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The New York Times and Israel: What Is (and Isn’t) Fit for Print

Netanyahu accuses the paper of record of anti-Israel bias. But for decades now, the opposite has been true.

A protester in Tel Aviv
Gili Yaari/NurPhoto/Getty Images
A protester in Tel Aviv on March 2, 2019

The return of Bibi Netanyahu to the prime minister’s office, together with the most extreme right-wing government in Israel’s history, inaugurates a new relationship not only with its closest ally, the United States, but also with the U.S. media. New York Times pundit Thomas Friedman, now in his fifth decade as the U.S. media’s most influential arbiter of Israeli rightness or wrongness, sounded an early alarm. In a column headlined “What in the World Is Happening in Israel?” he accused Netanyahu of “putting foxes in charge of hen houses and distributing matches and gasoline to pyromaniacs” and predicted a government that will be “a total mess that will leave Israel no longer being a bedrock of stability for the region and for its American ally, but instead, a cauldron of instability and a source of anxiety for the U.S. government.” This was followed up by a rare, strongly worded unsigned editorial in which the Times editors declared “The Ideal of Democracy in a Jewish State Is in Jeopardy” and called the new government “a qualitative and alarming break with all the other governments in Israel’s 75-year history.” The latter drew an angry, almost Trumpian response from Netanyahu himself, who tweeted, “After burying the Holocaust for years on its back pages and demonizing Israel for decades on its front pages, the New York Times now shamefully calls for undermining Israel’s elected incoming government.” He promised to “continue to ignore its ill-founded advice.”

Since the election, the fears expressed by Friedman and the Times editors about Israel’s direction under its new government have not only been realized; they are being rapidly exceeded as Netanyahu has filled his government with former supporters of anti-Palestinian terrorism, religious extremists, and anti-LGBT bigots, all of whom have been given powerful positions from which they will likely be able to implement some policies that, in the past, have remained on the fringes of Israeli politics. Massive demonstrations against the government’s plans to defenestrate its judiciary and thereby destroy all curbs on the government’s ability to implement these policies have divided the country as never before. The government’s undeniable extremism and the energized resistance it has created in response will challenge all news organizations that do not explicitly identify with one side or the other. In the case of the Times, whose loyalty to “bothsidesism” so frustrated its readership during the Trump administration (and beyond), the stakes can only get higher.

But what was Netanyahu talking about? While of questionable relevance today, Netanyahu was not wrong about the Times’ shameful noncoverage of the Holocaust. Then-publisher Arthur Hays Sulzberger was a genuinely “self-hating” American Jew, obsessed with downplaying all issues related to Jewishness. He long resisted allowing Jews into high-profile positions at the paper and urged his fellow prominent German Jews—and even President Franklin Roosevelt—not to do so either. Sulzberger was also intensely anti-Israel and blamed Zionists for the alleged sacrifice of Jewish lives in the Holocaust due to their “emphasis on statehood” over their attempted rescue efforts of the millions of Jewish victims of the Nazi Holocaust. And yet the Times downplayed the mass murder of these same Jews during this, the worst moment in Jewish history, to a shameful degree burying whatever stories it did deign to run. The best that can be said of this was that virtually every major American newspaper treated it similarly.

In most of the mainstream media, Israel after its founding enjoyed press coverage that was generous to the point of purposeful propaganda. A 1949 article in The New Republic found Israelis to be “like Americans ... aggressive, competent and impatient to get things done.” Three years later, The New Yorker’s John Hersey described Israeli children as “regular Californians—sturdy, open-faced, sun-coppered,” and “potentially bigger, it seems, than their parents, and perhaps bolder, too.” But the Times, in keeping with its publisher’s politics, kept up its anti-Israel animus for much of the Jewish state’s early years. For instance, it paid considerable heed to the positions taken and arguments made by the extremely anti-Zionist and extremely obscure American Council for Judaism, whose literature consistently attacked what it termed to be the “Hitlerian concept of a Jewish state.” While the group’s membership was never large or particularly popular among American Jews, the newspaper continued to treat it as a serious political and ideological force long after this might have been journalistically defensible. Sulzberger even forbade the use of the term “Jewish state.”

The days of the Times “demonizing Israel … on its front pages” are obviously long gone. Ironically, while the paper is often the first example cited by pro-Israel media critics for its failure to appreciate Israel’s point of view when it undertakes actions and operations the rest of the world condemns, it is also the first example cited by pro-Palestinian critics for its alleged pro-Israel bias. This is no doubt due to the fact that it is by far the most influential and important foreign news source in the U.S. and, likely, in the world. Zev Chafets, a journalist who was previously employed as Menachem Begin’s senior aide, once explained that within the Israeli government, the Times was the single most important source to be dealt with, including whoever happened to be the American ambassador at the moment. This was due to the fact that “if it was in the Times it was automatically going to be everywhere else.”

The Times’ coverage of Israel is no less a focus of attention owing to its special status as what might be called the “hometown” paper of American Jewry. (“I love the Times like it was my child or my parent,” explains Miriam Nessler in Coastal Elites, the Paul Rudnick play that was adapted for an HBO special. “On the census, when they ask for religion, I don’t put Jewish, I put The New York Times.”) When former Times Jerusalem bureau chief Jodi Rudoren became the Forward’s editor in chief in 2019, she told Ben Smith, then the Times’ media columnist, that she wanted to turn the paper into a “Jewish New York Times.” Smith, who is also an alumnus of the Forward, came back with the comical, if predictable, retort: “But The New York Times is already the Jewish New York Times.

As the Netanyahu tweet demonstrates, however, the legacy of Arthur Hays Sulzberger lives on, if only in the imagination of some of the Times’ Jewish critics. Former Times executive editor Joseph Lelyveld admitted that the above history had led to a “deep-seated feeling that the New York Times was made up of self-hating Jews,” and, by extension, that it was reflexively hostile to Israel. (Ironically, the man speaking was the son of Rabbi Arthur Lelyveld, the former president of the American Jewish Congress and frequent scourge of even the most sympathetic criticism of Israel.) Nothing could be more false. Compared to the coverage in the Times’ French counterpart, Le Monde; its British competitor, The Guardian; and even Israel’s own excellent newspaper, Haaretz, the Times’ coverage of Israel—like almost all U.S. mainstream coverage—has been remarkably favorable. To give just one small but representative example, when Yasir Arafat famously addressed the U.N. General Assembly in November 1974 to argue the Palestinians’ cause before the world, the Times’ coverage quoted an anonymous Israeli source accusing Arafat and the Palestine Liberation Organization of trying “to steamroll us,” and in another piece about Arafat’s address, the Times quoted Israeli diplomat Yosef Tekoah describing members of the PLO as “murderers” and declaring that “Arafat, today, prefers the Nazi method,” adding in its own words, “of physical annihilation of Jews.”

In the Times coverage, Palestinians often die in the passive voice, as if no one in particular is dropping the bombs or aiming the missiles that killed them. In a lengthy 2012 study of the history of the Times’ coverage of Israel, produced for Harvard Kennedy School’s Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy (the center’s name at the time), former Times reporter Neil A. Lewis found a pattern in Times coverage that was extremely sympathetic to Israel for a period of decades. Lewis noted that the word “nakba”—the commonly used term among those sympathetic to the Palestinians to describe the “catastrophe” of 1948—did not appear in the paper of record until 1998. What’s more, Times editors would sometimes—one has no idea how frequently—find occasion to censor their writers if they strayed too far from the pro-Israel position, even when those reporters were experts on the topic and their editors were not. In 1981, for instance, former Jerusalem correspondent David Shipler was assigned by the paper’s Book Review to write about Jacobo Timerman, a Jewish Argentinian journalist and human rights advocate who had been jailed by that country’s U.S.–supported, neofascist regime before being exiled to Israel in 1979. Timerman had been a hero to the U.S. press when he had written about Argentina’s crimes, but when Shipler quoted him saying that he had grown ashamed of being an Israeli because of how the nation treated the Palestinians, the article was killed. Shipler described the silencing of Timerman on Israel—as opposed to Argentina—as “purely political in that they didn’t want a person of Timerman’s stature criticizing Israel.”

A crucial moment in the history of the Times’ relationship with Israel—as well as that for much of the mainstream media—came during Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon and subsequent siege of Beirut. The single most influential writer in describing the reality of the 1982 war for Americans was then–Times foreign correspondent Thomas Friedman. A graduate of Brandeis with a master’s degree in Modern Middle East Studies from Oxford, Friedman was a self-described “three-day-a-year Jew” who had always treated Israel as a “badge of pride,” but he now found himself shocked into another place entirely. “The Israel I met on the outskirts of Beirut,” he insisted, in his massively bestselling book on the war, From Beirut to Jerusalem, “was not the heroic Israel I had been taught to identify with.” Friedman felt that “something had gone terribly wrong” with that country. Even so, his employer was not ready to take this voyage with him—or even to trust his eyewitness reporting. When Friedman filed a story describing what he had seen in the air and on the ground—“Israeli planes, gunboats and artillery rained indiscriminate shellfire all across West Beirut today”—and his editors excised the word “indiscriminate,” Friedman protested: “You are afraid to tell our readers and those who might complain to you that the Israelis are capable of indiscriminately shelling an entire city.” And they were. Friedman’s editors either could not believe or were afraid to allow the newspaper to report that Israel would do such a thing even as it was reported by their own Jewish Brandeis grad reporter who had personally witnessed what he was describing.

The more one learns about the inner workings of the Times, the more its consistent, if sometimes subtle, pro-Israel slant over the years becomes understandable, even predictable. When A.M. “Abe” Rosenthal, executive editor of the paper from 1977 to 1986, became a columnist for the paper’s op-ed page the year of his forced retirement, his obsession with defending Israel at every turn came to verge on the ridiculous. Rosenthal’s 2006 obituary in the Forward, written by an Orthodox Jewish former Times reporter whom Rosenthal hired to be his clerk, was headlined, “Abe Rosenthal, New York Times Editor and Advocate for Israel.” The description was decidedly understated. Rosenthal’s successor, Max Frankel, was his adversary at the paper in every way except one. “I was much more deeply devoted to Israel than I dared to assert,” Frankel admitted afterward in his memoirs. “Fortified by my knowledge of Israel and my friendships there, I myself wrote most of our Middle East commentaries. As more Arab than Jewish readers recognized, I wrote them from a pro-Israel perspective.”

The relationships between Times journalists and the Israelis charged with selling the country’s image to Americans were evident in manifold ways and would likely lead any fair-minded observer to question its commitment to fairness. When Israel’s New York consul general, Uri Savir, was called home in 1992, for example, he was treated to a farewell skit in his honor performed by two Times reporters (along with TV news anchors Dan Rather and Peter Jennings and the Hollywood stars Kathleen Turner and Ron Silver). Sydney Gruson, previously vice chairman of The New York Times Company, was a board member of the Council for a Beautiful Israel, an American-Israeli environmental group; David Shipler spoke at one of its fundraisers. Among Shipler and Friedman’s successors was Ethan Bronner, who was married to an Israeli woman. While he had the job, his son enlisted in the Israel Defense Forces. Today, Times pundit Bret Stephens is the editor in chief of Sapir, an unstintingly pro-Israel magazine paid for by the Maimonides Fund, a dark money foundation that refuses to identify who is actually behind it. The Times apparently has no problem with this rather obvious—at the very least—appearance of a conflict of interest (as its spokesperson has repeatedly replied to my inquiries, so long as Stephens does not write about the foundation in question, thereby completely missing the entire point of this sort of conflict). To replace the words “Israel” or “Jewish” with the word “Palestinian” in any of the above scenarios is to imagine an entirely alternate universe.

The Times op-ed page has been no less a source of contention among Israelis and Palestinians than its news coverage. Beginning with its hiring of the ex-Nixon speechwriter and P.R. executive William Safire in 1973, the Times has always had at least one regular columnist—often more than one—who could be depended upon to defend Israel regardless of circumstances. In addition to Safire, this spot has been held by Rosenthal, William Kristol, who wrote for the page for roughly a year in 2008–09, and Stephens. On occasion, the pundits in this position will attack their own newspaper when they feel the news coverage is paying insufficient fealty to the Israeli position. This happened in 2000 when, following the breakdown of Bill Clinton’s peace summit, the Times ran a front-page forensic analysis that placed almost as much blame on the Israelis for its failure as it did on Yasir Arafat and the Palestinians. Safire was then moved to denounce his own newspaper. “Do not swallow this speculative re-writing of recent events,” he warned readers. “The overriding reason for the war against Israel today is that Yasir Arafat decided that war was the way to carry out the often-avowed Palestinian plan. Its first stage is to create a West Bank state from the Jordan River to the sea with Jerusalem as its capital. Then, by flooding Israel with ‘returning’ Palestinians, the plan in its promised final phase would drive the hated Jews from the Middle East.”

The Times has also employed pundits critical of Israel—Anthony Lewis made this a specialty for decades. Friedman is a liberal Zionist who goes back and forth between criticism and praise, and Michelle Goldberg usually takes a critical position. (I have written for the Times’ op-ed page on this topic as well.) But never have they hired an explicitly pro-Palestinian pundit. Aside from a brief period when the paper occasionally looked to the late Edward Said to give voice to the Palestinians’ anguish, the parameters of the page’s discourse have, with just a few exceptions from guest contributors, been defined by voices that ranged from “liberal Zionist” rightward. According to the research of Maha Nassar, an associate professor in the School of Middle Eastern and North African Studies at the University of Arizona, published in 2020, during the previous 50 years, fewer than 2 percent of the nearly 2,500 op-ed articles published in the Times that addressed Palestinians and the issues facing them were authored by Palestinians. (Though to be fair, The New Republic, during this same 50-year period, published nearly 500 articles on the subject, and the number of Palestinians invited to contribute totaled zero.)

Still the critics will not relent, if only because, as we have seen in so many instances, working the refs works. Safire and Rosenthal were frequently joined by Martin Peretz and Charles Krauthammer, in this magazine and elsewhere, and Norman Podhoretz, in Commentary, who would reliably publish vicious attacks on anyone, anywhere in the media who strayed from the “pro-Israeli” hard line. This is a crowded field today, but perhaps special mention should be made of Michael Oren, an American-born and Ivy League–educated Jewish historian, who had emigrated to Israel, served in the Israel Defense Forces, and launched a political career that eventually landed him as Netanyahu’s ambassador to the U.S. during Obama’s presidency. Among his many complaints, Oren singled out the “malicious” op-ed page of The New York Times, “once revered as an interface of ideas, now sadly reduced to a sounding board for only one, which often excluded Israel’s legitimacy.” He complained that the “unflattering dispatches” at the Times were “written by Jews working for a paper long under Jewish ownership.” (In fact, Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Jr., who had been at the helm of the paper since 1992, was raised Episcopalian, and one can only wonder about Oren’s nostalgia for a newspaper whose Jewish owners were famous for their anti-Zionism.)

Oren’s complaints notwithstanding, today, the punditocracy remains largely pro-Israel, though it is fair to say that along with Israel’s descent into ever greater illiberalism, theocracy, and harsher treatment of the Palestinians, under what gives every impression of being a permanent occupation, the times—together with Times—have definitely been ’a-changing. During the May 2021 Israeli war with Hamas, the Times published a heartbreaking home-page photomontage of dead Palestinian children, killed in Gaza by Israel’s bombing, beneath the headline “They Were Only Children.” Just four days earlier, another heavily produced and promoted story appeared on page 1 titled “Life Under Occupation: The Misery at the Heart of the Conflict.” These stories were followed by a 22-minute documentary on the Times website about the brutal police-state tactics employed by Israeli soldiers enforcing the occupation in the Palestinian city of Hebron, on behalf of the 850 Israeli settlers who lived there. It was directed by a filmmaker who had formerly served in the IDF and was described exclusively in the words of the Israeli soldiers who enforced it. The photos alone came as a shock to the Times audience. Abe Foxman, the Anti-Defamation League’s former head and, for many years, journalism’s first go-to source on all issues Jewish and Israel-related, emerged from retirement to announce the cancellation of his Times subscription over the stories, tweeting that he had read the paper for 65 years, but “today’s blood libel of Israel and the Jewish people on the front page is enough.” Rabbi Abraham Cooper of the Simon Wiesenthal Center called the pictures “libelous against the Jewish state” and further complained that they were published “amidst a tsunami of antisemitic attacks by pro-Hamas forces across the United States.” The Times, he insisted, had gone from “being the paper of record for the United States of America—the world’s greatest democracy—to becoming the newspaper of record for Hamas.”

Another change is the fact that ideological commitment to the Palestinian struggle can now be found among any number of left-wing internet sites and progressive publications, their on-the-ground reporting combined with exhortatory, often provocative rhetoric. Writers taking the pro-Palestinian side in the debate on sites like Mondoweiss and The Electronic Intifada are hardly less eager to demonize their opponents than those on the “pro-Israel” side, though none can be said to enjoy even remotely commensurate influence. As the recently retired Times executive editor Dean Baquet testified in 2014, “Just as many critics who say we are biased against Israel, I get just as many emails saying the opposite. I promise you—and just as virulent.”

Still, the Times’ unique position will likely not be challenged anytime soon, as it becomes ever harder for its reporters and editors to navigate the journalistic minefield that is the Middle East. Early last year, when Amnesty International issued a 278-page report (containing 1,559 footnotes) accusing Israel of practicing the “crime” of apartheid—following similar reports by Human Rights Watch and two Israel-based human rights groups—the Times could not deal with the news. Even after the report had inspired vociferous responses from the Israeli government, the U.S. government, “pro-Israel” groups, “pro-peace” groups, “pro-Palestinian” groups, and other human rights organizations, along with members of Congress, senators, and countless local elected officials across America, anyone who relied on the Times as their most trusted news source when it came to Israel—a population, it may be assumed, heavily populated by American Jews—would never have heard of the report at all. A Times spokesman responded to my query about this with the explanation that the paper had “covered the debate over Israel’s treatment of Palestinians, both the accusations by rights groups that Israel practices apartheid as well as with on-the-ground reporting of the underlying conditions that give rise to these arguments. While it is not our practice to cover every report published by NGOs, these issues have been and will continue to be an essential part of our Mideast coverage.” (At the time, the Times had already run four of the six—so far—stories it has published about Whoopi Goldberg’s views of the Holocaust.) The paper did, eventually, reverse itself and decide to mention the report after all, fully 51 days after its impending release had been reported, and then only in a decidedly pro forma piece, buried deep inside the day’s news, and with no discussion of the enormous controversy its publication had caused. It was as if the news were simply too painful to be dealt with by America’s most important and influential news organization on all matters, but most especially when it came to Israel and American Jews.

The issue facing the Times is not its readership. While much of it is no doubt Jewish, it’s a myth that Jews put Israel at the top of their political concerns. Approximately 4 percent do so, according to recent polls, and these are divided. But countless political organizations do, and since few, if any Americans can really do anything about the actual situation between Israel and Palestine, what is left is to argue about its press coverage. In this battle, it’s the Christian Zionists and the legacy “pro-Israel” organizations—funded in considerable measure by wealthy and usually politically conservative Jews—who make it their business to try to make life miserable for the owners and editors whose coverage does not conform to their views.

The upshot of this never-ending battle is that no matter how offensively Israel behaves under the new Netanyahu government, it will still find itself far more favorably covered in the Times than in almost any other world-class news source. And as with the Amnesty report, the Times can achieve this goal simply by ignoring news that would likely cause its editors (and owners) even more tsuris. The worse the news from Israel gets, the more it will have to ignore.

This article was adapted from Eric Alterman’s 2022 book,
We Are Not One: A History of America’s Fight Over Israel.