Last weekend was a busy one for me, or I am sure I would have noticed The New York Times Public Editor Margaret Sullivan’s column, which mentioned my call for her paper to apologize for a racist statement contained in a letter to the Times Book Review.
In that letter, Walter Schimmerling wrote,
“The ‘conflict’ exists because, by word and deed, Palestinian Arabs have avowed as their goal the killing of all Jews.”
As James North and I both said at the time, and I said in emails to Sullivan and the Book Review editor, Pamela Paul, this patently false and racist statement clearly has no place, even as opinion, in The NY Times.
And then last weekend Sullivan addressed my response in a column titled, “Reader Complaints, Behind the Scenes.”
Many readers were upset about a letter in The Times Book Review, which said in part, “Palestinian Arabs have avowed as their goal the killing of all Jews.” These readers, particularly Ira Glunts, called for an apology. I sent some of the complaints to Pamela Paul, the review’s editor. She told me that she did not think an apology was necessary, because the letter “accurately reflected the tenor” of many responses; she added that it might have been a good idea to insert a modifier, such as “many” or “some,” before “Palestinian Arabs” in the editing process. (That should have happened, in my view.) Ms. Paul invited Mr. Glunts to write a letter for publication in the Book Review. He hasn’t done so and continues to call for an apology.
Wow! In this brief paragraph, ostensibly written to show the behind-the-scenes workings of the Public Editor’s department in a favorable light, Sullivan implicates herself and The New York Times Book Review editor, Pamela Paul, as guilty of both pro-Israel bias and racism, to an audience whose magnitude I could never dream of reaching with my posts here.
I think it was very helpful that many Mondoweiss readers sent letters to Sullivan about the offending statement. I also believe that more letters were generated because the The Palestine Chronicle and its brilliant editor, Ramzy Baroud, published a version of my post that suggested that readers write to Sullivan. Without these letters, I doubt if Sullivan would have attended to this issue.
The New York Times is not a monolith. Although the newspaper is, in many ways, a propaganda tool for the Israeli government and its pro-Israel supporters, it has recently shown signs of opening itself up to opposing points of view.
For instance, there is an editor at The Times who can take credit for enlisting the Palestinian political scientist, Ali Jarbawi, as contributing opinion writer for the newspaper. And amazingly, on the same day that Sullivan’s column appeared in print, The Times published this remarkable letter by Julie E. Dinnerstein criticizing an article by star columnist and liberal Zionist icon, Thomas Friedman. In that pro-Israel puff piece, Friedman riffed on the oft-sung theme “this is not your grandfather’s Israel,” and then blamed current Israeli government policy on the recent growth of a small but vocal group of radical religious-settlers. In stark contrast, Dinnerstein compares Israel, past and present, with the Eastern Europe that her grandfather fled in order to escape injustice and physical danger. So there is a letters editor at The Times who chose to print that letter and place it first in letters to the editor column last Sunday.
But let’s address the content of the short and truly remarkable paragraph that Sullivan wrote last Saturday. James North, in a personal email to me, reflected on the fact that Pamela Paul told Sullivan that “she did not think an apology was necessary, because the letter ‘accurately reflected the tenor’ of many responses….” North wrote:
The New York Times policy on letters to the book review editor seems to be as follows: The paper weighs the volume of letters, considers their “tenor,” and then picks a representative one for publication. So if, say, the American Nazi Party conducted a letter-writing campaign responding to a review of another book about Adolf Hitler, the Times would definitely publish a letter that asserted that “Jews form an international conspiracy to control the world economy.” In publishing letters, accuracy is not the Times’ major consideration. The paper’s priority, if necessary, is making sure the bigotry of its readers gets into print.
My comment on North’s analysis is: Paul would only do this “weighing” in the service of her paper’s pro-Israel agenda and to mollify the paper’s many rabid pro-Israel readers who write letters.
North has also written this satirical post on the extraordinarily bizarre idea that if The Book Review had modified “Palestinian Arabs with adjectives like “many” or “some,” any offense could have been avoided. I recommend this post highly, as well as the insightful comments of many of the readers, especially Palestinian readers, who are often the target of The New York Times’ biased reportage and opinion pages. And you should also read the comment of “bpm,” on the ethics of modifying, not the grammar or style, but the opinion in a reader’s letter.
It was startling to read that two prominent editors at The New York Times, in any way endorse this statement as opinion appropriate for publication:
The ‘conflict’ exists because, by word and deed, many Palestinian Arabs have avowed as their goal the killing of all Jews. [emphases mine, ig]
This statement is false, slanderous and meets any strict definition of racist. Careers have been ended for far less.
Finally, it’s true that I declined Paul’s invitation to write a letter to the editor for publication. But I said I might do so later, and instead I chose to send Paul a lengthy email expressing regret that she had apparently chosen not to issue an apology and requesting that she refer the matter to others at The Times whose jobs deal directly with the issue of Israel/Palestine, or the many who write about the Jewish community both world-wide and in the New York City region. And I cc’d Margaret Sullivan.
After it became apparent that Paul was not going to reply, I followed-up with an email addressed to Sullivan similar to the one I sent Paul, requesting that this matter be referred to her and to The New York Times staff, and, as in the letter to Paul, this email included three proposals which I recommended the Times adopt.
I have decided to now take Paul’s offer and send the following letter to the Letters Editor at The New York Times Book Review. It is very similar to my earlier letters. I also sent copies of that correspondence to a high-ranking employee of The Times whose job involves the paper’s reportage on Israel/Palestine. That person politely wrote me that she/he did not want to get involved in this matter.
This is the letter that I will send to The New York Times today in response to the invitation I received from Pamela Paul:
To the Editor,
In a letter to the editor of the Book Review published on March 19, Walter Schimmerling wrote the following: “The ‘conflict’ exists because, by word and deed, Palestinian Arabs have avowed as their goal the killing of all Jews.”
This is a racist statement, even in the modified form, endorsed by your Public Editor, Margaret Sullivan, and your Book Review Editor, Pamela Paul, as reported Sunday, April 20 in Sullivan’s column. Schimmerling’s statement and the ones endorsed by the New York Times editors are patently false and have no place in your newspaper, even as opinion. The test for The New York Times Book Review editors is to ask themselves whether they would have allowed another letter writer to tell similar sweeping lies about any other group of people, anywhere. Would the editors, to take just one example, permit a letter from India to state that “Pakistanis have avowed as their goal the killing of all Indians?”
Unfortunately, I can assure you that the racist, libelous and outrageous claim that Palestinians want to kill all (some or many) Jews will be a statement that other departments at your newspaper will be confronting shortly. That is because that statement has become a “talking point” among a certain, not insignificant group of Israeli politicians, opinion makers and their pro-Israel supporters.
Michael Oren, the former Israeli Ambassador to the U.S., has made a similar statement about the Palestinians in an op-ed. So has Sheldon Adelson, at a recent public forum at Yeshiva University. In my own writing, I reported on a statement similar to Schimmerling’s that Israeli Economy Minister Naftali Bennett made in a speech at an important public conference in Tel Aviv.
Thus I propose that The New York Times do the following:
- Apologize to its readers, especially its Palestinian readers, for printing the Schimmerling letter.
- Refuse to print similar offensive statements in letters and other opinion pieces such as op-eds.
- If this type of statement is reported as news, e.g., a prominent politician says it in a public forum; the offensive statement should be accompanied by a disclaimer, such as stating that the paper does not endorse or agree with the statement and that the statement is considered racist and offensive by most people.
In conclusion, it is going to be difficult enough for The New York Times to confront the growing criticism of its pro-Israel bias, but to compound the error by employing racism in the service of that bias is not something The New York Times should want to do.
Update: Julie Dinnerstein wrote to point out that her letter only appeared online and in the International Edition of The New York Times. This is important and we try the point out when columns and letters do not make the national edition of the newspaper. Thanks to Julie for alerting us to this.