, Kadi doesn’t put occupation in quotation marks.

The Times also fails to investigate the reason why Sanders, who is Jewish, might have picked these people. And, more than that, fails to look at one kind of upside these folks bring to the table. Sanders managed to get the trust of Muslims and Christians and fellow Jews, some of whom went bonkers with excitement when he stopped through Brooklyn. Honestly, what Sanders has done is a win for multiculturalism by any measure of it. The Times, however, treats it as a troublesome alliance that gets in the way of harmony at the convention.

His other two picks were Native American activist Deborah Parker and environmentalist Bill McKibben. It will be interesting to hear what Parker has to say about the plight of the Palestinians, whose plight some compare with the indigenous people of the Americas. Victims of genocide colonized, poor, ignored, sad and unsafe. Suicide is a top killer on Native American reservations. That self destructive reaction to powerlessness and hopelessness bears itself out in Palestinians charging soldiers with knives. Depression is as deep as it would be for any human in a desperate situation. I’m not excusing violence, by any means. I’m just pointing out that it doesn’t come out of nowhere.

As the Times and other publications have done, they forget that Sanders has motivated Arabs and Muslims to vote and campaign for him. Activists like Linda Sarsour and others. This isn’t happening in an ahistorical vacuum. It’s happening, in part, because Donald Trump has sought to terrify American Muslims and Arabs, and they’ve responded by rallying around a leader who never attended Trump’s wedding or laughed at Duh Donald’s jokes, as Clinton did, or voted to bomb their families’ homelands in pursuit of cheap oil. Or democracy. Or something. Nobody really remembers. Terrorism?

The Times needs to understand that Sanders is critical of Israel because a new generation of progressive Arab Americans have become energized like never before by a presidential candidacy. That’s an important piece of physical reality that’s nowhere to be found in this story. Sanders is serious. He’s not just doing this as a prank. He’s doing it because his constituents, especially Arab and Muslim Americans, have asked him to take a stand.

Zogby for his part, he described a calm, cautious approach to the committee, saying it reflects Democrats’ views. Polls support that contention.

“Any honest assessment would say that the debate on this issue has shifted over the last 30 years and the platform has reflected that but lagged slightly behind, and it’s now time to catch up,” Zogby told the Times. “Clearly most Democrats agree. But we will see what happens.”

For the reader, here’s a bit more backstory. The Sanders appointees in question are the Arab American Institute’s Zogby, a Democratic party veteran, public intellectual and seminarian Dr. Cornel West and Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) one of two Muslims in Congress. He only gets a couple clauses of description that barely tells us anything.

In the Washington Post Op-ed in 2014, Ellison called on Israel to end its siege of Gaza for the sake of peace. As another non-Christian religious minority in politics, Sanders and Ellison have a lot in common. In some ways, Ellison is the most interesting character among the three, but the Times treats him like an afterthought. He’s not quoted, and only appears in reference to a pro-Israel lobbyist’s concern that dangerous affections for Palestinian rights would undermine the long-running relationship between Israel and the United States. Here it is in full:

Malcolm Hoenlein, the executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, said he found the inclusion of Dr. West on the committee “disturbing.” He said that the presence of other representatives of Mr. Sanders on the platform committee, including Representative Keith Ellison of Minnesota, a Muslim who has supported the rights of Palestinians, raised concerns that the party could “adopt positions that could be seen as hostile to Israel.”

“For us, the concern is that it legitimizes and potentially puts into a major party platform” a point of view “that undermines the principles of the Israeli-U.S. relationship that have been bipartisan for decades,” Mr. Hoenlein said.

Why doesn’t the Times reach out to Ellison? Half the fun of journalism is listening to two strangers throw shade at each other as politely as possible. If Ellison declined to speak, then that should be in there. I guess no one called him. Again, just like not talking to Palestinians in a story about Palestinians, that’s making the mistake of not talking to any Muslims in a story about Muslims.

I’m going to stop just about here, although I could continue. A final observation: The Times treats as a massive mystery why American liberals have become less fawning over Israel and more critical of it. The story treats it as a thing a Pew study found out, but doesn’t ask anybody why this is happening.

And the Times doesn’t even explore the obvious answer: Social media has let Americans speak directly to people in Israel/Palestine, and see the record of abuses and crimes committed by Israel against Palestinians and non-conforming Israelis. No longer is the membrane of the news media necessary for people to try to guess at the feelings of people on the other side of the world. The Times editorial board needs to start listening to what these people are saying, or its coverage will continue to be misleading and incomplete.

About Wilson Dizard

Wilson Dizard is a freelance reporter and photojournalist covering politics, civil rights, drug policy and everything else. He lives in Brooklyn with his bicycle, camera and drum set.

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6 Responses

  1. Mike Hite
    May 27, 2016, 6:54 pm

    Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government may be on the verge of collapse, according to Israel’s Channel 10.

    In a report Friday night, the TV station quoted unnamed “party leaders” saying that Netanyahu’s surprise move to bring the right-wing Yisrael Beiteinu party into the coalition may be backfiring on him.

    In the past eight days, two ministers have resigned: Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon, of Likud, following reports that he would be replaced with the hawkish Avigdor Liberman, and Environmental Minister Avi Gabai of Kulanu. Both harshly criticized Netanyahu in their resignation announcements.

    http://forward.com/news/breaking-news/341496/netanyahu-s-government-may-be-near-collapse-report-says/?attribution=more-articles-carousel-item-6-headline

  2. yonah fredman
    May 28, 2016, 5:09 am

    I think that most people do not follow the I-P issue closely enough to really benefit from the openness of other outlets of information such as social media.

    I think that Netanyahu is to blame for the change in opinion of liberal democrats. Bibi’s conflict with Obama and coming to the Congress in that speech of his really broke through into the mainstream of people who really don’t read very deeply on the issue.. I think that many people who rarely read beyond the headlines on I-P were negatively impressed by Netanyahu’s bold move to diss Obama. I think the left hates Netanyahu and this has caused the large gap between polls in 2014 and 2016. I think Netanyahu will be in power for a few more years at least and it would take a major change by Israel to win over the left to put the genie of anti Israel sentiment back in the bottle. But I think that the combination of wars against Gaza and Netanyahu’s arrogance have created this shift in public opinion of those Democrats who call themselves liberal.

    • Tchoupitoulas
      May 28, 2016, 11:28 am

      I agree with much of Yonah’s comment.

      Netanyahu’s stunt infuriated me but I was also paradoxically grateful, because it was like, “Good.
      Now the truth’s out there for all to see.”

    • Annie Robbins
      May 28, 2016, 12:05 pm

      the whole intrusion wrt the iran deal — not solely his speech to congress albeit that fiasco certainly highlighted and became the face of it — as well as the legislation that demanded politicians place a stake on one side, either with the US president or the israeli pm. and watching that countdown as they jostled into position, with one side representing a side that increasingly set up the US for a devastating war with iran down the road. yes, i’d say that intrusion into out system of government made an impact.

      all of this happening on the heels of a terrible merciless war on gaza and constant degrading hasbara — i’d say that pierced thru the routine pro israel nyt coverage. hopefully, american awareness will continue to escalate. i don’t think there’s anyway to slow it down now. it’s all a matter of time.

  3. pabelmont
    May 31, 2016, 9:03 am

    “Malcolm Hoenlein, the executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, said he found the inclusion of Dr. West on the committee “disturbing.”

    We know how to read this crap. It is ‘disturbing” to HIM because ti steps on the toes of his well-oiled political machine, or reveals the deep cracks already in that machine. Poor dear.

    As to the group-think-at-NYT allegation (or “allegation” or “context”), let’s ask: where did that group-think (if any) come from? From below? From people acting out their own political fantasies uncoerced and without fear of coercion? Or because of pressure from above, actual, feared, threatened, etc.? My vote (I have no proof and either does the allegator of group-think) that there was over the years a lot of pressure from above. In the 1980s NYT had a lot of pretty good coverage of I/P. I had boxes of clippings (for some reason). Now I don’t bother to read NYT on I/P.

  4. RepresentativePress
    June 2, 2016, 5:52 pm

    Here is a history of the changes. The original didn’t have the quotes:
    “Two of the senator’s appointees to the party’s platform drafting committee, Cornel West and James Zogby, on Wednesday denounced Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza and said they believed that rank-and-file Democrats no longer hewed to the party’s staunch support of the Israeli government. ”

    Then it was changed to:
    “Two of the senator’s appointees to the party’s platform drafting committee, Cornel West and James Zogby, on Wednesday denounced Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and said they believed that rank-and-file Democrats no longer hewed to the party’s staunch support of the Israeli government. ”
    With this “correction: Correction: May 28, 2016
    Because of an editing error, an earlier version of this article referred imprecisely to the status of Gaza. Although the United Nations and Gazans themselves regard it as still occupied by Israel, Israel withdrew all its forces and Jewish settlers from Gaza in 2005, while maintaining strict border control.”

    THEN changed to: “Two of the senator’s appointees to the party’s platform drafting committee, Cornel West and James Zogby, on Wednesday denounced Israel’s “occupation” of the West Bank and Gaza and said they believed that rank-and-file Democrats no longer hewed to the party’s staunch support of the Israeli government. ”

    And finally changed to without the quotes. History here:
    http://newsdiffs.org/article-history/www.nytimes.com/2016/05/26/us/politics/bernie-sanders-israel-democratic-convention.html

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