Jewish Journal

NYT mea culpa on editorial about Israel’s war in Gaza

by Brad A. Greenberg

January 30, 2009 | 12:47 pm

From Portfolio’s Mixed Media blog:

The New York Times is often accused, by critics on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, of serving as a credulous outlet for the other side’s propaganda. For once, the critics are exactly right.

Today’s Times op-ed page features this Editor’s Note:

An Op-Ed article on Jan. 8, on misperceptions of Gaza, included an unverified quotation. A former Israeli Defense Forces chief of staff, Moshe Yaalon, was quoted as saying in 2002 that “the Palestinians must be made to understand in the deepest recesses of their consciousness that they are a defeated people.” This quotation, while cited widely, does not appear in the Israeli newspaper interview to which it is usually attributed. Its original source has not been found, and thus it should not have appeared in the article.

To say the quotation was “unverified” and “its original source has not been found” appears to be putting it mildly. According to (the strongly pro-Israel) Commentary, the incredibly inflammatory words attributed by Columbia professor Rashid Kalidi to Yaalon are actually a highly distorted version of remarks the former IDF chief made to Israeli newspaper Haaretz in 2002. Yaalon never said the Palestinians are or should consider themselves a “defeated people”; instead, he said Israel’s victory required “the very deep internalization by the Palestinians that terrorism and violence will not defeat us.”

The provenance of the quote should have raised red flags: Commentary says it “has been cited ad nauseam by Arab news services, neo-Nazi websites and leftist bloggers, though only occasionally with reference to the venue of Yaalon’s alleged remark and never with a hyperlink to the actual article where it supposedly appeared.”

I tend to, though not always, give news outlets the benefit of the doubt, especially when dealing with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Most news organizations aren’t nearly as anti-Israel as their critics claim. But this is a really boneheaded move, the kind I encourage interns at the UCLA Daily Bruin to really learn to avoid before moving on to a daily newspaper, let alone The Daily Newspaper.

Coincidentally, Ethan Bronner, an NYT reporter based in Jerusalem, had a thoughtful reporter’s notebook piece on the difficulty of writing about a conflict in which both sides are always accusing you of being a mouthpiece for the other. An excerpt:

No place, date or event in this conflicted land is spoken of in a common language. The barrier snaking across and inside the West Bank is a wall to Palestinians, a fence to Israelis. The holiest site in Jerusalem is the Temple Mount to Jews, the Noble Sanctuary to Muslims. The 1948 conflict that created Israel is one side’s War of Independence, the Catastrophe for the other.

After Israel’s three-week air, sea and land assault in Gaza, aimed at halting Hamas rocket fire, it is worth pausing to note how difficult it has been to narrate this war in a fashion others view as neutral, and to contemplate what that means for any attempt by the new Obama administration to try to end it.

It turns out that both narration and mediation require common ground. But trying to tell the story so that both sides can hear it in the same way feels more and more to me like a Greek tragedy in which I play the despised chorus. It feels like I am only fanning the flames, adding to the misunderstandings and mutual antagonism with every word I write because the fervent inner voice of each side is so loud that it drowns everything else out.

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