Jewish Terrorism, Palestinian Terrorism, and a New York Times Double Standard

The horrific violence that recently shook Israel and the West Bank has led to many grim conclusions about the potential for bloodshed, some encouraging conclusions about Israeli society’s intolerance for Jewish terrorism, and at least one unpleasant conclusion about America’s most influential newspaper: There is a glaring difference between the way The New York Times covers Palestinian violence and the way it covers Israeli violence.
On such topics, the newspaper is guilty of a chronic double standard — a slow and subtle form of media bias that aims to make similarities feel different and differences feel similar, with the goal of steering the public toward a particular political view. Responsible news coverage, of course, should do the opposite: make similarities feel similar and differences feel different. This should be true, too, of the similarities and differences between Palestinian and Israeli terrorism.

Similarities and Differences

When it comes to murderous attacks targeting civilians, the similarities are painfully straightforward: Blood is blood. Innocence is innocence. The pain of a child lost is the terrible pain of a child lost, no matter the victim’s religion, language, or ethnicity.

A newspaper can seek to stir moral outrage about terrorism; it can aim to mitigate with context; or it can do something in between. Whatever path it chooses, though, its approach should be generally consistent, without changing based on the identity of the attacker. Among other things, this means that if one ethnic group’s reaction to “their” terrorism deserves so much exploration, so many words, and so many articles, the same should be the case for another group’s reaction to their own terrorism. 

At the same time, some differences in coverage are clearly appropriate. Evenhandedness doesn’t mean two similar actions must be described with exactly the same words. It means they are to be approached with the same journalistic guidelines in mind, captured with the same lens, scrutinized with the same skepticism, and contextualized to the same extent. When there are disparities on the ground, an effective journalist will find a way to reflect them as clearly as possible.

And there are plenty of disparities on the ground.
As a whole Palestinian terrorism is a much bigger problem. By an overwhelming margin, many more victims have been murdered by Palestinians targeting Jewish civilians than the other way around. Coverage should reflect, not obscure, this truth.

Another difference: On those rare occasions when it seems clear Israeli Jews are the perpetrators of murderous terrorism, there tends to be vocal outrage and soul-searching in Israeli society. By contrast, many Palestinian polls show majorities in favor of anti-Israel terrorism (you can find one recent example here), and Palestinian leaders often celebrate the murderers of civilians. A newspaper should convey these realities, even if this means readers will see articles about Israeli “soul searching” but no such reports about Palestinian society.

A Double Standard by the Numbers

It is one thing, though, for Israelis to be more bothered by their terrorists than Palestinians are by theirs, and for this uncomfortable reality to be conveyed by a newspaper. It is another for The New York Times itself to be more interested in Israeli extremism than in Palestinian extremism, to repeatedly raise questions about only Israeli morality and not Palestinian morality, and to give readers the impression that Israeli society has a greater need than Palestinian society to tackle its extremist violence, despite the opposite being true.

Malachi Rosenfeld’s family mourns at his funeral
malachi rosenfeld

Compare New York Times coverage of the recent arson attack that killed Palestinian Ali Dawabsheh with its coverage one month earlier of the drive-by shooting that killed Israeli Malachi Rosenfeld. When Rosenfeld was shot and critically wounded, three sentences about the incident were squeezed into the middle of an unrelated article about Israel’s border with Jordan. When he died the next day, The Times devoted only two or three sentences to the murder in a miniature-sized news brief. Its print headline, “Israel: Man Dies After West Bank Attack,” neglected to mention the ethnicity of the man or his suspected attackers.

By contrast, the brief published after Dawabsheh was killed carried the much more informative headline, including a description about the identity of the suspected perpetrators: “West Bank: Palestinian Child Dies in Fire Said to Be Set by Israelis.”
The next day, a 900-word article about the incident, “Jewish Arsonists Suspected in West Bank Fire That Killed Toddler,” appeared on the first page of the newspaper’s International section. The next day, another piece on the topic, “Censure and Clashes After West Bank Attack,” was published. The next day, a 1234-word article on the first page of the International section took aim at Israel with the title, “Israeli Justice Is Seen to Be Often Uneven.” And for those familiar with the newspaper’s patterns, it was only a matter of time before a story appeared on the newspaper’s front page, above the fold, spotlighting questions about Israeli society and morality, the 1400-word “Two Killings Make Israeli Look Inward.”

Universal and Specific Critics

The quantitative difference is glaring. But if you look closely, you will also find subtler qualitative ones. The brief about the killing of Malachi Rosenfeld mentioned that “Israel’s defense minister … blamed a recent wave of attacks on programs on Palestinian television that he said incited violence.” On its own, it seems commendable that the newspaper would relay Israel’s concerns about the impact of Palestinian incitement. But compare this to language found in coverage of the arson, and you will notice a phenomenon that occurs all too frequently in the pages of The New York Times: while criticism of Palestinians is normally attributed to specific Israelis, such as “Israel’s defense minister,” criticism of Israel is often portrayed as a more universal view, attributed to some unnamed mass of critics, or even conveyed in the reporter’s own authoritative voice, and it is repeated in a way that makes clear that the newspaper is pushing a particular talking point.

“Israel has long been criticized for not vigilantly investigating price-tag attacks or punishing their offenders,” one article about the Dawabsheh killing states. “Few shootings
ever lead to prosecutions,” a reporter says in another piece. There is a “sense that Israeli law-enforcement authorities have for years acted with laxness and leniency toward Israeli citizens,” another article asserts, before adding that “Israeli and Palestinian critics have long contended that the Israeli authorities treat Jewish perpetrators of violence with kid gloves compared with the harsh measures taken against Palestinians suspected of similar crimes against Israelis.” “Traditionally, the Shin Bet has typically acted with constraint in dealing with Jewish citizens,” a reporter opines. “Justice … is elusive,” her colleague states. “Palestinians and leftist Israelis argue that Israel’s nearly half-century occupation of the West Bank and impunity for settler vandals inevitably led to Friday’s firebombing of the Dawabsheh home,” the front-page piece notes.

For a reader, these broader criticisms — or more precisely, these criticisms that journalists have chosen to frame in a broader way — feel more authentic, widely held and legitimate than ones attributed to politicians, such as the complaint about incitement attributed to Israel’s defense minister. And this, it seems, is precisely the reason for the discrepancy.
After all, there is no doubt that Palestinian television has indeed aired programs praising violence against Jews, so the reporter could have made that assertion in her own voice instead of relying only on Israel’s defense minister. There is no doubt, too, that it is not only Israeli government officials but also many others who have raised concerns about Palestinian incitement. Why, then, didn’t the newspaper frame that as general, broader criticism? And it’s even true that, as with complaints about Israeli behavior, both Israelis and Palestinians have criticized Palestinian incitement. Such complaints by Palestinians about Palestinian treatment of Israel are no less worthy of mention than the self-critical assessments by Israelis to which the newspaper is drawn (even if those Palestinians who speak out about their society are not the type of source Times reporters prefer to reach out to). But they are virtually always ignored.
Moreover, why is it that when Palestinians hurl firebombs, fire bullets, or steer their cars toward Israeli civilians, New York Times readers aren’t similarly bombarded with references to widespread criticism of Palestinian “laxness,” “leniency,” or “restraint” toward that society’s violent extremists? All those words (and much stronger ones: encouragement, glorification, reward) could certainly be used to describe Palestinian policies toward its terrorists. But not in this newspaper.
If The New York Times were to treat Palestinians with the same harsh standard generally reserved for Israel, readers would regularly encounter passages like this, which is adapted from language in the newspaper’s coverage of Dawabsheh: “The Palestinian Authority and Hamas have long been criticized for glorifying and encouraging anti-Jewish violence. Prosecutions of those planning attacks are virtually non-existent, and traditionally public squares, schools and soccer teams have been named after terrorists. Israeli and Palestinian critics contend that this inevitably leads to attacks against Israeli civilians.”
But it is almost impossible to imagine the newspaper consistently covering Palestinians in this way. In reality, such charges are nearly always cast as Israeli accusations, or worse, as cynical Israeli propaganda (“These pronouncements are sometimes used to score propaganda points,” a Times reporter once asserted about Israeli charges of Palestinian incitement).

Apples, Oranges, and Apples

For the sake of fairness, let’s acknowledge that it might be reasonable to see some degree of difference between a newspaper’s coverage of Ali Dawabsheh and Malachi Rosenfeld, even if not to the extent we’ve seen at The New York Times. The former was an 18-month-old toddler, and the latter a 26-year-old student. It is a unique kind of heartbreak that accompanies the death of a small child, and this can be reflected in the coverage. 

But when we consider prior Times reporting on terror attacks targeting children, it becomes clear that this explanation fails to exonerate the newspaper’s relative disinterest in the death of the Israeli student.

In 2014, 16-year-old Muhammad Abu Khdeir was murdered by Israeli teens. The Palestinian victim’s name has been mentioned in 34 New York Times articles since then. In 2001, a 10-month-old girl, Shalhevet Pass was shot dead by a Palestinian sniper. The Israeli infant’s name has been mentioned in only nine articles. In 2003, 7-month-old Shaked Avraham was gunned down by a Palestinian terrorist who sprayed her family’s house with bullets as they were eating Rosh Hashana dinner. Her murder has been mentioned only twice, and her name not even once. The discrepancy, then, is not all about age.

Here again, one can imagine rationalizations. Unlike the more recent murder of the Palestinian Abu Khdeir, the Israelis Pass and Avraham were killed during the Palestinian terror war of 2000–2005, at a time when violence claimed the lives of so many victims. It would have been impossible to focus so much attention on every death, one might argue.

But this justification, too, fails to exonerate the newspaper.

Chaya Zissel Braun, a 3-month-old Israeli-American citizen, was killed in 2014 by a Palestinian who drove his car into passengers waiting at a Jerusalem light rail station. Her name was mentioned in only three New York Times stories, although the killing occurred within months of the Abu Khdeir incident.

Even the 2011 murders of five members of the Fogel family, which took the lives of three young children and their parents in an exceptionally brutal way, did not elicit from The New York Times the type of response that we tend to see after Israeli terrorism. The newspaper failed to cover or explore the Fogel story in a single front-page article, a striking contrast with its front page coverage of Dawabsheh, Abu Khdeir, and even Palestinian teen Jamal Julani, who in 2011 was badly beaten, but not killed.
Nor did Times coverage of the Fogel attack (or of the killing of Shalhevet Pass and Chaya Braun) feature any articles focused on Palestinian society and morality as a whole. After 3-month-old Hadas Fogel was killed, there was no front-page headline in the vein of “Killing of Palestinian Youth Puts an Israeli Focus on Extremism,” published after the death of Abu Khdeir, or “Two Killings Make Israelis Look Inward” and “Israeli Justice Is Seen to Be Often Uneven,” published after the death of Dawabsheh.

One-Way Moral Judgement

New York Times reporters have spared no effort to suggest that the apparent murder of Ali Dawabsheh, in reality an exceedingly rare occurrence, which I
sraelis from left to right have loudly and unequivocally described as a disgrace with no place in Israeli society, is in fact a result of something inherently amiss with the Jewish state. Incredibly, though, the idea that Palestinian political culture might have contributed to the attack on the Fogel family was treated, in the newspaper’s coverage of that attack, as a reason to criticize Israel:

The new focus on incitement against Israel, together with Israeli dissatisfaction over the Palestinian response to the brutal attack, seemed to pose a question about the Israeli government’s readiness to deal with Mr. Abbas as a serious peace partner — even though Mr. Abbas and Mr. Fayyad are widely considered moderates who have repeatedly said they would never resort to violence.

There is no shortage of iterations of this pattern. After a 2014 Palestinian terror attack on a Jewish synagogue in which five Israeli were killed, editors scrubbed from a news story any reference to John Kerry’s forceful condemnation of Palestinian incitement, and the newspaper’s analysis after the incident included more comment blaming Israel than blaming the Palestinians.

It is hard to avoid the conclusion that The New York Times, in practice at least, is less outraged about the murder of Israeli Jews than about the murder of Palestinians. And it appears that this, at least in part, is because its journalists strain to consistently promote a narrative of a morally questionable Israel acting against more or less blameless Palestinians. 
It is a simplistic, dishonest account. But for some journalists at the newspaper, the narrative justifies the dishonesty.

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