The New York Times Again Whitewashes BDS

The New York Times has a particular, and partisan, definition of “Palestinian rights.” Those rights, the newspaper suggests, include the right to wipe Israel off the map and the right to force minority status upon the country’s Jews. 

Case in point is the newspaper’s Oct. 18 story about the Israeli Supreme Court’s decision to allow activist Lara Alqasem to enter the country. Or in the words of the article’s opening sentence: “Israel’s Supreme Court ordered the government on Thursday to admit an American woman on her student visa, overruling the Interior Ministry, which pushed to deport her over a stint as an advocate for Palestinian rights while she was an undergraduate at the University of Florida.”

What is true is that Alqasem was temporarily barred from the country because as an undergraduate she led her school’s branch of the extremist anti-Israel group Students for Justice in Palestine, where she advocated for the radical anti-Israel boycott movement known as BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions).

On Thursday, Oct. 18, Israel’s High Court criticized and overturned the controversial decision by Israeli authorities to prevent Al Qasem from entering Israel. The High court’s ruling in favor of Alqasem was based on her lawyers’ arguments that she had already ceased her boycott activism in April 2017 and was accepted by the Hebrew University to an international graduate program when she arrived in Israel. That ruling, unlike the New York Times lede, did not minimize the threat of the anti-Israel boycott movement or make any arguments about the validity of Israel’s Law of Entry under which she was initially barred from entering the country. But the judges concluded that she had ceased BDS activity and did not currently pose a threat.

Explaining the ruling, Supreme Court Justice Neal Hendel noted:

The Law of Entry to Israel is intended to protect the state’s sovereignty, and the public’s safety and security. It does not have a component of penalty, or revenge for previous bad behavior…The struggle against the BDS movement and others like it is a worthy cause. The state is permitted, not to say obliged, to protect itself from discrimination and the violent silencing of the political discourse. It may take steps against the boycott organizations and their activists. In this case, preventing the appellant’s entry does not advance the law’s purpose and clearly deviates from the bounds of reasonability.

One justice added that if Alqasem “returns to her old ways” to advocate for boycott of Israel while there, her visa could be reconsidered and she could be deported from the country.

The use of the Israeli law to bar Alqasem’s entry to Israel provoked much debate, largely stemming from different opinions about the danger posed by the radical anti-Israel movement and the benefit to keeping its activists out of the country. To quote the late American diplomat Daniel Moynihan, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.” Except at the New York Times, which this year has frequently confused fact and opinion in its coverage of the Arab-Israeli conflict. 

In this case, Halbfinger, the Times bureau chief, manipulated the facts in a way that would lead readers to a particular opinion, because it is simply untrue that Israel barred Alqasem because she served “a stint as an advocate for Palestinian rights,” as he claimed. Every day, Israel grants entry to advocates who speak of Palestinian rights to statehood, or rights to more building permits, or other such demands. Rather, Alqasem was kept out of the country specifically based on her activism in support of a particularly malicious brand of anti-Israel activism, BDS. 

The New York Times, though, has long been hesitant to inform readers about what BDS is all about. And this piece doesn’t do much better. In Halbfinger’s telling,

The Interior Ministry accused Ms. Alqasem, while she led a campus chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine, of actively supporting the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement that presses Israel to end the occupation of the West Bank. Pro-Israel advocates consider the movement anti-Semitic and bent on Israel’s destruction, not least because it promotes Palestinians’ right of return to land now in Israel. [emphasis added]

Again, as in the past, the newspaper cast BDS as primarily being about “the occupation,” a description that downplays BDS demands to the extent that even a BDS co-founder has written to the newspaper to take umbrage. 

And while this time at least Halbfinger cites the viewpoint of “pro-Israel advocates,” as he terms them, that BDS seeks the end of Israel, he stumbles here, too. First, because an impartial newspaper shouldn’t refer as fact to “Palestinians’ right of return.” It is a demand based on what partisans claim is a right, but is not, factually speaking, a right. And second, because it isn’t merely “pro-Israel advocates” who point out BDS’s destructive goals. Omar Barghouti, the BDS co-founder who wrote to the Times to remind the paper of his movements broader goals, has been perfectly clear about what BDS’s demand for a return means. “If the refugees were to return,” Barghouti once said, “you would not have a two-state solution, you’d have a Palestine next to a Palestine.” Halbfinger should be aware of that quote; it appeared in his own newspaper.

Other anti-Israel activists are equally forthright about BDS. For example, Norman Finkelstein, who spends most of his time viciously attacking Israel, has called BDS activists “dishonest” for not admitting that they “want to abolish Israel.”

If even Israel’s staunchest defenders and enemies agree about BDS, why can’t the New York Times get it right?