As 2021 came to a close, two of the most influential news organizations in the English-speaking world, the New York Times and the BBC, slipped, flipped, and fell flat on their faces in their coverage of Jews.
At first glance, the respective fiascos seem dissimilar. The offending New York Times piece was a heartwarming report on a Gaza poetry professor who defies his conditions, and even his own feelings, to encourage empathy for Israeli Jews. The BBC’s blunder was in an article about Jews attacked in the streets of London.
The fatal flaw in the Times story was redressed with an epic editors’ note that retracted the article’s core premise. BBC News, by contrast, had clung for as long as possible to the view that there was no problem, even as British Jewish leaders decried a “colossal error” on the part of the broadcaster.
Notwithstanding those differences, though, each story follows a similar theme about Jews, Arabs, the conflict between them. Above all else, they tell us about bad habits in media coverage of antisemitism, and how the journalistic impulse to make news fit a pre-determined narrative can so often lead to the defamation of Jews.
Both stories deal with characters who have attacked Jews in one way or another. The BBC piece focuses squarely on the attack, during which young Jews celebrating Chanukkah were harassed, driven from the busy London shopping street, and compelled to take shelter on their tour bus. The article describes video footage of men spitting at the bus, making Nazi salutes, and waving shoes—with the latter act characterized as “an insult in some countries,” a hint at the apparent Middle Eastern background of the attackers.
The New York Times piece, too, mentions its main character’s aggression against Israeli Jews, but as a side note. Readers learn that Refaat Alareer, the Islamic University of Gaza poetry professor featured in the piece, “frequently writes furious barrages that describe Israel as a source of evil.” And the reporter, Jerusalem bureau chief Patrick Kingsley, quotes Alareer defending terrorism targeting Israeli civilians.
These, however, are mere foils in a story that overwhelmingly portrays the Palestinian professor in a flattering light. The piece claims that Alareer, through his teaching of poetry, adds “nuance” to contrasting narratives; that he is a “champion” of Israeli verse; and that he offers students an “appreciation” of Jewish poets who show the humanity of the other side. It’s a feel-good story celebrating an unlikely bridge-builder.
Alareer, though, is hardly the hero he is made out to be. He is…
Something else. Jews, though, are increasingly cautious in our use of the term “antisemite,” lest an antisemite accuse us of “weaponizing” the word to “silence” mere “criticism” of Israel. So it may be safer to simply quote the professor’s ramblings and let the reader decide. Alareer is the type of person who writes on Twitter: “Are most Jews evil? Of course they are.” He is the type who writes: “You Jew won’t understand, you will never, you are a Jew after all.” (Typos corrected for readability.)
The professor was eventually kicked off of Twitter, though we can’t be sure if it was due to his anti-something-ism. What we do know is that, when he later returned under a different user name, Alareer was more circumspect, and even managed to avoid explicitly demonizing “Jews” as evil.
Instead, he relied on the familiar euphemism, writing, for example, that “[Z]ionism and zionazism are the root cause of evil” around the world; that “Zionists are scum”; that “Zionists are the most despicable filth”; and that “Zionism is a disease.” (And still, the Z-word can make for a flimsy disguise, as when Alareer wrote in reference to Jews in Nazi concentration camps, “Zios are the dirtiest little snitches ever…. No wonder many of them kapoed like bitches.”)
Furious barrages, indeed. Few should be surprised, then, that the New York Times’s premise about Alareer — that in the classroom he is different; the archetype of a noble professor; a bridge across the stormy divide — turned out to be an utter fabrication.
Shortly after the newspaper published its hagiography, the media monitoring organization CAMERA uncovered video of Alareer spewing hate from the university lectern, demonizing Zionists, and slandering the same Israeli poets he was said to have praised.
The Times, at least, responded appropriately to the discovery, appending a 267-word editors’ note to the piece that closed with a striking mea culpa: “In light of this additional information, editors have concluded that the article did not accurately reflect Mr. Alareer’s views on Israeli poetry or how he teaches it. Had The Times done more extensive reporting on Mr. Alareer, the article would have presented a more complete picture.”
But it didn’t do more extensive reporting. Instead, the paper was too quick to whitewash and glamorize an anti-Jewish hatemonger.
The BBC acted in a similar spirit, but with even uglier execution. Instead of tilting the scales by putting gloss on the story’s antisemites — may antisemites forgive me for using that term moving forward — it did so by smearing the Jewish victims.
In this case, BBC editors were aware from the start of the incriminating video, which was cited throughout the piece:
Images have been released of three men police want to speak to about allegations of anti-Semitic abuse directed at Jewish passengers on a bus.
A group was filmed approaching the privately hired bus on Oxford Street in central London on Monday.
Footage shows men spitting at the bus and apparently abusing passengers. Prime Minister Boris Johnson has described the video as “disturbing.”
In the video, which was posted on social media, a man seems to make a Nazi salute and others wave their shoes – an insult in some countries.
Then there was the paragraph that set off the scandal: “Some racial slurs about Muslims can also be heard from inside the bus, which had been hired by a group of Jewish people celebrating the eight-day festival.” (The BBC later changed “some … slurs” to the singular “slur.”)
Others who had viewed the widely circulated video — including British Jewish communal organizations, BBC contributors, and a former BBC chairman — heard no slur from the besieged victims. Many were concerned, too, that the broadcaster described clear antisemitism as “alleged,” even while reporting on an imperceptible slur as fact.
When critics asked questions, the piece’s author, Harry Farley, offered some specifics. “At about 3 seconds [into] the video you can just about hear someone on the bus saying ‘dirty Muslims,’” Farley wrote to a Twitter user. “This was actually something picked up by my editors not me and they wanted to reflect that briefly in the piece.”
Those details served as the starting point for two independent investigations, commissioned by the Board of Deputies of British Jews, that sought to ascertain whether the ugly phrase “dirty Muslims” can be heard at the three second mark. But both reports confirmed what Hebrew speakers heard all along. At that point in the video, someone on the besieged bus calls out in Hebrew for help. Tikra lemishehu, ze dachuf. “Call somebody, it’s urgent!”
The investigations also examined the whole clip and concluded that no anti-Muslim slur can be heard at any point. It seems the BBC’s misbehaving Jews, like the New York Times’ noble Palestinian professor, were a fabrication.
With the victims of an anti-Jewish attack slandered as bigots, the BBC’s readers might be tempted to conclude that the Jews earned their antisemitism. And indeed, in the on-air version of the story, BBC reporter Guy Lynn went out of his way to suggest such a possibility:
I should say, though, that we at BBC London did watch this footage, and you can hear some racial slurs about Muslim people which [do] come from the bus. It’s not clear at the moment … what role that may have played in this incident.
Never mind that there was apparently no slur. Never mind, too, that even if there was one, by the time the footage was recorded the harassment had already begun, sending the Jewish revelers onto the bus in the first place. For whatever reason, the idea that wormed its way into journalists’ minds, and into their news reports, was too compelling to resist: Perhaps the Jews are no different than their attackers. Perhaps they even instigated the attack. (The BBC was eventually compelled to issue a qualified apology, though it stood by its claims about the slur. An external investigation by British broadcasting authorities is ongoing.)
It doesn’t matter whether the BBC’s primary motivation was to defend antisemites or, alternately, to malign the victims. These are one and the same. Like a balance scale, to push down the Jewish side is to uplift the attackers.
The converse is true, too. By crediting the extremist Palestinian professor for his non-existent bridge-building, the New York Times simultaneously discredited mainstream Jews. Israelis, the piece states, “often assume the Palestinian education system is simply an engine of incitement.” Professor Alareer is held up as proof that this assumption is wrong and prejudicial. A reader might even conclude that the Jews who raise concerns about Palestinian incitement are the ones actually guilty of incitement.
Compared to the BBC’s unabashed slander, this might be a subtle swipe. But such misreporting is, for both organizations, part of a pattern. The New York Times has a habit of exculpating inciters. The BBC has a history of verbal alchemy.
Only a few years earlier, for example, a Times reporter likewise tilted the scales to denigrate Jews concerned with incitement and — the other end of the scale must go somewhere — defend the Palestinian government. In a 2018 story, the paper disparaged as “far-right conspiracy theorists” those who raise concerns about the Authority’s financial incentives for terrorism, or “pay-for-slay.”
(Here, too, CAMERA prompted the newspaper to set the record straight with a correction: “In fact, Palestinian officials have acknowledged providing payments to the families of Palestinians killed while carrying out attacks on Israelis or convicted of terrorist acts and imprisoned in Israel; that is not a conspiracy theory.”)
And just as the BBC placed ugly words into Jewish mouths, it had previously excised bigotry from the statements of Palestinian rioters. In 2019, the broadcaster aired a documentary about violence at the border between the Gaza Strip and Israel. At one point, a Palestinian appeared on screen to speak, in Arabic, about the intense atmosphere Gaza’s side of the divide that energized and inflamed rioters. “The revolutionary songs, they excite you,” he said. “They encourage you to rip an Israeli’s head off.”
Or so claimed the subtitles. In the audio, though, the word yahudi is clearly heard. The skulls slated for removal, in other words, were categorically Jewish, as that word indicates.
Although Deborah Lipstadt described the BBC’s manipulation as a “blatant example of the failure to take the scourge of antisemitism seriously,” editors stood by the mistranslation.
So goes the broadcaster’s tinkering: “Dirty Muslims” in. “Decapitate the Jews” out. The BBC giveth words. The BBC taketh them away. And in each case, the linguistic intervention is at the expense of Jews.
It is not only Arab antisemitism that gets sanitized by the media giants. When, in the summer of 2018, a Jewish British couple appeared on BBC to discuss rising antisemitism, mostly from supporters of then-Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn, interviewer Victoria Derbyshire repeatedly brushed away her guests’ concerns.
As the couple defended themselves—for some reason victims of antisemitism must defend themselves from the BBC—Derbyshire unsheathed a statistic that seemed to undercut their fundamental point. “And yet,” the reporter replied to one or another of the Jews’ concerns, “the Community Security Trust, which is a charity that as you know protects British Jews from antisemitism, says in the first six months of this year they recorded eight percent fewer antisemitic incidents compared to the same period last year” (emphasis hers).
She paused, satisfied, to look at the defendants. But by now you’re familiar with the pattern: the BBC, which manipulated its transcription of Jews being attacked, and manipulated its subtitles of those attacking Jews, also manipulated the findings of the CST report about attacks on Jews.
There was indeed a marginal dip in antisemitic incidents between 2017 and 2018, but the report’s conclusions were clear: The 2018 numbers were “the second-highest total CST has ever recorded in the January-June period of any year.” The slight decrease from an all-time high the previous year “continues a pattern of historically high monthly totals,” it explained. In other words, there had been a steep and steady increase in incidents, from 223 from January to June 2013 to 786 during that period in 2017. In the first half of 2018, that levelled off to 727 incidents. In context, it was an inconsequential dip. The high levels of antisemitism year over year, CST’s report lamented, were “unprecedented.”
Derbyshire misled her audience. And she did so to cast Jews as at best hysterical, and at worst as liars, about antisemitism. Her colleagues attributed ugly words to Jewish victims of antisemitism, and suggested they may have provoked the anti-Jewish harassment. Other BBC reporters erased ugly words spoken by Palestinians to conceal antisemitism that helps fuel that conflict. The New York Times, with poor journalism and on multiple occasions, likewise conceals Palestinian contributions to the conflict, and has suggested Israel’s supporters exaggerate about anti-Jewish incitement.
The harm to Jews from each of these examples is clear. Taken together, along with similar examples by these and other news outlets, the misreporting undermines the broader fight against antisemitism. It plants the idea that Jews shouldn’t be trusted about the hatred they face. It encourages the bigoted view that Jews use charges of antisemitism in bad faith, whether because they are a whiney bunch or because they wield their power to silence critics of an oppressive Israel. And on the question of the Jewish state, it conceals the challenges to Israel posed by intractable and violent antisemitism.
All of this from the supposed adults in the room. All at a time when a senior official for CAIR incites audiences to view mainstream synagogues as “enemies” that must be “opposed”; when a Texas synagogue is violently attacked shortly thereafter; when that’s just the latest in armed attacks on synagogues and other Jewish spaces from Poway to Pittsburgh and Germany to Jerusalem; and when Jews are routinely beaten in the streets of New York and London. At a time when calling for a third intifada, or wave of violence against Israeli Jewish civilians, counts as a qualification for getting hired by The Nation, a leading magazine of the left; and when far-right Polish demonstrators likewise protest “Zionism” with signs threatening a “Polish intifada.” When Holocaust minimization from the right, where prominent voices compare vaccine mandates to the Holocaust, and Holocaust inversion from the left, which effectively denies the horrors of the Nazi genocide by comparing it to Israel’s battle against terrorism, collaborate to erase from memory the consequences of antisemitism.
Journalists who we’d expect to stand in the way of this downward march are too often getting out of the way, if not paving it.
None of this is to say that accurate and contextual reporting—including coverage favorable to some Palestinians or unfavorable to some Jews—should be regarded as anti-Jewish. If someone in Gaza does seek to bridge the divide, by all means let’s hear about him — even as we’re frankly exposed to those who want to behead Jews. If a Jewish youth does insult Muslims, then to the extent journalists find insults newsworthy report on it. If something actually is a conspiracy theory, call it a conspiracy theory. And a real downward trend in antisemitism? That would be most welcome news.
We should all want journalism that fully and fairly reflects reality. But in the cases documented above, and all too often in coverage of antisemitism and the Arab-Israeli conflict, this isn’t what we get. This is bad for the news. And it’s bad for the Jews.