Alternative Facts Under NY Times Editor Matt Seaton

A few years ago, an Egyptian lawyer and part-time conspiracy theorist sued his former president, Hosni Mubarak, for failing to “reclaim” the bustling Israeli city of Eilat for Egypt.

He is hardly the only Egyptian who wants to divvy up Israel. In a country raised on hatred for Jews and their state, and where a majority believes the mere existence of Israel violates Palestinian rights, it not surprising that many are drawn to the claim that Eilat is rightfully Egyptian. Some Egyptian leaders, more magnanimous in their immoderation, have rebutted these calls: The city is not Egyptian, they say. It is Palestinian.

The Middle East’s rejectionists have always had a hard time agreeing on who gets to feast on which parts of Israel’s carcass. But those promoting Egypt’s ambitions to Eilat can now turn to none other than The New York Times for support. In a recent Op-Ed about Egypt’s transfer to Saudi Arabia of two islands in the Gulf of Tiran, writer Ahdaf Soueif attached a peculiar history lesson to her geography lesson when telling readers that “at the top of the gulf is the Israeli port of Eilat, once the Egyptian port of Umm al-Rashrash.”

Ottoman, Egyptian, and British Maneuvering in the Sinai

Soueif’s detour to the purported history of Israel’s southern-most city feels gratuitous in a piece largely about Egypt and Saudi Arabia. But when one considers the author’s record of vitriolic anti-Israel activism (more on that below), it starts to make more sense. Soueif’s column argues that the Egyptian history of the disputed Red Sea islands means they should rightfully remain under Egyptian sovereignty. So when it comes to Eilat, the implication is that it, too, remains rightfully Egyptian, despite Israel supposedly snatching it from its proper owners.

But is it true that Eilat, or the outpost of Umm al-Rashrash around which it was built, was Egyptian? Contrary to the impression left by the New York Times Op-Ed, it certainly was never part of the current Republic of Egypt. In fact, at no point during the era of modern borders in the region was Umm al-Rashrash an Egyptian port.

The path of the first modern international boundary in the area was first drawn in 1906 by the British occupiers of Egypt and their neighbors to the east, the Ottoman empire. The Ottomans had long reigned over the Middle East, but their empire, weakening and in its final years, was forced to accede to British demands during negotiations over the path of the border. At British insistence, the 1906 dividing line formally made the Sinai Peninsula an Egyptian holding while keeping Umm al-Rashrash, just beyond the Sinai’s eastern limits, under Ottoman dominion. About this, there is no dispute. An Egyptian governmental survey in 1906, for example, described Marashash, another name for Umm al-Rashrash, as a “Turkish outpost.”

This alone makes Soueif’s matter-of-fact claim of an “Egyptian port” misleading at best.

And if we venture even further into history? For some decades before the 1906 agreement, the Ottomans, Egyptians, and British bickered and bargained over where the administrative dividing line separating Egypt from provinces to its east should lie. The closest thing to a recognized border, though, was laid out in an 1841 Ottoman firman, or edict, that formally granted Egypt control over only the northwestern part of Sinai. Accompanying that firman was what professor Nurit Kliot described as “the first map to indicate the location of the Egypt-Palestine border,” or in the words of historical geographer Gideon Biger, “the first map of modern Egypt.” It left Eilat well outside the boundaries of Egypt.

1841 ottoman firman map

Copy of map attached to the Ottoman firman of 1841. Color added for emphasis. Yellow highlighting covers the map’s original line showing Egypt’s north-eastern border. A red dot shows the approximate location of Eilat.

For centuries before the Ottoman firman, the dry and desolate Sinai Peninsula was in practice a “no-man’s-land” between Ottoman Egypt and Ottoman Palestine, historian Bernard Lewis noted, and was “variously attached to one or the other or, most commonly, to neither.” But in 1841, a clear line was drawn.

W.E. Jennings Bramly, a British frontier administrative officer in the Sinai who once believed the British should extend their rule to include Umm al-Rashrash, later saw the Ottoman map accompanying the firman and revised his thinking. “According to Bramly,” wrote historian Gabriel Warburg, “the map showed clearly that Turkey had never ceded southern Sinai to Egypt.” Warburg continued,

All subsequent firmans referred to the same map and to the boundary drawn from Rafah to the northern tip of the Gulf of Suez. Hence the area south of that line [including Umm al-Rashrash] remained under Turkish administration. Even when Turkey allowed [Egyptian leader] Muhammad Ali and his successors to establish police posts at Nakhl, Aqaba, Wajh, etc. for the protection of the Egyptian Hajj (pilgrimage), he neither asked nor received the right to administer that region or include it within his boundaries.

The police posts may have signified Egyptian administration of this pilgrimage route beyond its formal borders. But neither a few decades of policing and administration nor other, more ancient associations with Egyptian imperial conquest make Umm al-Rashrash a former Egyptian port, any more than they make Beirut a former Egyptian city, Cairo a former Turkish city, or the Arch of Titus in Rome a former French monument. (Rome, after all, was a prefect of the First French Empire.) This is especially true in the context of a New York Times article that concerns itself with a dispute about modern borders, between modern states.

Soueif’s claim, in other words, is false, or at best misleading enough to warrant a correction.

Alternative Facts from an Opinion Editor

Misdirection from a radical activist is one thing. False statements from a New York Times editor is another.

CAMERA contacted The New York Times to urge a correction to Souief’s claim, pointing out that the newspaper itself has previously reported on the precise location of the border between Sinai and Israel. The response from staff editor Matt Seaton was alarming.


New York Times 1988 map
A map in The New York Times shows that both the Egyptians and the Israelis acknowledged the Egyptian-Israel border lay to the south-west of Eilat.

Umm al-Rashrash, Seaton insisted, was broadly Ottoman until 1906, “when with British backing, it came under Egyptian control.” But this is demonstrably untrue. As noted above, the 1906 agreement formalized Ottoman, not Egyptian, control over the outpost. False fact in hand, though, the editor announced that “the article is perfectly correct as written; there is no correction to be made.”

So for a second time, CAMERA informed the editor of the actual location of the 1906 frontier, pointed out that the path of the border was officially demarcated with a series of pillars, and further noted that the location of the pillars, and the boundary, were reaffirmed in an international arbitration hearing in 1988 — and depicted in a map that accompanied New York Times coverage of the arbitration.

The editor’s rejoinder was more bizarre than his first reply. “I do not have any information about any pillar or marker,” Seaton wrote, “but am relying on a mixture of sources, such as The Times‘s reporting from 1955.” He also linked to three Israeli web pages mentioning Eilat’s “origins as Umm al-Rashrash,” dismissively concluding, “If and when you get those sources to make a correction, by all means do write back to us.”

Making sense of this email was a challenge. It is beyond dispute — and CAMERA never did dispute — that Eilat was built at the location of Umm al-Rashrash. So the three Israeli web pages were irrelevant to the question of whether the outpost was an Egyptian port. (Seaton later suggested he misunderstood the point raised by CAMERA.)

Also irrelevant was the 1955 New York Times article Seaton cited. It said nothing about an Umm al-Rashrash being either Egyptian or a port — though the article’s reference to an “abandoned Palestine police post” at the site underscored the fact that Umm al-Rashrash was not, as Seaton claimed, on the Egyptian side of the boundary drawn in 1906.

In a subsequent email, Seaton quietly abandoned his false assertion that Umm al-Rashrash became Egyptian in 1906, acknowledging that the status of the outpost is “disputable.” Instead, he turned to a new defense for Soueif’s claim: “The Ottomans before 1906 refused to acknowledge any firm boundary between its dominion and Egypt in the Sinai.”

But this, too, is incorrect. The Ottoman sultan referenced a firm boundary in the text of the 1841 firman“I bestow upon you the government of Egypt in its ancient limits, such as they are marked out upon the map, duly sealed, which my grand vizier sends you” — as well as in the accompanying map, which depicted a line that the Ottomans in subsequent decades continued to view as the official boundary, even as actual Egyptian power spread deeper into Ottoman territory.

Seaton further insisted that “there was an Egyptian claim (British-backed) to Umm al-Rashrash.” In response to a request for documentation of such a claim, and of Soueif’s claim that there was a port at the outpost, the editor cited a journal article exploring various Ottoman maps of the region.

That journal article, though, said nothing about the existence of a port at Umm al-Rashrash, which various documents describe merely as an outpost or police post. And of course, the article did not back Seaton’s claim that Umm al-Rashrash became Egyptian in 1906, but rather contradicted it, showing the actual location of the 1906 line.

The piece also refuted Seaton’s claim that the Ottomans did not acknowledge a firm boundary with their Egyptian province. “The Ottoman approach to Sinai was based on the line defined in the 1841 Inheritance Firman,” noted the authors. The maps they examined, they added, “clearly indicate that as far as the Ottoman Empire was concerned the northeastern border of the Province of Egypt was the line defined in the Inheritance Firman of 1841…. Everything in the Sinai beyond this line was still perceived in Ottoman eyes as Ottoman territory.”

Continuing to defend the Op-Ed, Seaton insisted that the journal article he cited demonstrates that “at one stage the British claim of Egyptian territory reached all the way to the southern shore of the Dead Sea.” But the journal article doesn’t actually say this. It refers only to a line “suggested” by a British officer “at the beginning of the negotiations” between the British and the Ottomans in 1906. A suggestion during negotiations is hardly the same as a formal British or Egyptian claim to the territory.

Indeed, the British Foreign Office later concluded that “Turkey had maintained its legal status in [the Sinai Peninsula] even after the 1906 agreement…along the same frontier drawn on the map which had been annexed to the 1841 Firman,” historian Gabriel Warburg pointed out.

A journal article cited by a New York Times editor shows the 1841 border established by the Ottoman firman and the 1906 border running to the west of Umm el-Rashrash, or “Mrashrash.”

There are doubts even that the British officer in 1906 “suggested” a boundary reaching the Dead Sea’s shore. CAMERA asked Yuval Ben-Bassat, a co-author of the journal article Seaton cited, about the provenance of the claim. He explained that it comes from a book by a Turkish official who had been involved in the border negotiations.
The Turkish official certainly may have believed that the British officer, W.E. Bramly, expressed a British position about a Rafah-Dead Sea line. But numerous British accounts make no mention of such a suggestion, let alone of a “claim” to territory up to the line. There is, on the other hand, a record of Bramly expressing the view at the time that, in light of the tribal make up of the area, there would be no reason to include it as part of Egypt.

Asked specifically about whether Bramly called for such a boundary, the journal’s co-author suggested CAMERA consult with Professor Gideon Biger, who he named as an expert on such matters. Biger, in turn, said that as far as he was aware, “Bramley never suggested a line like this.”

Seaton was right about one thing, at least. He correctly noted that one of the maps pictured in the journal article, from 1884, depicts Egypt within expanded borders that included Umm al-Rashrash and the town of Aqaba to its east. This particular map may have reflected de facto Egyptian control in the area, which existed in part due to the “Egyptian guarding of the pilgrimage route” to Mecca, the authors explained.

But if the 1884 map reflected some Egyptian muscle flexing in the area, we know now that the state of affairs did not last long. In 1892 the Ottomans reasserted their supremacy over Aqaba and other regions beyond the Sinai peninsula. At any rate, the map was an outlier. “On most maps the administrative borderline of the Province of Egypt went from al’-Arish to Suez,” the article cited by Seaton makes clear, and thus did not include Umm al-Rashrash as part of Egypt.

Bringing the Guardian to the New York Times

So to justify telling readers Umm al-Rashrash was an Egyptian port, Seaton made a false claim about the 1906 border; then cited completely irrelevant articles; then wrongly insisted the Ottomans refused to demarcate a boundary with Egypt; claimed there was a British-Egyptian claim to territory running all the way up to the Dead Sea; and finally pointed to a single unrepresentative map. Even if one were to accept, for the sake of argument, that fleeting Egyptian power in the area somehow made the area officially “Egyptian,” the impression left by Seaton’s ever-evolving arguments is of a newspaper less interested in accuracy than in being right, whatever the facts may show.

This might not come as a surprise to those familiar with Comment is Free, a controversial online opinion section of the British newspaper The Guardian. Before joining the New York Times Op-Ed department, Seaton was between 2008 and 2010 the editor of Comment is Free, which has been criticized for hosting anti-Semitic commentary and publishing anti-Israel sentiment that, in the words of the UK’s anti-Semitism watchdog Community Security Trust, freely employed “loose, crass and offensive language that should have no place in as influential an institution as the Guardian.” Community Security Trust has elsewhere described “persistent problems” at Comment is Free that, it said, exacerbate Jewish upset in the UK.

British historian Geoffrey Alderman once argued that “slowly but surely, CiF … has become a platform for the crudest propaganda that can only have been intended to foster a hatred of the Jewish state.”

The project was so heavily skewed against Israel, in fact, that it inspired the creation of CiF Watch, a site dedicated to exposing anti-Semitism at Comment is Free. (CiF Watch later became CAMERA’s UK Media Watch, and Comment if Free has been rebranded as Guardian Opinion.)

When Seaton came to New York, he may have brought with him some of this Comment is Free mind-set. Indeed, Soueif’s Op-Ed claiming Eilat had been an Egyptian port may have been her first article in the New York Times, but she has been a frequent contributor to the Guardian, where she once insisted that murderousness is Israel’s “true face.” (About other faces, Soueif has been much more forgiving. The sight of Yasir Arafat by candle light, she once wrote, is like a Rembrandt.)

Soueif’s concern with the true face of Zionists has continued off the pages of the Guardian. On Twitter, for example, she recently endorsed a speech by a fringe Jewish fundamentalist in which he described the “twisted faces” of Zionists — “every day they are beating up Jews, they come with their clenched fists and twisted faces, with their batons on horseback and on foot, and they beat Jews and they hurt Jews” — and slurred the vast majority of the world’s Jewish population as fake Jews, heretics, and enemies of God who seek to harm the Torah.

Comment is Free was known not only for the extremeness of its anti-Israel voices, but also for a disproportion in the number of articles taking aim at Israel. And Seaton has all but admitted that, whatever clichés about evenhandedness he might toss around, he thinks this type of lopsidedness should prevail at The New York Times, too.
In an eye-opening exchange on Twitter, Seaton initially responded to a challenge about his department’s obsession with Israel by pleading that he aims “to give voice to all sides of a debate over time,” but then quickly admitted he thinks some sides of the debate should, in fact, be muzzled. Seaton was asked, after running consecutive pieces charging Israel with racism, whether he plans to publish an Op-Ed about bigotry in Palestinian society. He responded, “Sure, as soon as they have a sovereign state to discriminate with.”

A History of Errors and Evasions

Seaton’s admission that he intends to protect the Palestinians from scrutiny might sound like empty bravado. But he practices what he preaches. Earlier this year, for example, The New York Times published an Op-Ed claiming Mahmoud Abbas recognizes Israel as a Jewish state, and insisting Israel “conceals” the truth by saying otherwise. It was a stupifying allegation. Abbas has consistently and explicitly said that he “will never recognize” (2011), “won’t recognize” (2014), “won’t accept” (2015), and “categorically rejects” (2016) a Jewish state.
Other errors, and other examples of Seaton defending errors with puzzling and unprofessional responses, suggest a particular laxness about anti-Israel claims. After an Op-Ed by Israeli Knesset member Ayman Odeh charged that Israel built “no new cities” for Arabs since the founding of the state, CAMERA informed Seaton of the city of Rahat and a number of smaller towns built for the Arab population.

In his response, the Seaton didn’t deny the building of the Arab city, but instead listed a series of grievances, on behalf of both the author and the opinion pages, about Israel:

Regarding whether Israel has built Arab cities, MK Odeh’s point here is that Israeli government policy has been completely discriminatory: hundreds of Jewish communities have been built with paved roads, electricity, sanitation, schools, public transportation, etc; nothing remotely equivalent has been done for Israeli Arab citizens. The Arab towns you mention are part of a controversial government policy to force Bedouin people off the land and into poorly provisioned urban communities. The main “city” you mention, Rahat, did not even have a sewage system for at least the first 30 years of its incorporation. The author therefore views these projects as part of an eviction and resettlement program, which is illegal under the UN’s International Convention for Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ratified by Israel and thus legally binding). In this politicized context of a disputed issue, it is the author’s right not to confer legitimacy on such coerced communities.

There’s no need, or at least not enough space here, to deconstruct the spin in this response. (To get a flavor of it, though, consider Seaton’s first point: yes, hundreds of Jewish communities, and significantly fewer Arab communities, have been built in Israel.

The Arab village of Hura, which Israel built for its Bedouin population in 1989.

But those Jewish towns and villages were built specifically to absorb millions of Jewish immigrants — Holocaust survivors, refugees from persecution in the Arab world, and others drawn to the country — who moved to Israel over the past several decades.) The more important point is that none of Seaton’s accusations make Odeh’s factual error any less false. Israel has, in fact, built Arab towns and cities. But the message is clear enough: because Israel is bad, it is okay to misinform readers with factually incorrect claims.

Seaton took a similar tack when defending several inaccurate statements in an Op-Ed by Nathan Thrall. According to Thrall, for example, “advocacy among some Palestinian intellectuals and their allies for enfranchisement in a single state, the so-called one-state solution, has not been endorsed by a single Palestinian faction.” In actuality, several Palestinian factions call for a single state, including Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP).

When urged to publish a correction, Seaton responded with conditions and qualifications that were nowhere to be found in the Op-Ed itself:

The author’s clear meaning here is that the idea of giving Palestinians citizenship and the right to vote in the only state that exists — i.e., enfranchisement in Israel in a one-state solution, as called for by some Palestinian intellectuals and their allies — is not endorsed by a single Palestinian political faction. This is correct. Those Palestinian factions that sometimes call for a single state are calling for the creation of a new state to replace Israel and the Palestinian Authority, not enfranchisement.

It was another bizarre evasion from the New York Times editor. In his own reply, Seaton admits there are indeed factions that “call for a single state.” And yet he insists the Op-Ed’s claim is correct because there is a supposedly clear distinction between a “one-state solution” and a “new state to replace Israel.”

There is no such clear distinction. A quick look at the conversation makes clear that, in the understanding of many commentators, the one-state solution means precisely an end to Israel. In the Middle East Review of International Affairs, for example, Jonathan Spyer describes the one-state solution as including the solution favored by Hamas. The Gaza Strip is now ruled by “a movement committed to the ‘one-state solution,'” Spyer writes. “Hamas, as its founding charter makes clear, favors a single state to be governed by Shari’a law.”

From the other side of the political divide, Hasan Saleh Ayoub asserts that “one-state” means many things to many people. “Literature on the one-state solution lacks clarity as to the type of integration considered when talking about a one-state solution; a bi-national state, a secular democratic-civic state, a bi-ethnic or power-sharing or otherwise.” He makes clear that the term “one-state” can indeed refer to an Arab state that would replace Israel: “The PLO endorsed a one-state vision in its National Charter of 1968: The Charter envisaged an Arab Palestinian state not a bi-national one.”

And a cross-section of prominent media organizations, including the BBC, PRI, Haaretz, and Al-Monitor, have noted that the PFLP seeks a “one-state solution,” 

So Times readers were told that no Palestinian factions call for a one-state solution, even though this is categorically untrue. But rather than publish a forthright correction—the easy and accepted way of remedying such errors— the newspaper opted to leave readers misinformed.

Seaton also defended Nathan Thrall’s inaccurate claim that the Palestinian Authority (PA) receives American money “on condition that it continues preventing attacks and protests against Israeli settlements.” While the US certainly does expect the PA to work to prevent anti-Israel violence, there’s absolutely no American prohibition on “protests” against Israeli settlements. (The protests continue, as does US aid.)

Associated Press caption: “A protester holds a Palestinian flag as smoke rises from burning tires during clashes with Israeli security forces during a protest against a planned new Jewish settlement near al-Mughayyir village near the West Bank city of Ramallah, Friday, March 24, 2017.”

The editor refused to point to an example of the US expressing any such condition. Instead, he argued that “Palestinian Authority security cooperation with the IDF is financed by the United States and premised on the PA decreasing friction between Palestinians and settlers and preventing protests from approaching settlements,” a circuitous statement that if anything acknowledges that such protests do happen, even if the protesters are not able to march on the settlements en masse.

Of course, the limitation of protesters from certain behaviors and sensitive locations is not the same as the banning of protests altogether. This is as true in the West Bank as it is in the United States. But the New York Times was content telling readers, wrongly, that US policy is to ban free speech in the Palestinian Authority.

Seaton’s defense of Thrall’s claim that Israel receives “more military assistance from the United States than the rest of the world does combined” offers a final illustration of the editor’s bobbing and weaving. While it is true that Israel receives more than half of the U.S. Foreign Military Financing budget, specifically, this type of financing represents just a portion of America’s overall military assistance to the world. A helpful Washington Post analysis of foreign aid details how the US government spends a combined $12 billion on Foreign Military Financing, the Afghanistan Security Forces Fund (ASFF), the Iraq Train and Equip Fund, the Counterterrorism Partnerships Fund, and the Coalition Support Fund. Military aid to Israel is $3.8 billion, well under half of that amount.

But Seaton wouldn’t acknowledge that Thrall misled readers. He asserted that “it is common to refer to US foreign military financing as foreign military assistance or foreign military aid,” and argued that a definition of military assistance that includes funds to Afghan, Iraqi and other armed forces “is overly broad and inclusive, beyond any that the Budget Office or State Department conventionally use.” The money used for the ASFF, he continued covers “such items as counter-narcotics law enforcement and the salaries of US staff posted abroad, which clearly do not constitute any normal understanding of foreign military assistance.”

The reference to counter-narcotics is specious. According to the U.S. governmental website, only $98 million, a miniscule fraction of $3.6 billion in US assistance to Afghanistan for “peace and security,” goes to counter-narcotics.

And contrary to Seaton’s insinuation, the U.S. does characterize the Afghanistan Security Forces Fund as a type of foreign military assistance., a State Department project, uses the term “foreign assistance” (here and here) to describe the ASFF. The Department of Defense says ASFF is meant “to provide assistance to the security forces of Afghanistan.” And a DoD journal describes ASFF as “military assistance” — the very term Thrall used in his piece.

It is not only untenable, but altogether bizarre, for Seaton to insist that readers will intuitively realize a New York Times reference to “military assistance” does not include assistance to the militaries of Iraq and Afghanistan. But the newspaper seems more willing to misinform readers about Israel than it is to correct errors, whether about the southern city of Eilat, the Arab city of Rahat, Abbas’s opposition to a Jewish state, the PFLP’s support for a one-state solution, or other topics.

In the past, New York Times opinion editors have insisted that they are hands-on when it comes to editing submissions. “Op-Ed essays are edited,” former editor David Shipley pointedly noted in 2005. “Before something appears in our pages,” he wrote, “you can bet that questions have been asked, arguments have been clarified, cuts have been suggested — as have additions — and factual, typographical and grammatical errors have been caught.”

Shipley went further: “We also check assertions. If news articles — from The Times and other publications — are at odds with a point of an example in an essay, we need to resolve whatever discrepancy exists.”

He offered the following example, which underscored that the newspaper felt an obligation to protect readers from manipulation disguised as opinion:

For instance, an Op-Ed article critical of newly aggressive police tactics in Town X can’t flatly say the police have no reason to change their strategy if there have been news reports that violence in the town is rising. This doesn’t mean the writer can’t still argue that there are other ways to deal with Town X’s crime problem – he just can’t say that the force’s decision to change came out of the blue.

If that is how the hypothetical claim about Town X would fare under the newspaper’s policies, then the claim that Mahmoud Abbas supports a Jewish state, or that Rahat is not a city built for Arabs, should surely be laughed off the page.

But today, Shipley’s assurances are no longer dependable. Facts and assertions on the Opinion pages are no longer dependable. If the newspaper won’t tell the truth about Israel in its Op-Eds, they should at least be truthful about their editing policy: When it comes to Jewish state, anything goes.

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