Yet another reporter for the New York Times has a son in the Israeli Defense Forces. Isabel Kershner, a correspondent in the newspaper’s Jerusalem bureau, says that her son is in training in the army. This is the third time in recent years that a writer who covers the conflict for America’s leading newspaper has a son serving in an army that is regularly accused of human rights abuses. On each of those occasions, an outside publication has disclosed the army service.
We asked Kershner about her son after a tip last week sent Weiss to the 2005 memoir by Kershner’s husband Hirsh Goodman. The book states that Goodman, an immigrant to Israel from South Africa, and Kershner, an immigrant to the country from England, have two boys, who were then 7 and 10. Facebook posts by the older boy showed him in uniform and holding a gun with an army unit in June. Kershner responded directly:
In answer to your questions, yes, my 20-year-old son is currently performing his compulsory military service as a citizen of Israel and as required by law. He has been in training so far. My 17-year-old is still in high school.
Kershner, an Israeli, is said by the Times to be “a contract writer,” not a member of the Times staff, as such, but she did considerable coverage of Gaza last summer at a time. When we asked her if her son had served in Gaza, she said, “if there were at any time a conflict of interest I would of course recuse myself from covering a particular story. That is the policy for correspondents everywhere, whether in Washington, Moscow or here.” She told us we should direct other questions to her editor Michael Slackman, the Times deputy foreign editor. Weiss wrote him and Foreign Editor Joe Kahn, and Kahn said last week that he would clarify the issue when he returned from traveling.
Update. Kahn writes:
We do take people’s personal and familial ties into consideration in assigning reporters to beats, and our staff in Israel is certainly no exception. We also hold all reporters, regardless of their affiliations, to a high standard of objectivity in their work for the Times.During the recent Gaza conflict, none of our correspondents had a conflict of interest under our strict standards. In the event of a future conflict, we would make sure that continues to be the case.
The Times has twice come under scrutiny in recent years when it was revealed that a writer’s son was in the IDF. In 2010 Electronic Intifada reported that the son of then-Jerusalem-bureau-chief Ethan Bronner, an American Jew, had entered the Israeli army. EI described Bronner’s son’s service as a conflict of interest the paper had failed to disclose per its own policy on reporters’ attachments. Times editors responded that the matter was Bronner’s son’s personal choice and did not bear on Bronner’s reporting, but then Times public editor Clark Hoyt took a different stance, saying it should have been disclosed, “[Executive editor Bill] Keller and Bronner responded freely to my questions, but the paper has otherwise been tight-lipped so far,” he wrote, before calling for Bronner’s reassignment:
The Times sent a reporter overseas to provide disinterested coverage of one of the world’s most intense and potentially explosive conflicts, and now his son has taken up arms for one side. Even the most sympathetic reader could reasonably wonder how that would affect the father, especially if shooting broke out.
I have enormous respect for Bronner and his work, and he has done nothing wrong. But this is not about punishment; it is simply a difficult reality. I would find a plum assignment for him somewhere else, at least for the duration of his son’s service in the I.D.F.
The Times management differed; Bronner continued to cover the conflict until early 2012.
Then last summer, David Brooks, the conservative columnist for the Times, told Katie Couric that his son had joined the Israeli army during an interview at the Aspen Ideas Festival (video here at 52:00). Brooks is also an American Jew, but he spoke of himself in Haaretz‘s coverage of the matter as an Israeli parent.
Andrew Rosenthal, the paper’s editorial page editor, said the son’s service was Brooks’s business. “I do not think he ever had an obligation to say that his son made this choice, any more than if his son had joined the U.S. Air Force.” But again the NYT’s public editor, who works independently, outside the paper’s editorial structure, said the matter should have been disclosed. Margaret Sullivan wrote:
I don’t think readers usually need to know what the spouses of columnists think or what brothers do for a living, or whether a daughter has joined the U.S. Army. But this situation strikes me as a more extreme case. Mr. Brooks’s son is serving as a member of a foreign military force that has been involved in a serious international conflict – one that the columnist sometimes writes about and which has been very much in the news.
I strongly disagree with those who say Mr. Brooks should no longer write about Israel. But I do think that a one-time acknowledgement of this situation in print (not in an interview with another publication) is completely reasonable.
The Times has never disclosed Brooks’s son’s choice. Nor has National Public Radio, where Brooks also serves as a commentator, often talking about Israel in a supportive manner.
There is a fourth instance of a Times reporter’s son entering the IDF. It took place in about 2010. Weiss learned of this through a personal connection and has never reported it because the reporter was not assigned to foreign policy.
Kershner is author of a book, Barrier, that was critical of Israel’s separation wall, but her son’s service is sure to add to the Times’s reputation as a newspaper that is based on one side of the conflict, the Israeli side—a reputation anchored by the fact that the Times owns an apartment in West Jerusalem that was built atop a house taken from a Palestinian family who were forced to flee Jerusalem during the Nakba in 1948. Many have called on the paper to hire a Palestinian correspondent, or someone who is based in Ramallah in the occupied territories. Palestinian graffiti artists have had their say, too– putting the Times logo on the concrete separation wall in East Jerusalem some years ago.
Kershner’s family life came under scrutiny earlier this year, when the Times public editor said that Hirsh Goodman’s work for an Israeli thinktank fighting Israel’s information wars should be disclosed to readers, a conflict highlighted by our own Alex Kane.
The children of Times Jerusalem bureau chief, Jodi Rudoren, are too young to go into the army, but Rudoren has stated that she first visited the country with a Zionist youth group and that she is “knowledgeable about the Jewish American or Jewish Israeli side of this beat.” She only seemed to enhance that resume when she said on Facebook that that Palestinians seem “ho-hum” about their relatives’ deaths or when she chatted with leading Israel lobbyist Abe Foxman about when “the Arabs” bought the Essex House in New York. And her husband made a cameo in an Israeli government film urging American Jews to immigrate to Israel.
The Times has Jewish ownership, the Sulzberger family, which maintained a policy in the 1950s and 60s of only assigning non-Jewish reporters to Jerusalem lest the paper might appear to be exercising bias in favor of the Jewish state. That policy was reversed in the 1970s; and today some call that policy anti-Semitic. But the policy the Times replaced that one with seems to be fulfilling some of its early concerns.