The N.Y. Times has a new Israel correspondent, Ethan Bronner. He replaced Steven Erlanger, who I thought was a generally good reporter with a few serious blind spots when it came to dispassionate reporting on the conflict. Bronner has begun writing his first in depth reports based around Israel’s 60th anniversary.
Before I talk about them, I wanted to put this in some context. I read a lot of journalism about the conflict. My major source is probably the Times, since it’s the newspaper I grew up on. Because I am passionate about both Israel and good journalism, and because, for better or worse the Times is our nation’s newspaper of record–especially on foreign affairs, I’m finely attuned to how the Times reports this issue.
I was seriously disappointed by Bronner’s piece on Israeli Arabs and the Nakba, . Why? Good journalism about the conflict takes you inside the hearts and minds of those who live on both sides of the divide. I think that after reading a profile of someone on either side, the partisans from the opposite side should feel deeply discomfited. Because a great journalist forces you to walk a mile in the moccasins of “the other.” Many Arabs and Israelis distinctly do not want to do this.
Instead of writing deeply personal, intimate journalism, Bronner has written a very much outsider’s perspective on Israeli Arab society. He hasn’t gotten anything egregiously wrong. He hasn’t shown any explicit pro-Israel bias. But nor has he attempted to plumb the heart of his subjects. If you look at the journalism of James Bennet, one of Bronner’s predecessors as bureau chief, you’ll see what this means. In this profile, Bennet presents the paradox and double life of a former IDF soldier married to a Palestinian with heartbreaking detail. You emerge from reading this type of journalism with a profound sense of the tragedy of this conflict for both sides. As opposed to when you finish reading Bronner, you feel you’ve read a dutifully reported piece with little of the empathy evidenced in Bennet’s writing.
Good writing on the Israel-Palestinian conflict is all about nuance and emphasis. Reporters like Bronner will rarely get a fact wrong. But it’s all in how you put the facts together; where you place emphasis, and how heavily you emphasize one particular fact over another. And in this sense, the new correspondent’s work is disappointing.
Here are a few of the things that made me uncomfortable about Bronner’s piece:
On Thursday, which is Independence Day, thousands will gather in their former villages to protest what they have come to call the “nakba,” or catastrophe, meaning Israel’s birth.
While I am not an Arabic expert, I have never seen the word Nakba without a capital letter. Since this refers to a specific event, and a seminal and catastrophic one at that, removing the capital letter seems to diminish unintentionally the importance of the event. Again, perhaps not an egregious mistake, but a sign that the writer isn’t at one with his subject, but rather looking from the outside. Even more important, I take serious exception to Bronner’s interpretation of the reference of Nakba to “Israel’s birth.” There are some Israeli Arabs who may see Israel’s birth as a catastrophe. But the reference in almost any Israeli Arab’s mind refers to the disaster visited upon their uprooted society and villages by the War of Independence. 700,000 were sent into exile in this tragic event–one that rivals the Spanish exile of its Jewish community in 1492 or the Roman conquest of Palestine in 135 CE during which many inhabitants were exiled. It is this displacement that is their tragedy.
One may argue that the displacement and creation of the new state go hand in hand so that the two are interchangeable. Benny Morris and perhaps even David Ben Gurion may’ve believed this to be the case. But not even every Zionist of the era agreed. And I do not accept this and strongly believe Bronner should’ve been more precise in his discussion of the issue.
Polls show that most Israeli Arabs are neither revoluntaries nor anti-Zionist in their outlook. But they are a deeply aggrieved minority. The crime for them is not Israel’s creation, but the displacement and injustice done to them in the process.
That is why I believe that Bronner’s emphasis on the irreconcilable divide between Jew and Arab in Israel is misplaced. Yes, the divide is there and it is great. But by portraying Israeli Arab atttiudes as more fundamental and radical than they perhaps are, Bronner has set up the conflict to be intractable & unresolvable, which I don’t believe is the case.
Most [Israeli Jews] say that…an end to its Jewish identify means an end to Israel…
Again, there is imprecision here that should be amplified. What this attitude really connotes is that an end to Jewish domination of the state would mean an end to Israel as a Jewish state. Certainly there is no reason why having A (as opposed to “the”) Jewish identity in Israel means the end of the state. There might also be a recognition of An Arab identity in the state as well. So that two ethnic, religious identities could be enshrined in the nation’s fabric. This would certainly NOT entail “an end to Israel.”
What Bronner does in the above passage is accept a certain nationalist Israeli Jewish assumption without examining what underlies it to determine whether there is ground for compromise sometime in the future.
…A majority of Jews, polls show, favor a transfer of Arabs out of Israel as part of a two-state solution…Arabs here reject that idea partly because they prefer the certainty of an imperfect Israeli democracy to whatever system may evolve in a shaky Palestinian state.
I am glad Bronner added the word “partly” to this passage, but even here I think he has missed the key point for Arabs. Certainly in a practical sense transfer would be economically disastrous for them. But more importantly, they are citizens of the state and their presence and that of their ancestors predates that of most of the current Jewish inhabitants. So most Arabs say: “Why should I be forced to leave this place? It is just as much mine as the Jews’. They have no greater claim to it than I.” Pride and rootedness in the land are far more important motivators for them in opposing transfer than any concern about standard of living should they be forced to leave.
In a 10-minute interview accompanying this piece, Bronner also made a statement that lacks sufficient nuance:
For the vast majority of Israeli Jews it [a multi-ethnic state of “all its citizens”] is a non-starter and a very threatening thought because they’re here to be part of the Jewish state. They say: “Look, there are twenty-some Arab states and with any luck there will be a Palestinian state. And if you need to be in an Arab state to express your Arab national identity choose another one, not this one.
Here Bronner has done a good job of channeling a certain Israeli nationalist perspective on the necessity of retaining Jewish dominance within the State of Israel. But what he hasn’t done is allow for the transformation of such attitudes over time. Look at the racial attitudes of white America toward African-Americans before 1954. There was an equivalent deep divide in society. But over time and thanks to the leadership of African-Americans like Martin Luther King and politicians like Lyndon Johnson, many of the barriers have fallen. Admittedly, Israeli relations between Jews and Arabs have potentially even more complexity than those between whites and blacks. But the key consideration is that racial hostility gradually diminished. Integration gradually decreased. With good will, leadership and compromise, this can happen in Israel too.
Can anyone now imagine an Arab running for president or prime minister of Israel? Perhaps not. But it will happen as surely as Barack Obama is now running for president. Time heals wounds as long as people really attempt to grapple with the issues that divide them. In my heart of hearts, I believe that they, and Israel, will find a way to realize the deepest aspirations of Arab and Jew within Israel.
It will not happen overnight. It will not happen easily. But for Israel to realize the full meaning of its democratic nature and its Declaration of Independence, developments must gradually move toward Israel becoming a state of all its citizens. Otherwise, Israel will be an ethnocracy with truncated rights for its Arab minority. This redefined Israeli state does not mean that the country will become Arab or that Jews or Judaism will no longer be fundamental to the identity of this state. There must be a way to also acknowledge that Arabs deserve parity in this process. That means that Judaism will no longer dominate; will no longer be considered superior. But the difference between being respected and being dominant is significant. Perhaps most Israeli Jews now do not accept the possibility that this will happen. But over time, I am convinced they will.
I loved the reference to “dozens” of “unused” villages…
I wonder who coined that euphemism?
Judy – that reference to ‘unused’ villages jumped out at me too. Several hundred villages were depopulated and many were destroyed….
I’m curious. You consider yourself pro-Israel and yet this is the closest posting I can find that makes any reference to Israel Independence Day. I see no posts about Holocaust Memorial Day and no posts about Israel Memorial Day either. I am certainly not trying to tell you what you ought to write about – you don’t get paid for this, but what with Israelis and Jews the world over commemorating these events, I would have thought that you might join them to one extent or another. Is there a reason for this? Like I said, I am just curious.
Richard Silverstein says
I just went back & reviewed that passage & I read it slightly differently than you. I think he was setting up a juxtaposition bet. the cities & villages into which the Arabs are NOW packed & the abandoned villages which are sitting vacant. In other words, he’s implying that the Arabs should be allowed to go back & repopulate those villages since they are “unused.” I don’t think his word choice made that super clear. But I don’t read it as negatively as you.
Richard Silverstein says
@curious: There’s an interesting underlying assumption in this comment that because I support Israel that I somehow should do the same things that flag-waving pro-Israel supporters do which is either to extol the virtues of Israel on Yom Haatzmaoot or mourn on Yom HaShoah.
You also do something that many do who write comments here criticizing me for something I haven’t written that they think I should have. That is, you haven’t reviewed my archives by doing a simple site search based on the keywords in your question. If you search on ‘Holocaust’ you will find numerous posts about the subject. And I don’t only post about it on Yom Hashoah. As for Yom Haatzmaut, I don’t recall I’ve ever written something specifically devoted to that day. But the fact that I haven’t doesn’t mean you can assume I’m not pro-Israel or a progressive Zionist. I see my role as filling in the empty spaces which others in the media and blog world leave empty regarding Israel & the I-P conflict.
The post you are commenting on is my meditation on the nature of Israeli society & my prescription for curing what ails it. That’s as close as you’re going to get to a post dedicated to Yom Haatzmaut this yr.
Another example of Bronner’s unconscious bias–
Notice how he thinks the massacres (he is careful to call them small in scale, though some involved the deaths of hundreds) and forced expulsions
are somehow the same as Arab governments offering to accept women and children, and local village leaders telling some people to flee for their own safety. He actually thinks that the concern for the safety of Arab civilians by other Arabs somehow gives us a more complicated moral picture of the cause of the Palestinian refugee problem–somehow this is supposed to lighten the guilt of the Zionist side. It’s bizarre. Nobody would ever say this in any other conflict. The only reason he thinks this way is because for decades the official story was the the Arabs all fled at the orders of their leaders and none were expelled. Even this story doesn’t really make any moral sense, because in that case, if the Israelis didn’t want them leaving, they’d have let them return after the fighting stopped.
If he wants to talk sensibly about Arab guilt then he should talk about Arab atrocities, of which there were no shortage, but it’s as though when speaking of Zionist ethnic cleansing he has to somehow dilute the effect by claiming it’s partly the fault of the Arab leaders, because some of them were concerned for the safety of Arab civilians.
Alex Stein says
This is an excellent post.
worth noting says
More lies from Ethan and the NY Times
Jan 12, 2009
“To Israel’s critics abroad, the picture could not be clearer: Israel’s war in Gaza is a wildly disproportionate response to the rockets of Hamas, causing untold human suffering and bombing an already isolated and impoverished population into the Stone Age, and it must be stopped
Yet here in Israel very few, at least among the Jewish population, see it that way.”