The New York Times coverage of Israel and Palestine has long illustrated the equivocations of liberal Zionism. On the one hand, a mild wipe of the eye about some particularly shameful acts of Israeli brutality towards Palestinians; on the other, repeatedly mischaracterizing as antisemitic Boycott Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS), the global movement to hold Israel accountable for these and other human rights violations. This week’s Times editorial, “Trump’s Executive Order and the Rise of Anti-Semitism” (12/11/19), is a perfect example of its on-the-one hand-and-on-the-other approach to all stories touching on Palestine and Israel.
The Times rightly notes that the Executive Order’s attempt to silence the BDS campaign to boycott Israel threatens free speech rights. Of course, it’s a position that has been taken by editors, civil libertarians, and Jewish leaders across the country, so the Times hardly went out on a limb. Still, it’s useful to have the “newspaper of record” say that censorship of BDS advocacy violates the First Amendment.
But then, there’s the other hand: comments that, if they don’t exactly make the case for censorship of BDS advocacy, at least express sympathy for those who advocate for such censorship. For example, the editorial says that “B.D.S. has helped to create a hostile environment for Jewish students, most of whom support Israel.” The support cited for that assertion is an alleged incident at Emory University when “students with mezuzot on their door posts were served with mock eviction notices.” The story then links to a report of the Anti-Defamation League. Both the editorial and the ADL imply that Jewish students were singled out for the notices.
The ADL’s longstanding hostility to BDS and Palestinian rights are no secret, and the Times should have been skeptical of the link. Even modest skepticism and a minimum of digging would have led the Times to an Emory investigation which concluded that there was “no evidence that individual students or a particular group were targeted.” Further, the mock eviction notices—which stated clearly at the bottom that they were not real—simply highlighted Israel’s ongoing abuses toward the Palestinian people. Nothing slightly anti-Semitic about that even if some students who were Jewish didn’t like it.
“According to the Times, such incidents are frightening.” But no others are mentioned, and those commonly cited by opponents of BDS – such as a similar mock eviction at NYU – have proved to be as baseless as Emory’s.
But even without these supposed anti-Jewish incidents, pro-BDS speech, according to the Times, “makes some Jews feel unsafe, especially those who feel that Zionism is intrinsic to Jewish identity.” That does sound regrettable – speech that makes people feel unsafe – especially in these days when women, queer people, and people of color, among others, have good reason to feel unsafe on campuses that welcome speakers spouting white supremacist, misogynist hatred. But there is no good reason that BDS advocacy should make Jews feel unsafe, and if they believe that Jewishness and Zionism are inseparable, then the Times might refer them to their own columnists (Michelle Goldberg, Michelle Alexander) to understand the fallacy of such a belief.
Then the Times says that there are those who worry because there are allegedly “critics of Israel [who] too often blame all Jews for the actions of the Jewish state halfway around the world.” That is a strange worry given Israel’s insistence on representing all the world’s Jews.
Finally, the Times notes that some students – presumably Jewish – who oppose “Israeli actions…find themselves unwelcome as allies, because of hostility toward the Jewish state.” If there is any logic to that statement, it’s the implication that those who aren’t Jewish and are critical of Israel’s actions do not welcome Jews as allies in their cause. But that’s, of course, nonsense. There are Jewish members of Students for Justice in Palestine on campuses across the country, and on scores of campuses, SJP chapters work hand-in-glove with campus chapters of Jewish Voice for Peace.
Some on the left have praised the Times editorial for its defense of free speech. But like so much else in what the Times says about Israel and Palestine, it gives with one hand what it takes away with the other.