Forward Thinking

The Conflict, the Coverage — and the Tribalism

By Mira Sucharov

Getty Images

One of the most dynamic aspects of modern print journalism is the presence of a “public editor,” a designated staff member who engages with readers around issues of the newspaper’s integrity. In her latest revealing column, New York Times public editor Margaret Sullivan responds to readers’ critiques of the recent reporting on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And in so doing, she reminds us of the perils to democracy of bringing ethnic partisanship to bear when engaging in media critique.

Sullivan rightly points to the tendency by each “side” to want to see its own interests promoted via the media. Referring to the complaint the Times often receives that a given news article lacks “context,” there is a revealing line by Sullivan. Paraphrasing a senior news editor, Sullivan writes: “The Times does not hear this complaint…from readers who are merely trying to understand the situation.”

When I hear this incisive observation, I’m reminded of groups like Honest Reporting, whose website tagline squarely reveals that it is less devoted to making sure the media is “honest” overall than it is about “defending Israel from media bias.”(Ditto for the Palestinian side, whose advocacy arms — such as The Electronic Intifada — are at least more straightforward about their mission.)

The question which flows from this is what determines which Jews and which Palestinians (and their respective Diasporas) become “partisans,” as Sullivan puts it, and which members of these respective communities seek to position themselves above the fray, and in pursuit of objective analysis (however elusive) and perhaps of overall justice?

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Memo to New York Times: Women Are Jews, Too

By Jane Eisner

Protesters call for the release of Jonathan Pollard / Getty Images

So I check the homepage of the New York Times on Thursday afternoon, as I regularly do several times a day, to see a prominent story proclaiming that all the talk of freeing convicted spy Jonathan J. Pollard is dividing American Jews. “More and more American Jews say Jonathan J. Pollard should be freed, but they are unsure whether he should be used as a chit in a diplomatic transaction with Israel,” said the tout on Mark Landler’s story.

Gee, I think, maybe my editorial on this subject — which was pointed and, to some degree, contrarian — might be mentioned.

Wrong. Evidently, in the Times and in so many other venues, only men get to speak for “American Jews.”

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Is ‘Beyond the Two-State Solution’ Poised for Prime-Time?

By Nathan Guttman

The crisis in Syria, has overwhelmed discussion of other Middle East issues in the past month, not the least of them being the 20th anniversary of the signing of the Oslo Accords between Israel and the Palestinians.

Still, the passage of two decades with little or no progress in the peace process has not passed unnoticed. Analysts and former negotiators from all sides have tried to explain, in articles and think-tank gatherings, why, so long after the signing ceremony on the White House lawn, Israelis and Palestinians are no closer to reaching a peace accord than they were in the moments following Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat’s historic handshake.

“One of Oslo’s best legacies is that the majority of each population now favors a two-state solution, though each is convinced that the other does not share its convictions,” wrote David Makovsky of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy in a paper he published on Monday.

But as Secretary of State John Kerry attempts to revive long-dormant talks between the two sides, a surprising side show has also emerged — one that takes on not the question of Oslo’s failure, but the validity of its fundamental premise: the notion of dividing the land into two states, a Jewish state of Israel and an independent Palestinian state.

Those critical of this premise got their biggest boost last Sunday when the New York Times Sunday Review gave its lead story over to a scathing opinion piece, by University of Pennsylvania political scientist Ian Lustick, who portrayed the major players’ clinging to a two-state solution as one of the main obstacles to finding other, more productive paths to peace.

“The pretense that negotiations under the slogan of ‘two states for two peoples’ could lead to such a solution must be abandoned,” Lustick wrote.

Calls have been voiced in the past to abandon the two-state solution and the peace process whose stated aim is to reach that outcome. But these were largely limited to the margins of the discussion. Scholars such as [Henry Siegman] who have publicly given up on the viability of a two state solution, have been sidelined in the discourse over the future of the Israeli – Palestinian conflict.

Does the article by Lustick — a longtime skeptic of the two-state solution — herald a breakthrough of his perspective into the mainstream?

Response to the article, in hundreds of comments posted online, seems to suggest otherwise. While a broad sense of pessimism still dominates any policy discussion about Secretary Kerry’s attempts to bring about a peace accord, there is no visible shift within mainstream discourse toward a one-state solution.

That sense of things seemed reinforced during a September 16 debate hosted by Columbia University’s Institute for Israel and Jewish Studies. The discussion featured author Peter Beinart, who argued in favor of the two-state solution, and Israeli academic Yehuda Shenhav who spoke about the demise of the two state solution and the need to discuss instead the concept of one state in which Jews and Palestinians enjoy equal rights and some form of shared sovereignty.

Here too, the stage and the speakers were as noteworthy as the substance of their discussion: an Ivy League university’s Israel studies center hosting a debate challenging the basic idea of separating Israelis and Palestinians into two states, held between two prominent intellectuals.

But the venue, as it turned out, also provided an illustration of the limits of the one-state solution’s penetration into the broader peace process discussion.

The event, though coming on the heels of the Times’ highlighting of the issue, was held in a small lecture hall that comfortably seated an audience estimated at no more than 100 people. This could suggest that the one state solution is still a topic primarily of interest to a fairly limited coterie concentrated on Manhattan’s Upper West Side and other, comparable districts elsewhere — not a debate ready for prime time.

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Obvious Flaw of Times 'Third Intifada' Story

By Jane Eisner

getty images

Ali Gharib’s rather long tirade against my recent blog post in the Forward on Ben Ehrenreich’s New York Times magazine story deserves a brief response.

The story about Nabi Saleh was framed in the context of a Palestinian village testing “the limits of unarmed resistance.” Those were the words Times’ editors placed on the cover of the Sunday magazine (yeah, I’m old-fashioned, and still read in print) and it was the concept that undergirded Ehrenreich’s story. I questioned that because, to me, regularly throwing stones at other people is not unarmed resistance. Stone-throwers may be at a disadvantage when faced with guns and tanks, but they can still inflict harm and still commit acts of violence.

If the villagers of Nabi Saleh were able to stand up to the Israeli occupation without arms, and if Palestinians across the West Bank were to do the same, I believe that they would change the conversation entirely, and shame both Israeli and Palestinian leaders into a real negotiated settlement. But that’s not what is happening.

Evidently what really galled Gharib, though, was the way I questioned Ehrenreich’s credibility because of a strongly anti-Zionist opinion piece he published a few years ago. Gharib said I should say why. I thought that was obvious.

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Real Non-Violence Doesn't Look Like This

By Jane Eisner

getty images

My husband has long argued that if the Palestinians really wanted a state side-by-side with Israel, all they would have to do is adopt a nationwide, non-violent strategy. Peaceful demonstrations up and down the West Bank, continuously, steadfastly, would prick the world’s consciousness and give Israeli and Palestinian leaders no choice but to negotiate and do what they needed to do to end the occupation and secure Israel’s democratic future.

My husband may be engaging in wishful thinking, but it’s a powerful and attractive idea. The same thought may have occurred to whoever commissioned, edited and published Ben Ehrenreich’s cover story in the Sunday New York Times, lauding the Palestinian village of Nabi Saleh and what the Times called its “path of unarmed resistance.”

Just a couple of problems. Ehrenreich is hardly a disinterested observer of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And Nabi Saleh’s protests are hardly non-violent.

We have Chemi Shalev, based in New York for Haaretz, to credit for pointing out Ehrenreich’s recent troubling opinions about Israel. As Shalev wrote in his Sunday column:

“In 2009, Ehrenreich published a direct attack on Zionism in the Los Angeles Times entitled ‘Zionism is the Problem’. In the article, Ehrenreich castigates not only the ‘deplorable conditions in which Palestinians live and die in Gaza and the West Bank’ but ‘the Zionist tenets on which the state was founded’ as well.”

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Muzzled by the Gray Lady?

By Renee Ghert-Zand

Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times
Jodi Rudoren

Has Jodi Rudoren allowed the Gray Lady to muzzle her?

The New York Times Jerusalem bureau chief has steered clear of controversial topics since the paper’s brass ordered her to submit all social media posts to a special editor on the foreign desk last month.

A Forward review of her Twitter and facebook posts reveals that hard-edged comments about the Mideast conflict have been replaced by links to articles in the Times, and to personal news like Rudoren’s wedding anniversary and her parents’ visit to Israel.

Rudoren insists she is just taking a breather from making news on social media, and is not sulking after being put on so-called Tweet-watch.

“Don’t read too much into it. I’ve taken a few days off…I’m definitely planning on continuing to post substantive things related to Jerusalem/Israel/Palestinians,” Rudoren wrote to The Forward via Facebook.

Rudoren says she has no complaints about the arrangement imposed by the Times.

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Gray Lady Puts Jodi Rudoren on Tweet-Watch

By Renee Ghert-Zand

Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times
Jodi Rudoren

My recent interview for The Forward with New York Times Jerusalem bureau chief Jodi Rudoren, while she was covering the recent conflagration between Israel and Hamas from inside Gaza, was instigated by a remark I read in one of her Facebook posts. So, obviously, I regarded Rudoren’s providing personal reflection and commentary on the situation beyond what she was writing for publication in the Times to be a positive thing.

However, others took a more negative view of these social media posts and let their opinions be known. Most notably, the blogger Philip Weiss, citing examples of Rudoren’s posts on his Mondoweiss website, took issue with how, in his view, “[Rudoren] seems culturally bound inside the Israeli experience.”

Now, we learn from NYT’s Public Editor Margaret Sullivan that in response to this “problematic” situation, the paper “is taking steps to make sure that Ms. Rudoren’s further social media efforts go more smoothly. The foreign editor, Joseph Kahn, is assigning an editor on the foreign desk in New York to work closely with Ms. Rudoren on her social media posts.”

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Sandy: Climate Change You Can Believe In

By J.J. Goldberg

Climate change didn’t come up in any of the three debates, though Candy Crowley did mention it in passing, if only to note that it wasn’t going to be discussed. In fact, it’s hardly been mentioned in the entire campaign, even though, as I wrote last week, it is one of the most important issues that will be decided by the outcome of the election. Green blogger Nathan Currier at Huffington Post has a grimly amusing take on the timing of Hurricane Sandy right at the climax of an election season that so desperately avoided talking about the climate. Here’s Currier:

In a time when climate silence trumps climate science, when the candidates seem terrified to mention the ‘C-word,’ Candy, I hope you enjoy meeting Sandy.

Currier’s main point is that man-made climate change is directly responsible for the storm. Climate scientists and writers seem to be of three schools of thought on the question. Everyone seems to agree that the magnitude of the storm results from the collision of three distinct weather events, the hurricane itself, a cold front moving down from the Arctic and an early winter storm coming from the Midwest. One school (for instance, this very cautious piece by New York Times Dot-Earth blogger Andrew Revkin) says that the unlikely coming together of the three weather events is made more likely by the documented warming of the planet and reflects the models put forward by mainstream climate science. (Recall that Hurricane Irene, one of the top 10 killer storms of the last 30 years, wandered up the coast just last year.) But, he says, you can’t categorically state direct causality. L.A. Times science writer Neela Banerjee talked to some scientists who are equally cautious.

A second school (like this piece by Science20.com contributor Robert Cooper) says that at least one or two of the three events is a direct reflection of climate change, and would have been highly unlikely in past decades before the greenhouse effect began to make itself felt. The third school argues, like Currier at HuffPost, that all three events can be directly attributed to the global warming process.

[A]ll major components of this superstorm show the signature of human-induced climate change to varying degrees, and without global warming the chance of the three occurring together like this would have a probability of about zero. So, let’s make it simple, and just say climate change caused this storm.

I’ll name the three events quickly and then explain them in greater detail.

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NYT: Health Law Worsens Doc Shortage...Not (Oops)

By J.J. Goldberg

Here’s an object lesson in the power of headlines to mislead: The lead headline in today’s Sunday New York Times, the paper’s most-read edition, warns: “Doctor Shortage Likely To Worsen With Health Law.” Sounds bad, right? Whatever you think of Obama and his Care, you can’t be happy if the reform results in fewer doctors providing the care we need.

Except that’s not what the story says. Once you’ve read a few paragraphs in, you realize that the problem is something quite different: We already have too few doctors doing primary care — because the current system pushes doctors into the better-paid specialties — and this shortage will be felt more intensely as the new system allows more people to seek the care they need.

The article goes on to explain the new law actually addresses the shortage, but not fast enough—it takes 10 years to train new doctors, and besides the fix in the new law isn’t strong enough. That is, the new law doesn’t create a doctor shortage — it fixes it, but not fast enough, and in the meantime the flaws in our current system will become more apparent. And, like the Bush economic disaster, it will appear to be Obama’s fault.

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The Borscht Belt is Dead/Long Live the Borscht Belt!

By Blair Thornburgh

When it comes to Catskills tourism, it seems that everything old is news again. The mountainous region of upstate New York is trying to unbuckle itself from its “borscht belt” pigeonhole as a destination for Jewish city families by girding itself with new amenities to attract a hip and with-it tourist of today. The story’s got all the makings of a classic travel trend article–so classic, in fact, that it’s been written about once a decade since 1974.

A piece in this Tuesday’s New York Times called for “trout fishing [and] artisanal cheese.” Ten years ago, it was “meditation, yoga, and brown rice.” The watchwords of the brief 1980’s renaissance were second homes, swamis, and studio space, and in 1974, landowners in the southern Catskills cast envy on the larger resorts and lamented a lack of appeal in their forests and fields. Yet it was only two years earlier that halcyon days of art auctions, dance lessons, and saunas were still going strong throughout the area: “[resort owners’] volume of business has grown with every passing year”.

Even as the ranks of Orthodox Jewish vacationers swell, travel analysts fret that the stale image of yuk-yuk comedians and musty bungalows is keeping more mainstream tourists at arm’s length. And it’s clear that even before our brand-is-everything age, the story’s been that “Catskills” is unsexy as it is unshakable (and it doesn’t help that the dread “borscht belt” is an appellation so appealingly alliterative that no journalist can resist slipping it into the lede).

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Times' Matzo Story Forgot About Israel

By Paul Berger

SHULAMIT SEIDLER-FELDER

This Weekend’s New York Times Magazine brings an interesting story about the seemingly bulletproof business model behind American matzo manufacturing. The problem is that it omits a key ingredient in the global matzo marketplace: Israel.

Every year for one week, about 2% of the U.S. population is forced to buy matzo, says writer Adam Davidson. Because kosher food production is costly and complex and requires knowledge of Jewish law, it’s almost impossible for big U.S. companies, such as Kraft and Sara Lee, to compete.

“As long as they don’t change Passover, we have built-in sales,” Aron Yagoda, co-vice president of the Lower East Side matzo manufacturer Streit’s, tells the Times.

But as the Forward reported on April 6 Streit’s built-in sales are crumbling.

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The Times Enters the Shtetlsphere

By Gal Beckerman

It is not uncommon for us here in the small world of Jewish journalism (or, as Marc Tracy over at Tablet so aptly dubbed it, the “shtetlsphere”) to marvel when The New York Times runs a story that would seem even too narrowly Jewish (or Israeli) for us. It happens, strangely, all the time. We don’t even feel beat, just confused.

But it is rare when, embedded in such a story, there is an acknowledgment of the inordinate interest that the paper of record takes in Jewish life. This morning I was reading an article in the sports section about the soccer team of Kiryat Shmona, one of Israel’s northernmost cities just on the border with Lebanon, home to 25,000 people. That’s right, the soccer team of Kiryat Shmona. At least the Times had the good sense to anticipate my incredulity with this:

When The New York Times recently contacted Adi Faraj, the club’s 26-year-old press officer, about doing an article about the team, he was initially convinced the phone call was a hoax.

“Why would The New York Times want to write about us?” he said.

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Probing the Psychology of Climate Denial

By J.J. Goldberg

America’s weird and weirdly mounting resistance to the science of climate change is a topic of growing alarm around the world. What’s behind it? No clear answers yet, but some interesting new bits of insight are surfacing.

First up, a sharply worded cri de Coeur by Chesapeake Bay-area environmental activist Mike Tidwell that appeared on the op-ed page of the Baltimore Sun just after the Durban climate conference ended in mid-December, looking at the arc of atmospheric warming and the expected impact on human society: “AIDS, poverty, war – none of them will matter if the atmosphere warms by 11 degrees in a century.”

Second, and perhaps most chilling, an investigative piece on the front page of The New York Times the other day, detailing the growing difficulty climate scientists face in studying the phenomenon because of funding cuts and political resistance to the science itself.

Third, a fascinating exploration from 2010 by an Australian philosophy professor, Clive Hamilton, of some psychological and cultural aspects to the politics of science denial. His most eye-opening insight: the way that acceptance or denial of the research becomes part of one’s personal social-political identity, so that examining someone’s voting habits and views on abortion and taxes now serve as safe predictors of their views on climate science and environmental regulation in a way that simply wasn’t true a decade ago. His other stunner: a lengthy comparison of today’s hostility to “liberal science” with the reaction against “Jewish science” touched off in Central Europe in 1920 by Albert Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity.

Granted, the idea of psychoanalyzing people who disagree with your opinions smacks of the worst sort of intellectual arrogance, not to say closed-mindedness. In this case, however, we’re not talking about opinion but about scientific fact, and as the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan once said, Everyone is entitled to his own opinion but not his own facts.

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

By J.J. Goldberg

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.

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Israel, Egypt and the Chill in the Arab Spring Air

By J.J. Goldberg

With political and social upheaval sweeping the Middle East, Israel is threatened by a tsunami of hand-wringing, angst-ridden warnings of impending doom. New York Times Jerusalem bureau chief Ethan Bronner summed up the situation in this news analysis over the weekend. Here is Reuters’ Crispian Balmer on the issues a week earlier, and here’s Haaretz’s Amir Oren the day before that.

There are basically four main worries: Bronner sums them up neatly:

As angry rallies by Egyptians outside the Israeli Embassy in Cairo this week have shown, Israel’s relationship with Egypt is fraying. A deadly exchange of rockets fired at southern Israel and Israeli airstrikes on Hamas-controlled Gaza this week showed the risk of escalation there. Damaged ties with Turkey are not improving. Cooperation with the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank seems headed for trouble.

Possible solutions all carry their own down-sides. Turkey insists its ties with Israel won’t improve unless and until Israel apologizes for the deaths of the nine Turks killed in the storming of the Mavi Marmara last year, but Jerusalem doesn’t want to because it feels it has nothing to apologize for. Security cooperation with the Palestinian Authority depends on restoring diplomatic momentum toward a peace agreement, but the Palestinians are headed down a dangerous unilateral road via the U.N., and they say they won’t come back to the table unless Israel either halts settlement construction or agrees to base future borders on the pre-1967 armistice lines. Israel was committed to do both in the 2003 Road Map but the government finds both unpalatable.

And then there’s this: As Bronner reports,

Last weekend, officials were contemplating a major military assault on Gaza. But that plan was shelved by the crisis that emerged with Egypt, by the realization that Hamas itself was uninvolved in the terrorist attack and by the worry about how such an assault would affect other countries’ views during the United Nations debate of a Palestinian resolution in September.

It’s all very awkward. And complicated.

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You Read It Here First

By Jane Eisner

So imagine my surprise when, walking through the Miami airport, I spotted the front page of this Sunday’s New York Times and saw a familiar story. For ten days, my husband and I had been on vacation in the middle of nowhere in the Pacific Ocean, and though it was lovely to be cut off from the daily media merry-go-round, I reflexively was drawn to the first real newspaper I saw.

The Man Behind the Anti-Sharia Movement, screamed the headline.

That’s our story!, screamed me, the editor.

I’m not accusing the Times of plagiarism, you understand. Andrea Elliott wrote a fine, long piece about David Yerushalmi, a little-known lawyer who has quietly led a national movement to persuade states to enact laws effectively outlawing Sharia, Islamic law.

It’s just that her story tracked very closely one published weeks earlier in the Forward, by Paul Berger. We couldn’t afford to send Paul all over the country tracing Yerushalmi’s path, but we presented a fair, complete picture of a man who has been remarkably adept at edging his radical ideas into mainstream America.

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