Why readers interested in balanced coverage of BDS should avoid the New York Times

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On Sunday, May 9th, The New York Times ran a front-page story discussing efforts across various U.S. campuses to divest from Israel’s illegal occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, echoing pro-Israel students’ claims that such efforts are divisive.  Unfortunately, this piece, co-authored by Jennifer Medina and Tamar Lewin, is the latest in a troubling series of prominent New York Times stories that misrepresent the campus divestment movement and strip it of essential context. The reporters excluded Jewish students involved in the Palestinian rights movement, failed to meaningfully include Palestinian voices, ignored the principles behind divestment and boycott campaigns, and engaged in inappropriate and one-sided questioning of students. We are a part of the movement and we have spoken to the reporters, so we are keenly aware of what has been omitted by The Times in recent coverage.

The headline of the story, “Campus Debates on Israel Drive a Wedge Between Jews and Minorities,” is indicative of a major problem with the framing of this story, which erases all of the Jewish students and activists who support the BDS movement. Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) chapters are made up of students from diverse backgrounds, including both Palestinian and Jewish. Likewise, chapters of Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), a U.S. Jewish organization that supports BDS as “a grassroots tactic for human rights work that has a proven track record,” are springing up across campuses nationwide. JVP is one of the fastest growing Jewish organizations in the country and has more than double Hillel’s following on Facebook and more than three times their following on Twitter; these Jewish voices cannot be ignored or excluded.

It is also worth noting that JVP mission statements often invoke support for Palestinian freedom as being directly correspondent with Jewish tradition. Given all of this, the authors should have specified: if campus debates on Israel and its policies are driving a wedge between students, it is only between those who condone Israel’s treatment of Palestinians and those who do not.

But besides the obvious problems with the article’s overall framing, several students came forward to report clearly inappropriate behavior by the NYT reporters tasked with writing the story.

Photo of UCLA students at Israeli independence day that accompanied piece in NYT on BDS. By Monica Almeida
Photo of UCLA students at Israeli independence day that accompanied piece in NYT on BDS. By Monica Almeida

Reporters repeated anti-Palestinian tropes

When speaking to Palestinian students, New York Times reporters who spoke to SJP members in California repeatedly made comments that indicated stereotypes about Palestinians. In her interview with Safwan Ibrahim, a Palestinian member of UCLA SJP, reporter Jennifer Medina asked only about what the SJP member’s thoughts were on accusations that divestment incites anti-Semitism, rather than asking for any background information on divestment or the principles of the BDS movement. When Ibrahim replied that he didn’t feel comfortable with the line of questioning, Medina asked if she could be re-directed to another source that had no ancestral ties to the region, implying that being Palestinian made him an unreliable source.

This behavior was repeated at UC Berkeley, where student activist Paul Hadweh was interviewed by reporter Ronnie Cohen. For Hadweh, it was clear early on that the article he was interviewing for would be biased.  When Hadweh mentioned that he wasn’t sure if he wanted to be quoted in the piece, Cohen encouraged him to continue, saying, “you’re a great spokesperson for the cause. You’re not militant.” Unfortunately, Palestinian students and SJP members are often likened to militants or terrorists.  Such racialized associations are usually levied against SJP activists by various pro-Israel organizations, but it is especially outrageous for them to come from a Times reporter.

Pre-supposing hidden motives of SJP

When interviewing a non-Palestinian member of SJP, Medina asked whether there was anything the SJP board asked members to “never say publicly.” This line of questioning suggests that the reporters were hoping to find evidence to validate their own prior-held belief that SJP has an underlying agenda that it consciously hides from the public.  Activists engaged in defending Palestinian human rights are accustomed to pro-Israel groups engaging in such fishing expeditions. The fact that the New York Times appeared to be employing this tactic is deeply troubling given its profound impact on the national conversation around these issues.

Once again, students at Berkeley experienced the same treatment. According to Hadweh, midway through the interview, Cohen announced that she was simply going to read verbatim a series of questions that her editor gave her. Among them was the particularly one-sided question, “to what extent is BDS used as a fig leaf for anti-Semitism?” Cohen continued to repeat much of the same language that pro-Israel students and organizations use against SJP, signaling that her only reason for interviewing Hadweh was to validate unfavorable claims made about SJP and BDS.

Questioning whether Jewish members of SJP were sufficiently Jewish

David McCleary, another SJP member from UC Berkeley, reached out to us to discuss his own experiences with reporter Ronnie Cohen, who he claims subjected him to a series of unprofessional and even offensive questions regarding his Jewish identity over the phone and via text message. Cohen asked McCleary if he “looked Jewish,” if he was “Bar Mitzvah’d,” and at one point told him that his name didn’t “sound Jewish.” Cohen also asked if he was “the only Jewish member of SJP,” to which McCleary said that off the top of his head, he could name three other Jewish members of SJP at UC Berkeley. Cohen’s response was to ask if that made him “one of less than a handful of Jews” within the organization. Screen shots between McCleary and Cohen captured some of Cohen’s offensive comments and questions. “These were not the types of questions that a reporter should have been asking,” McCleary told us over the phone.

How the New York Times’ reporting mirrors pro-Israel talking points

By excluding Palestinian voices and framing the story as Jews versus threatening, possibly militant, minorities, the New York Times created a narrative that parallels claims by pro-Israel groups. After the University of California Student Association endorsed divestment, UCLA Hillel’s Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller told the Sacramento Bee that he believed campus politics had been “hijacked” by a group of “oppressed minorities” who were “intent to conquer.” Earlier, Seidler-Feller expressed to the UCLA community that he believed divestment was “a periodic ritual that different minority groups have had to enact in order to legitimate their claim to victimhood.”  He also claimed that divestment was “a sick remnant of the identity politics of the ‘90s.”

An even more direct parallel can be seen in UCLA Rabbi Aaron Lerner’s public thesis on campus divestment politics.  In an open email, Lerner wrote that divestment was “only successful because [the anti-Israel student groups] have partnered with other radical and marginal groups to create coalitions in which each group supports one another’s special interest projects.  For instance, the students who want immigration reform to be one of UCLA’s student government priorities promised the Students for Justice in Palestine that they will vote for BDS as long as when it comes time to vote on their bill, the favor will be returned.”  Lerner summarizes this as a process of “colonizing various student leadership groups.” This was the exact framing used in the Times piece, where it is implied that coalitions formed between students of color are based upon surface-level strategizing rather than genuine solidarity.

Not one incident, but part of a pattern

Following their past coverage of the UCLA Judicial Board interview of potential appointee Rachel Beyda in March, one of the authors of this article, Omar Zahzah, contacted the Times‘ newsroom to let them know that a divestment resolution calling on the UC regents to pull funding from companies that profit from Israel’s occupation had been falsely described in the New York Times article as a “boycott” resolution. The distinction is crucial, as boycotts and divestment represent two entirely different forms of nonviolent political action, but the news team’s response was to say that “given the resolution’s philosophical alignment with the Boycotts, Divestment and Sanctions movement, we’re confident that this passing reference accurately characterizes the spirit of the resolution.” The response suggests, on the one hand, that the article could accurately capture the “spirit” of a resolution that the reporter in question never seems to have bothered researching or interviewing student activists about. On the other, it suggests that it is irrelevant whether or not reporting on BDS is scrupulously fact-checked. At best, refusing to change misinformation under the assumption that the reading public wouldn’t be able to spot it is careless journalism; at worst, it hints at something more calculating, especially when the publication in question is a reputable news outlet tasked with delivering the objective truth. The fact that the newsroom printed a correction about the number of UCLA Undergraduate Student Council Association members in this very same article, which is also a fact most general readers would not know, makes the refusal even more puzzling.

What is the effect? Omitting Palestinian voices, demonizing students of color, erasing Jewish solidarity

The UCLA SJP members who were contacted by Medina and Lewin to provide quotes had been anticipating this article, but were dismayed to see that the Times had ignored their quotes in favor of those from quite a number of pro-Israel individuals at UCLA. This was especially discouraging considering the amount of attention the article gave to UCLA-specific issues. During his interview with Medina, Ibrahim spoke about recent experiences of anti-Palestinian and anti-SJP hatred to which SJP members and Palestinian students were subjected, but the authors of the New York Times piece omitted these comments. Ultimately, the authors saw fit to continue with the usual narrative that BDS promotes isolation and even harassment of Jewish students, while completely ignoring well-documented instances of harassment and intimidation against Palestinian students and students in solidarity with Palestine.

Additionally, in response to the Electronic Intifada’s coverage of this issue, assistant national editor Jennifer Kingson defended the piece by claiming that “the story depicts the range of viewpoints that [the authors] encountered.”  A closer inspection of how these reporters included pro-Palestine quotes indicates how superficial her response is. Whereas pro-Israel Jewish students and commenters were given space to discuss their fears and perspectives on the issue, such humanization was denied to pro-Palestine interviewees.  SJP member Janine Salman was quoted in the piece, but the Times only used her quotes to establish a well known fact: that Zionism and Jewish identity are not the same thing. Salman was never given the space to express her personal opinions. While quoting pro-Palestine students may give the appearance that both sides’ views are included, the only students allowed to express their own emotional connections to this issue were pro-Israel.

In addition to leaving out Palestinian experiences, the New York Times’ approach over the past several months has severely damaged the reputation of students of color who support Palestinian rights. This is highlighted in the Timesreporting on Molly Horwitz’s interview with the Stanford Students of Color Coalition (SOCC). They not only emphasized Horwitz’s allegations despite the documentation and testimony of nine other students who refuted her claim, but refused to acknowledge in their follow-up coverage that the university Constitutional Council ruled in favor of SOCC and that Horwitz’s claims were refuted by SOCC both on their website and in a New York Times letter to the editor. Undoubtedly, allegations of anti-Semitism and bigotry in general should be taken very seriously, but in this case, unsubstantiated and baseless accusations in prominent national media outlets contributed to smear campaigns against SOCC and forced students of color to compromise their studies and spend time and energy refuting coverage of Horwitz’s false allegations. These stories impact students’ lives in serious ways, and one-sided, misleading coverage contributes to the stifling of free expression and student organizing on campus.

Finally, the Times’ framing would also leave readers wholly ignorant of the range of Jewish views on this issue. Readers of this piece would have no way of knowing that one in four Jewish-Americans support boycotting settlement products and one in six support broader BDS efforts to pressure Israel to respect Palestinian rights. Reflecting on his interview with the New York Times, McCleary stated, “It really felt like she was trying to force a particular narrative. And when I wouldn’t go along with it, I saw that she just left my interview out of the piece entirely.”

UCLA, UC Berkeley, and Stanford are only three campuses out of many, but these experiences echo those of other students in the Palestinian rights movement across the nation. In the end, it is of course up to the Times to decide how they wish to pursue and run their stories. But the level of partiality displayed even in the very gathering of information suggests that, as far as university divestment resolutions go, readers are better off considering other sources for accurate coverage.

The post originally appeared the UCLA SJP website

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