UPDATED: New York Times Calls Extremists “Human Rights Advocates”

Updates Follow

Sept. 15, 2008 – When America’s leading newspaper, through its editorial decisions, ignores, minimizes or whitewashes Israel’s adversaries, it can seriously distort people’s understanding of the Middle East conflict.

The New York Timesscant and belated coverage of virulent anti-Israel incitement by Palestinian opinion-makers, for example, is likely to have left many readers ill-informed about a key cause of hatred, violence and instability in the region, and thus fostered the false impression that responsibility for Palestinian extremism rests solely with Israel.

Similarly, the newspaper has whitewashed Hamas’ terrorism, anti-Semitism and open desire to destroy Israel with its on-again, off-again description of the organization as a “military resistance” group that is supposedly fighting not Israel’s existence but merely “Israeli occupation.” If the public doesn’t understand Hamas’s true goals and tactics, it cannot understand Israel’s security concerns, negotiating positions, or the Middle East in general.

Now once again, the Times is whitewashing Israel’s adversaries. This time, it is lending undue credibility to the Free Gaza Movement, a controversial group of extreme pro-Palestinian/anti-Israel activists, by describing them not as a pro-Palestinian activist group – which they undeniably are – but rather with the noble designation “human rights advocates.” This description, which appeared several times in Taghreed El-Khodary and Isabel Kershner’s Aug. 24 story “Rights advocates defy Israeli blockade of Gaza,” is prejudicial, subjective and misleading, and should not appear in the news section of a serious paper – certainly not to describe a group that includes people who advocate against the existence of the Jewish state, accuse Israel of genocide, and explicitly legitimize violence.

The problem is exacerbated by the Times’ failure even to identify by name this supposed “human rights” group, thus preventing the public from easily looking up the group and determining its true goals, and by the newspaper’s inexplicable inconsistency in labeling advocacy groups. (See below.)


The Free Gaza Movement’s Mission Statement makes clear their focus:

We want to break the siege of Gaza. We want to raise international awareness about the prison-like closure of the Gaza Strip and pressure the international community to review its sanctions policy and end its support for continued Israeli occupation. We want to uphold Palestine’s right to welcome internationals as visitors, human rights observers, humanitarian aid workers, journalists, or otherwise.

Aside from this mission, which in effect amounts to support for the Gaza’s Hamas government, the group also levels false and inflammatory charges against Israel, such as the insupportable false claims that Israel is engaged in “ongoing ethnic cleansing” of the Palestinians, and that “the overwhelming majority of Palestinians were forcibly evicted from their ancestral homeland to create the state of Israel.” At least two of the group members seek to convince the public that Israel is engaged in “genocide” against Gazans. (See here and here.)

The group also includes a co-founder of the extremist International Solidarity Movement, Huwaida Arraf, who has written in favor of Palestinians resorting to violence alongside nonviolence and suggested that suicide bombings are “noble”:

Nonviolent resistance is no less noble than carrying out a suicide operation. … The Palestinian resistance must take on a variety of characteristics — both nonviolent and violent. But most importantly it must develop a strategy involving both aspects. No other successful nonviolent movement was able to achieve what it did without a concurrent violent movement …

Two other members of the group, Darlene Wallach and Donna Wallach, have no qualms about openly describing themselves as “anti-Zionist activists.” (The latter adds that she feels “grief and outrage that all historical Palestine is still occupied by the apartheid state of Israel.”)

Apparently, the New York Times believes that being an advocate against the existence of the Jewish state, hurling false accusations of ethnic cleansing, apartheid and genocide, and calling for violence alongside nonviolence is the same as being an advocate for “human rights.” And apparently this misguided classification is not merely a viewpoint to be argued in the opinion pages, but, in the eyes of Times editors, a fact that belongs in the news pages of the paper.

When CAMERA brought this issue to the attention of the foreign and public editors, a staff editor defended the language as being an “accurate, if blanket, description” because many passengers “also belong to other groups involved in organizing the action.”

CAMERA’s detailed rejoinder to this unsatisfactory reply has thus far gone unanswered.

Key excerpts from the email exchange follow.

Excerpts from CAMERA’s initial letter

• Twice in the article, as well as in the headline, the Times describes activists of the so-called Free Gaza Movement as being, in fact, “human rights advocates.” This assertion, however, is not a fact but rather a dubious, subjective opinion. As such, it should not appear in the newspaper except as an attributed viewpoint.

• The ships described in the story sailed under the auspices of The Free Gaza Movement (a point inexplicably unmentioned in the article). That organization’s Web site, not to mention its title, clearly supports the notion that these are not so much human rights activists as they are pro-Palestinian and anti-Israel activists concerned specifically with the Gaza Strip, and with breaking what they describe as the “siege” of that Hamas-ruled territory. (Recall that Hamas, as the Times article correctly notes, is seen by many countries as a terrorist organization.)

• While some of the ships’ passengers purport to be human rights activists – and this does not justify the New York Times reporting their self-description as fact – others don’t hide that they see themselves as “anti-Zionist activists.” At least one admit s to seeing all of Israel as occupied Palestinian territory. (Couldn’t one describe this as being against the human right of self-determination for Jews?) Another passenger is a cofounder of the International Solidarity Movement, which the Times has correctly described as a “pro-Palestinian group.” (See here for a partial list of passengers.)

• It would be more straightforward and much less debatable, then, to describe the group as pro-Palestinian or anti-Israel activists — descriptions that most would agree with.

• Presumably, and justifiably, the newspaper would refrain from calling David Duke a “rights activist” even though he heads the so-called European-American Unity and Rights Organization, which purports to work against discrimination and for “rights.” Similarly, the newspaper should not have described members of the Free Gaza Movement as being human rights advocates.

• We therefore urge the newspaper to publish a correction noting that the article should not have described the passengers as human rights activists, and that they were affiliated with the pro-Palestinian Free Gaza Movement.

Excerpts of reply from New York Times Staff Editor

• Regarding your concern over the article published Aug. 24, “Rights Advocates Defy Israeli Blockade of Gaza,” please know that we do our best to be careful in choice of terms. While the people involved in the action were sailing under the Free Gaza banner, many also belong to other groups involved in organizing the action. We opted to give a generalized description. The term rights activists seems like an accurate, if blanket, description.

Excerpts from CAMERA’s Rejoinder

• That some of the passengers participating in the Free Gaza Movement’s activities are also members of other groups does not make them, as a group, “human rights advocates.” If anything, it underscores that this phrase is not an accurate generalized description. Like the Free Gaza Movement, the International Solidarity Movement — one of those “other groups” — cannot objectively be called a human rights advocacy organization. (As the Times has correctly noted in the past, they are a “pro-Palestinian” group.) The only blanket term that can unarguably be used to describe participants in a pro-Palestinian mission — who are members of the Free Gaza Movement and also happen to be members of the ISM, or self-proclaimed “anti-Zionist” activists, or yes, self-proclaimed “human rights advocates” — is “pro-Palestinian.”

• Does the Times have a consistent policy for determining whether a partisan activist group qualifies as a a human rights organization? If so, what is the criteria? Why is the Anti-Defamation League, a mainstream organization that describes itself as “the nation’s premier civil rights/human relations agency,” described in the Times as a “Jewish advocacy group” (“Armenian issue presents a dilemma for U.S. Jews,” 10/19/07) and not a civil rights group?

• … why are Israeli activists who infiltrated Gaza (despite an Israeli ban on doing so) to protest the uprooting of Jewish Gaza residents from their homes introduced as “right-wing Israelis” in the newspaper (“Thousands Rally against the planned withdrawal from Gaza,” 8/3/05), but international activists who infiltrated Gaza (despite an Israeli ban on doing so) to protest sanctions against the Hamas government introduced as human rights advocates?

• It is simply unfair and prejudicial for the New York Times to lend credibility to the controversial Free Gaza group by dubbing them “human rights advocates” (even while failing to inform readers of the name of the group). This problem is only exacerbated by the inconsistencies in the newspaper’s use of this term.

Update I, Nov. 4, 2008: Improved Language at NYT

On Oct. 29, the Free Gaza Movement docked another boat of its activists in the Gaza Strip. The New York Times again covered the voyage, this time using more accurate language to describe the organization. An Oct. 30 article by Isabel Kershner correctly describes the group not as human rights activists, but rather as “international campaigners” and “activists.” Unlike in the previous article, the journalist reports the name and affiliation of the group responsible for the trip. Kershner notes, “The voyage, as was the last one, was organized under the auspices of the Free Gaza Movement, a Palestinian advocacy group.” The story’s headline, “Advocates for Gaza challenge blockade,” reflects the more neutral tone of the article, and avoids the prejudicial language that appeared in the previous headline.

Update II, Dec. 31, 2008: AP Uses Erroneous Language

While the New York Times has stopped using the inaccurate description of Free Gaza activists, another leading media outlet — the Associated Press — has adopted the misleading language in articles about the Dignity, which set sail from Cyprus to Gaza on Dec. 29. 

Thus, a Dec. 29 article by Menelaos Hadjicostis began:

International peace activists set sail from Cyprus on Monday in hopes of delivering medical supplies to Gaza, despite intensive Israeli air strikes against Palestinian targets that have killed hundreds.

The next day, after an Associated Press editor had been informed about the problematic language, the misleading characterization reappeared in an article by Zeina Karam (“Gaza protest boat sails into Lebanon”):

A boat carrying international peace activists and medical supplies to the embattled Gaza Strip was turned back and damaged by the Israeli navy on Tuesday, Israel and organizers of the trip said.

Update III, July 16, 2009: AP Avoids Mischategorization
Subsequent AP stories about attempts to infiltrate the Gaza Strip by boat correctly described the involved activists only as “activists.” For example, a July 16 story, “Malaysian ex-PM to raise money for Gaza activists,” refers to “international activists” and not “peace activists.”

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