Toward the end of Ethan Bronner’s appearance at Vassar last night, a woman in the aisle melted down yelling at him. "What I’m hearing from you is only one side. Your son is in the IDF. You are Jewish… The way you talk is totally pro-Israel." Then Fanny Prizant of Woodstock demanded, What is it about the New York Times? Why don’t they have someone else to at least put across the other side of the story?
Prizant was quite upset, and I found myself nodding in agreement. It had been a bizarre evening. It was like a lecture in a Hitchcock film, the setting a gaunt Edwardian-era hall at an upstate NY college, and only a few people in the room are in on the story and the man on the stage is clueless. Prizant’s was the third or fourth hostile question. I wondered why Bronner went through with the lecture to begin with. He must be a little masochistic, or he has a strong sense of journalistic duty. That is how he came off, as a dutiful New York Timesman, a little hectic, with little sense of the new American scene. When the story of his son being in the Israeli army broke, I said it was going to dog him and the Times, and you can see that that is happening.
The problem isn’t the son. It’s Bronner’s degree of identification with Israel. I kept looking at my watch waiting for him to say One Palestinian Name. Finally it came at about minute 45: university president Sari Nusseibeh. I’m pretty sure it was the first mention of any Palestinian he knows. The world according to Bronner is a Jewish one. There was the friend who invited him to an orthodox Westchester congregation. His writer friend in Israel who counseled him to tell Jewish audiences back here that Israel is an apartheid state (and to tell college audiences the opposite; Israeli dissimulation). There was a string of Israeli generals and officials’ names. Meridor, Ben Gurion, Barak, Netanyahu. And Michael Oren–favorably of course.
Bronner said that it was a lot harder to cover Arab societies because they are closed, don’t have a free transparent democratic discourse. Well you might extend yourself.
He made all kinds of excuses for Israelis. He said that they killed civilians in Gaza because they warned people in Arabic over the telephone to leave their homes and then the next day they went into the neighborhood and if there were people still around, they assumed they were Hamas fighters. I wonder if he ever printed any of that defense of war crimes in the newspaper? He said the settlers were openly flouting the "moratorium" on building–has he told his readers that?–and he related the settlers’ story with empathy. "History is made by people who never stop, and these people never stop… They are not going to walk away just because someone declares a moratorium. … They have an almost erotic attachment to the land."
Then he said there was a case you could make that the occupation was not illegal. Though yes, most countries regard it as illegal. He spoke with real feeling, warmth and understanding about Zionist history. I learned about Zionism from him; and of course he followed it up by lauding the achievement of the Jews in making this Israel, with $30,000 GDP, a high-tech "hothouse."
It wasn’t a worldly talk–there was no sense of a wider world. No mention of BDS, or of the Palestinian rage at the wall, or changing Jewish attitudes in the U.S., or the crackdown on critical groups in Israel. Bronner has no scope. Asked "Do you have a son in the IDF, yes or no?", he blurted a confession: "My son entered the IDF five weeks ago." He added not a moment’s thoughtfulness about this event; why did it happen, what is your sense of attachment to Israel, how does the son’s decision (was it a decision? is he a citizen?) affect him? This made the evening bizarre; because he had spent a lot of the previous 45 minutes praising the effectiveness of the army, saying they shut down attacks from Lebanon post ’06, and shut down the Gaza rockets with Operation Cast Lead.
I cringed hearing his rationalization of the ethnic cleansing of East Jerusalem. He said the house evictions arose from the technicality that many Jews owned real estate in East Jerusalem before the city was split in ’48 and the Jordanians took over east of the Green Line and Palestinians moved into the houses. Now that Israeli courts have cleared the titles, some Jewish owners have chosen to sell their houses to settlers. Bronner said the problem is that by granting pre-48 title to Jews, the court opened the door for Palestinians to claim their old houses in West Jerusalem.
"I live in West Jerusalem. My entire neighborhood was Palestinian. … So I think it’s a very worrying decision… and one causing a great deal of anxiety there.."
Does he have any idea how this sounds? All the Jews worried about losing their houses in West Jerusalem. Gosh. Where does his heart lie? What is the likelihood of the Said family getting their house back, or Ghada Karmi getting hers?
Bronner said a lot of smart things. About Iran, about Israel’s crisis. He has a good working mind, and his meritocratic professional code. Maybe I will pass along some of his smart points in days to come, to be fair. But the spirit of the night was, This is a man completely engaged by the Jewish story (and yes, hosted by Jewish Studies at Vassar). That is why Fanny Prizant lost it in the aisle. Bronner seemed scared by her. He said he couldn’t speak for the Times. I raised my hand to ask a question. He didn’t point to me, but I was going to say, "Being a Jew means that Zionism will call on you. Myself I said ‘No thank you.’ So my question is, Are you a Zionist?" I think he is so masochistic and so dutiful that he would speak honestly, and say Yes.
I return to the mood of a lecture in a Hitchcock movie, a little scary, a little funny. At least a dozen people out of 120 there are angry at the Times for its imbalance. This rage is out there. The most important international story and the Times has a not very reflective man in Jerusalem who is in the pocket of one side, and people know it. I got the feeling Bronner was shocked by the rage that is now abroad in the U.S. Don’t expect him to write about it.