In the last few years, I have had a slew of conversations where I found myself defending the New York Times’ Middle East coverage to outraged members of the Jewish community. All too often, supporters of Israel are convinced that the paper of record has it in for Israel. But the Times’ Jerusalem reporters have a notoriously difficult job, one in which every word and phrase is parsed by tens of thousands of partisans just waiting to pounce. For the most part, the reporters do a very good job, providing both accuracy and perspective. And most of the vitriol they receive comes from a place of partisan hackery rather than nuanced criticism.
I take the deteriorating situation in the Middle East very seriously, and just yesterday I wrote about some disturbing trends in Israeli society. But it’s precisely because of the high quality of the Times’ Middle East news coverage that the glaring factual flaws in yesterday’s editorial, “Four Horrific Killings,” are so astounding. I spotted three:
1. The editorial chides Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for his “days of near silence” after the brutal murder of Palestinian teenager Muhammad Abu Khdeir. Callous silence from the prime minister in the face of a brutal murder would certainly be inexcusable. But the Times itself was already reporting Netanyahu’s condemnation of the killing as an “abominable murder” and pledge to find and prosecute the murderers on the day of the killing. (The editorial now includes a correction on this point.)
2. The editorial quite reasonably criticizes “some Israelis” for giving in “to their worst prejudices” with racial incitement. But in cataloguing specific examples, the editorial lists Netanyahu’s supposedly incendiary reference to a classic Hebrew poem of lament alongside mentions of hoodlums yelling "death to the Arabs" and a blogger’s post glorifying hatred of Arabs. The poem Netanyahu referenced is worth a read, but it’s not remotely objectionable. In fact, Bialik’s “The Slaughter” is an outpouring of anger against God, and the very phrase quoted by Netanyahu explicitly rejects the possibility of human revenge. In fact, the line before the one quoted in the Times reads, “And cursed be the man who says: Avenge!” Bialik may be the most famous poet of modern Hebrew, so even if the Times editorial board had no idea what Netanyahu was saying—rest assured that most of his audience did.
3. The editorial references the grieving Hussein Abu Khdeir’s “gestures of compassion and understanding” as a source of hope. This strikes me as a bit odd the day after Mr. Abu Khdeir took to Israeli television to say a number of deplorable things, including suggesting to the grandfather of one of the three recently murdered Israeli teens that "Maybe a Jew, one of your own, murdered them.”
That’s the hard data. Now what are we to make of this not insignificant collection of errors and misrepresentations?
The most plausible explanation for the first two errors strikes me as relatively simple: The Times editorial board doesn’t like Bibi Netanyahu. The authors’ preexisting narrative was that Netanyahu was an obstacle to peace, a source of tension and callous toward Israel’s Arab citizens. And in a fit of overconfidence, the authors didn’t bother to consult carefully with their own reporters and experts to make sure they had their facts right. But you don’t have to like Netanyahu—or even find his brand of politics remotely appealing—to realize that this editorial crossed the line from opinion to hatchet job. Of course, the Times’ general feelings about Netanyahu may or may not be justified, but the Times should know better than to gloss the facts to fit the narrative.
The third misrepresentation is a bit more complicated. But my best guess is that this last error was motivated by an exaggerated zeal to create a clean narrative of parallel Israeli and Palestinian descents into violence. After all, the point of the editorial—as best as I could make out—was to call on “leaders on both sides to try and calm the volatile emotions that once again threaten both peoples” (emphasis added). And the entire editorial is structured so as to present Israeli and Palestinian struggles with extremism in carefully constructed parallel. A mourning Israeli family's gestures of compassion—phone calls of comfort to the Abu Khdeirs, loud declarations that all murders are equivalent, and hushing of calls to vengeance—needed a Palestinian parallel. And the Times fudged things a bit to make Mr. Abu Khdeir fit the bill.
Now, pleading for calm from all sides and critiquing incendiary rhetoric in both Israeli and Palestinian societies are certainly worthy goals for a Times editorial. But things get hairy when an editorial adopts a deliberately comparative perspective. In an attempt to be even-handed, the authors start stuffing facts into parallel tracks, even when they don’t fit. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas hesitated before condemning the murders of the Israeli teens—so Netanyahu must have as well. The family of murdered teen Naftali Frankel has showed remarkable grace and compassion—so the family of Abu Khdeir must have as well. Because without that parallelism, the neat narrative of two societies drowning in equivalent quicksands of mutual hatred and lawlessness breaks down.
The desire to equate and compare, to measure Palestinian pathologies against Israeli pathologies, is both bizarre and unhelpful. How does it help either society to weigh their racism and violence one against the other? It is unseemly—and complacent—when Netanyahu pats Israel on the back for having fewer terrorists than the Palestinians, for its comparative superiority in condemning and prosecuting domestic terrorism. But it is both unseemly and irresponsible when the Times plays with the facts in order to play similar comparative games in advancing a narrative of precise equivalence.
Of course, despite the fudging of these particular facts, the Times’ preexisting narratives of a racist Netanyahu and parallel Israeli and Palestinian descents into violence might still be accurate (though from what I’ve read and seen, I don’t think it is). But one thing should not be open to dispute: In the midst of one of the most complicated and heated conflicts in the world, the Times editorial board cannot afford to be sloppy with the facts.
This post has been updated.