Mairav Zonszein, a columnist for The Forward, would have you believe The New York Times is going soft on Israel. Someone at the newspaper, she suggested, made sure to put scare quotes around the word “occupation” in reference to “Israel’s ‘occupation’ of the West Bank.” After she tweeted about it, Zonszein said, the quotation marks were surreptitiously removed, without no correction to explain the change.
The story, though, is false.
The way Zonszein tells it, she was reading the New York Times article in question and stumbled upon an what she felt was an objectionable reference to the West Bank:
Just two paragraphs in, I found myself reading that Cornel West and James Zogby, two of Senator Bernie Sanders’ appointees to the party’s platform, have denounced Israel’s “occupation” of the West Bank. The word occupation appeared in quotation marks in the sentence, and only that word.
The use of quotation marks, Zonszein protested, could imply that someone at the newspaper does not consider the West Bank to be occupied.
Contrary to the columnist’s account, though, The New York Times did not use scare quotes in reference to the West Bank occupation per se. Instead, its original language referred to an “‘occupation,'” in quotes, “of the West Bank and Gaza“:
Two of the senator’s appointees to the party’s platform drafting committee, Cornel West and James Zogby, on Wednesday denounced Israel’s “occupation” of the West Bank and Gaza and said they believed that rank-and-file Democrats no longer hewed to the party’s staunch support of the Israeli government.
In context — context hidden from Forward readers — the reason for the quotation marks is perfectly clear: A New York Times news story should not be declaring the Gaza Strip to be occupied. It can, however, attribute the claim to West and Zogby, which it did. (See more at the Elder of Ziyon blog.)
That’s because the idea that Gaza should still be considered occupied is a matter of debate in the ivory tower, and is elsewhere seen as self-evidently false (including in the Gaza Strip itself).
But regardless, Zonszein, along with a number of anti-Israel activists, complained about the quotation marks, and shortly thereafter The New York Times removed them. The removal, though, caused an actual problem for the newspaper. As indicated above, it would be wrong for an ostensibly objective news story to make the dubious claim that Gaza is occupied. And so editors, who had just removed the quotation marks, shortly thereafter removed the reference to the Gaza Strip. They appended a correction to the story informing readers of that change.
In other words, there is no conspiracy. There is no mystery. There were simply two small and directly related changes made to the article over a span of under two hours.
Zonszein does eventually get around to mentioning the New York Times correction about the removal of the Gaza language. But she deceptively makes it appear as if the correction isn’t directly related to the passage she complains about. She writes,
There is even an editor’s note at the bottom of the piece that related to the occupation, but in a slightly different context:
Because of an editing error, an earlier version of this article referred imprecisely to the status of Gaza. Although the United Nations and Gazans themselves regard it as still occupied by Israel, Israel withdrew all its forces and Jewish settlers from Gaza in 2005, while maintaining strict border control.
This is not a “slightly different context,” nor does it merely “relate to the occupation.” Rather, the correction is about the very New York Times passage, and the very changes, on which Zonszein’s article focuses. But to admit as much — to admit that the removal of the quotation marks was not a statement about the West Bank per se, and that the removal of the Gaza language was necessary to maintain the article’s objectivity specifically because the quotation marks were cut — would make clear that there was no scandal, and would expose the article as frivolous.
To be clear, the problem with the Forward article has nothing to do with Zonszein’s opinion that a correction should have accompanied the removal of the quotations marks. As a columnist, she’s certainly entitled to that opinion. Nor does it have anything to do with whether Zonszein believes Gaza is still occupied, despite Israel’s withdrawal from the territory. She can make that argument, however unconvincing it may be. But editors should not allow her to mislead readers by inventing a false “controversy” about how the Times described the status of the West Bank.
Zonszein’s article is entitled, “Why the New York Times Owes Us All a Big Explanation on Israel ‘Occupation’ Blunder.” In fact, it is The Forward that owes its readers a correction.
Forward opinion editor Sigal Samuel has yet to reply to a request that the newspaper correct Zonszein’s misrepresentation.