I found it shocking that the New York Times published on January 17th no less than three opinion pieces by Jewish authors, unbalanced by a single Palestinian or principled critical voice. Daniel Levy, a former Israeli former peace negotiator, yet for many years a critic of what I would call the maximalist Zionist approach to ending the Israel/Palestine struggle over territory and statehood. In this latest piece Levy fails to use the word ‘genocide,’ yet helpfully pronounces as dead the two-state solution long rejected by Israeli leadership but to this day embraced by US policymakers as a PR tactic to suggest that Washington is not a blind follower of Israel. I have no quibble with the Levy opinion piece. It deserved to be published, but was very much overshadowed by its two companion contribution by NY Times regulars.
Levy argues that the US should abandon this zombie peace diplomacy and adopt a more modest approach that limits its role to advocating the protection of Palestinian human rights for all those living beneath the current Israeli existential one-state version of ‘the river to the sea.’ Levy is persuasive in taking account of Israel’s “categorical rejection of Palestinian statehood” referencing Netanyahu pre-October 7th defiant assertion that ‘the Jewish people have an exclusive and inalienable right to all parts of the Land of Israel.’” This aggressive approach to the endgame of the conflict falls outside the comfort zone of many liberal Zionists and is obviously distasteful to Levy.
The Levy piece was a reasonable expression of opinion largely at odds with the Biden approach but as juxtaposed to adjoining pieces by Bret Stephens and Thomas Friedman it contributed to an impression of extreme bias. The Stephens piece was so extreme, in my view, as should have made it unpublishable in any responsible media platform, and yet the NY Times gave it prominent billing on its Opinion Page. I suspect, even though ardently pro-Israeli, it would have been summarily rejected if submitted by someone unconnected with the newspaper rather than by one of its regular opinion writers. Its title accurately foretells its tone and essential message: “The Genocide Charge Against Israel is a Moral Obscenity.” Stephen’s vitriolic prose is directed at the South African initiative at the International Court of Justice, which was based on a scrupulous legal argument setting forth in a 95 page carefully crafted document supporting its application for Provisional Measures to stop the ongoing ‘genocide’ until the tribunal decides the substantive allegation on its merits. Stephens’ piece even had the audacity to normalize the dehumanizing language used by the Israeli leadership in describing the ferocity of their violence in Gaza. Stephens seems willing to endorse the position that the alleged and presumed barbarism of the Hamas attack of October 7 allowed Israel to engage in whatever violence would serve their security without being subject to legal scrutiny or UN authority. At this point Israel has killed at least 23,000 Palestinians, without counting the 7,000 missing persons thought to be buried in the rubble. This total of 30,000 fatalities of mostly innocent, long-abused civilians, is the equivalent of over 5,000,000 if a similar proportion of deaths were to occur in a country with a population of a size similar to that of the US, and the worst may yet to come for the Palestinians. Beyond the death toll are other severe crimes of humanity that are also features of the overall genocide: forced evacuation; induced starvation and disease; destruction of homes, hospitals, holy places, schools, and UN buildings.
In Stephens’ view this decimation of the people of Gaza is not indicative of genocide but should be viewed as the normal side-effects of a war that is a legal instance of self-defense. Given the weaponry used against sheltering civilians in sites protected under international law, what I find obscene is the heartlessness of Stephens’ gushing carte blanche vindication of Israel’s behavior coupled with the contempt he bestows on those who stand up for the protection of Palestinian rights and the repudiation of what has all the appearance of genocide as specified in the Convention.
Indeed, Stephens argues that China’s abuse of the Uyghurs or the ‘killing fields’ of Cambodia or Soviet Gulag conditions is the real stuff of genocide, and yet went unpunished, while Israel is being maliciously singled out for these delegitimating charges of genocide solely because in his warped judgment the perpetrators are Jewish. It is a shameful line of argument put forward in a slick tone of tribal superiority and legal indifference. There is much room for debate surrounding these events in Gaza and the West Bank since October 7, but to characterize South African recourse to the preeminent judicial body in the world, known for its respectful attitude toward state sovereignty as a ‘a moral obscenity’ is a further illustration of Stephen’s inciteful extremism that feeds the repressive impulses of such Israeli powerhouse lobbies as AIPAC. It ventures beyond the pale of responsible editorial filters, sure to be present if a Palestinian author wrote, with greater justification, that Israel’s defense of its behavior before this very court amounted to ‘a moral obscenity.’ Not only would such a hypothetical article be rejected, but any future submission by such an intemperate author would probably be rejected without being read.
The third opinion piece was written by the newspaper’s chief pontificator, Thomas Friedman. It recounts part of an interview Friedman. conducted with Antony Blinken a day earlier at a public session of the Davos World Economic Forum. Friedman was far more civil than Stephens (not a high bar), but more subtly as provocatively aligned with the Israeli narrative, and as always, self-important and pretending to write from above the fray. Friedman started his piece by contextualizing Israeli behavior sympathetically as reflective of the extreme trauma experienced by Israelis as a result of the Hamas attack, without a word of sympathetic empathy for the Palestinian outburst of resistance after 50 years of abusive occupation and 15 years of a punitive total blockade. Against this background, Blinken was portrayed as a tireless representative of the US Government doing his diplomatic best to limit the magnitude of devastation in Gaza and support the delivery of urgently needed humanitarian aid. In the interview Blinken declared that he was heartbroken by the tragic ordeal being experienced by the Palestinians, and yet Friedman not bring himself to question this high US official and unconditional supporter of Israel even gently as to why given these grim realities he continues to endorse the support for Israel’s military operation at the UN and through military assistance knowingly contributing to a continuation of this onslaught.
Friedman offers no reference to Blinken’s earlier extravagant official assurances of direct US combat participation if Israel so requests. Friedman failed to pose even a softball question about Blinken’s attitude toward Israel’s dehumanizing statements, tactics, or evident ethnic cleansing goals. Blinken had seemed for most of the 100+ days of Israeli violence entirely comfortable to be carrying out his role as enabler-in-chief of the Israeli ongoing genocide. Such a role entails legal accountability for serious, ongoing complicity crimes, and not the celebration of a man doing a professional duty that brought him personal grief. It is illuminating to appreciate that to slow the velocity of genocide, even if such a mitigating intention is conceded, is still genocide.
What makes this show of media bias particularly disturbing is the refusal to consider that most non-Westerners have little doubt about the true nature of Israel’s guilt in relation to the commission of this ‘crime of crimes.’ This perception has nothing to do with the fact that Israel is a Jewish state, and everything to do with the stark clarity of Israel’s formal intentions and the manifest nature of its militarist extremism that is entering its fourth month. A further damning fact is that this is the most transparent genocide in all of human history as nightly TV brings its daily occurrence before the eyes of virtually the whole world. The horror of previous genocides, including the Holocaust, has been largely disclosed after the fact, and even then these human tragedies were largely interpreted by way of abstraction and statistics, as well as through the grim tales told by survivors or in the form of reconstructions done long after the bloody realities by documentary films, investigative journalism, and scholarly inquiry.
My emphasis on this single day’s selection of opinion pieces is not merely to allege NY Times bias, but to raise the tricky questions of self-censorship and media independence of deference to government policy especially in the context of war/peace issues. As shocking as I found the Stephens’ rant, more shocking was the failure of the NY Times and most national media to report on the extraordinary protest activity around the country in recent weeks, including a demonstration in Washington on Martin Luther King Day of 400,000 pro-ceasefire protesters. Surely, this such an outpouring of citizen didn’t deserve to be dismissed as not newsworthy. Especially in this era where social media reinforces the post-truth ethos of right-wing politics, the future of democracy under threat, would benefit from more responsible managerial standards on the part of the most trustworthy media, and especially with regard to controversial foreign policy, more debate, and less deference to Pentagon, State Department, and White House viewpoints.
I have no intention to make the NY Times a scapegoat. Its response to the Gaza genocide is indicative of a systemic problem with media reportage. For instance, watchers of CNN deserve more independent critical voices, and less official rationalization from government spokespersons, or retired military officers and intelligence bureaucrats. It is dangerous enough to endure deep state manipulations from within the bureaucracies but to have such views infuse media integrity is to resign the country to an autocratic future.