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NYT’s opening to a ‘fringe voice’ excites rage from Israeli army, journalism, business leaders

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The battle is taking place now inside the walls of elite institutions; many people are talking about American-Israeli writer Mairav Zonszein’s op-ed piece at the New York Times, saying that Israel is becoming intolerant of dissent because of its increasingly “exclusivist ethno-religious nationalism.”

This has allowed the us-versus-them mentality to bleed into Israeli Jewish society. “Us” no longer refers to any Jewish citizen, and “them” to any Palestinian. Now, “us” means all those who defend the status quo of occupation and settlement expansion, including many Christian evangelicals and Republicans in America. And “them” means anyone who tries to challenge that status quo, whether a rabbi, a dissenting Israeli soldier or the president of the United States…

Israelis increasingly seem unwilling to listen to criticism, even when it comes from within their own family. Not only are they not willing to listen, they are trying to silence it before it can even be voiced. With a family like that, I would rather be considered one of “them.”

The piece has set off a giant backlash that shows how important it is to Israel’s backers to keep this kind of talk out of the Times. Here’s a savage comment by Ariel Beery, a big tech CEO:

I’m sorry, Mairav, but your NYTimes oped was shameful and self-promoting to the detriment of our people and aspirations for peace. Sure, it made a sexy NYTimes OpEd. And it fed the flames of those who believe that peace will only come when there is no Israel. That such an oped was published is a black stain on those of us who want two states for two peoples.

profile_mairavAs if Zonszein, who writes for +972, was just hurting Israel so she could puff her resume. Beery was approving a piece at Haaretz by Noah Efron disputing Zonszein’s argument:

Israel really hasn’t silenced dissent; A New York Times op-ed suggests that a right-wing cabal has shut us Israeli leftists up, and we can do little do about it. But we haven’t been silenced. We’ve just failed to make our case.

As I write this, the most-emailed post on the New York Times website is a short piece called “How Israel Silences Dissent,”  by Mairav Zonszein…

Israeli army spokesman Peter Lerner went off on Zonszein on Twitter:

The silent majority of #Israelis represented by @lilacsigan responding to @nytopinion About how Israel treats dissent

Zonszein used Lerner’s claim against him, at her Facebook page:

If the IDF is apolitical as it claims, then why is its international Spox commenting on my New York Times oped on Twitter – and worse yet, taking a stance? It only proves the Us vs. Them mentality I wrote about

Here’s that Lilac Sigan letter to the Times, from Israel, Lerner so approved. These excerpts show that the piece hit home, and that leftwing anti-Zionists are gaining traction inside Israeli society, gaining support from outside:

I was appalled to read this portrayal of Israel as some McCarthyite country (or worse) in which people are silenced or showing sympathy for Palestinians is unacceptable.

The writer picked a few events that occurred while Israel was being attacked by hundreds of rockets every day and there was much tension in the air, and plastered them together…

A sad phenomenon in Israel these days is that radical-left extremists, few in number, present themselves as “the peace camp,” while the larger part of Israel’s peace camp wants nothing to do with their radical views. Somehow these views are echoed outside of Israel far beyond their importance in Israeli society.

Israel is a democracy in a very bad neighborhood and is eternally striving to better itself despite the many obstacles.

I don’t think it’s effective to keep talking about your bad neighborhood.

Yet more evidence that the piece hit home. Haviv Rettig Gur, a top writer at the Times of Israel, issued a criticism of the piece that was longer than the piece itself. Notice how Gur cites Jodi Rudoren and Ethan Bronner as the true experts on Israeli society and tries to dismiss Zonszein as a “fringe voice”.

This really was a shocking thing for The New York Times to publish. As people like Jodi Rudoren and Ethan Bronner know well, and presumably could have informed the NYT opinion folks if asked, the one damn thing we Israelis can boast of without any reservation or hesitation is that no one is silenced in our frenetically combative politics.
It’s one thing to lean heavily to one side in the debate over Netanyahu’s intentions or the significance of settlements. But it’s another thing altogether to publish a fringe voice spouting untruths — such as a declaration by an anti-Zionist activist who publishes regularly in Israel without interruption or interference that it is somehow not possible to do just that.

Notice most of all how upset Gur is that the Times is publishing this argument. You can’t pressure Israel, he protests. But this is precisely what does pressure Israel:

This is not an instance of a newspaper courageously publishing a broad range of controversial views, but rather of one willfully engaging in disingenuous political activism. That’s legitimate behavior for a political campaign, I guess, but it ain’t journalism…
Put another way: any idiot on the Internet can rant about their favorite “bad guy.” Journalists are only valuable if they overcome that urge, if they refuse to settle for the comfortable, well-worn mental grooves of the existing debate and its simplicities.
The New York Times achieves nothing by pushing its pages outside the boundaries of seriousness. It cannot pressure Israel to change if it merely convinces Israelis that it fundamentally misunderstands us. …
It is an uncomfortable but nevertheless unavoidable truth of this conflict that Palestinian independence cannot be achieved against the wishes of the Israeli public.

Here Gur says Israelis are the only ones who count.

To end this long rant-against-rants, then, my suggestion to the Times is a simple one: instead of condemning itself to a role as an irrelevant regurgitator of moralizing fictions that defame and alienate the only audience that matters in this conflict, why not take up the tougher but more promising role of hard analysis and fresh, sympathetic perspectives on the conflict?…
To have an impact on us, you don’t have to let us off the hook, but you do have to convince us you possess even a basic understanding of the problems we face and the experienced that have informed our responses. Publishing opeds arguing that Israel — Israel! — silences dissent is not a convincing start.

Israelis are the only audience that matters because they have so much power over Palestinians human rights and freedom. And that’s the problem.

Gur was formerly communications director for the Jewish Agency. Avi Mayer of the Jewish Agency chimed in enthusastically:

One of many times I’ve been proud to say he was my boss: @HavivRettigGur rips that preposterous NYT op-ed to shreds – http://bit.ly/1vlx19Q

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So what was the NYT’s reason for publishing this piece? Are they creating a firebreak that could extinguish a larger conflagration?

I liked Zonszein’s article very much. The level of “Yikes!” that it triggered would seem to vouch for its basic accuracy.

@Phil Israelis are the only audience that matters because they have so much power over Palestinians human rights and freedom. And that’s the problem. I have to disagree with you there. Israelis are the only audience that matters in terms of the exact strategy and tactics in the short term. In the longer term the Palestinians matter far more. They are the ones who have to finally decide upon which unpalatable for them alternatives they… Read more »

Israeli’s lack of self awareness is truly staggering… The more people see these responses the more the hysterical face of Zionism is revealed… “It is an uncomfortable but nevertheless unavoidable truth of this conflict that Palestinian independence cannot be achieved against the wishes of the Israeli public.” “That such an oped was published is a black stain on those of us who want two states for two peoples.” “Israel is a democracy in a very… Read more »

>> Here’s a savage comment by Ariel Beery, a big tech CEO: I’m sorry, Mairav, but your NYTimes oped was shameful and self-promoting to the detriment of our people and aspirations for peace. Sure, it made a sexy NYTimes OpEd. And it fed the flames of those who believe that peace will only come when there is no Israel. That such an oped was published is a black stain on those of us who want… Read more »

It would be interesting to construct a timeline of all the incidents over recent decades in which arson, assaults, blacklisting, censorship, death threats, firings, personal attacks and vandalism have been used to try to silence critics of Israel. Four recent examples: 1. Neil Masterson’s assault on George Galloway 2. the firebombing of Rabbi Ahron Cohen’s car in Salford, England 3. the denial of a job to Steven Salaita at the University of Illinois 4. death… Read more »