Forward Thinking

'Pinkwash'? 'Occupation'? What's Up at NYT Op-Ed?

By J.J. Goldberg

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The New York Times has a very good article with a seriously bad headline in this week’s Sunday Review section. The title is “Israel’s Other Occupation.” The topic of the piece is the growing assault against the rights of Arab citizens of Israel, taking place within the borders of pre-1967 Israel. The occupation is the term commonly used to denote Israeli control over the territories it conquered in 1967. That’s what the word means (when you’re not talking about a job): governance of a territory that doesn’t belong to the governing power but was captured in war. The “other occupation,” presumably, is Israel’s control over the territories discussed in the article—namely Israel itself.

The writer, journalist-author (and former Forward correspondent) Gershom Gorenberg, is a smart, knowledgeable and perfectly patriotic Israeli of American birth and Orthodox leanings who writes a lot about the policies Israel has carried out in the course of its occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, particularly the construction of Israeli civilian settlements there and their impact on Palestinians. His Times piece demonstrates how the demeaning and destructive treatment of Palestinians living in the West Bank is replicating itself inside Israel proper. Op-Ed writers don’t write their own headlines. Times editors do. Somebody at the Times decided “Israel’s Other Occupation” was an appropriate way to describe what goes on inside Israel.

It could be nothing more than an incredibly bone-headed mistake. Maybe somebody thought “occupation” refers to treatment of ethnic minorities rather than its actual meaning, the temporary control of territory captured in war. I might normally have thought it was just a dumb mistake, since the Times does not usually question the legitimacy of Israel’s presence within its own internationally recognized borders. But there was a similarly, astoundingly hostile decision on the Op-Ed page a mere five days earlier in the publication of “Israel and ‘Pinkwashing,’” a piece by novelist and CUNY prof Sarah Schulman claiming that Israel’s touting of its progressive, gay-friendly environment is a ploy to cover up the crimes of the occupation.

David Harris of the American Jewish Committee deconstructed the piece in a smart blog post earlier in the week, arguing that the piece itself is too “preposterous” to get excited about but the Times’ decision to publish it—out of the hundreds of submissions it gets every day—suggests something disturbing is going on at the Times. He goes on to claim that Schulman has a record of hostility toward Israel that’s easily traceable in a web search. I checked and didn’t find the evidence he claims, and such things are often exaggerated. But the over-the-top and illogical hostility of “Pinkwashing” stands on its own merits, or lack thereof. Here’s her key thesis:

In Israel, gay soldiers and the relative openness of Tel Aviv are incomplete indicators of human rights — just as in America, the expansion of gay rights in some states does not offset human rights violations like mass incarceration.

Of course one doesn’t offset the other. But the reverse is equally true. If mass incarceration must be independently judged, regardless of countervailing considerations, openness toward sexual diversity and other progressive values should be judged just as independently. Unless she means to say that gay rights is a minor issue, which I doubt.

But Schulman’s logic isn’t the issue. Here’s Harris:

Schulman, of course, is entitled to her views, however outlandish they may be.

But why the Times opted to publish them is another matter entirely. The op-ed page isn’t exactly wide open to just anyone. Other than the regular columnists, available space for would-be contributors is at quite a premium.

What prompted this publishing decision? Beats me.

I don’t usually buy into Times-as-anti-Israel blather, but the “Pinkwashing” piece was beyond inexplicable and the headline on Gershom’s piece is the second clunker in less than a week. Is the Times’ new op-ed editor, a former fashion and culture maven, that dim on Middle East politics? Does she not read her page’s headlines? Is she trying to make trouble for her bosses? Or is this what she thinks?


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