New York Times' coverage of Israel is increasingly a landscape of half-truths and worse, shaped not by where facts lead but by preconceived story lines. Palestinian actions are cast as reactive to Israel's, without autonomous motive and essentially without fault, while Israel is the main actor, the party that causes events, the one held accountable and very often the one indicted.
A comparison of two incidents reported by The Times underscores the pattern and the radically different treatment meted out to the sides in much of the coverage. Both stories involve serious questions about the nature of the cultures of the two societies Israeli and Palestinian. Both relate to the important and deep issue regarding how hate engenders violence and drives the sides apart and how members of the society respond to bigotry among their own people.
The Times' presentation of the two reveals layers of bias and underscores how sharply readers are deceived.
In the first case, a page 15 story on March 23 actually an obituary recorded the death of Mariam Farhat. Also known as Mother of Martyrs, Farhat's claim to fame was her proclaimed wish that her sons martyr themselves killing Jews, women and children included, until all the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean is Islamic. Any surviving Jews would be allowed to stay and live under Muslim domination. Three of her sons had fulfilled the maternal wish, with one of them, a teenager of 17, infiltrating a settlement in Gaza in a March 2002 suicide attack, shooting to death five Jewish students and wounding many more before being killed.
Mariam Farhat's death occasioned an outpouring of praise and mourning from the spectrum of Palestinian leadership, from Hamas, the group with which she had long been associated, but also from Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who set up a mourners' tent for the deceased near the presidential headquarters in Ramallah. Fatah officials praised her, one extolling her as a glorious Palestinian and another offering the hope she be granted a place in Paradise alongside the saints and martyrs... (MEMRI) Reports were that 4000 attended her funeral, where she was covered in the Hamas flag with an assault weapon laid across her body.
Times coverage was antiseptic and respectful, passing no judgement on Farhat and referring to her as a Palestinian lawmaker who was lauded at her funeral by Hamas Prime Minister Haniyeh. The reporter noted without comment Farhat's expressed wish to have had 100 sons like the one who killed the Jewish students. A line at the close of the piece related that she was popular among young women in Hamas.
Nothing in The Times rendition suggested a need for Palestinian soul-searching about extolling a woman who filled her children with hatred and incited them to murder and suicide. Times editors and reporters, evidently, shrugged off the significance of a culture that makes of Farhat an admired icon instead of a pariah.
In fact, The Times had also seen no news value in 2011 in the Palestinian Authority's enlisting, as a symbol of its push for U.N. recognition of Palestinian statehood, another mother of sons dedicated to violence against Israel. The heroine then, Latifa Abu Hmeid, who opposes a two-state agreement, is the mother of a son killed in a terrorist attack on Israel and of seven others imprisoned in Israeli jails. This mother too was held up as a model for Palestinians a model representing violence and irredentism, not accommodation and compromise. The Times ignored that story completely.
The tacit assumption, in Times reporting, that Palestinian society shouldn't be expected to adhere to a moral code that rejects mothers indoctrinating children in murderous hatred and terrorism, could be seen as anti-Arab bias, as implying Palestinians lack the capability to live up to the norms of behavior expected of others. But the tenor of Times coverage makes clear that the bias is against Israel, that the newspaper chooses to construe Palestinians as driven to immoral acts because of Israeli presence in the territories or checkpoints or any of the myriad allegations leveled against Israelis.
Then too reporting honestly on Mariam Farhat might be seen as risky, an affront to people who could make life difficult for Times staff in the area.
Yet, The Times' silence not only fails to address forthrightly the societal corruption represented by Farhat, coverage of which could potentially bring change. The silence also gives no opportunity and voice to those, perhaps many, Palestinians who might feel very differently and be emboldened by the newspaper's coverage to dissent from applauding the radical views of Farhat. The Times, in effect, betrays voices of moderation opposed to the irredentist regimes in Gaza and Ramallah; it does so by echoing those regimes' messages that Israel is the problem and by choosing not to investigate and report honestly and fully on Palestinian responsibility.
Ironically, Farhat was interviewed by an Egyptian television anchor several years ago who candidly challenged her actions, saying they seem to any normal mother to be unnatural. The anchor pressed her about the killing of women and children and said Farhat was viewed by many in the Arab world as well as the West as a terrorist. These were rational, obvious questions and they served the viewers well, but they have never been raised by The Times.
Far different was the dramatic Times response to an earlier event in August 2012, when stories by Jodi Rudoren and Isabel Kirshner relayed how Jewish teenagers brutally beat an Arab teenager in Jerusalem. The Times played the incident big, with two front-page, above-the-fold stories a week apart, totaling more than 2500 words. Immediately, the story turned to sweeping questions about the morality of Israelis and to questions of soul-searching and the poisoned political environment affecting the moral compass of Jewish youth in Israel. Numerous commentators were cited expanding on the alleged evil of the Jewish perpetrators, of the attack reflecting a national fundamentalism echoing neo-nazis, Taliban and K.K.K.
The second, follow-up, front-page story focused on Israeli society as one riven with myriad internal conflicts involving identity and pluralism. A Knesset member was cited denouncing the attack and terming the incident a type of problem that could endanger Israeli democracy.
Unquestionably, the story was a major topic in Israel, entailing anguished internal debate and The Times decision to cover it was reasonable. But the front-page prominence, presenting it repeatedly as, in effect, one of the most important events in the world, and the angle pursued in the coverage are an altogether different matter.
To frame this incident as representing rot at the core of Israeli society, while casting the Palestinian leadership's lionizing of mothers who wean their children on hatred and terror as unremarkable, as implicitly unimpeachable, underscores the bias that poisons the newspaper's coverage of Israel and the Palestinians.
This column first appeared in The Jerusalem Post on April 8, 2013.